Roger Shattuck in Austin

Fifty years ago the University of Texas was entering a golden era led by the dynamic Harry Ransom, who created one of the great libraries in the world and brought a first-class faculty to Austin. The shining light of this group was Roger Shattuck, a graceful French literature scholar and true polymath, who also made his mark in Austin as a spokesman for civil rights and regular contributor to The Texas Observer. Shattuck’s passing on December 1 was marked by lengthy obituaries in The London Times, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times, tributes befitting one of America’s leading literary men. The newspaper stories summarized Shattuck’s most important books, from his groundbreaking study of modernism, The Banquet Years (1958), to his 1996 polemic, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, an argument against moral relativism. As the obituaries made clear, Shattuck was a public intellectual who was not afraid to tackle tough subjects. Missing from the tributes—or mentioned just in passing—was the almost 20 years that Roger Shattuck and his family spent in Austin.

Born in 1923, Shattuck was the son of a prominent New York City physician. In 1941 he entered Yale, but left to join the Army Air Corps. As a captain he flew missions over Japan, including missions over Hiroshima soon after the bomb was dropped. After he graduated from Yale in 1947, he went to Paris where he lived off his combat pay. There he was hired to film documentaries for UNESCO, interviewing the likes of Jean Cocteau and Alice B. Toklas. In 1949 he married Nora White, a dancer with Les Ballets de Paris and Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

After working in publishing in New York and as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, in the mid-1950s Shattuck was lured to the University of Texas by Harry Ransom, a charismatic charmer who attracted many gifted individuals to Austin. Today Ransom is mainly remembered for initiating the great rare books and literary archive that is now called the Ransom Center. Just as important five decades ago was his innovative approach to faculty excellence. Beginning as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and then as president of the University, he helped UT emerge from the shadows of a reactionary period in the mid-forties when the Texas regents fired campus president Homer Rainey.

Although Shattuck’s only official academic credential was his B.A. from Yale, he had already distinguished himself with the breadth and depth of his scholarly work. He came to Austin as a professor of French, part of a new level of faculty—”University Professors”—created by Ransom. The idea was that these talented few would teach interdisciplinary courses and not be bound by the curriculum offered by one department. Nor would they be subjected to the normal tenure requirements—a fact that infuriated many of the established faculty. But for those who were interested in the arts and ideas, it was a wonderful time to be at the University. By 1958, the literary archives of many of the most noted 20th century writers were pouring into Austin. Openings of library exhibitions featured manuscripts by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett. Aldous Huxley lectured at Batts Hall; T.S. Eliot read in Gregory Gym. Those lucky enough to witness it will never forget seeing the blind Argentine poet and short story master Jorge Luis Borges being led across the Texas campus by his elderly mother.

In the middle of all this was Roger Shattuck. The publication of his first book in 1958 earned him an international reputation. The book was The Banquet Years, a study of the French avant-garde just before World War I. Reviewers, including the highly influential literary critic Alfred Kazin, were dazzled by Shattuck’s fine literary style and the fact that he wrote with authority about several fields—music, painting, and literature.

I was an undergraduate in the mid-1960s and one fall semester enrolled in a course that Shattuck was teaching, French Literature in Translation: Montaigne, Rousseau, and Proust. He was a big name to me, but I was struck by his understated approach and quiet manner (I myself had a quiet manner back then, customarily sitting on a back row and not saying a word). I’ll never forget Shattuck’s insistence on the virtues of memorization and reading aloud. His witty assignment for the class to write a parody or imitation of one of our French authors resulted in some hilarious multi-page sentences, in the style of Proust. Off campus, the Shattucks maintained what appeared to those of us living in Austin at the time to be an exciting bohemian lifestyle. Nora, the beautiful ballerina, taught dancing to Austin girls, and the Shattucks drove a Citröen, the French car with a hydraulic suspension.

Roger Shattuck

Unfortunately, golden ages come to an end. Harry Ransom was not really suited to the campus disruptions of the late sixties, nor to the heavy-handed style of Frank C. Erwin, Jr., who was chairman of the University’s board of regents from 1966 to 1971. It appeared to many that Ransom and Erwin had struck an agreement whereby the chairman let Ransom build his library empire almost unimpeded, and Ransom gave Erwin free reign to run the rest of the campus as he saw fit. The blustery Erwin was a close ally of Governor John Connally, not to mention LBJ, and naturally became a lightning rod for campus protestors of all stripes. University politics eventually pushed Shattuck out of Austin. A controversial decision to split up the huge College of Arts and Sciences produced a confrontation between Erwin and Shattuck’s friend, John Silber, then Dean of the College. Erwin summarily fired Silber in July 1970, telling him, “John, I’m going to make you a famous man.”

