I posted a little thingy on Facebook yesterday about the 88th birthday of Prof. Abe C. Ravitz, the teacher who had the greatest effect on me at Hiram College--well, and in just about every other setting, too. As I said in that post, I took seven courses with him between 1962-1966, and I didn't always get A's, as these items from my transcript verify:
- English 216 (American Lit II)--Winter Quarter, 1962-63: B
- Eng-Hist 377 (American Thought II)--Fall Quarter 1964: A
- Eng-Hist 378 (American Thought III)--Winter Quarter, 1964-65: A
- Eng 215 (American Lit I)--Winter Quarter, 1964-65: B
- Eng 306 (Imag Forms of Prose II--Creative Writing)--Summer 1965: B
- Eng-His 376 (Amer Thought I)--Fall Quarter 1965: A
- Eng 216H (Amer Life in Lit II)--Spring Quarter, 1966: A
I should mention one other thing: Dr. Ravitz reviewed books for the Cleveland Plain Dealer while he was at Hiram (I think, maybe, after he left, too, for a while?). And I never imagined (or could have imagined) back in the mid-1960s that I would one day review for that paper, as well. Of course, he was one of the principal reasons that I became qualified to do so.
On the 21st of March, 2000, Dr. Ravitz returned to Hiram College to deliver a series of talks, a visit that Joyce had arranged as part of the Regional Writers program she'd initiated there. And I got to introduce him. Here's the text from that day ...
Introduction for Abe Ravitz
21 March 2000
Hiram College Convocation
I was privileged while a student at Hiram College (1962-1966) to have some of its greatest teachers, at least two of whom I see here this morning. From Prof. Charles McKinley I took freshman English and two other courses called Masterpieces of World Literature. I never could coax an “A” from him, but I never really deserved one, either, so I bore him no grudge and today count him among my finest friends.
The other professor to whom I refer, of course, is our speaker this morning, Prof. Abe C. Ravitz.
Let me tell you a story . . .
It was along in the winter term of 1965. I was enrolled in the third part of a three-part course called American Thought, a course cross-listed in English and history. The teacher was Dr. Abe Ravitz, and he scared me to death.
There were three reasons for this undergraduate terror of mine. For one, he had been, like Prof. McKinley, one of my older brother Richard’s favorite teachers at Hiram College. Richard, three years older than I, had graduated in 1963, and during my dissolute years at Hiram High School I had heard him regularly wax enthusiastic about Dr. Ravitz—“Dr. Ravitz” this, and “Dr. Ravitz” that. I had also heard brother Richard typing papers for Dr. Ravitz, late into the night, sometimes early in the morning (sometimes only hours before they were due), the old upright Underwood uttering an annoying pneumatic sound that easily penetrated—no, shook—the walls between his bedroom and mine down at 11917 Garfield Rd., the house now owed by the Fratuses. Anyway, Richard had always been an outstanding student—valedictorian of his mighty Hiram High School class of 1959 (he was #1 in a class of a dozen or so; I used to impress my students by telling them I graduated 10th in my class!), so I knew I had a tough if not impossible act to follow with Dr. Ravitz.
Another reason he scared me in the winter of 1965: Having already taken two previous courses with him, I had learned he was not easy, not at all. I’d had a “B” in the first part of the two-part American Lit survey and somehow struggled to an “A” in American Thought II, writing a long, earnest, and superficial paper on Frank Norris that I still have. So I was scared in the winter of 1965 because I knew I’d have to work hard—something I wasn’t all that fond of 35 years ago.
But on this particular day I’m telling you about, there was a more immediate reason for my anxiety: There was a mid-term in Dr. Ravitz’s class. 10:20 a.m. I had read the books for the test, had studied in my customary desultory way, and was as ready as I ever was for anything academic in 1965. But first, I had to go to work at my campus job, deep sink at breakfast, Miller Dining Hall, a deeply unsatisfying position that required me to get up far too early in the morning, to struggle the vast distance from Whitcomb to Miller, to scrub bacon grease and eggy goo from utensils that did not readily surrender their crusty treasures. On this particular morning that I’m remembering, the day of the mid-term, I did in fact make it to my job, then returned to my room about 8:30, thinking I’d lie down for a few minutes and rest a little before my 10:20 exam.
