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The end of something

Longtime English professor Neil Schmitz retires from teaching

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The Spectrum

In 1966, Neil Schmitz arrived to UB as it was occupied by the Buffalo Police Department. Armed officers were dispersed throughout campus and public demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War were frequent and chaotic. The entire university was in a period of revolt.

One morning, a student tapped on his office door.

The student began expounding to Schmitz the dire toll the war was taking on America's youth. He explained the message of the student opposition and was adamant in demanding faculty participation.

He asked the young professor, firmly and directly: Would Schmitz assist the students in blowing up the ROTC building?

"I delayed him and deferred him," he said. "I was really more concerned, initially, that this wasn't wise of the students to do."

He doesn't recall exactly what he said, but he would like to think "it was something witty." He does remember feeling dubious.

"There was something fishy about him," Schmitz said. "I just sniffed it."

Later, he learned that the student who came to see him that day was an agent provocateur. He was working undercover for the Buffalo Police.

It was nearly half a century ago, as Truman Capote published In Cold Blood and The Monkees was on NBC, that Schmitz - a budding academic, fresh out of Stanford University's graduate English program - came to Buffalo.

Schmitz has been on the faculty ever since and has earned a place as one of the most prominent and beloved figures in the English Department. He teaches American literature, focusing on Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner.

Schmitz recently announced this would be his last semester teaching. He has tried to close the door quietly and leave matter-of-factly. He will remain as a professor emeritus but will no longer conduct any courses.

Students lament never being able to take a class with him again, and now, as he walks away, they remember the way he spoke to them personally - and still does. His voice refuses to evade them.

For many, it is an endless encounter, like waves to a beach.

'A most pleasant business': The childhood

Schmitz grew up in Kaukauna, Wis., an industrial manufacturing town. His father worked in a mill, eight hours a day for all his life. He had a close, affectionate relationship with his mother. He recalls her as warm and smart, but by his own account, his father was not "a happy person" and that their relationship was "terrible."

"He didn't drink, which was a good thing," Schmitz said. "But he was angry. I grew up with an angry father."

Kaukauna was working-class through and through, according to Schmitz. Almost everyone he went to high school with ended up working at the local mill. Throughout his upbringing, there was a prevailing sense that there lay his future. He was consumed with an overarching yet suppressed dismay that he was caught in a dead end.

He discovered literature in grade school. He developed a fondness for reading and like many adolescents, Schmitz escaped into an obsession.

"As a kid, I read some books that really knocked me out," he said. "I thought they were really superb. I loved reading. Reading was an escape. Now, kids escape into games. The only escape, though, when you were in a small, rural village in Wisconsin in the '50s, was through a book."

He read the classics and familiarized himself with much of canonical literature by an early age. Everything changed, though, when he first encountered Hemingway at age 15.

"In the 1950s, every red-blooded American youth read Hemingway," he said. "You couldn't escape him. He was - he was just there."

He first read the short story collection In Our Time and was immediately transfixed.

Most of the stories center on protagonist Nick Adams and take place in the American Midwest. It begins with the short vignette On The Quai At Smyrna and reads like an interview. An unnamed narrator - a British officer - recounts the horror of watching Greeks retreat Smyrna following a Turkish defeat during World War I. He describes seeing dead babies in the water and his narrative voice is submerged in a sort of double-irony.

When Schmitz teaches it in class, he elucidates for students the irony of denial pervasive throughout the story - not letting the awful truth in, the emotional force of the massacre. "There were plenty of nice things floating around," the narrator says. "It was a most pleasant business."

The opening story introduces In Our Time as a work of profound disillusionment.

When Schmitz first read it, however, he never considered the question: Where exactly is Smyrna? Years later, he pursued it.

Initially, he was primarily captivated by Hemingway's form of expression.

"His prose," he said, "is bewitching in its simplicity and its beauty."

Hemingway is noted for his succinct, economical phrasing. It leads the reader down a path of exploration. Schmitz became stimulated by a style that recognized that what the writer leaves out is as important as what he or she puts in.

Hemingway claimed the true dignity of an iceberg is derived from the fact that seven-eighths of it is under water. He hit on that principle in his writing, and for Schmitz, it was his introduction to the power of subtext and exposed a new method of navigation through the world.

There was a process of interpretation that could take place while reading literature that could bleed into other areas of life. He began to recognize the act of reading as more than just an escape, but a way to figure out the world and what he wanted to do.

He probably could not have imagined then that he would be teaching that short vignette and its subsequent stories for the entirety of his adult life.

'The surface burned off the ground': The beginning of a career

In high school, Schmitz became intent on absconding his small Wisconsin town. He knew that making it to a university would be a major step. The bookish adolescent developed into an intellectual. In many ways, he was wounded into literature. Through constant engagement with books, he began to recognize a realm of possibilities outside Kaukauna.

"There was a village atheist in town who got a hold of me and was giving me philosophy books," he said. "He was the father of this girl I was interested in. He was like a radical; no one else in town was doing all this. He had a library, for example, and I remember being impressed by that. You would go into this guy's house and he would have bookshelves and bookshelves with books on them - that he had actually read."

Like many of Hemingway's heroes, Schmitz enrolled in the armed services. At age 17, he joined the Air Force. He served for four years before enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill.

"That was my way out," he said. "My escape."

He majored in English. He began to love the 17th century - John Donne and John Milton - and was convinced that would be his field of literary scholarship.

After four years in Madison, Schmitz got accepted into Stanford, where he began studying under the tutelage of an American scholar, Irving Howe.

Howe was a New York City intellectual and had written a number of important books. By the time he had arrived at Stanford, he had been very politically involved with the left. Schmitz took a class with him on Twain and practically switched overnight; he decided to change his course of study to American literature.

Schmitz wrote his dissertation on politics in the American novel, focusing on Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams and Twain.

While at Stanford, he was confronted with Stein and Faulkner, which changed his life. He met them each with resistance but later embraced them fully.

These specific writers connected to each other for Schmitz. They were modernists and demonstrated how deeper meanings often reside beneath the surface of things.

'The sensible decision': The profession of teaching

When he got to UB, it was one of the most exciting and dynamic English departments in America. The faculty included renowned poets such as Robert Olson and Robert Creeley and one of the most important literary critics in the world, Leslie Fiedler. The deparment had gained an international reputation as a hub of literary activity and an avant-garde center.

Schmitz began teaching the writers he loved and admired most. He has taught them over and over again, introducing classic American writing to the younger generations.

"He's very patient with students and gets a lot of loyalty in return," said Mark Shechner, an English professor emeritus. He reflects on Schmitz as "a rare combination of both a serious scholar and gentle person." Shechner thinks Schmitz is so discernibly decent a human being that students can't help but develop an affinity for him.

Gabrielle Goldstein, a senior theater design major, has taken two courses with Schmitz.

"I always thought he was a brilliant teacher," she said. "He really engages the class; I like the discussion-based element to it. It's just like having a conversation with him and he's always adding contemporary elements."

Schmitz teaches Hemingway every semester. Depending on the course, he will alternate the specific text he uses, but most often, he starts with In Our Time and the mystifying On The Quai at Smyrna. He always starts by asking the class what he originally neglected to ask himself: "Where is Smyrna?"

It is always the very first question he asks - never has a student had the answer.

He assures them not to feel bad - people didn't know Smyrna at the time Hemingway wrote it. That is the point, Schmitz says: The story has everything to do with our American innocence - we don't know about Smyrna.

"He asks us to check online to find Smyrna on a map," Goldstein said. "No one can ever find it."

It took Schmitz years to discover that Smyrna is actually Ismear.

"One of the most ancient Greek cities," Schmitz said. "St. Paul passed through. It was destroyed after the First World War. As Hemingway knew, there is a buried historical subtext for that piece - the fact that the British were the guilty ones, not the Turks there."

Goldstein said he always relates the historical significance of the story to what's going on in the world currently and introduces it as personally didactic.

"He shows how it relates to the narrator's psyche and it prepares you for the journey he wants you to take down Nick Adams' soul," she said.

Adams is a character who grows up in the suburbs of Illinois and later returns from war, needing to find a reason to live. In the final story, The Big Two-Hearted River, he finds the redemptive power of nature as regenerative. The early stories, however, are about a struggle between father and son.