Since the firing occurred during the late part of summer school, there was not as much student protest as there might have otherwise been. But soon Roger Shattuck spoke up against Erwin’s blunt action and wrote an open letter to the regents, the administration, and the faculty. The letter was widely distributed to the media. It’s worth reading in its entirety, because more than 25 years later, it remains a classic example of Shattuck’s style and character:

3 August 1970Frank C. Erwin, Chairman of the Board of RegentsCharles A. Lemaistre, M.D., Chancellor ElectDr. Bryce Jordan, President ad interimThe University of Texas at Austin

Sirs:There are certain fundamental principles, written and unwritten, for the just governance of a university. Major administrative decisions must not be made without faculty consultation and without full public accountability. Basic educational policy belongs to the faculty. Your recent actions dismissing Dean John R. Silber and dismembering the College of Arts and Sciences gravely violate those principles. The University stands dishonored. As a member of the faculty at the University of Texas, I feel compelled to protest.

Dr. Silber’s unexplained dismissal cannot tarnish his magnificent record as dean and as teacher. What he stands to lose, like many other citizens of the state, is his faith in Texas as the home of a great university. By carving up the College of Arts and Sciences you have destroyed one of the last unifying forces which might hold the swollen university together as a community of minds and of men. Only some form of panic could have produced such hasty and benighted decisions…

All too often, at the end of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, we are told that only the child was wise enough to see that the Emperor had nothing on. Yet there’s more to the story than that. The Emperor may have been duped by clever tailors, but the people were right not to laugh. He was still fully clothed. He was wearing naked power – nothing more. The Emperor in the story was benign. I fear that the power the three of you yield is malignant. I hope you will prove me wrong by reconsidering your actions before irreparable damage has been done.

Sincerely yours,Roger ShattuckChairman, Department of French and Italian

Erwin’s response to Shattuck’s eloquent letter was to slur the scholar’s impeccable reputation by referring to a recent research leave as an indication that Shattuck, like others among Ransom’s faculty elite, “lived in a lucrative playhouse.” When Shattuck resigned from the University five months later, most campus observers felt that the golden Ransom era was finished. Although Erwin remained a regent several more years, his term as chairman ended early the following year.

While living in Austin, Shattuck began his life-long studies of Marcel Proust, author of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, with his 1963 book Proust’s Binoculars. His other Austin writings included a book of poems, Half Tame, as well as his contributions to The Texas Observer. When Billy Lee Brammer’s novel, The Gay Place, was published in 1961, many readers in Austin and across the country felt that much of the roman a clef aspect of the Austin-set novel were the portraits of thinly disguised Observer staffers. Shattuck was assigned a review of the book for the magazine. Reading it now, the word lofty comes to mind.

Except for the ritual opening pages on landscape (“The country is most barbarously large and final…”), Mr. Brammer writes in a brittle, occasionally slick descriptive style that changes off with uneven dialogue and generally successful interior monologue… But other times Mr. Brammer lets himself fall into a facility and a flipness that begins to sound like a guidebook on how to live in an economy of abundance. Cars, telephones, and phonographs are as much obstacles to life as its vehicles. Nothing lies further from literature than brand names. True, we fill vast portions of our lives with cigarettes and liquor and the eternally playing TV or jukebox. Yet in a work of fiction, smoking or taking another drink (particularly when accompanied by elaborate instructions on how to mix it) or tuning the radio quickly reveal themselves as narrative fill masquerading as vivid detail. This kind of writing should go.

Those who knew Brammer must have been brought up short by Professor Shattuck’s high moral tone.

While celebrating the Austin of the fifties and sixties, it’s easy to remember that during much of that time the city was almost totally segregated. Shattuck was at the forefront of local civil rights activities as well as anti-nuclear movements; his quiet demeanor and background as a war pilot added depth to his positions. After Austin, the Shattucks moved to Charlottesville, where he taught for 14 years at the University of Virginia. In 1988 he was re-united with his old friend John Silber, the head of Boston University. Silber made Shattuck a University Professor, just as they had been together in their salad days in Austin. Ironically, by 1988 Silber was perceived as a reactionary in Boston—a role not unlike that occupied by his old nemesis Frank Erwin back in Austin. As for his own views, Shattuck would later describe himself as “a political liberal” and a “cultural conservationist.”

Labels, however, are hardly adequate to describe his life and work. During his long career, one of Shattuck’s books on Proust won a National Book Award. After writing about a “feral” child discovered in France in 1800 (Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, 1980), Shattuck became interested in Helen Keller and edited new editions of her writings. One of his last books, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, is a moral treatise that does not call for censorship but does acknowledge the subversion and power of portrayals of violence and sadistic sex. Profoundly interested in public education, he served four years as a member of the local school board in Lincoln, Vermont.

A 1999 interview published in the Burlington Free Press, began with a description of his work routine.

Six mornings a week, Roger Shattuck crosses the meadow next to his Lincoln home, which looks out to the rounded summits of Mount Cleveland and Bread Loaf. In the winter, he sets out on skis, making tracks to the tiny writing studio he and his wife, Nora, constructed in 1972 from the boards of a defunct sugarhouse.

On the coldest days, it takes a half-hour to heat Shattuck’s study with wood and kerosene. Once it warms up, though, it stays that way.

When asked about warming the studio during the harsh Vermont winters, Shattuck pointed out that the studio retained heat well. After all, he explained, it was “insulated with books.”

Dick Holland is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays to be titled The Texas Book: Stories From the University. UT Press will publish the book in the fall.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST