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  • Writer's pictureSam Needleman

Ann Douglas

On Beats, Bollinger, and burgers.

By Sam Needleman

The door to apartment 122A was propped open, as it often is, with a very large book, and the posters affixed to it looked eager to tear through their Scotch tape. “Organizers Needed! Fight For Lasting Change!” read the flier for the Eastern Service Workers Association, of Trenton, New Jersey. “ADVOCATE for low-income families to prevent utility shutoffs and reverse government policies that enrich utility companies while promoting use of fossil fuels.” Above it was a slightly larger poster for a film noir festival in San Francisco, featuring a buxom woman experiencing some kind of ecstasy in a closet full of film reels. Marx and movies: What more could you need?

Inside, something was slightly off: The afternoon light filtered in, a rarity in an apartment whose owner normally hosts her students at night. But Ann Douglas, the Parr Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature, proceeded as usual. She apologized for the piles of newspapers in the foyer, offered fresh-squeezed Westside fruit juice, sat across from me at her dining room table, and started talking. Her home is less a salon than a lair; there are no walls in sight, just rows of books and VHS tapes. Douglas has lived there since the fall of Saigon, when she absconded from her post as the first woman tenured in Princeton’s English Department and took a job at Columbia. Since then, she has written two major books, The Feminization of American Culture and Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, and made two decades of progress on a third, Noir Nation.

Illustration by Jace Steiner

During last year’s heady Summer A session, I took Douglas’ Film Noir class, six weeks of three-hour lectures that knocked my socks off. I followed up with her famous Beat Generation course. Her classes feel delightfully aughts-ish, as if Ezra Koenig would have cut them. Though she retired 10 years ago, Douglas still teaches with gusto and passion, two qualities that set her apart from the feudal lord–like academics of her generation. She doesn’t just grade undergraduates’ papers; she pores over them like an ancient rabbi scrutinizing the Torah. Never have I heard someone more frequently called “the real deal.” By this her students mean that Douglas is herself a Beat, or maybe a wise shopkeeper who would point you in the right direction if you were a Hitchcock protagonist—someone, in either case, worth hanging around and listening to.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


The Blue and White: I think of you as a scholar of the night.

AD: Couldn’t have said it better.

B&W: Are you nocturnal?

AD: Oh, yes! I mean, I never really discovered it, because for the first 30 years of my teaching career, I didn’t have that much control over my hours. So I got up. But as I got older and could choose more, more and more, it became clear. I really do believe that the night is a very creative time. I’ve often thought that one of the reasons I’ve always been so fascinated with Russian history, culture, literature, art in general ... If any country could be said to have invented night, it would be Russia. As Solzhenitsyn once said, “The Arctic is our ocean, not the Pacific.” It’s the size of it. But of course they, like Scandinavia, have some of the shortest days of the year. When I think of, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, the lower depths … night is a great subject in Russian literature. It’s always bothersome because Hitler was so big on the north. Are we talking Nordic? I don’t think so. I think it’s just where you grew up. Are you a night person?

B&W: Very much so. I sort of discovered that in high school, that I do my best work after 11 p.m. or so.

AD: The same with me.

B&W: And it’s nice here because you can go take a walk at 2 a.m., and all is well. So what about death? Death also figures largely in the subjects that you study.

AD: That has a lot to do with all the early deaths in my family—both my grandparents and father died by the time I was 11. I just turned 80 two weeks ago. I realized that 80’s the first birthday, a decade birthday, that I’ve ever had where you don’t think, And I wonder what I'll be doing when I turn 90! Your future has become speculative. I always know I could have a stroke tonight. I could be dead. And so it sounds a little strange, but these last 10 years have been really the happiest of my life. Because, as Dean Moriarty says, I’ve decided to leave absolutely everything out of my hands. Of course that means that you’re all the more active about doing the things you can do. I’m looking here [points to a large crate] because that is my third book. That is the manuscript.

B&W: Oh, this is the noir book?

