Navasky Examines Dog's Author; Found - A Man, Thinker, Professor

by Vic Navasky, published in the March 3, 1953 issue of the Phoenix

Wystan Hugh Auden, whose play, The Dog Beneath the Skin, is being presented by the Little Theatre Club the second weekend in March, has become a legend since he taught at Swarthmore during the war. There is more Auden-lore to be extracted from old Phoenixes and professors, than folk-lore from the guitar of Richard Dyer Bennet.

Combing through back issues, I have tried to reconstruct Auden as a man, as a thinker, as a professor. Auden the man was born in York, England, in 1907. He had no literary background other than an uncle who wrote a "large" book on sulfuric acid, and a cousin in Toronto who writes Latin grammars. Until he was fifteen Wystan was certain that he wanted to be a lead miner; then, one day while walking with a friend, this unidentified companion suggested that he try writing poetry - he tried.

As a thinker, Auden is as distinct as he is profound. Lecturing at the Canterbury Club one Sunday afternoon, he noted, "And God saw everything he has made, and behold, it was very good." Believing that self-realization through passion was what makes life worth living, Wystan Hugh has divided mankind into three categories: the highbrows, the lowbrows, and the middlebrows. "One is a lowbrow when born," and "is not conscious of self as opposed to humanity." The middlebrow has not realized this passion; he wants to "have his cake and eat it too, taking his trials by correspondence or with aspirin. The highbrow allows passion to rule his life."

On another occasion Auden was heard to comment that only the democratic state can assure the individual opportunity to follow his passion. "Government of, by, and for the ego" is the only meaningful type.

But it was as a professor that Auden reached his eccentric peak. Although teaching a seminar in Elizabethan literature, he knew enough math to realize that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; this, at least, was how he explained the fact that he rarely walked on the paths. His colleagues and students referred to him affectionately by a series of misnomers ranging all the way from "the thatched cottage" to "the village idiot."

His examinations were as unpredictable as his attendance at his seminars, asking such sticklers as "Explain why the devil is (a) sad and (b) honest." As a mental exercise and final exam for his V-12 English composition students, he told them to write the events of the day backwards.

Not confining his interest to the class-room, the author of "Dog" was a frequent contributor to and commentator on the creative world at Swarthmore. Once, when reviewing an LTC production of The Taming of the Shrew, which he considers "the worst play Shakespeare ever wrote," he felt obliged to preface his remarks with the following clarification of his position: "I am no feminist; I am the most reactionary in believing that a woman's place is in the home, not an office, factory, druggie, or cocktail lounge, that she should have lots of children, and that she can be neither happy nor fully herself until she finds a man to whom she surrenders completely for life."

One of his proudest possessions was the large low-set bed which furnished his apartment in the ville. He would point a proud finger at it, and then explain that it was "once owned and slept in by Ehrlich, inventor of the syphilis cure."

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