Black Mountain College by Trueman MacHenry, BMC Alum

Black Mountain College
by Trueman MacHenry, BMC Alum

Note from David Silver: As part of his research for what would become his landmark book, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Martin Duberman interviewed Trueman MacHenry at Princeton University. Due to a number of factors, including a faulty tape recorder, mistakes by the stenographer, and voice misunderstandings, Trueman was uncomfortable with the interview and refused to let it circulate. Instead, having witnessed what Duberman wanted to know, Trueman wrote a short essay on these topics and sent it to Duberman, who used it multiple times in his book and referenced it as “Trueman MacHenry, fourteen-page manuscript ‘Black Mountain College,’ courtesy MacHenry.” What follows is the fourteen-page manuscript, or Trueman MacHenry’s “Black Mountain College.” Brackets [ ] indicate parenthetical, editorial notes by Silver given for context.

I came to BMC in the fall of 1949, just after the Albers-Levi fracas. Levi was still there; Josef Albers had gone (to the Cincinnati Art Academy). This was not to be Levi’s last quarrel at BMC although later antagonists, though no less stubborn, were not people of Albers’ eminence and accomplishment. I had spent the previous six months in a tent on the Alaska tundra, and the six months before that climbing mountains in the southwestern deserts for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey.

My parents came to Wyoming in the early ‘20s and became homesteaders. Later they gave up their homestead when my father’s health failed and moved to a middle-size western town. I spent two years at the University of Wyoming just at the end of the war, when even that university had managed to gather together some refugee European academicians. (Max Dehn spent a year at the University of Idaho.) Ilya Bolotowsky arrived at Wyoming shortly after I left, and, together with Worden Day, soon established a small coterie of artists and writers. It was letters from a member of this group to me in Alaska that excited my interest in BMC, while I was busy reading current poetry and trying to write some of my own.

Madame Goldowski, whom everyone called “Madame,” called me “Alaska Boy” during my three years at the college. Her continuance at BMC depended upon grace, and so she was ingratiating as only a somewhat malicious woman can be. She intended “Alaska Boy” as a term of affection that was pejorative, an underhanded acknowledgment that was really an insult. I read Russian with her for over a year. Her memory (at mid-eighties) was impressive; the first line of a Pushkin poem was enough to recall the remainder. She was used to servants and so her French (language) students became her servants, bringing tea and running errands. Since she spoke French much better than English, a lesson with her was conducted in French.

About noon it was usual to see her miniature figure moving with the certitude of self-importance that comes from a long secure social position, but betraying the bitterness that comes from the violent loss of that position, down the road from her apartment in the Old Office Building, accompanied by one of her retainers gamely putting together French phrases. A lot of French was learned this way.

Madame was there because her daughter Natasha was there. Natasha taught physics and chemistry and was a serious physicist and intellectual, as well as frustrated by her partial isolation from the scientific and intellectual world brought about by the poisonous political situation of the time. Madame’s “group” was, except for the year that Natasha was in France, a segment of Natasha’s. These were people interested in physics and chemistry and cabal; this is the tutorial system in full sail. It must be said that the academic training of these groups suffered somewhat from the lack of (in any real sense) laboratories in which to work—a liability to a physics and chemistry department. But then this left the time free for more philosophical pastimes. Natasha was interested in the ideas of P. Bridgman [Percy Williams Bridgman, 1882-1961, was an American physicist who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics and published widely on the scientific method and other aspects of the philosophy of science, including his The Logic of Modern Physics (1927), which advocated operationalism] and so there was the pleasant irony of students being taught that a fact is a function of the measuring devices, while there were no measuring devices at BMC. It wasn’t that science at BMC had lapsed into solipsism, though solipsism wasn’t unknown there. It was simply that there was no money (the science building had burned in 1948, and the equipment had not been sufficiently replaced).

Of course, there never was any serious science at BMC, although there were serious scientists. There couldn’t possibly have been, for obviously there never was the desire or possibility of assembling the people and material that would have made such a thing possible. This is a central point in BMC’s history. It was always a whirlpool of personalities, of strong (and some weak) wills, of restless talents vying for an audience, and if successful, inevitably establishing cliques. In this respect it must have been much more like the early European universities than like any college in this country.

This is a point worth repeating; that BMC was a succession of groups of loosely connected cliques. It is futile to ask what were the substantial issues that brought the Levi-Albers split, perhaps the most important rupture of the school’s history, for this was an example of the inevitable antagonism of two groups trying to use the same machinery for different purposes (of course, it is not futile to try to learn what those different purposes were, though often enough purpose became indistinguishable from style). But if clique was the weakness of BMC, it was also its strength, or perhaps it is better to say, its technique.