AD: Right here, right here. I’ve been working on it for 20 years. It’s called Noir Nation. I really do see noir as the cultural form that depicts the birth of modernism and what it became. Of course I have less energy now than I did 20 years ago. It doesn’t feel that way, but of course I know it’s true. And I do feel it when I look back and think, God, and yet you were writing that book and teaching four courses! That’s inconceivable today. When I retired from the full monty … various friends like Joyce Johnson said, “Well now, don’t teach and just work on the book.” But I didn’t want to stop teaching right away. Teaching is primary for me. I believe in it. The tragedy of our lives ... is that we don’t know enough, or we don’t know what we need to know when we need to know it. Tony Bennett, you know, not a favorite with me, though I think he’s very pleasant. He was in a documentary about the British blues singer Amy Winehouse, whom I love, just love—and could never understand where she came from. I mean, how did this girl in this middle-class Jewish family ... and there she was singing! He said, “You know, she had it. She was one of the greats. We’re talking Ella and Billie.” He said, “I’ve found that life teaches you how to live it, if you can just live long enough.” She couldn’t live long enough to maybe get a handle on some of her problems. I’ve lived long enough. Life has taught me how to live it. Teaching was what I did through everything that ever happened in my life. It’s my safety, but it’s also my inspiration.

I’m close to a single-cell animal. My own feeling, dealing with so many, many students over the years, is that if someone has a really strong interest center—doesn’t have to be their only interest center, but something that compels them, that they need to stay in touch with—their life can fall to ruins, and they may well come out OK. It’s not their upbringing, it’s not how smart they are. Is there something or several things that they really care about?

B&W: Tell me about your early years near Tupper Lake, a small town in the Adirondacks.

AD: You crossed over the railroad tracks in Tupper Lake, and the other side was Faust, New York, some of it very impoverished. We weren’t one of the impoverished ones. Unfortunately, about 30 years ago, because the town was dwindling so fast, they abolished Faust, and it just became part of Tupper Lake. Really my home was Faust, New York, and I’ve always loved that for obvious reasons. That was a completely different world. It was a world where many of the working-class men—and it was largely a working-class community—worked in the lumber industry. My mother was quite scornful because they’d be away lumbering and then they’d come back having been paid and they would drink and drink and drink, and actually sometimes lie on the street.

My father died. He got leukemia—a kind that they still have no remedy for today. One week we were celebrating his 37th birthday, and the next week he was dead. We had absolutely no preparation. My mother had just lost her father and her husband. There were three little children. My mother very quickly remarried to an extremely wealthy guy whose father was an immigrant from Scotland and had founded the Diamond Match Company. My stepfather would take us whenever we traveled to supermarkets so he could survey the world of his products. Unfortunately, like my mother’s mother, he was an alcoholic. We kids didn’t know, but we knew he smelled funny, and that unpleasant things happened when he was on a drinking spell of several days.

Suddenly we went from being kind of middle-class with hopes, to being upper-class with a private plane, a chauffeur, all kinds of servants. It was just daunting, and my mother became someone else. My father wanted a wife who always did things with the family. What he wanted was someone who’d be in a gorgeous house dress by 5 when the chauffeur brought him back from his Park Avenue offices. And they would have drinks together, and no children were allowed. So it was suddenly this different regime in which the idea of the family had disappeared.

Now, shall I tell you about my Jewish affiliation?

B&W: Please do. We were going to get there anyway.

AD: I was going to a public school. I had a friend whose name was Lois Rosenberg, but it wasn’t Lois who was the object of my heart’s affection—it was her mother. And this was a place, their home! They had prints of art pictures. There was classical music. It was just this completely different world. Because I spent so much time there, my parents—who were good people, I promise—decided that this really wasn’t good that I was so closely involved with this Jewish family. They spoke to the Rosenbergs, and the Rosenbergs, not wanting to make trouble, I’m sure—I will never know what they thought—they agreed that we would be separated. I was 7, and when my mother told me about this one day after school, I of course got violently upset. I went running the five blocks or three blocks or whatever it was to the Rosenbergs. I think it was very classy—she could have said, “Your parents are pretty unfortunate, and I’m sorry you had to find out about this so soon.” She didn’t do that. She said, “We all discussed it, and this is what your parents think is best.” I think she loved me enough not to want to set me against my parents forever. She said she’d always love me, and she gave me a little pin. It’s the only piece of jewelry I’ve kept my whole life. It’s very small, with a pearl and a little sapphire in the middle of it. From that time forth, I knew that these were the people. It wasn’t some belief that Jews were superior people. I just knew that what they did was what I wanted to do.

B&W: The developments of your political consciousness and your cultural consciousness were very linked.

