"I REALLY MUST LEAVE at 11:30 to go to the library," apologized Walter Jackson Bate, Lowell professor of the humanities at Harvard and author of the award-winning biographies, John Keats (1963) and Samuel Johnson (1977). A trim, white-haired man of 61, about six feet tall, Bate wore a pale blue shirt and what can generously be called a loud purple-and-green madras sport jacket. We sat in his office at Warren House - a dull yellow wooden building overshadowed by the Harvard Union nearby - and talked about his career as a scholar and teacher.
Bate has been a fixture at Harvard since 1935. His father, a school principal in Richmond, Ind., was a great admirer of the Ivy League. "But back in those days," Bate explained, "scholarships weren't nearly so plentiful for a poor boy. Still, after applying to Harvard, among other places, I discovered that I could get a job in Cambridge. I began by working in dining halls; waiting on tables at first and then doing dishes. Eventually, I found a job in the library.
"When I came to Harvard I wanted to be an archaeologist. But so many students in those days already knew Latin, Greek and other languages when they arrived at college that I couldn't compete with them. So it was either English or history."
Bate didn't like Harvard at first."I didn't know anybody that did. In the first place, I'd never been exposed to so much demanding work. In my first hour exams in the fall, I got an E on almost all of them. I didn't realize that you just had to know all those facts. For instance, a question in History 1 might be, "Give your thoughts on the transition from the late Roman Empire to the time of Charlemagne." And I'd write my thoughts, my opinions. I didn't realize that you were supposed to present a history, dates, facts and so on. It took a long time to catch on to that."
In his senior year the young Bate enrolled in a small course on Milton offered by Douglas Bush, the eminent authority on Renaissance and Romantic poetry.During the term Bate became ill, spent four weeks in the hospital, and discovered that his Milton teacher was willing to help him catch up on his work. Bush became Bate's principal adviser in graduate school; John Keats is dedicated to him.
It was for Bush that the young scholar wrote an essay that became his first book, "Keats had this puzzling phrase, "negative capability," about the ideal poetic character and I'd been brooding over it for a while. I talked to Bush about it and it became my honors thesis." The essay was published in 1939 as Negative Capability. "I think it's all right, considering the state of Keatsian scholarship then. Now it's old hat. Anybody who writes on Keats discusses negative capability, but nobody had then. So I'm not ashamed of it."
After receiving his B.A. in 1939, Bate entered graduate school at Harvard, earning a Ph.D. in 1942. In that same year he was invited to become a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows. "The Soceity of Fellows was founded by Abbot Lawrence Lowell" - whose chair in humanities Bate now holds - "and paid for with his own money. Lowell had this idea based on the famous Trinity Fellowships in Cambridge. You would choose young men - now, of course, young people - and bring them together for three years, releasing them from all academic duties including courses. His notion was to give them their head and allow them to study anything they wanted."
The five years he spent in the Society provided the fledgling scholar with time to explore his diverse interests - something he hadn't been able to do before. "From 1939-1942 when I was in graduate school in English there was a great deal of emphasis on medival philology" - Bate muttered the last two words with disdain - "Old English, Middle English, Middle Scots, Old High German, Old Norse, Old French and so on. That kind of thing. It was all very anti-literary. Like many people of my generation, I just hate the sound of it. Once I got out of that, I was able, as a Junior Fellow, to read very widely in what I was interested in - philosophy and history, as well as literature, especially that of the 18th and 19th centuries. I also studied Latin and the history of ideas."
Through the Society Bate encountered the second great teacher of his life, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. "It was wonderful to meet this marvelous old man who was 86 or so at the time. Someone once described him as looking like an angel whose halo had slipped a little. At dinners of the Society there would be all these callow young men like myself and men in the eighties like, say, Lawrence Lowell, who used to stand there looking like a walrus, weaving on his feet and never admitting he was too weak to stand up. Then all of a sudden" - Bate's voice softened - "in would come this bowed over, white-haired, slightly bald man, wearing a wing collar and looking very late Victorian. He had this beautiful smile on his face and these china-blue eyes - and that was Whitehead. He was always saying big provocative things; for instance that the Reformation was a great mistake."
Beside the man himself and his lively range of mind the Junior Fellow also liked Whitehead's philosophy of organicism. "According to Whitehead, everything should be considered in relation to as much else as possible. This pipe is a bunch of molecules" - he held up his pipe - "a society of molecules as it were. You can't consider it apart from those molecules, or from the purpose for which it was made, the individual who made it, what store it was bought at. All these things come together in this pipe. Whitehead was always seeking contextualism in the most vivid sense. Everything must be seen as an event in time, a convergence."
In 1946 Bate joined the Harvard faculty and began his distinguished career as an educator. ("I don't think a humanist is worth a damn if he doesn't care about teaching.") His course on the age of Johnson now draws up to 400 students. In the past 30-odd years he has taught surveys of English literature from Beowulf to the present, the history of criticism (which resulted in his standard textbook, Criticism: The Major Texts ), seminars on Keats and the Romantics. But the 18th century has always remained his focus.
How does he teach his courses? "I only know how to teach by concentrating on great figures," he explained, "or even small ones sometimes. I consider all the experience that goes into the act of writing. I think of the individual writer, his audience, the social ambiance, of such things as the ease or difficulty in getting books published - and their prices. All these enter into the understanding of a writer. The more the merrier. And the richer the interplay, the more meaningful it is for the student.
