Symposium: The Prof. & the Olivetti

By Barbara Florio Graham ’56

The year I took advanced composition — known as the journal course — was one of upheaval in Barnard’s English Department. In late September 1956, our professor and chairman of the department, John Kouwenhoven, left abruptly due to a personal matter, and our class was suddenly without an instructor. 

The scholar Cabell Greet, who had retired as head of the department the year before, took over the class and informed us that he would “babysit” us until he was able to find a suitable replacement. We waited. And within a few weeks he introduced us to a very tall, very young man who looked dazed at the sight of a dozen intensely focused young women. He had just become editor of The Paris Review, but he had never taught before. He was clearly terrified. At first, nobody had caught his name, and so we referred to him out of class as “Mr. Applebottom.”

The dazed man was the writer George Plimpton. His teaching style was uninspired, to say the least. Whenever one of us read a journal entry, he would say, “That’s pretty good.” The words “good” or “nice” would predictably be found in the margins of the pages he returned to us. Members of the group were afraid to tell Professor Greet how disengaged Plimpton was, and we pretty much carried on the weekly seminar on our own, taking turns reading excerpts from our journal entries and trying to provide helpful comments to each other. 

Cabell Greet must have caught on. He informed our class that after Christmas break, he would be bringing us none other than John Cheever, the current darling of the literary world, whose short stories in The New Yorker we all devoured.

Image
Illustration of a book about John Cheever

Cheever had never taught before either, but he was just what we wanted and needed. On the first day of class, he arrived with his Olivetti typewriter in one hand and the most recent New Yorker in the other.

The course was challenging from the start. It required us to write 500 words every day, seven days a week, including Christmas. Cheever listened with careful attention and respect to our journal entries, giving each of us tiny pointers on how we might improve and always encouraging our efforts. He also wrote thoughtful comments in the margins of the pages we turned in. I learned the true art of writing in that class, how to reach for the perfect word that gives the reader a visual image or a gut reaction. I learned how to let your first draft spill onto the page unrestrained until you had all the raw material there to work with. 

Cheever only taught 12 would-be writers for one semester at Barnard, before moving to Vassar and eventually making it clear that he much preferred writing to teaching. 

Years later, when I was in Caracas on a press tour, Cheever happened to be on the lecture circuit. When I raised my hand to ask a question, he remembered me and moved forward to give me a hug. I asked him about the Olivetti and why he brought it to our class. He admitted that he had been so nervous that when he left his apartment, he took it along as a sort of security blanket.

In 1981, at our 25th Reunion, several of us who were members of that class were sitting together and reminiscing about Cheever. I told them about meeting him in Caracas the previous year. Someone took a Polaroid photo of our little group, and I sent it to his publisher with a warm letter, mentioning how many of us had become professional writers. 

I didn’t get a response. A year later, I learned that he had died after a battle with cancer, and I understood why he hadn’t replied. But I hope he knew how much we treasured him.  

Barbara Florio Graham has won awards for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She has written three books and contributed to more than 40 anthologies as well as hundreds of publications. Her website is SimonTeakettle.com.

Latest IssueWinter 2021

In this issue, learn about three alums who have devoted their careers to racial justice.