Kerouac Got an A

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AFTER lunch one summer with my grandmother, years ago at her Connecticut farmhouse, she asked me to retrieve an inconsequential item from a closet in my grandfather’s study, and something else caught my eye. At first it didn’t look like much: a set of three slim ledgers with marbleized covers, perhaps a journal of expenses or a record of household bills. But in it were pages and pages of names, methodically scribed in pen and ink.

I had found a roster of my grandfather’s students over the more than 40 years he had taught at Columbia University, each name with a grade meticulously recorded next to it. At the top of each page was the year and course title — “The Narrative Art,” “The Poetry of Thomas Hardy,” “Literature Humanities,” “Shakespeare.”

There were hundreds of names. I recognized many: Allen Ginsberg, Jack (or as my grandfather wrote, John) Kerouac, Lionel Trilling, Thomas Merton, Herman Wouk, Clifton Fadiman, Arthur Sulzberger, Louis Simpson, Whittaker Chambers, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Robert Giroux, Robert A. M. Stern, Jacques Barzun, Robert Lax. The list went on and on, and what a list!

What I had in my hands was a singular piece of history, a collection of men (Columbia didn’t admit women at that time) who had helped shape the American literary canon for a better part of the 20th century. They had all studied under Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary editor of The Nation and legendary professor (though he would never have approved of that adjective)....

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