A Nest of Singing Birds
Two Springfield English teachers raise a flock
September 8, 1978
A piece about writers of various ilk, ostensibly, but in fact about the influence of two remarkable teachers of English at Springfield High School, Susan Wilcox and Elizabeth Graham. (I also wrote about Graham here in a piece that refers to this fine encomium by former student Phillip Bradley.)
One of my irregular correspondents is a student at Springfield High School—as I was—and like me she was surprised when she first discovered that Springfield was once home to a major literary figure. “When I was researching my term paper,” she wrote a few months ago, “I found by complete accident that Robert Fitzgerald grew up in Springfield. We had to read his translation of the Odyssey last year!” She found this startling bit of intelligence “kind of neat,” as indeed it is.
The Robert Fitzgerald in question was a member of the Class of 1928, from which he graduated after a busy Solon career as debater, football and tennis player, class officer, and yearbook (“The guy who’s responsible for this”) editor. Fitzgerald, who is now Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, is author of several award-winning translations of the Greeks, Dante, and Borges. In fact, his fame as a translator has obscured the merits of his own verse, which one critic has described as the product of “an elegant and educated sensibility.”
But Fitzgerald was only the second poet of international rank to earn his diploma at SHS. The first, of course, was Vachel Lindsay of the Class of 1897. Lindsay’s life described a soaring arc from obscurity to fame and back again, coming to earth violently in his house on South Fifth Street in 1931. He left behind him a reputation as bard and troubadour that in many ways is unique in American letters. If his poems are little read today outside the anthologies, his remains one of the fullest examples we have of a man’s Quixotic dedication to Art.
That two such talents as Lindsay and Fitzgerald should have emerged unscathed from a middle class warren such as SHS comes as a shock. One is reminded of Dr. Johnson’s boast to Boswell about the former’s alma mater. Pembroke College. “Sir,” he asserted triumphantly, “we are a nest of singing birds!”
It was a crowded nest, even if not all its nestlings flew as far as Lindsay or Fitzgerald. Virginia Eifert, for example, was a classmate of Fitzgerald's who had to quit school before graduating in 1928 because of illness. She wrote many books and became one of the more accomplished practitioners of the art of nature writing as it existed before its lyricism began to be blunted with polemics or science.
Grace Humphrey (Class of 1900) was a master of the wide-eyed travel memoir and what might be called the sitting room biography. She found a willing accomplice in the Penn Publishing Company of Philadelphia, which published a string of her books in the 1920s and ’30s. Her “Father Takes Us to . . .” series stopped off at New York, Philly, Boston, and Washington before running out of steam, and her biographical series, “The Story of . . .” included the Marys, the Catherines, the Elizabeths, the Williams, the Johns, and the Janes. (Humphrey apparently worried that, having found one good title, she might not be able to find another, and so used the same one over and over; the books are as formularized as the titles.) A typical line from F.T.U.T.W. reads, “It’s Stuart luck, isn’t it, that Grandfather’s best friend is a senator?” Life was like that for Judge Humphrey’s little girls.
There is an unseen thread binding these diverse careers together—the English department of Springfield High. Beginning in 1888, when Susan Wilcox (Class of 1884) arrived from Wellesley to begin teaching English until the retirement in 1957 of Elizabeth Graham, Wilcox’s friend, protege, and successor as department head, the English department of SHS was the equal or better of many small colleges. Lindsay, Fitzgerald, Eifert, and the rest all studied under Wilcox, Graham, & Co. Their influence was profound and gratefully acknowledged. Lindsay described Wilcox “as a person and a teacher the noblest and most faithful friend” of his life. Thomas B. Morgan (Class of 1944), a journalist and editor who bought The Nation in 1976, dedicated his 1966 novel, This Blessed Shore to “the unforgettable Elizabeth Graham, with love and admiration.”
What made them special? Morgan said that Graham, for example, was an “instrument of individuality.” Wilcox was herself a poet, so when these teachers spoke to their students about literature it was as something not just to be read but something to be lived. They offered their students a sense of the possibilities of language, they had a personal dedication to young people, and they were willing to take the chances that talent demands.
The Wilcox-Graham dynasty was link among students of different generations. With the retirement of Miss Graham in 1957 that link was broken and the future Fitzgeralds and Lindsays at SHS left, as my correspondent was left, to learn about their celebrated classmates by accident. That is a shame.
Springfield High’s literary heritage is a modest one but worth remembering and one of jobs of modern teachers ought to be to protect and enlarge on it. There are lessons to be learned from the old grads—if not from their work, then from their lives. ●