AD: They were linked. Although the culture always had its own life. I early discovered I wasn’t that happy at home, and I was really very unhappy once my mother had remarried. I became an accomplished shoplifter. That was just my way of getting back. But most of all, I just read and read and read. I started out with my grandmother's books. Gradually, by, say, 13, I was reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—I’m sure not understanding very much—and absolutely Richard Wright. I fell in love with the novel. I fell in love with poetry. To this day, when things get really bad, I have places that I go—Gerard Manley Hopkins, King Lear, again and again, Macbeth. The stuff that for me is even deeper than politics, which is the sufferings and joys and experiences that you have as an emotional person trying to find a vocation and people you can talk to at every point in your life. I do feel so lucky in that I knew pretty early that I wanted to do exactly what I’m doing. To learn is to live, to live is to learn—that's kind of the syllogism that has meant the most to me.

My first week at Harvard as a freshman, you were required then to take a reading and comprehension test. I finished well before anyone else. And when I handed it in, he said, “Too hard?” I said, “I hope not,” thinking, God, did I not turn over the page? I had placed number one. My first husband was always trying to learn to read faster, and even trying to observe what I did. He went to Evelyn Wood, I think, and it really didn’t help him that much. You’re wired that way or you’re not; I don’t think it even means you’re unusually smart. When I was in my 30s and I published my first book, I had an affair, the only one I’ve ever had, with a person not totally dissimilar to my stepfather, a Wall Street tycoon, a young tycoon who had started a new firm that was going gangbusters. He clearly had millions by that time. He just couldn’t understand why someone would need to read as much as I did. We lasted a little less than a year.

Stalin—he’s here somewhere [searches for picture of Stalin]. When he was training as a revolutionary … his underlings … would say, “What should we do now, as we’re kind of waiting for the revolution?” He said, “Read. Just read.” That’s why I feel a certain affinity.

B&W: What were the other profound aesthetic experiences of your adolescence?

AD: Movies. Growing up in Faust, until I was 7, we didn’t have a movie theater. We didn’t get a television until we went back to being near my father’s father in New Brunswick. And of course I was thrilled, and they had four o’clock Westerns on every day, so Westerns were my first great passion. But the wonderful thing about Highland Park and Bronxville ... is that there was a movie theater just about a block away. I saw Disney cartoons, which I liked a lot. I loved Wizard of Oz. When we moved to New Jersey to be with my stepfather, control was much less good over us because my mother really had this separate life with her husband. So my next-door neighbor and I, starting near about 11 or 12 … we would go to movies and even sit through them twice. The biggest experience was Elvis Presley and Love Me Tender. Later, I broke his records in some symbolic ritual because I got very interested in playing the piano—classical music became my passion. So music was always there. I loved R&B, I loved rock and roll, I loved the great jazz singers. I just early found out that human expression is the greatest gift humans ever gave to each other—not the power to articulate, but really to explore emotions that couldn’t be ... expressed in words.

In Boston—that was more movie theaters than I’d ever had available, and people who were interested in movies as I was. We didn’t even know movies was an art; we just knew that we were passionate about them. And then you had Fellini, and you had Godard, and you had Truffaut. And you were beginning to discover the Russians—good God, Eisenstein, look what he did! And then when I moved to New York, at the end of ’74, rerun theaters were everywhere. Luckily I’d gone to school at Harvard, which had the Brattle Theater. It was the start of rerun art houses, and every night at midnight, Casablanca. But that is where I saw double features of Bette Davis. That was where, you know, I heard names like Billy Wilder and William Wyler. Once I was in college, I was kind of home free. No one had control over my time or destination anymore. However, they later spent a whole year playing that horrible Julie Andrews … with all the little German orphans coming up over the hill.

B&W: The Sound of Music. I also hate that movie. Why were you expelled from Milton Academy? And then how did you end up at Harvard?

AD: This was the late ’50s. You’re in the girls’ school. The boys’ school is across the street. You may not ever trespass on the grounds of the boys’ school. So I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke. I was a virgin. I mean, it was none of the things that one might hope. What I had done was do things like meet my boyfriend in the cemetery, where we read Wordsworth together, not even kissing. We were poetry lovers. And going to the chapel on the boys’ side of the street and ringing the bell. And then I would recite Nietzsche: “Oh sky, though pure and deep, though abyss of light. Gazing at thee I quiver with Godlike desires.” From Thus Spake Zarathustra. So I’d been on final probation for about half my time by the end of my junior year. The head mistress, Miss Johnson, decided to really crack down on any meetings in the cemetery. And of course I thought ... Well, that's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. And within a few days, we were reading poetry at 6:30 a.m. It was late springtime, and who was there but the birdwatching club from the girls’ school, and they reported me to the principal, and that was it.