At Black Mountain we lived a life quite isolated from the rest of the world. It is clear that the geographical position of the college aided this, nestled as it was in the arms of high hills on the side of an out-of-the-way mountain valley, and the great richness and fecundity of the countryside itself made for a kind of self-sufficiency. This isolation of the artists and intellectuals that was typical of all former times in this country probably sealed BMC off in any case, especially from its southern mountain surroundings. But of course, the college depended for its very existence on the interests of the outside world. And this interest, life-blood that it was, was never lacking. It is certainly not necessary to say here at this date that there was a constant flow to Black Mountain of people interested in experiment in education, social experiment, artistic experiment, extravagance, titillation, relaxation, escape, involvement, and so on.

With the possible exceptions of some of the arts (graphics, painting, weaving, and dancing) there was nothing that could be called professional training at BMC. There was, in fact, a constant self-questioning of the purposes of the college. Was it to be a liberal arts school or a professional school? Was community more important than college? Were arts to be emphasized at the expense of the academic side of things? (John Adams, the anthropologist, once complained that people took his anthropology courses merely to gather material for their writing.) I suppose that there were some who realized that it was ludicrous to think that BMC might ever become a professional school (at least, in anything but art). But in what sense could it have been a liberal arts college? I remember visiting some nearby liberal arts colleges at the time and being shocked by the comparison, the blandness and lifelessness of these places. Reed, Antioch, Bennington, Goddard were – and we all thought so at the time – much more in our spiritual league, and yet there was certainly a substantial difference in any of these cases. BMC was not a liberal arts school; if anything it was a radical arts school. But it was not necessarily a radical humanities school, which is, I suppose, the proper counterfoil of “liberal arts,” nor a radical sciences school. Here it took what it could get, and was lucky that the place attracted some very good people. It was, however, a radical college. Its radicalness lay in its living arrangements, the fact that community was forced onto people, at first by philosophical intent, then by structural accident.

I supposed that BMC had some of Jarrell’s Pictures at an Institution about it, but somehow Magister Ludi has a strange way of forcing its way into a comparison.

****

Politics were not the proper tool to start a conversation at Black Mountain, but there was a small activist civil rights movement energized by Flola Shepard. She may have been a Communist, I don’t know, but her political interests were those of the Communist left and her commitment was pervasive. (I recall going to a strategy meeting of the Daniels Defense Committee in Asheville with Flola, Paul Leser, and a car-full of others. I was the driver. Afterwards we were stopped by the police who wanted to see if I had a driver’s license. I hadn’t. I remember my trial. The whites sat on one side of the court, the blacks sat on the other, and the judge was blind.) Flola found it very difficult to separate her scholarly activities from her politics; however, she was a demanding and rigorous teacher from whom one could learn much. She was never without students.

One important influence on life at BMC that should be mentioned is that of nature: the woods, the wildflowers, the passing of the seasons, the weather. This would probably not surprise anyone who has spent a spring or fall in the North Carolina mountains. And the college buildings were, after all, distributed throughout the woods. It was usual for people there to take frequent walks in the woods or go hiking in the mountains. Such a hike could begin at Last Chance. [In order to house the influx of GIs who attended BMC after the war, the college, led by Theodore Rondthaler, applied to the US government for surplus army housing. They received seven building, including two housing buildings—white, low, narrow buildings—which were promptly named “Last Chance” and “Next to Last Chance.” Together, they were often referred to as “the Chances.”] In the spring, it was important to find the first lady slippers, later on to find a white or yellow azalea (there were lots of red and orange ones). Dehn was the ranking expert on the wildflowers and would lead expeditions to spots where he knew a certain rare variety of orchid would bloom (I believe there were twelve varieties in these mountains). The hour’s trip up to the Saddle was among the first trips taken by a newcomer, and rewalked, probably, many times later. Most parts of the six hundred or so acres had been given names by the walkers giving the illusion of more history and tradition than there really was. It was Andy Oates who, in his graduation examination, pointed out the special beauty of the hollow Queen Tree and what could be seen by one standing there. After he called it to our attention, most people at the college made the trip to the tree to see for themselves. Hazel Larsen was probably responsible for leading many to the realization that there was much to be seen just for the careful looking.

Hazel had studied with Albers and her point of view was undoubtedly influenced by this, certainly her manner of working was, but in addition she was a strong and imaginative person who exercised a deep influence on the people around her. She was the center of a group that could best be described as Blakean, having a bent toward an ill-defined mystical aestheticism. Andy Oates and at one time Nick Cernovich were part of this group, though it was in the nature of the place that people’s interests and hence the compositions of the groups shifted. It would be a mistake to express Hazel’s point of view as a position; it was a manner, a way of looking at things, and this is just the point. I think that her great achievement there was to lead people to look at things and to see, to listen, and to hear. These are of course the talents of artists and poets, and these were her talents. Later Wes Huss and Charles Olson forced her to leave. Their visions were rather different.

