- Remembering John McCormick
My memories of John go way back, back to the University of Minnesota as early as 1938, and back to Harvard after that. We were roommates in Mrs. Sorem’s rooming house in Minneapolis, nine long blocks from the university (we couldn’t afford anything closer); we worked for meals at the union cafeteria; we had a common circle of friends (the names of Norman Moen and Craig Robinson come to mind); we knew dozens of the same people (faculty and students) in Folwell Hall where the English department had its headquarters; and I remember especially how Huntington Brown, that six-foot New England classicist, admired John’s work and his later achievements (in the bullring as well as other venues); we were both coddled and fed and entertained frequently on Sundays by Arthur Jennings (the university’s organist) and his wife (they were known always as “Frau” and “Herr”), and thereto hangs a host of memories.
Those Minnesota years were critical for both of us. We had both been shaped by the Great Depression, and the university was in a sense our escape from it. The depression was continuing, of course; but at least we were in a place where we could learn, share ideas, hear music (we both ushered at the symphony), join political battles (the campus was replete with Stalinists, Trotskyites, Norman Thomas Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, Farmer Laborites). The intellectual/political ferment was intense and wonderful, and we both helped organize an antifraternity fraternity called the Jacobin Club; if anyone asked what we did, the answer was, “We argue.” But those years were critical for me in a particularly personal way. I was lonely, friendless, and fifteen hundred miles from home in Springfield, Massachusetts. My widowed mother’s parting words to me as I left for college (and ended my support of her) were “I’ll never forgive you for this.” I had cleared out on the urging of my dear sister, Ruth; but I nevertheless felt guilty and homeless and depressed—and in need of some way to believe in myself, even to like myself. I latched onto John, whom I met in my sophomore year. I could see that his self-confidence was more than half bravado, that his passion for literature was more than half name-dropping; but he was dramatic, articulate, irreverent, and a people magnet. He attracted friends, made people laugh, and had a confidence with women that I could only wish for. I needed him. If I could share his aura, I could break free of my drab New England self and try on something new. I don’t think John needed me, except as an addition to his audience, or, if he did, he kept it to himself. (I can say all this now, but could by no means say it at the time!) I needed John, but it was something far short of hero-worship. I didn’t agree [End Page lxv] with him much of the time—his scorn for logic, his wild prejudices, his love of contradiction, his temper. Our temperaments were very different, and his wild Catholic rages often ran athwart my residual Protestant values, but John could be very charming as well, and saw life as an adventure (he once proposed getting a raft and going down the Mississippi like Huck Finn), and these qualities always drew me back to him.
During one spring break John and I attempted to hitchhike to New Orleans with ten dollars between us. I wish I could reconstruct that junket in all its particulars. I remember that we were apprehended for vagrancy in Sheffield, Iowa (this was late March 1938)—and, though not arrested, forced to spend the night in the town jail. It was bitter cold as we were shown to a basement cell with no heat or light, and only a single iron cot let down by chains from the concrete wall, with pieces of cardboard for a mattress. There were no blankets. We had brought along a single flimsy blanket, and that night we snuggled under it and did our best to let body heat keep us from freezing. In the...