Academic journal article Chicago Review

From THE POEM OF A LIFE: A BIOGRAPHY OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY

Academic journal article Chicago Review

From THE POEM OF A LIFE: A BIOGRAPHY OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY

Article excerpt

An Ernster Mensch at Columbia (1920-1924)

Louis Zukofsky enrolled as a freshman at Columbia University in January 1920, a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday. His youth was not particularly unusual; the New York public schools, under pressure from the rising population, were more than ready to let bright students skip grades and graduate early.1 That he was attending the elite Columbia rather than a public university was a measure both of Zukofsky's talents and his ambitions, but it required a certain amount of sacrifice on his parents' part. Even though he would live and board at home, Columbia's tuition-approximately $250 a year-was no small amount; the City College of New York, in contrast, charged no tuition at all.

To venture from the Lower East Side to Morningside Heights was also to cross a great cultural divide. By entering Columbia, Zukofsky was leaving the predominantly Jewish world of his family's neighborhood and entering an Ivy League that was still largely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. About half of the student body at New York University was Jewish, as was the overwhelming majority-over 80 percent-of the students at City College. In contrast, Jews were distinctly in the minority at Columbia.2 This was not merely an effect of Columbia's comparatively high tuition. There was an institutional climate of unspoken anti-Semitism in the University: there were very few Jews on the faculty-none at all in the English department-and antiSemitic admissions policies had been established in the years after the First World War. The college administration, acutely conscious of Columbia's tenuous position within the elite ranks of the Ivy League, was worried that Columbia was becoming "too Jewish," too much a reflection of the city in which it was located. (As an Ivy League college song of the 1920s had it, "Oh, Harvard's run by millionaires, / And Yale is run by booze, / Cornell is run by farmers' sons, / Columbia's run by Jews."3) In response, college officials insituted ostensibly "regional" quotas whose effect was to reduce the Jewish population of Columbia from around forty percent-New York City itself was about thirty percent Jewish in 1920-to approximately twenty percent.

Nonetheless, there still remained many more Jews at Columbia than at Harvard, Yale, or the other Ivies, and they made their presence felt in often uncomfortable ways. The general undergraduate ethos at the Ivy League colleges at the turn of the century was a rather anti-intellectual bonhommie, where college was seen as the place where one formed associations and friendships that would be useful for one's future in business, and where the whole tiresome round of classes and grades was secondary to sports, fraternities, and social clubs-the ethos of the "gentleman's C." The Jews-hardworking, fanatically dedicated to their studies, often coming from workingclass backgrounds-upset this equilibrium, forcing the scions of Eastcoast wealth to actually pay attention to their classes, making them lose face when class rankings were announced.4

The Jewish students brought a respect for learning and a dedication to scholarship as part of their cultural background. "For shtetl Jews," one scholar has written, "scholarship was a moral imperative just as work was for seventeenth-century Puritans. Scholars were accorded special prestige and authority in the Jewish community. And parents encouraged and exulted in the scholastic achievements of their (male) children."5 There was little continuity of method between the Talmudic learning of the Eastern European kheder and the courses of study at American universities, but the dedication to learning was clearly the same.6 And the Jews of the Lower East Side had an even more pressing motive to do well in college: the perennial economic desire to pull themselves out of their parents' working-class milieu of the sweatshop. However much he might respect his father's knowledge of Torah, Zukofsky had no desire to spend his own life pressing pants in a garment shop. …

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