"All those early Nick Adams stories are about the father who is a failure," Schmitz said.

Adams is an anguished character. In Our Time suggests the nobility of living comes from having the courage to endure and the need for finding temporary relief in idyllic peace.

Schmitz then transitions into Tender Buttons by Stein and believes his greatest gift to students comes out of it. The book is divided into three parts and its meaning is embedded in its exotic wordplay. It's about the marriage of Stein to Alice B. Toklas.

Schmitz calls its groundbreaking final paragraph, "The Ode to Joy of American Literature." Its basic lesson comes down to a preposition: notwithstanding.

"I brought 'notwithstanding' to the students," he said. "I consider that a gift - the value of notwithstanding."

Over the course of the paragraph, the preposition appears six times as Stein justifies her way of life.

"In my own experience, notwithstanding matters greatly," he said. "Doing something despite, doing something that is wrong, in order to be happy. That is huge."

Living as lesbians was not easy for Stein and Alice. It was disapproved of by many of their friends - including Hemingway.

Schmitz points out to his students that Hemingway had four failed, miserable marriages. His literature is cloaked in the impossibility of love - as something that is always doomed. But Stein and Alice have the type of marriage we should all aspire to - a marriage of collaboration, a division of labor that is agreed upon - according to Schmitz.

In the period of writing Tender Buttons, Stein would stay up late writing it out by hand and Alice would wake up early and transmit it onto the typewriter, he tells his class.

Schmitz embellishes the relationship.

"Gay marriage is set up as an ideal," he said. "They're getting married despite the fact that the straight world despises them or ridicules them. Anybody outside the normative understands this. You have to make your life despite what other people say."

Many students have been inspired by his courses. In a way, his lessons teach them some of the possibilities of life. Oftentimes, students feel a yearning to return.

After learning Schmitz was stepping down, Goldstein said, "I'm devastated. Truly devastated."

'The past is never dead. It's not even past': Family history

"I am a materialist and an atheist and all - let me say that," Schmitz said. "Nonetheless, I still believe in magic."

One of his biggest achievements in academia was his class on family history.

After his mother died, an ancestor hitherto barely mentioned in the family's oral history suddenly reappeared and addressed Schmitz directly. When his mother died, he was given a little book that was started by an ancestor in 1886. The ancestor was not his grandmother but his grandfather's first wife. Her first entry was, "I married Neil Schmitz." He is named after his grandfather.

"There was this whole diary," he said. "I had this theory that I extrapolated from all this: Every time a parent dies, there's two deaths, maybe even more than that."

Schmitz theorized that when a parent dies, an ancestor goes into oblivion.

"When that parent dies, they take with them some knowledge of an ancestor and that is the last trace of that person," Schmitz said. "If your mother has a notion of who your grandmother was, or who your great-grandmother was, and when your mother dies, the only person left who knows her name, her face, her stories - was your mother."

Schmitz encourages his students to seek out their own histories and has discovered that sometimes students can come up with things they don't want to know.

He incorporates his theory when he teaches Faulkner. As I Lay Dying, he declares, is a family history. When students search in-depth through their own ancestry, they begin engaging in their own personal novel.

"It is the largest and most complicated novel you could ever read," he said. "Doors are shut all over the place."

And that has been perhaps the metaphor of his teaching career - opening doors. He's been doing it his entire tenure and always starts by laying the groundwork with his same opening question.

A Farewell to Arms: Leaving the building

As Schmitz prepares to exit the stage, he has been actively writing. He keeps a blog and there are rumors that a novel is in progress.

He has seen many changes in his 47 years at UB. It has been a long time since anyone asked him to help detonate a building. Students like Goldstein recognize that his history is part of the university's history. Now that she knows her class with him this semester will be his last, she feels she, too, shares a special part in it.

On Jan. 15, Schmitz took the long, familiar walk from his sequestered office on the fourth floor of Clemens Hall to the first session of his last class ever.

As he reached the front of the classroom, he dropped his book and papers on the desk. He looked up to a sea of young faces - some new, some recognizable.

As the class fell silent, awaiting the professor's address, he asked them gently:

"OK," he said. "Who can tell me, where is Smyrna?"

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