Master Teacher — Recollected in Respect by Wes Mott

Edward Wagenknecht in 1964

Edward Wagenknecht in 1964. Photograph by BU Photo Services.

Note: This article is reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Bostonia, The Alumni Quarterly of Boston University.   The photo at left is a link to its online version.   Permission from Bostonia and Professor Mott to reprint this wonderful tribute is gratefully acknowledged.

CAS Professor Emeritus Edward Wagenknecht taught English at Boston University from 1947 to 1968, and was a prolific author. Wes Mott (CAS’68, GRS’69,’75), a professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, studied with him, and remembers him fondly.

Edward Wagenknecht, who died on May 24 in St. Albans, Vermont, at the age of 104, was the most intimidating professor I had at BU, but few others taught me as much about the arts of writing and of teaching.

He was already nearing the end of his long teaching career at BU in the spring of 1966, when I took EN281, the one-semester survey of American literature from the colonial period through the nineteenth century. (We students felt rather imposed upon — other professors required the compact one-volume Norton American Tradition in Literature for this course, but we had to buy the full-blown two-volume version designed for the two-semester survey.) Although short, he was an imposing presence. He walked briskly into class at ten a.m. sharp each day. Wearing alternately a navy-blue and a brown suit with a starched white shirt, close-cropped hair parted in the middle, and rimless glasses pinched over chiseled features, he seemed a figure from an earlier era. In other classes, professors editorialized on the widening war in Vietnam to make their subjects “relevant,” and experimented with multimedia techniques and a folksy style to please their students. In Professor Wagenknecht’s class, the routine never varied.

On the first day we received a mimeographed list of daily topics for the whole semester — a short paper was required for each meeting. Each day, for the first ten minutes, he would read two or three of our papers at random and anonymously, occasionally commenting briefly. Most days, for the rest of the period he would read a chapter from a book he had written on the author of the day! (We knew about his prodigious scholarship — many of us had used his monumental Cavalcade of the English Novel and Cavalcade of the American Novel for high school research projects — but we were hardly prepared for a professor who seemingly had written a book on each author in the course.)

One day early in the term, one of my more glib essays emerged from the pile. The professor read it with grave deliberation, paused just a moment, and said, “Now isn’t that silly?” Never again did I regard a nightly assignment as routine.

The midterm was a Byzantine, brain-numbing mix of twenty-five titles to which we were to supply author names and then match with twenty-five scrambled descriptions, and fifty dense sentences, some of which harbored errors (identifiable from readings or lectures), which we were to indicate. An exam not designed to indulge students for whom studying literature meant merely self-expression!

Nor did Professor Wagenknecht ever betray his own “feelings.” Except twice. In one class he announced his contempt for Arthur Miller, who, he declared, had “ruined” Marilyn Monroe. (It turned out he also had a scholarly — and passionate — interest in film, not yet a respectable academic field, and had published highly regarded books on movies from the silent era on.)

On April 8 he strode into class at ten sharp as usual. According to the syllabus, we were to finish Whittier that day before catching up with Holmes. Instead he opened a small book and said simply, “Today I shall read The Terrible Meek, by Charles Rann Kennedy.” Neither title nor author meant anything to us, but he proceeded to read dramatically an oddly moving 1912 play about an execution. He assumed the voices of all the characters, including the soldier who carries out the order, the suffering mother of the condemned, and the captain in charge of the detail, who agonizes over a new sense of moral responsibility. At precisely 10:50 he said, “That concludes The Terrible Meek,” closed the book, and left the room as if it were any other day. Briefly stunned by this departure from routine, we stirred uneasily before scooping up our books. Few seemed to have remembered until the end that this was Good Friday. We had just been engaged not simply in a parable of the Crucifixion, but also in an allegory of pacifism. It was a more powerful performance than any antiwar harangue I heard over the next several years.

At the end of the last class, Professor Wagenknecht placed slips of paper on the radiator ledge by the window alphabetically with our cumulative grade for our nightly papers. I had been exposed as a callow fool by the sternest and most rigid of drillmasters, but still hoped that my subsequent diligence had earned me a respectable B-. Gooseflesh crawled up my spine when I picked up my slip and read “A.” I turned incredulously toward the professor, still at the desk, and could have sworn there was a twinkle in his eye.

About fifteen years ago I encountered Edward Wagenknecht in the stacks at Mugar Memorial Library, working on yet another book. We nodded cordially. He had scarcely changed — same neat suit and pressed shirt, trimmed hair, and rimless glasses. He continued to publish books until 1994, his works including general introductions to a widening range of authors, monographs still admired by specialists, coffee table books on favorite aspects of cinema, even novels. The sheer volume of his literary output is staggering. But what lingers in my memory most palpably — though I couldn’t summon the nerve to gush out my gratitude that day — are his impeccable integrity and the respect he showed his students by refusing to compromise his expectations of us.


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