Olson was such a big man and he did come last (a curious study in cause and effect), so that no one looks back at later BMC without seeing first (and maybe little else than) his footprints. It would be superfluous to add to the legend. Olson certainly led (harangued?) one of the major later groups. There is no doubt that his overwhelming personality, his eight-hour monologues, his prolific imagination, and his compelling manner of expression had a strong influence on many young writers. Ed Dorn may not have gone ahead to write his poetry without the influence of Olson; probably Joel Oppenheimer couldn’t have.

A friend of mine in a different context uses the term intellectual rape. One might be able to apply this here. Olson gave me a copy of his Apollonius with the inscription, “You dig me.” One-half of the pun may or may not be so, the other half was, which probably disqualifies me altogether.

One of the beguiling things about one’s experience at BMC is how much was compressed into so little time. It is such a rich and varied set of memories. For one thing the tone of the community was largely at the mercy of the strongest personalities, and these changed often enough or had their influence diluted by the presence of others so that it is difficult to think back to the typical. Then one’s interest and attention shifted from one center to another.

****

When I first came to BMC there was a number of Quakers: Ray Trayer (the farmer), Robert Turner (potter), Don Warrington (treasurer), John McCandless (printer). Wes Huss came a year or so later. These people certainly represented a variety of temperaments and personalities, but they were (Huss was not in the group) of a more puritanical strain than most others there at that time. This may have been responsible for some of the post-Albers difficulties. There were others there of this bent also, and it was at this time that there were rather ludicrous attempts to oust Joe Fiore, the charge being that he was keeping house with a woman not his wife. I suppose that this was an attempt at a Protestant reformation, at attempt which almost carried, but when it lost its momentum, BMC regained its tarnished reputation for offering a warm hearth to the liberated spirit. This tale must not be interpreted, by the way, as indicating any animosity at BMC towards Quakers in general or these Quakers in particular. They were people who were liked on their own merits and for the real contribution that they made to the life of the college. Turner, in particular, had a following as a potter and was well-liked. But they were the only group there in my time who represented a religious sect and I think this fact was not without consequence (although, some of their fellow judges were not Quakers). It might be worth mentioning while on the subject, that the two philosophical outlooks that were most congenial to people at BMC at this time were those of the Friends and (a vaguely understood) Taoism. Of course there were the Zenish as well.

The kind of life lived at BMC would not seem out of place today; almost all of the activities would be quite fashionable. What makes this remarkable is that they were not fashionable in their time. The style of living, the special interest in the quality of life, the sexual mores, the mood of experiment, the kinds of music and painting (these were the days when Huntington Hartford III was issuing broadsides identifying abstract painting with Communism), the spirit of rebellion, the beards and shabby clothes, the distrust of the society at large and the rejection of established categories of society: these were not typical concerns of the early post-war years (although some of them may have been concerns of the thirties). There seems to be a long history in this country of experimental communities, and to some extent, colleges. It is with these indigenous outsiders that identification was made, not with any broad education or cultural movements in the country. The attraction was reciprocal, for there seemed to be a steady supply of visitors from small experimental communities or progressive colleges. I’m afraid our conceit was such that we looked on even these people as somewhat reactionary. However, it is important that many of the characteristics of contemporary culture were prefigured at BMC. To some extent it is no mystery, for at least some of the people who lead these trends came from or went through BMC.

How much did art influence the quality of life at BMC? It is probably true that there were two influences that pervaded the atmosphere in which we lived. Nature I have talked about. As for art, at least once a week a painter showed his painting, a photographer, his photographs, music was performed (in addition to frequent informal gatherings) by residents or by visitors, or there was a show of weaving and bookbinding, or the dancers danced, or there was a drama or a dance drama or a poetry reading, or, I suppose, a happening, or even a party which could itself be a work of art. Everyone, virtually, went to these events. They were discussed, criticized, repudiated, copied. They could determine the tone of the place for days, and, I suppose, in some few instances, weeks afterwards. These things were important to people there and they were seen as having a bearing on the way life is lived, on how it is with the world.

I mentioned our conceit. It was unbounded. We could not fail to take these things seriously, for we were sure that it was here and only here that serious things were going on. (A person at the time discounting this self-importance might have discounted too much as it turns out.) I remember an arts festival at the women’s college in Greensboro. [The arts festival took place at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. In 1963, the name of the institution was changed to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.] The program was blocked out in neat categories: Poetry, Creative Writing, Drama, Dance, and so on. Nicely dressed boys and girls from around North Carolina read their poetry or did their dance that they had carefully prepared back in their classrooms. A group from BMC decided to go, bare feet and all. When the poetry readings were given, the BMC contingent turned up and turned on; when the dance section met, there they were again, and so on with each of the other divisions. It turned out to be BMC against the rest of North Carolina. Blackmuir and, I think, Trilling, were there [Richard P. Blackmuir and Lionel Trilling]. They became very interested in the Black Mountain crew and offered us a great deal of encouragement. (I was not on this trip; Nick Cernovich was.) The expedition was regarded as a triumph of the forces of light over the forces of darkness.

It is more difficult to describe the academic life (as distinct from and sometimes opposed to the artistic life). Of course, there were not many options. While I was there one could be guided in anthropology, linguistics (as well as languages: French, German, Russian, Greek), history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, physics, and in any of the other humanitarian by-ways that the writers’ interests happened to lead people (Olson, e.g., was interested in myth, Mayan and Mesopotamian culture). But people went at these subjects with the same fervor and intensity (often enough without cautionary discipline) that characterized the artistic life. There were, of course, non-academic artists and non-artistic scholars, but often the same people turned up on both sides of the fence, vociferous, opinionated, and energetic (though persistence was by no means universal). The library, while not extensive, was interesting, and was used. It was not uncommon for someone to become engrossed in some piece of work or interest and be missing for several days. There was a wholesome spirit of serendipity and an unspoken conviction that it was wrong to build walls between disciplines. (No, this was spoken often.) When I went to conventional schools I was surprised to find out both what people knew that I didn’t, the things that come from orderly course work, and what I expected them to know that they had never heard of, the kind of knowledge that comes from an active and working interest in contemporary culture (or some aspects of it, at any rate).

The emotional pressures at BMC were great. Here the summers, when the college was turned into an overpopulated, fast-paced festival featuring as many current stars as possible, have to be distinguished from the regular term. This will be apparent in the difference of accounts by summer students and year-round students. I’m talking now about the year-rounders. The student body was small and life was close and intense. There were those who set high standards and there were few formal guides. What to do with your time? How to use the moral and academic freedom? No one was asked to participate in any of these courses that some did with such enthusiasm. No one need do anything. There was a pair of students there when I first arrived who had spent a long tour in the Navy. They rose every morning at five, scrubbed the dining-hall floor, fed the calves at the farm, and disappeared for most of the rest of the time. I think that they finally left disgusted with our slothfulness.

It was certainly possible to form whatever liaisons would naturally occur (with some inhibitions at the time of the Calvinists: was it an accident that at a party later on a dance was invented called the Savonarola Roll?) I think that one unexpected result of all of this was very often withdrawal into oneself, a polarization of the community to keep friction at a minimum. (We had no resident sociologist; they are always in the wrong places.)

****

The relation of the farm to the college changed several times while I was there. Under Ray Trayer students helped with haying; there were, perhaps, two regular student helpers at the farm; but, the function was that of supplier of milk and butter. When Doyle Jones took over, there was a shift of mood, the hope that the farm would be of greater financial assistance to the college and that there could be greater participation of the rest of the college in the workings of the farm. It turned out later that the farm carried the college financially for a time, to both the detriment of the college and the farm. But at first there was great optimism. Doyle was a local man and there was the hope that this would bring about a useful friendship between the college and the people in the valley. To some extent it did. We helped local farmers (though not for the first time) with their farm work and they in turn gave us aid in kind (Mr. Hutchins, a local farmer, was especially important in this respect). We also hired out our equipment and labor to the farmers; this put some money into the treasury.

But at first there were great plans to increase the scale of operation. Tobacco was planted and a drying barn built. Money was borrowed by Paul Williams to buy a beef herd of 50 cows. Large vegetable gardens were planted and there was talk of putting in vineyards. The workers were college students and faculty. There was usually a lot of talent present no matter what the chore, people who knew how to do what needed to be done. The enthusiasm generated by all of this heady enterprise might very well, under somewhat different circumstances, have helped to save us all. The kibbutz spirit was at its height during the trip to Sprague’s Georgia farm to gather his corn crop for the college silo. Raillery, drunkenness, and dedication accompanied the large contingent of BMC’ers on the trip. (I stayed behind to tend the farm.)

The spirit dissolved soon enough into bitterness.

Such marriages of idealism and financial necessity were not uncommon at BMC. There was the sad incident of Wes Huss’s tree cutting scheme. Here salvation – purely financial, there was never any illusion on most people’s parts that this was good for their souls – was to come first by cutting down most of our beautiful dogwood trees for sale to the textile mills for shuttles. They were cut and neatly stacked just above the Chances, only to find that they were cut at the wrong time of year. Next, an old and striking stand of pine on the slope below the barn was cut. This was a financial success. Then, probably encouraged by this venture a saw mill was set up in the forest, two local cutters were hired, and the rape of the woods started in earnest. To little avail. There was incompetence and skullduggery at every turn. We profited little and lost much. For example, The Knoll, above the Quiet House, was a part of the mystique of the community by this time. The butchery left it a spot no one cared to go near.

When I first came to BMC, it had just sold a number of its 700 acres to the local sand and gravel company who were then engaged in scooping the heart out of the entire valley, a fact which we heartily deplored.

Olson’s poetic cry was, “Live for the instant!” Oftentimes, we either squandered our instants in great orgies of self-indulgent idealism, or we were merely dragged along by economic necessity.

But perhaps Rice was right; no such institution should remain too long. This one certainly contained the fertile seeds of its own imminent destruction. The genuine tolerance of individuality may well have been justification enough for its genesis and explanation enough for its exodus. It is one thing for the academic establishmentarians to sermonize about the conventional school’s propensity for stamping out acceptable copies, but I think that it takes a dose of a BMC to see in detail what the difference is. A close friend of mine at BMC, Joan Heller, is an illustrating case. She didn’t graduate nor, I suspect, did she go on to do great things in the world, and least of all would she have fit well into the conventional world. But Black Mountain let her live, provided her an opportunity to display her considerable talents. For the most part she was indistinguishable from the background noise, but then occasionally she would sing with us when we played some Baroque music – she studied voice with Jalo – her voice was lovely and her musicianship superb; or she would sculpt, or make some pots, again turning out work of high quality; or she would sit in on a course, inevitably bringing more intelligence to bear than most of the others; and then she would withdraw. Any ordinary college would have thrown her out during the first semester.

May I say what it was that I did at BMC, which, although not typical – nothing was – nor of any significance in the subsequent run of affairs, was one way that an initiate in the sacred games behaved.

I studied mathematics with Max Dehn. This meant reading and working on my own and reporting to him twice a week (or thereabouts) for tutorial sessions, which might start in his study, last an hour or so, continue with a cup of tea and conversation with him and Toni [Dehn’s wife and beloved member of the BMC community] and end with a two hour walk in the woods looking for some special orchid in bloom, spotting useful supplies of edible mushrooms, discussing mathematics, and, perhaps, history or philosophy or college doings. When I wrote my thesis (in geometry), I read Euclid’s geometry in Latin. This was not out of principled classicism. The only mathematics books we had at the college were those in Dehn’s private collection (which had been depleted by the Nazis before he left Germany); my choice was between Greek and Latin. I had studied some Latin in high school. Or, when Dehn asked me to read Euler’s work on integration, he gave me the German text. I strove to learn two subjects at once (though I had studied a little German before). I didn’t try to read Lobachevski in Russian, and I did manage an English copy of Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry.

Through Flola Shepard I became interested in linguistics, and I also studied some more French with her as well as Russian with her competitor, Madame (the competition was one-sided). Then too I read some German with Toni. I worked diligently with her. It was a great pleasure if not a great success.

I also was very much interested in philosophy and found the atmosphere conducive to reading. I remember that I had discovered Cassirer and was busy turning reality over to him when John Adams arrived with, in addition to his Wilde-Whistler witticisms, a great interest in Cassirer’s work on myth and language, so that I had someone to talk to.

I found myself so outclassed as a poet that I let this interest subside to merely reading poetry. I did however take the dance classes, a music composition class, a percussion class, and acted in some plays. I even tried my hand at drawing.

The strong literary interests there at the time were Faulkner, Stein, Joyce, Pound, Williams, Kafka, Elliot, Yeats, and, to some extent, Dylan Thomas and Lawrence. I read, among other things, what was in vogue.

I also worked on the farm during my last year, milking cows, haying, ploughing and planting, building fences, and once I surveyed the college boundary.

I was asked to leave the University of Wyoming because I was such a bad ROTC student (I had run out of money anyway). I was given a teaching fellowship at the University of North Carolina following my graduation from BMC, but then a quarrel developed between the graduate school and the mathematics department over whether a student from such a distasteful place as BMC should be admitted as a graduate student. The graduate school won and I was made an undergraduate. Probably the only undergraduate to attend Chapel Hill who had a teaching assistantship. This amusing situation was ended after a time by the U. S. Navy.