So I presented at least a problem by the time I applied for college. She’s gotten straight A’s in a range of things, her tests are as high as they can be, and yet she was just thrown out of school six months ago. What are we going to do with her? I heard first from Middlebury. They did not accept me because of the disciplinary problem. And then I heard from Vassar, telling me that they would take me, no fellowship, which I really wanted because I hated living on my stepfather’s money. I thought, Wow, I’m cooked. Amazingly, I got into Harvard. Just before I was going to graduate, I was then seriously involved with a wonderful guy, a senior whom I would marry a year later and still love to this day, though we weren’t meant to be married. (I’m really not meant to be married, period, I’ve concluded.) His family was very close friends with someone in the Harvard administration. They’d just gone through their admits and returns, and my boyfriend said, “I bet it’s not often that you get someone like Ann Douglas who just is a shoo-in.” He said, “Oh, oh no, not at all. We take one gamble every year—someone whom we know it’s just as likely she will fuck up as that she’ll succeed. And that’s the only reason she got in here.”

B&W: In Terrible Honesty, you argue that the theory of historical causality, most notably the Marxist tradition, is common sense. But you also argue that it doesn’t explain everything. You write, “I only wish to acknowledge that such theory stops short of full explanation, that the road ends before we do, that we make our way nonetheless, traveling through the dark by some other form of knowledge.” What is that other form of knowledge?

AD: Marx was wrong that a worker’s revolution was going to be coming along. I think the traditional separation that has been made is that Marx as a predictor is one thing; Marx as an analyst of capitalism is still unsurpassed. When John S. Mill had a complete nervous breakdown ... someone told him to read Wordsworth because he would find ... a culture of the feelings. I’d already had a lot of losses in childhood that many people don’t have. And I’ve always been amazed at what was getting me through. That isn’t a situation where I open Marx. That is a situation where I open maybe even the Old Testament and a psalm, where I open Keats, usually one of the Romantics.

I’ll never forget being a freshman at Harvard. And I was taking a course with ... Michael Walzer. I’ve met a lot of brilliant people, and he was, in many ways, my most important teacher at Harvard. Back then I hadn’t realized how unusual it was to be able to read Marx. What really impressed me was that we all had to go see him ... he said, “Well, now let me tell you a little about you.” He said, “You live with a lot of money.” Of course it wasn’t my family. But that is, from 8 on, that’s how I’d grown up. He could tell me all the class markings of my life. And I thought, This is an even more powerful tool of analysis than I understood. He would be quite close to, say, what Barbara Fields is today. He was a practicing socialist and Marxist, as well as a brilliant theorist. One time I was home on vacation, and we’d been reading all this Marx. I said, “Mother, I just love Marx.” And my mother said, “Well, Ann, it’s important to me, too, that you get good grades.” It just could not enter her mind that I meant Marx.

B&W: I want to get the story straight on the Žižekian symbol that you once told me about in your apartment, which might be the photo of Stalin. I think you also mentioned that you have a cross.

AD: I was always drawn to religious or quasi-religious Christian art. So visionary company has always had a lot of meaning to me, but it doesn’t really have to do with a belief system. I respect the teachings of a number of people. Jesus would certainly be one of them. I love Paul and the epistles. They are people who have an acute development of some kind of wisdom of the kind of thing that Marx isn’t going to get you through.

B&W: Your Beats class often feels in a great way like it’s a cultural history class.

AD: I was introduced to the study of literature in a serious way by people who saw it as part of history. And I’ve never been able to see it in any other way, even though its uses aren’t determined by its historical context. In other words, I can take John Donne, let’s say, for my personal needs or ... to teach him, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with what I believed. I believe in poetry. The courses I designed myself were always a mix of history and culture. That was my training, but it suited me; if I’d been trained in theory, I suspect I would’ve broken away. ’Cause I wanna know why. You’ve gotta go to history for the why.

I really don’t read novels very much anymore. I read history. I have been pursuing the Second World War for about 25 years. It’s an inexhaustible subject. I read a lot of biography as well. I don’t believe you can sever the person from the text.

B&W: So many of us in my generation are still in thrall to a very silly logic of college admissions that was forced down our throats. But is there something that distinguishes a Columbia student?

