Martin Duberman’s Queer Historiography and Pedagogy by Jason Ezell

Jason Ezell

Assistant Professor of English, Lincoln Memorial University

Fifteen years after the college’s closing, Martin Duberman published Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. Duberman conducted the research and writing of his book over a period of time that was witness to the Vietnam War, the counter-cultural youth movement, and the Stonewall Riots. When over dinner Duberman listened to Midnight Cowboy author James Leo Herlihy speak of his student days at the experimental North Carolina college, he felt seized by the subject, writing to college founder John Andrew Rice’s grandson that “Black Mountain and I seemed exactly right for each other.” A young history professor at Princeton, Duberman surely sensed some parallels between the burgeoning campus counter-cultures of his own day and this radical mid-century experiment in higher education.

Duberman’s Black Mountain was not a conventional history. In its pages—published in 1972—the author came out of the closet. This confession emerged directly from Duberman’s chosen historiographic method, one which emphasized the ubiquity of the subjective perspective and necessitated showing his scholarly cards, his vested interests and opinions; therefore, when criticizing the college’s treatment of a gay theater professor, Duberman felt compelled to impart the source of his sympathies: his own homosexuality. And this instance of brave frankness was by no means the only sign of his method. Black Mountain’s obvious basis in extensive research is balanced with regular doses of the author’s doubts, inspiration, and opinions. The very form reflects the methodology when, say, Duberman writes his own voice into board minutes from the 1950s or ironically provides varying and contradictory eyewitness accounts of the supposed first Happening. Duberman even reveals the effects of his grappling with his subject when he discusses his own pedagogical experiments at Princeton—an experimentation which ultimately led to Duberman’s decision to leave Princeton for Lehmann College not long after the publication of Black Mountain.

Obviously, in a time of great change, Duberman found in writing the history of Black Mountain a fruitful opportunity for his own change—a change towards a politicized public sexual identity, a change towards innovation in his own history-writing, and a change towards a radically anti-authoritarian stance concerning traditional university pedagogies. Were these discrete changes, though, for which Black Mountain served as a kind of catalyst? Or were they somehow intertwined in a way that might be seen as an important forerunner of contemporary queer theory—particularly related to pedagogy and historiography? Here, using Duberman’s correspondence at the time of the writing and the reception of Black Mountain (mostly through early reviews of his book), I provide a textual snapshot of those cultural forces and personal/professional responses that might expose the encounter of Duberman and Black Mountain as a formula for a critical early queer theoretical perspective.

Overwhelmingly, critical reception of the book indicates just how inseparable the intimate and the textual were for readers and educators anyway. Not surprisingly, gay readers recognized this immediately and overtly. Allen Young, reviewing the book in The Advocate in February 1975, wrote, “Duberman’s personal approach to his story-telling, his sharing of his feelings and experiences with the reader, is doubtless related to his gay consciousness as much as are the discussions of homosexuality” (32). Even if other reviewers didn’t name the gay perspective as overtly as did Young, they did regularly characterize the book in terms that foregrounded the affectional, often characterizing the material or the text as a lover. For example, Judson Jerome, in the November 1972 Saturday Review, commented that Black Mountain was “… perhaps the most intimate, tender history an institution … has ever inspired” (70) and continues to say that:

It resembles more than anything else a biography of a mate of twenty-three years, one who was often hated, often only dimly understood, often nearly divorced, who finally died under ambiguous and vaguely embarrassing circumstances, and who is now poignantly remembered and painstakingly reconstructed with all the delicate flesh tones and psychic shades of gray. (70)

Or, for an example that seems to veer towards the homophobic, take poet Charles Tomlinson’s critical recoiling. In the June 1974 New Review, he draws finicky and prudish caricatures in the name of a whole (supposedly straight) readership: “The palpitation that Olson excites [italics mine] in Duberman gets tiresome for the reader” and “All this protesting sincerity is what Duberman offers us as the basis of a relationship between author and reader—a bit like those dreadful moments when Whitman is threatening to kiss us” (76). It seems clear that many critics of the day saw the relationship between author, text, and reader as intimate, always potentially sexualized, but that they see Duberman’s sin here as calling too much attention to this fact, straining its reputed chasteness, and admitting a range of sexualities to the characterization of this relationship. How dare he blow the whistle?

In his dealings with Princeton, Duberman came to the frustrated realization that academia had long participated in such a self-serving shell game in the name of chaste objectivity. In a letter written on November 20, 1970, to administrator Dick Challener concerning his decision to leave the school, Duberman imparts that “I think the department does itself a dis-service by trying to pretend that my departure is unrelated to its intolerance of a divergent life style and a different perspective on certain critical academic and educational issues.” And both kinds of intolerance seem to be caught up with each other in the minds of a number of his contemporaries. Arthur Evans, on October 22, 1972, wrote to Duberman, stating, “Please accept my respect for coming out. I know you had to touch upon your deepest feelings in order to do that. Continue to return to those feelings, and you will be able to liberate yourself from many things, eventually even the university.” It might be said, then, that many experienced the traditional university’s fidelity to objectivity as a blunt tool of repression. For evidence of just how aggressive, sexist, and heteronormative the university of the time might be commonly conceived of, we might turn to the characterization of education by one of Duberman’s dissatisfied graduate students, who issued a critique of his Fall 1966 History 308 course: “Even if Professor Duberman … has lately been under the ‘influence’ of anarchist thought, he must be aware that culture and civilization depend upon a continuity between fathers and sons, and that this continuity is achieved by one generation passing on certain essential ideals to another, such as the judgment of previous generations must be challenged” (Brown 2). This insistently Oedipal culture of education that emphasized straight maleness and generational antagonism as its nuts and bolts was likely no abstraction for Duberman and so many of his colleagues; it was a bitter and pervasive reality that Black Mountain provided inspiration to resist. In fact, many readers thankfully recognized the escape hatch the book gestured towards, as when a female professor, Christine Stansell, wrote Duberman on September 23, 1972, corroborating that “…scholarly training widens the already radical disjunctions in American life: male/female, reason/emotion, work/home, objectivity/morality.” So, could Black Mountain the book find in the earlier educational experiment a queer alternative to the prevailing, divisive university structure designed for the success of fathers alone?

Judson Jerome, in 1972, characterizes the appeal of the school in communitarian terms: “Were Black Mountain going today, it would be called a commune. In its own day (1933-1956) it was called a college” (70). He goes on to distinguish such communitarian projects from utopias:

I call it Eden rather than Utopia that those of us involved in such life-giving and life-destroying communities are trying to achieve – that is, the good life achieved through re-discovery of something lost rather than the invention (and control) of something new … no book could be more relevant than this record of our intrepid predecessors, who bumbled about in the blackness of their mountain with all the magnificent error of Homeric gods. (72)

There are a number of things interesting about this passage. One is that the emphasis on Eden shifts focus away from reproduction—from the creation of something new, an insurgent generation – since in the Eden story, reproduction only comes after the Fall and resulting expulsion from Eden. Obviously, such a model chips away at the Oedipal focus of the traditional university while also opening the way for a queer perspective for which creating progeny is not the purpose of intimacy. Second, if the focus is not on looking forward (Utopia), it is instead on looking backwards, to recovering what has been lost. Such a perspective would seem to place doing history at the heart of the radical communitarian project—and by extension, to queerness. (LGBTQ folks, often unable to inherit relational models from their parents, must look elsewhere, to other communities in the cultural past, for models of building their own.) Doing history, then, can be seen as key to both queer and radical communitarian projects. Third, fallibility, contingency, and sensitive partiality—rather than the idealism of objectivity—become valued with Jerome’s reference to “the magnificent error of Homeric gods”.

If history can be cast—as Jerome seems to do here—as a queer, communitarian endeavor, then what are we to make of Duberman’s Black Mountain?

First and foremost, as we have already seen, the book should be taken as a different way of doing history—one that uses the incursion of relevant autobiography, mends the divide between the supposedly private and public, and owns and even celebrates the inevitable partiality of our perspectives. And this different way of doing history might call for formal historiographic shifts so that history-writing might, at times, look more like the genres we have traditionally thought of as creative. Yes, as critics were quick to note, Duberman’s book did not altogether abandon the hard-evidence approach to history— any look at the pages of end notes corroborate this point – but this was only one method he employed. At times, as shown, the book reads like a journal or confession. At others, it reads like a play—as when he inserts his own voice into the college’s faculty minutes. (It should be remembered that Duberman was at this time already an award-winning playwright.) Several readers noted how his treatment of various relationships, emotions, and events carried the narrative force of fiction. And he has moments where these “literary” moments take on a Brechtian foregrounding of the historian’s work—as when, instead of forcibly resolving and streamlining conflicting accounts of the purported first Happening organized by John Cage, Duberman simply, playfully fans the divergent accounts before the reader—a moment that poet Charles Tomlinson found inspired and comic. It might be argued that Duberman takes the genre-blurring and multi-disciplinarity common at Black Mountain and applies it to historiography, using any of a variety of writing modes as the material requires. Further, a generous reader may see in this model of a single work with shifting genres a parallel to non-static queer identities as put forth by queer theorist Judith Butler. In both cases, identity—whether it be of a history or a person—is tied not to an immutable nature but to a range of contextual performances. This sort of form seems entirely fitting to the sort of “magnificent error” that Jerome sees as essential to the communitarian project.

If Duberman is formally inspired by the genre-blurring and multi-disciplinarity of Black Mountain, then he also finds ample material to re-imagine academia as something other than a sexist, heteronormative institution. Black Mountain extends the possibility of liberated intellectual community. The primary way by which the school does this is to eschew the typical educational hierarchies that place faculty in a parental role of control over students. Although it may be somewhat difficult to imagine now, the doctrine of in loco parentis actually did apply in various ways—especially in terms of sexual and gender monitoring—to the mid-century American college student. In fact, the student movements of the 60s flew in the face of those repressive circumstances. But Duberman was certainly educated in a time when the university was still imagined as a moral extension of the family, and Black Mountain College, during the same time period, defied that role in many ways: Faculty and students often lived in the same quarters, sat on the same decision-making boards and at the same dining tables, and worked side-by-side to build their facilities; founder Rice resisted singular, top-heavy administrations like the one he had been ousted from in Florida so that decision-making was intended to be more communitarian than paternalistic; and in the later years of the college, an increasingly blind eye was turned towards unconventional behaviors in relationships and appearances. On the surface, Black Mountain College seemed to offer an alternative to the tight-fisted moral family model, an alternative based on independence, collaboration, and creativity.

The extent to which Duberman felt at odds with the in loco parentis climate of the times is evidenced in the radical pedagogy he attempted to employ at Princeton at the time of the writing of Black Mountain. He dispensed with grades, exams, required reading, papers, lectures, attendance, and even an established classroom in favor of student-led courses that made room for emotional engagement and functioned somewhat similarly to group therapy sessions. Duberman, in fact, proposed that a therapist be present in the course to assist the “instructor” in dealing with group dynamics. Duberman saw such pedagogy as a necessary antidote to the traditional seminar, which:

… carries high costs: the acceptance of disguise as a necessity of life; the unconscious determination to manipulate others in the way one has been manipulated; the conviction that productivity is more important than character and ‘success’ superior to satisfaction; the loss of curiosity, of a willingness to ask questions, of the capacity to take risks. (Davis 1)

Very likely, Duberman experienced the expected “acceptance of disguise” in the academy as levied against his sexuality as much as every other aspect of his self. In a letter to Edgar Friedenberg on November 4, 1972, Duberman reveals how much the negative reviews of his book hurt him: “The Sunday Times review hurt much more than I expected —perhaps because it was so casually dismissive, perhaps because it managed to be a double negative … one for the book and one for revealing my homosexuality”. In the university classroom, he resented the university’s privileging the exchange of “ideas and information” over all other kinds of more personal interaction (to Palmer, et al) and said that “Most young teachers, like most students, are afraid much of the time they are in class, and fear guarantees that energy will go into defensive strategies rather than creative explorations” (Princeton Alumni Weekly (6). Here, the students and the faculty are seen as treading the same fear and defensiveness. And the pedagogical culture of the university, which emphasizes suppressing your own needs and desires to please superiors that function like stand-in parents, is responsible. Again, Duberman notes the powerful metaphorical connection between the academy and the family when he says, “For all I know, the true cause of my developing interest in unstructured education may have been familial – an unresolved authority problem?— or even metabolic” ( PAW 6).

Probably most telling is his citing of the theories of Bernard Z. Friedlander:

Friedlander points out that young children are chiefly curious about matters that relate to sexuality and that such curiosity is not automatically transferrable, as the child grows older, to scholastic topics. Indeed, if curiosity about sex is not satisfied – and in our society it is more usually disapproved and suppressed – the child’s interest in asking questions may be permanently destroyed. (PAW 6)

Here, Duberman’s concerns with the connections between the academy and the family are extended even further to the sexual. It would seem that, according to Friedlander’s theories, sexual repression and academic failure are cut from the same cloth – the suppression of curiosity. Argued in reverse, then, an uncensored and exploratory sexuality helps to nourish curiosity which in turn leads to real intellectual maturity and risk-taking – the latter of which Duberman would hope the true university to be about.

As a not-yet-out queer in a very frightening and repressive time, Duberman, as we have seen, identifies with his students, those being pervasively stunted, infantilized, and controlled. And the youth of his day were under attack. They were being sent to a difficult war in Vietnam or assaulted or arrested or censored for questioning that war. At the very best, they were being herded through universities of the type already described. It wasn’t uncommon for Duberman to receive letters (Whaley, Shay) from former students who were on the war front or negotiating the draft. As an indication of the severity of the situation, his friend Richard Poirier wrote an article on the subject for The Atlantic, “The War Against the Young,” the ideas of which Duberman felt called upon to defend. In that article Poirier notes each generation’s need to create a “pastoral,” a kind of Eden story that preserves certain ideals as our long-range, fundamental cultural goals, but he goes on to say that “… if the logic of pastoral is to protect certain attributes, its ulterior motive is to keep the human embodiment of these attributes in their proper place, servants rather than participants in daily business where real men really face complex reality.” Citing youth as fundamental to that pastoral, towards the end of the essay, Poirier says that

…it can be said that we have used youth as a revenge upon history, as the sacrificial expression of our self-contempt. Youth has been the hero of our civilization, but only so long as it has remained antagonistic to history, only so long as it has remained a literary or mythological metaphor. War, the slaughter of youth at the apparent behest of history, is the ultimate expression of this feeling. The American hatred of history, of what it does to us, gets expressed in a preposterous and crippling idealization of youth as a state as yet untouched by history, except as a killer, and in a corresponding incapacity to understand the demand, now, by the best of the young, to be admitted into it. More hung up on youth than any nation on earth, we are also more determined that youth is not to enter into history without paying the price of that adulteration we call adulthood. (October 1968)

Duberman, as a queer and as a college educator, felt sympathetic – even identified — with the young students’ being sacrificed for the pastoral Eden of the “real men”. Possibly this was tied to the ways he was represented by fellow scholars. In efforts to belittle him, his peers would often use feminizing or infantilizing language to dismiss his ideas, as when Professor Castel of Western Michigan writes, “I don’t know which is more amusing – the childish arguments employed in your Atlantic article … or the conceit displayed by you in attempting with your pop-gun intellect to refute men of the calibre of Kennan and Barzun”. When his pedagogical theories became known at Princeton, the dean Palmer was published in The Daily Princetonian, referring to Duberman’s ideas as “the ultimate flower of some Romanticism” (Davis 5), and his department chair Lawrence Stone supposedly made reference to what he called Duberman’s “theatrics” (letter to Stone) and bristled over what he saw as Duberman’s audacity to treat the chair like a “messenger boy” (undated notes). As a queer man, Duberman drew comparisons from his straight male colleagues that could portray, say, his optimism or forcefulness as immature—all toy guns, moony flowers, and red-faced tantrums—and such treatment certainly took a slow but sure toll. He even criticizes himself in these age-based terms, as when he depicts his joy over his positive reviews in a November 1972 letter to Nancy Katz as “’immaturely’ euphoric”. Realizing this, he became determined to confront these issues —with others and within himself—and become “post-familial.”

In a very frank response to his sister Lucile’s wondering why he had drifted apart from the family, Duberman writes:

I do know that the estrangement between us is not due to any particular event, to anything anyone has ‘done’. It has to do, instead, with my beginning to grow up and, as part of that, to the realization that adult relationships have to be post-familial. They can, of course, be with members of one’s family, but they can’t be a mere continuation of the stuff of childhood … .

What I’m saying is that increasingly I want to be an adult among adults. I want to get rid of the old roles: the dutiful, sweet brother or son bent on pleasing and meeting somebody else’s needs, and alternately treated by them as a God or a shit; the self-absorbed, vain, greedy, self-indulgent brat. I want instead to be my own man (with equal emphasis on those last two words)… .

Though I want to be an adult, I don’t pretend that I already am one. Leaving chronology aside, I’m still somewhere in adolescence. And maybe I’ll never get beyond it. But, if I am going to, the first step, I’m convinced, is to get out of the old, mechanical postures within the family. (1-2)

Inspired by Black Mountain College, Duberman strove to create a pedagogy that would allow his students to “get out of the old, mechanical postures within the family,” that would allow them to leave childhood behind. At the very same time, he was seeking to extend the same to himself. Not being a student per se, he had to do that in his scholarship, by reliving an historical educational alternative for himself in Black Mountain College. This refractive turn to history was his queer way out of the prejudiced molds thrust upon him as a queer man.

Of course, Black Mountain was both less and more Eden than he might’ve imagined. In a letter to Cindy Degener on February 27, 1967, Duberman wrote, “Like all Edens, Black Mountain had its serpents” (4). Over the course of writing Black Mountain, Duberman was surely some disappointed with the inconsistencies in the sexual politics of the school. For example, Duberman spends some time with the case of two female students arrested for hitch-hiking and treated like prostitutes in the Chattanooga area who were also interrogated on sexual grounds by Black Mountain College staff and ultimately advised to take a temporary absence from the school (186-90). And of course, Duberman is critical of the treatment of gay theater professor Bob Wunsch, who after being accused of “crimes against nature” with a marine in Asheville was allowed to pack and leave the college in the middle of the night – with no arguments for him to stay. Of this latter incident, Duberman writes, “It’s hard to think well of a place that could cooperate as fully as Black Mountain did in an individual’s self-destruction – indeed to have assumed it as foreclosed. … it may well be that communities, no less than individuals, are entitled to their aberrations” (232). This wondering, though, closes the chapter on a skeptical note, and it is clear the shine for Duberman has dulled. The Eden his queer historiography was rehearsing seemed to depend, like so many others, on stories of bad women, bad fruits, expulsions, and shame.

At the same time, though, he is trying to place his trust in the “magnificent error” Jerome mentioned, to allow folks their “aberrations” even as he prizes their best efforts. And this is one of the ultimate achievements of the book. In the final section of Black Mountain, Duberman includes a journal entry in which he reflects on what he feels just minutes after finishing the book. He writes,

And all those extraordinary people, their foolishness, their valor, their trying—yes, above all, their trying. Have I done that effort justice? Have I done some of the individuals serious injustice? Probably a mixed answer to both. But I’ve tried, too—that I do know; tried for a personal search to match theirs; taken more risks than I’m used to—how could I not, writing about people for whom risk was so often a way of life? (439)

Works Cited

Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2009.

———. Letter to Lucile Belden (sister). 25 June 1968. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to Dick Challener. 20 November 1970. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to Cindy Degener. 27 February 1967. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to Edgar Friedenberg. 4 November 1972. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to Nancy Katz. 4 November 1972. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to Profs. Palmer, Stone, and Sullivan of Princeton. 29 January 1968. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to John Rice. 17 February 1967. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Letter to Lawrence Stone. 2 April 1968. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

———. Princeton Alumni Weekly 5 March 1968: 6.

Evans, Arthur. Letter to Martin Duberman. 22 October 1972. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

Jerome, Judson. “Counterculture Preview.” Rev. of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman. The Saturday Review November 1972: 70, 72.

Poirier, Richard. “The War Against the Young.” Atlantic Online October 1968. 8 October 2009 <>

Rasmussen, Mary Louise. Becoming Subjects: Sexualities and Secondary Schooling. New York City, Routledge, 2006.

Shay, John. Letter to Martin Duberman. 24 March 1968. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

Stansell, Christine. Letter to Martin Duberman. 23 September 1972. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

Stone, Lawrence. Undated exchange of notes with Martin Duberman. Box 73, History 308 –Correspondence & related material re: seminar & dissatisfaction & resignation from Princeton, 1968-1970. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

Tomlinson, Charles. “Black Mountain Revisited.” Rev. of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman. New Review June 1974: 76.

Whaley, Don. Letter to Martin Duberman. 5 November 1972. Martin Duberman Papers. New York Public Library, New York City.

Young, Allen. Rev. of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman. The Advocate 12 February 1975: 32.