Monday, July 12, 2010

Pilgrim's Progress

"Some of those who had known Christian in his great days as a teacher were sorry, after the war, to see him becoming involved in the administrative side of the University. I remember his saying to me one day, in the early stages of this, 'I've just sent off a lot of letters, and I said to myself as I mailed them, "There are seventeen letters to people who don't interest me in the least."' But the job of the dean's office did interest him — though it seemed to us that it did not take a Gauss to rule on remiss or refractory students. He had never liked repeating routine, and I suppose that his department was coming to bore him. He made, by all accounts, a remarkable dean — for his card-catalogue memory kept all names and faces on file, even for decades after the students had left; and the sensitive feeling for character that had been hidden behind his classroom mask must have equipped him with a special tact in dealing with difficult cases. His genius for moral values had also a new field now in which it could exercise itself in an immediate and practical way, and the responsibilities of his office — especially in the years just after the war, when students were committing suicide and getting into all sorts of messes — sometimes put upon him an obvious strain. Looking back, since his death, it has seemed to me that the Gauss who was dean of Princeton must have differed almost as much from the Gauss with whom I read French and Italian, as this austere teacher had from the young correspondent in Paris who had paid for Oscar Wilde's drinks. The Gauss I had known in my student days, with his pale cheeks and shuttered gaze, his old raincoat and soft flat hat, and a shabby, mongrel dog named Baudelaire which had been left with him by the Jesse Lynch Williamses and which sometimes accompanied him into class — the Gauss who would pass you on the campus without speaking, unless you attracted his attention, in an abstraction like that of Dante in Hell, and who seemed to meet the academic world with a slightly constrained self-consciousness at not having much in common with it — this figure warmed up and filled out, became recognizably Princetonian in his neckties and shirts and a touch of that tone which combines a country club self-assurance with a boyish country-town homeliness. He now met the college world, unscreened, with his humorous and lucid green eyes. He wore golf stockings and even played golf. He interested himself in the football team and made speeches at alumni banquets. Though I know that his influence as a dean was exerted in favor of scholarships, higher admission requirements, and the salvaging of the Humanities — I cannot do justice here to this whole important phase of his career — the only moments of our long friendship when I was ever at all out of sympathy with him occurred during these years of officialdom, for I felt that he had picked up, a little, the conventional local prejudices when I found him protesting against the advent in Princeton of the Institute for Advanced Study or, on one occasion, censoring Lit for publishing a 'blasphemous' story. One was always impressed, however, by the comprehensive and lucid way in which he seemed to have absorbed the business of the University."

— Edmund Wilson, "Christian Gauss" in Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, 20-21