ORAL HISTORY IN LOUISIANA
Published by the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, Louisiana State University
Vol. VI No. 1 Fall 1997
Louisiana Oral Historians Shine
at National ConferenceThe 1997 annual meeting of the Oral History Association (OHA) was a great success with nearly 500 people from around the world attending the four day event in New Orleans September 24-27. The conference was co-sponsored by the Southern Oral History Organization, the regional affiliate of OHA.
Among the highlights of the conference were the pre-conference workshops, including one on video-taping interviews conducted by the New Orleans Video Access Center and the one on oral history on the internet led by Rod Cobi, Colman Kitchens, and Aaron Tuley of the Center for Landscape Interpretation in Port Allen. Toby Daspit, Tayari Kwa Salaam, and Helen Haw of the LSU College of Education, led a workshop for middle and secondary teachers interested in using oral history in the classroom.
Other sessions of particular local interest include the screening of a segment of Rachel L. Emanuel's documentary on civil rights lawyer A. P. Tureaud, which was followed by Mary Herbert's paper on Tureaud's efforts to desegregate LSU and comments by A. P. Tureaud Jr., who was the first black undergraduate at the university; a panel entitled "Voices Inside Southern History," featuring Clifton H. Johnson, Tulane, Tom Dent of New Orleans, Kim Lacy Rogers, of Dickinson College, whose interviews on the civil rights movement are at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane, Owen Brooks of Greenville, Mississippi, and Jerry Ward Jr. of Tougaloo College; and the session on oral history projects in West Baton Rouge Parish that included talks by Judy Boyce of the WBR Parish Library, Caroline Kennedy of the WBR Parish Museum and Lucy Landry and Joanne Bourgeois of the Brusly Centennial Committee with Roger Busbice as chair.
At the Friday luncheon John Maginnis explained Louisiana politics to our visitors in a talk that was both informative and, inevitably, vastly entertaining.
Williams Center director Pamela Dean and Susan Tucker of the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, local arrangements co-chairs, were ably assisted by Charles Bolton and Shana Walton of the University of Southern Mississippi who ran the book exhibits; Alfred Lemon and Mark Cave of Historic New Orleans Collection; Bruce Boyd Raeburn of Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archives; Rosalyn Hinto, Northwestern University, Hannah Griff, Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, and Julie Curry who ran the silent auction; Sailor Jackson of the Old State Capitol who helped coordinate audio-visual equipment; and Karen Letham, who arranged the fine musical entertainment we enjoyed Saturday night.
Special thanks are due the State Museum which donated the use of the lecture hall at the Mint Museum for the plenary session by Lindy Wilson and Tom Dent on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, which funded this session; and to the Historic New Orleans Collection which hosted the presidential reception.
* * * * * Sound Bites * * * * *At the November meeting of the Louisiana Association of Manuscript Archivists (LAMA) the Williams Center's own Mary Hebert presented a paper on civil rights collections in Louisiana. Hebert's presentation emphasized the important civil rights oral histories to be found in various Louisiana collections.
*****Brenda Square, Archivist of the Amistad Research Center, was elected Vice-President of the Louisiana Association of Manuscript Archivists (LAMA).
*****Nunez Community College has recently received a state grant to purchase equipment for its oral history program. Students in Louisiana and American history will use the new equipment to conduct interviews to be added to the current collection of approximately 100 interviews. Current interview holdings cover a range of topics, from the Great Depression and Hurricane Betsy to muskrat trapping. For more information, contact history instructor, Cory Sparks, at 504-278-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Williams: Throughout my schooling I met such wonderful teachers. I wanted to please them, especially when I got to college. I had people like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Heilman as my freshman and sophomore English teachers, and, as the world should know if it doesn't, these men became distinguished literary critics. Well, when I went to LSU, I was a journalism major, actually, but I found that the journalism courses I took were perfectly meaningless. . . . [I felt] that I only was truly learning something when I was taking my English courses under such wonderful people.
My freshman English teacher was Robert Heilman, who later became a very distinguished Shakespearean scholar and chairman of the University of Washington at Seattle for many, many years. He was a revelation to me. First class I went to, here came this tall, mustachioed fellow from Pennsylvania with wit and intelligence that I had really never witnessed before.
I had three or four classes with Cleanth Brooks. The one my sophomore year was a survey course, then there was a Milton course, and when I came back after the war, I took a couple of other courses with him. Cleanth Brooks was quite opposite to Heilman. Heilman was tall and rugged and bony, and Cleanth Brooks was short and a little pudgy and very gentlemanly. Both of them were very gentlemanly, but, of course, Cleanth was a Southern gentleman in a way that's very special.
At that time, one of the things that I got agitated about both [by being] on the student newspaper
and by being in Brooks' classes . . . I had met Robert Penn Warren, and he and Brooks had
started the Southern Review there in the 1930s, and the Board of Regents decided that because of
wartime belt-tightening that they should close the Southern Review down. I don't remember the
story I wrote exactly, but I remember I was outraged because . . . I thought probably the budget
for keeping Mike the tiger was bigger than the budget for keeping the Southern Review.
Pleasants: The Southern Review was then part of LSU, sponsored by the university?