At 10:25, I woke up when my roommate, Chuck Rodgers, back from his 9:10, bounded into the room with his usual infuriating early-morning cheer. “Hey,” he chirped, “don’t you have a test—?” but he delivered the rest of it to my back as I sprinted for Hinsdale, not even bothering to don a coat to combat the bitter February wind. My face creased with sleep, my heart racing with alarm, I cruised into the room about 10:27 (I was fast in those days), walked over to the desk where sat Dr. Ravitz, wearing that black turtleneck, drumming his fingers and staring out the window. He turned slowly, regarding me with those eyes—oh, those eyes I felt always could see straight into me, could read in my mind the sordid little story of my ignorance. It was the familiar fairy tale—but in reverse: He was the emperor, and he knew that none of us wore any intellectual clothing! I mumbled an abject apology, and—relief!—received a test paper. I slid into a desk, folded my Blue Book to the first page, and read the first essay question (always essay questions in Dr. Ravitz’s class): Discuss The Great Gatsby as a frontier drama of time.
What the hell? Now, don’t get me wrong: I understood each individual word in that question: Discuss . . . frontier . . . drama . . . time . . .and so on; it was the mystifying combination of those words that made me wonder if I were actually still asleep, back in my room, deep in a guilty nightmare. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. And do you know what? I still don’t know what that question means, but I answered it, at length, certifying, I guess, that I possessed in some measure an English major’s skill to fashion answers that are long, grammatically correct, and vastly speculative (if not wholly ignorant).
I cannot express adequately what Dr. Ravitz meant to me—and, really, to an entire generation of English majors—here at Hiram College. Some of them are here this morning. I took seven courses with him, every thing he taught, I think, including, in the summer of 1965, one memorable creative writing class that met in his Hinsdale office. There were only two students, we both smoked nonstop (can you imagine that today? he must have inhaled a cubic mile of second-hand smoke every morning), and during those sultry summer school weeks—in the days when air-conditioning was just an implausible rumor at Hiram College—I learned things about writing that I still think about every time I sit down at the keyboard. (Here’s one: “Don’t give your characters problems; given them demons.”) Just yesterday I exhumed from my files a little class exercise we did on stream-of-consciousness. Here’s the comment atop this paper: “Your aim is admirable. [“This paper sucks,” in other words.] Rather than the stream, however, your protagonist is observing everything and thinking not too much. [Just like the person who wrote it.]” As I re-read that awful paper, I am grateful for his generous comments—and for the “B,” which should have been much, much lower.
Dr. Ravitz also instilled in me a habit I still have—reading an author’s complete works. When we studied a writer, he invariably told us about all his or her other books, as well—and just yesterday, over at Crestwood High School, I smiled with nostalgic pleasure as I listened to him telling the seniors, who thought they would be hearing only about The Grapes of Wrath, about Steinbeck’s minor works. So thus—today, as I stand here—I find myself about one-fourth of the way through the forty-seven (or so) novels of Anthony Trollope. My mistake was to read the first one; Dr. Ravitz taught me that I now have a moral obligation to read all the rest.
On a more personal level, Dr. Ravitz never for a single second made me feel I was merely Richard Dyer’s younger brother—some pale copy, some barely literate homuncular version who shared with him only a surname and, perhaps, some stray genetic fragments. Instead, Dr. Ravitz praised me for my few strengths and devoted himself to improving my myriad weaknesses, to educating me. I still remember scurrying after class over to the library to look up apotheosis and verisimilitude and lycanthropy and scores of other words that he employed with the sure and certain knowledge that we didn’t know them—but ought to. I remember writing in my notebook: The American novel deals with the transcendental journey from innocence to experience, and then for thirty years gravely telling my students the same thing, as if I’d invented the notion.
I most recently saw Dr. Ravitz in Pasadena a few years ago. I was in the area doing research for a Jack London book, and I called him. We quickly made arrangements to have dinner. And a wonderful one it was, too. Afterwards, we strolled along the streets, saw a bookstore, and entered it. “What do you think of this?” he asked, holding up a title I can’t remember right now. But what I do remember is my accelerating heart rate as I met those wise eyes. It was 1965 all over again—he was the emperor, and I the callow, intellectually naked 19-year-old, caught in my own little frontier drama of time—and, truth be told, I couldn’t have been happier.
Men and women of the Hiram community, it is with inexpressible pride and gratitude that I introduce to you one of the most influential professors in the history of Hiram College; emeritus professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills; scholar and author of works about figures as diverse as Clarence Darrow and Rex Beach and Fannie Hurst and—soon—Vachel Lindsay; a teacher whose devotion to scholarship infected so many of us; a man whose personal lexicon does not include the word retirement; a man who grabbed me and scores of others by the shoulders and shook our minds alive—Dr. Abe C. Ravitz.