Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mentors on the road

Balcomb Greene (1904-90)

Some deaths suddenly pull back a curtain, inviting us to look again at the roads we’ve traveled. Other deaths make us go numb. This piece is about the former.

Last month, Lee Jackoway, a man I worked for over three decades ago died. We had spoken to one another only once that I can remember since I left WRNL, AM and FM, the two radio stations he managed. Yet the news of his death made me confront and reconsider how much I had learned from him in the eight months under his tutelage.

That realization brought to mind others who long ago took an interest in opening the eyes of a young know-it-all. It wasn’t long before my thoughts were focused on a dream job I had in 1969. It had me driving bona fide scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln.

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia (a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities), there was a new scholar in a different field. My job was to drive them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia the wiseguy driver and the actually wise visiting scholars had a lot of time to talk, although some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty and in several cases we got along well.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosophy and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and he turned me on to “One Dimensional Man” by Herbert Marcuse. He was curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about Callahan.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandies University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in many a year).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about -- inspired by popular new magazines Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc. -- at 21-years-old I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. However, the biggest influence on the way I went about publishing SLANT flowed from my association with Greene (1904-90). He was, by far, the rent-a-scholar who was the funniest and the one who had the biggest influence on me.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Green radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here, here and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you, Professor Greene.

-- Photo of Greene from Harmon Meek Gallery web site


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, that would be a 16 year gestation rather than 26.

F.T. Rea said...


Thanks. I fixed it.