Williams: Yes. It was a quarterly, and it had become one of the most distinguished in the
country. With the original publisher, many of our writers became famous, people like Eudora
Pleasants Why was the Southern Review such a superior journal?
Williams Because of Brooks and Warren, their taste. Also, you know, it's a strange thing.
One of the things that should be credited to Huey Long, who was dead by the time I got there, but
during the thirties LSU was hiring professors when no other university was. It was during the
Depression. There was a man named Tom Kirby who was chairman of the department, but they,
LSU, somehow attracted, maybe because it was the only job positions that were open, people like
Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Cleanth Brooks was a Rhodes scholar. I'm not sure
about Warren, but an amazing number of people were attracted to LSU because Huey Long loved
the university, and he was willing to spend money to attract faculty. So, it's a paradox.
Pleasants: Well, Huey Long of course also gave a tremendous amount of money to the LSU
band and football team. Was there any resentment in the spending of that kind of money instead
of hiring more professors like Cleanth Brooks?
Williams: Among the faculty, Brooks and Warren, I think, were extremely bitter about the
administration's allocations of funds. As I recall, when Brooks got the offer to go to Yale, he told
me that he was making sixty-five hundred a year at LSU and that Yale had offered him ten
thousand. His chairman, Tom Kirby, whom I came to like very much, had done his best to try to
match the offer from Yale but had not been able to do so. So, Brooks left LSU in '47, and I think
Heilman left in '48. Two truly distinguished scholars of our time. Probably a better effort should
have been made to keep them.
Pleasants: Cleanth Brooks, obviously, is one of the foremost critics in modern academics.
What made him such a superior teacher and a literary critic?
Williams: Well, it was the explication, I think. Back in those days, I took another English course. I won't identify the professor. But, most of the time was spent on the private life of the poet or the author, about his sex life, or reminiscences by the professor of the time he was in the Cotswolds. You were dealing with everything except the work of art, except the poem, or the story. What Brooks insisted was that you look at the poem and forget the author, his personal political views or his private sex life, but let's talk about the artifact here. His first book that brought him such notice was called The Well Wrought Urn, which consisted of a number of very close readings. I think ten or twelve readings of very famous poems. Well, this was very exciting to actually talk about and see what was going on . . .
I only got to know [Robert Penn] Warren when I got to Yale. We'd occasionally have lunch
together. Cleanth Brooks and his wife, Tinkum, bought a seventeenth century New England Salt
Box house, and had it moved piece by piece to a beautiful piece of property, where they
reassembled it on the top of a hill, with a little stream running down below. And, when I was at
graduate school, whenever I had time on a weekend, they would ask me out. I would help them
sand these boards down and stack them up in a way that the builders could put them all back
together. After the house was put back together, and Robert Penn Warren came to Yale,
occasionally, I would see Warren out there at a dinner party. I remember the Brookses had a
pasture that they wanted to have mowed. Warren, who was a big strong fellow, came over, he
had a scythe, and he attacked the tall grass with that scythe. He was probably the best story-teller
that I have ever heard. He could start a story, and it seemed to go on for hours. But, it would
keep you laughing all the way through. He had such a strong, craggy face, and a glass eye. I
don't think many people knew that, but when you would face him across the lunch table, it was as
if you were looking at the face of an aged tortoise. His face was so carapace-like, but still a
wonderful and totally delightful companion. He was not quite to be identified with people like
Allen Tate and Brooks. He was very liberal. He wrote a famous essay in Life magazine in which
he came out in favor of integration, which was a clear differentiation between him and so many
of the Southern Agrarians. Warren was much different from the others in his political views, in
Pleasants: Discuss the relationship between Brooks, Warren and Katherine Ann Porter in Baton
Williams: Well, I remember when she came, she read a chapter of her book The Ship of Fools,
and the Brookes invited me out to just meet her at their house, along with a couple of other
students. We sat at Katherine Ann's feet. She was so beautiful. We just sat there in awe
[laughs]. I tried to ask her a question, and I think I did some article for the Reveille about her.
She and the Brookses were very close friends. I didn't get to know her too well, but later on,
when I was living in New Haven, since the Brookses lived out of town, she was giving some
reading and needed to change clothes. So, she came to my apartment, which was closer to the
campus, and spent most of the day there. She noticed a very fine Mexican goat horn I had on my
mantle piece which was used by my wife's grandfather in his fox hunting days. She admired it so
much, I asked her if she'd like to have it. So, she took away my goat horn. I don't know what
happened to it after that. All I can tell you is I don't know anything intimate about their
relationship, except that they were close friends.
Pleasants: What was the greatest contribution that LSU made to your later life?
Williams Gave me two men whom I truly admired. One other thing I have to say about both
Cleanth Brooks and Robert Heilman. I felt that those men in what seemed to me, and to many, a
most sissified profession, teaching of English literature, it seemed to me they had more moral
courage and guts than any people I had ever met before in my life. The way they stood up for
their beliefs and tried to keep the Southern Review going. I will always feel that they showed
great moral courage in that situation, and I admired them so much, as I came to admire my
professors at Yale. They were not only very intelligent men, but, I thought, courageous men.