- Procrustes’ Bed
Harold J. Douglas, a teacher of English at Transylvania College and elsewhere, died early this year at the age of eighty-six. A Mississippian, he was educated at Millsaps College (B.S.) and then attended graduate school at the University of Tennessee, where he was a friend and colleague of Robert W. Daniel. Douglas and Daniel wrote an important early article on the Calvinist elements in William Faulkner’s fiction.
Mr. Douglas, like many of the graduate students in the 1950s and 60s who were hired during the great wave of expansion created in the aftermath of World War II, did not complete his Ph.D. after earning his M.A. in 1951. In consequence he was forced to leave Transylvania despite his having been an exceptionally good teacher. He spent the rest of his career at Middlesex County College in New Jersey, chiefly as chairman of the English department.
When he came to Transylvania in the mid-fifties, it was a small college on the edge of financial collapse. The buildings generally were in a dismal state of repair. Only the library was new, but it contained few books. The chemistry laboratory had but one ancient centrifuge. Running the college was an engaging preacher from Danville, Kentucky, Frank Rose, who would become famous as president of the University of Alabama. The brains behind Rose’s handsome face were his wife’s, Douglas wryly observed.
What the college otherwise had in its favor was a committed and capable faculty, with Ph.D.s running the departments and experienced teachers in the classrooms. The chairman of the English department, John F. Harrison, was educated at Columbia University. In addition to Dr. Harrison and Mr. Douglas there were two lively ladies in the English department, Mitchell Clarke and Lucy Fisk.
The salaries at the college were so low that a crusty professor in philosophy, D. H. Mahoney, resigned and began a modestly successful business building houses in middle-class neighborhoods in Lexington. Lexington was then booming, but Transylvania was foundering, and nobody could have reasonably blamed Mahoney for jumping ship, for it was close to dead in the water.
In this unpromising situation Mr. Douglas did a superb job in and out of the classroom. In addition to his [End Page xxxviii] assigned courses, on occasion he ran a reading group one afternoon a week. Those involved read fiction, chiefly short stories; and these conversations grew naturally out of the course—using the textbook of the same name by Brooks and Warren, An Introduction to Literature—that Douglas had taught the previous quarter. That course was a joy for the class. The teacher would sometimes appear late: we could look from our third-floor classroom and see him striding across campus. Most of us usually waited for him beyond the required ten minutes, and he was well worth waiting for.
Hal Douglas not only volunteered to have the reading group but was also involved in the drama program. His wife was a crackerjack editor at the University of Kentucky Press. Theirs was a household given to culture. They subscribed to the superior concert series sponsored by the University of Kentucky and were members of the local chamber-music society, and between them they seemed to have at least a nodding acquaintance with nearly everything in the humanities. When I got Robie Macaulay’s stories from Marboro Books, I found that Mr. Douglas knew Macaulay’s fiction, which he said was too belletristic for his taste, and I had to repair to my dictionary.
Fiction was Hal Douglas’s chief interest, his graduate work being devoted largely to Hawthorne and Faulkner, but he was good at teaching British poetry from “Sir Patrick Spens” to Yeats and Eliot, with a considerable dollop of romantic poetry; and he expertly handled Hedda Gabler and Murder in the Cathedral, plays difficult to teach to freshmen. The liveliest discussions involved such stories as Algren’s “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” Lytle’s “Jericho,” Porter’s “Noon Wine,” and especially Hemingway’s “The Killers.” These and other fiction writers would be taken up again in the discussion group the next quarter. Douglas was nearly...