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EXCERPT Thomas Hart Benton and the Thresholds ofExpression by Robert Morgan Thomas Hart Benton American, 1889—1975 Spring on the Missouri, 1945 Oil and tempera on masonite, 30% ? 40% in. North Carolina Museum of Art Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina 77.1.3 ? 1962 I entered North Carolina State in engineering. I had attended Emory College at Oxford, Georgia, for one year, but since I did not have a high school diploma, State ranked me as a freshman. I was a farm boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Raleigh was the first city I had lived in. I belonged to the generation that had been told to study engineering to "beat the Russians." In the aftermath of the first sputnik the cold war seemed far from won. My year at N.C. State was perhaps the most intense and wrenching I have lived. It was a threshold year. After a few weeks I saw I was not cut out for engineering. But what options did that leave? I chose applied mathematics, since I had done well at Emory in calculus. I was fascinated by writing, and by film and philosophy, but those did not seem like career options for a boy from a mountain farm. After my parents left me at N.C. State that first Sunday, I walked around the vast campus. Construction was going on in every corner, with open pits of red dirt, and cranes looming above. I explored the futuristic Harrelson Hall, built to look like a round storage tank with windows. I walked through the textile building studying exhibits of fabrics and mill machinery. So many things happened at once at N.C. State it is hard to sort them into a sequence . In memory it feels as though I spent almost no time working at physics and math courses. I wasted hours in the bookstore on campus, and at Sembower 's bookstore across Hillsborough Street. I saw almost every movie that came to campus and to theaters nearby. Having never entered a theater until I went away to college, I tried to catch up. At a dusty dieater on Glenwood Avenue, I saw Lolita. From the opening scene I knew this was something different. I had never heard ofNabokov or Kubrick, but I saw immediately how witty and scary their work was. N.C. State in those boom years had more concerts and lectures than anyone could attend. There was jazz, and poetry readings. The first poet I ever heard was Howard Nemerov, and his calm, crisp delivery was a revelation. I had not realized poetry could be so natural, so contemporary. Romulus Linney, the playwright, was artist-in-residence at the student union. He held a workshop every Monday evening, and I attended many sessions and took some of my first stories and sketches to the workshop. But perhaps the greatest discovery for me was the city ofRaleigh itself. Almost every day I walked, to a shopping center, to eat at an obscure diner, or to waste time in a bookstore. I hoofed it down Hillsborough Street to the center of the city. I walked out into the residential sections. I visited the Capitol and the Legislature building. I moseyed through the Museum ofNatural History, through used car lots. But the place I stopped most often, except for the movie theaters, was the Museum of Art, then downtown. Because it had benches to sit on, and because of The Thresholds ofExpression 39 the variety of exhibits, I never tired of visiting the museum. I was worried and confused about my future, and I walked to burn off the energy of anxiety. There was no better place to rest than the art museum. The dim lights and quiet of the display rooms were reassuring. And there was a sense oftradition and connection to the past. I had never been so close to a Rubens or Van Dyck. I could see the brush marks and the varnish shining over the cracked paint. The first opening I attended at the museum was a show of the wood carvings of Riemenschneider. They were religious figures and I remember how old the polished...


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