"The first five or eight years that I taught I began with the background, allowing the literary figures to rise gradually from it. But not I plunge at once into the most interesting and vital subject that I can. In "The Age of Johnson," I just take Johnson. He's such a fascinating person, a great being who is nonetheless like all of us in so many ways. After a month and a half of Johnson I then turn to a host of minor writers who exemplify the period. Minor poets, for example. I deal with them in trends and try to show how they represent ways of writing poetry not only of the 18th century but even of the present day. After a while I vary things again - I'm a great believer in varying things - and move on to a big guy like Burke. I make a lot out of Edmund Burke, Gibbon and the tradition of intellectual prose. Then I move back to some minor figures for an increased sense of the age."
Among the fruits of his teaching and research have been a number of superb scholarly, but engaging, books - though Bate himself is by no means satisfied with all of them. "I think The Achievement of Samuel Johnson was my first book on a literary subject that still satisfies me more or less. In The Achievement I was able to mix four or five things together for the first time - psychology, in the better sense of the word, literary criticism of particular works, and a concept of literature. Moreover, because the book was highly limited in space, my tendency to sprawl - apparent in a lot of my writing - was curtailed. I was required to limit myself to some 200 pages and this made for a more lucid style. Stylistically, the book is one of the two best things I've done. The other would be a toss-up between my Coleridge biography, which also had to be short, and The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, a big subject limited to four lectures. In that book though, I don't like the first lecture - it moves too slowly. But later the prose, like that in Coleridge, is quick paced."
In all his work Bate considers literature "an an expression of human experience in the broad sense of the word." Bate admits to a jaundiced view of much academic writing and of certain modish critical schools that tend to make literature "a highly specialized preserve."
"You take structuralism - now what does it mean as a word? It means that you're concerned with structure, rather than with texture as was the New Criticism. Now, even if you stuck to it straight, there's limit to what you can say about structure unless you're going to repeat things over and over again.
"The structuralist approach," he continued, "came into vogue at the start because it was mixed up with anthropology, folk literature and the like. You would compare - but without any historical background - thematic or structural units. Now Northrop Frye can get away with that kind of thing, but most people simply don't have his erudition. They apply the method narrowly, with blinkers on, run short, and begin to take refuge in jargon."
At this point Bate mimicked the shiny voice of a desperate young teacher. "Oh, I've got to write a book" - with a crack he brought his pipe down on the desk - "or I'll never get promoted and everything's already been said about Wordsworth. But, oh yes," - the young structuralist sees the light - "here's the new thing that's just come out on" - crack, crack - "Matthew Arhold's Thyrsis. I could apply that approach to Wordsworth...."
After catching his breqth, Bate begins again more solemnly. "There's a statement by Swift in The Tale of a Tub where he says that learning, like religion, being among the best things, its abuses are among the worst. I think that's true. I lay the blame on the attempt to imitate the sciences and on the emphasis to publish or perish."
He agreed that structuralism makes for dull reading. "A great many teachers don't like reading it either - even if they write it," he added with a wry smile. He also suggested that a figure like Edmund Wilson may be so popular now in part because he writes clearly and forcefully, is in "the great vein of journalistic prose that goes back to Hazlitt." Wilson, according to Bate, "did it straight."
This coming year Bate will be on partial leave, so that he can recover from recent illness, and will teach only his Age of Johnson course. He still gives the courst even after publishing his masterful biography, Samuel Johnson, a book that won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer prize.
"After Keats came out in '63, I was asked to teach the Romantics and to give a seminar on Keats. I couldn't do it. You find yourself saying to students, "Look, if you want to know what I think, just read the book. That's when I was really putting my mind to it." In general, once you write a book and invest a lot of libido into it, you gel - at least if you've been really conscientious. That's why the best courses usually are given by professors who are in the process of writing a book. But," he added almost wistfully, "I'm not going to give up "The Age of Johnson.""
Among Bate's future projects is an edition of the Biographia Leteraria, Colerdige's account of his intellectual development. "It's the only real calssic that's never been properly edited.My coeditor James Engell is tracking down all of Coleridge's borrowings from people like Schelling and Kant.
"I don't think I'm ever going to write long biographies again. I'm interested now in short biographies of 40 or so pages, probably of 10 or 12 intellectual figures from Isaac Newton down to William James.
"To my mind," he continued, "literary biography is only beginning as a genre. In the '30s the real talent went either into the history of ideas or the New Criticism - which was antibiographical. Literary biography is now a challenging and open field. I think the best biographies" - and Bate's chief pleasure reading - "are those on historical and political figures. But literary biography is bound to become more exciting sooner or later just because it's a way of tying everything about a writer together - his style, psychology and work."
As I prepared to leave, I asked if there were any great books of English literature that he didn't like.
"I've never been one of these people who enjoyed reading Spenser's Faerie Queene," he replied. "I could never get through it. Milton is very great, but I'm not sure that I don't agree with Johnson when he said of Paradise Lost that no man ever wished it longer. The last time I reread Paradise Lost, with the best will in the world, I had to quit at the end of the fourth book."
During our conversation I asked Professor Bate to select some models of humanistic scholarship:
Theory of Literature, by Rene Wellek and Austin Warren (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).
The Great Chain of Being, by A. O. Lovejoy (Harvard).
English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, by Douglas Bush. "The model for literary history." (Oxford).
The Mirror and the Lamp, by M. H. Abrams. "A classic." (Oxford).
The Victorian Temper, by Jerome Buckley (Harvard).
A History of Modern Poetry, by David Perkins (Harvard).
To this list one should add:
Samuel Johnson, by W. Jackson Bate (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). CAPTION: Picture, WALTER JACKSON BATE