Friday, October 05, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

The real value of a cultural institution is seldom what most people think it is, even the people who run the institution.

The education received in the great old elite universities and colleges of America probably hasn't contributed much to the nation as a whole. It might have sharpened a few already sharp edges of people who then cut wide paths to progress or power. It might have dulled a few, too.

But because they were beacons, and because so few attended them in those days, the Northeastern colleges drew in minds from all across the country, breathed them in, inspired them. And there, they met each other and cross-pollenated, and pushed each other one way or another.

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg arrive at Columbia University by different back doors, and there meet each other and Neal Cassady.

William Carlos Williams enrolls in the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but there befriends Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle, and the painter Charles Demuth, studying at nearby Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

So many of the famous names men and mingled on those campuses you wonder if the admissions departments had a knack for spotting genius in the bud, or, more cynically, whether one artist's shot to fame casts the spotlight automatically on those in his immediate vicinity.

Neither, I think. They fell in with each other at these intense places, during formative mental years, and -- mostly off campus and in pursuit of behaviors frowned upon by the institutions -- battered one another into genius.