AD: Oh, yes. I really think so. And it really started when I tried to figure out how it could be that the students at Columbia were brighter in 1975 than the ones that I had at Princeton. I think I’m right: Parents who were willing to let their children go to New York to be at a top school … were parents who understood … that danger and education were not antithetical. That meant those parents had raised these kids. If Boston’s raising you, watch out, because you may end up a smaller person than you started. There are very good things in New Haven, but no, New Haven isn’t raising you. Even if what you do is sit in the library all the time and study, New York’s still getting to you. Students are finding out that the world is enormously varied. They’re finding out that it’s enormously unfair. And that’s why I really do believe Columbia students are brighter. New York is your foster mother. As my friend Irving Howe said to me, “If you think New York can solve all your problems, you are very badly mistaken. If you think New York won’t help more of your problems than any other place in the world, you’re also sadly mistaken.”

When we were talking about whether or not we could ever have a Beat movement again, the flowering of all these wonderful arts in the post-war decade ... I watch my students and I think, Yeah, we could. Is this the great renaissance of the ’50s? I don’t think it can be. You’ve gotta have lots of very low-rent housing. I always have a certain feeling of guilt. I had an offer at one point from City [College], at a time when there was more of a surge of idealism. It’s more important for me now to focus on all the rewards of teaching people as gifted ... as the people whom I encounter here. I see these students and I listen to them and read their papers and I take a lot of time and care with them, and I always have. The students make me feel that there will be a future. Obviously, I don’t have one. Maybe I’ll have a few more good years—that would be great.

B&W: The other day, an Italian tourist stopped me on Low Steps and said, “Is this a private school or a public school?” I found myself saying, “It’s private, but it should be public.”

AD: I think our faculty is better than our administrations deserve. I disapprove of the whole star system in which—

B&W: The whole what system?

AD: Star system, in that to woo a certain professor whom you really want, you will knock down, put three apartments together, and you will pay them forever, and they will teach one course every three years. I just think we have to stick to the fact that we are a service profession. We are not entrepreneurs. Our function is to keep on learning and to teach appropriately what we know. I have fought the administration on many, many different issues my entire career. We always have bad presidents and we have them for a long time.

B&W: Bollinger just announced his retirement—

AD: What?

B&W: Bollinger just announced his retirement.

AD: Oh, good! Well, he’s already been here too long.

B&W: What have you found so objectionable about him?

AD: It all started when he came in, that’s why I remember. The graduate students, like these strikes that took place in the last year, they were striking to get better conditions, better wages—

B&W: And you always stood in solidarity with them.

AD: Yes, yes. That spring, I had been there with an ethnic studies protest that involved hunger-striking undergraduates. And then there were meetings with the labor union that the graduate students wanted to join. Whoever was president was leaving, and Bollinger was coming in. You just do have to remember that the best preparation for being an administrator at Columbia, particularly in housing, is, say, if you’ve been absolutely in the thick of boss-labor relations in Chicago 70 years ago. It’s tough. There are people who know where the bodies are buried. Real estate is really what it’s about.

We presented this case and explained why we thought a union would be a good idea. We had a shortlist of three, four people that he might talk to from either position. Of course, what we knew was that the people who wanted the union were much more passionate than the people who didn’t want it. Anyway, I didn’t know this, but Eric [Foner] told me he never called anybody. He impounded the votes, as the trustees wanted. We never found out how that election went. So that started it off. It was all very well that he’d fought the famous admissions case in Michigan, and clearly had been on the right side then, but I never hoped for anything again from him. It just seemed amazing to me that he wouldn’t even want to talk to the students and would clearly take the trustees’ guidance.

B&W: And he basically has been a real estate developer ever since.

AD: Yeah, I think so. I'm sure he would start telling us all the contributions he’s made to education. The Lenfest Center, for someone who likes movies, it’s great. But I remember that corner. It had a diner, it had the McDonald’s, and it was a working-class, mainly people-of-color neighborhood. Those things are very hard to forgive, because you’re tearing at communities of people who worked out—I’m sure very unsatisfactory in many respects—but ways of living. When you went in, you always had to be prepared to wait. You put your order in and then you'd wait.

B&W: Do you still frequent McDonald’s?

AD: No, because that was my nearest one. And there was one also on Amsterdam or Columbus that a friend and I used to go to. I actually love the burgers.

B&W: So where do you get your fix now? Shake Shack?

AD: Yes. Absolutely.


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