FROM THE FALL of 1927 to June 1930 I attended New York University Law School and taught at Hunter College. It was a period in which I was deeply involved in the activities of the students in my own college — a period in which I was not only instructor but served as adviser to many of them, individually and in their group activities.
As a young instructor disturbed by the conflicting currents among the intellectuals I turned to Sarah Parks for advice and clarification. But the teacher I had admired when I was an undergraduate was embroiled in controversy over salary and promotion policies in the college. These were subjects in which I was not interested at that time, for I loved my position as teacher so much that the salary question seemed secondary. But Sarah was aflame over inequities of rank and salary, and for her sake I tried to interest myself in these matters.
This was a period in which I was meeting men and women who were talking ideas and living unorthodox lives. It was a period in which a love of literature, the arts, and an interest in the Russian Revolution became the excuse for leaving home and living in little, cramped apartments in Greenwich Village. It was a period in which we spent long hours, night after night, sitting before fireplaces in some Village garret, talking endlessly.
Sarah had been one of us, but now her absorption with college politics had a quality of desperation. I did not feel that the situation warranted the extremes of emotion she poured into it. I did not know then that I, too, was to follow in her footsteps. At this time I sensed only that a certain emptiness in her life was catapulting her violently into everything she did. I tended to withdraw from our close friendship and to cultivate new friends who built on the foundation she had helped to establish.
When in January 1928 she committed suicide I was thrown into an emotional tailspin. I felt guilty at not having spent more time with her. I thought I had failed her. I was bitter about those at the college to whom she had turned for affection and who, instead, had shut the door upon her. Her death had a profound effect on those of us whom she had influenced. We felt that Sarah had the intellectual courage to believe in the new coming collective society, but not the practical boldness required for becoming a disciplined member of the group. We felt that she thought as a collectivist but fought and lived as an individualist and in our twisted estimate of a human life we felt that this was her failure. We did not recognize that life had become unbearable to her because of the disorder of her thinking which inevitably led to self-destruction.
Careful not to continue on the path which led to her suicide I was to take a longer, more deceptive yet parallel road to annihilation. I refused to retrace my steps to the point of departure into wrong thinking. I did not know then that this could bring only disharmony, confusion, and defeat.
The years 1928 and 1929 were replete with confusion and ugliness. I turned more and more to the literature of despair. I tried to write, but found that my inner confusion reflected itself in my work. For the first time in my life I viewed the future with apprehension. I found little pleasure in anything. My work at law school was mediocre. At Hunter College the classes were getting larger and the students coming to us from the high schools were not well prepared. The sense of dedication to learning was receding.
Many came to college because they were fulfilling for their parents the modern yearning of the uneducated who are determined that their children must have a college education. I was conscious of an increasing mass of young people entering college almost as automatically as they entered grade school and high school. I was aware of the lowering of standards. There was little thinking about the meaning and purpose of a college education and practically no thought of the role of free municipal colleges.
During the spring of 1930 I took the Medina cram courses and prepared for the examination for admission to the New York Bar. The examination over, I requested a leave of absence from the college and with my friend Beatrice left for Europe. In a foolish kind of way I hoped to find there answers which were not forthcoming at home. I was tired and restless. I wanted to escape from all sense of responsibility. I was young and I wanted to enjoy life.
It was a trip rich in new contacts. With a capacity to make friends I found people of interest in every walk of life in the different countries we visited. It was on this trip that I was to meet my future husband, John Dodd.
We landed in Hamburg and I found it an exciting city, filled with merchant seamen, longshoremen, soldiers. There were the nouveau riche with pockets bulging with the country’s wealth. There were Communists everywhere, marching, singing, meeting. There were the decadent risqué night spots. There were also fine old restaurants, old homes and churches, and other evidences of an earlier day. It was a city of contrasts.
Too frequently we came face to face with middle-class Germans with pinched, strained faces, ready, when they noted sympathy, to tell you their troubles. The thing that struck me was their bewilderment. They neither understood the cause of their predicament nor where they were going. We looked at them and listened. But we were Americans with dollars in our purses bent on having a good time.
In Berlin we saw more pinched faces and more blatant lavishness. We were alarmed at the frank and open evidences of sexual and moral degradation flaunted in the night spots and exhibited to the tourists everywhere. The atmosphere o£ the city seemed charged as the air is before an electric storm.
I found some of my friends from Hunter College at the University of Berlin and we had the opportunity to see what was happening at the seats of learning. We talked with university students and professors. The university was torn with strife. Socialists, Communists, National Socialists were battling each other and jointly undermining those who regarded themselves as conservatives attached to their own country by the natural love of one’s homeland. Acts of violence were common in the city and around the university.
I was conscious of the fact that here politics had become a matter of life and death. I was conscious also that the intellectuals, the teachers, professors, and scientists were arrogant in their pride but lacked the inner strength to play a salutary role in that country’s hour of need. Here were men of the highest intellectual achievements who were ready to attach themselves to the forces of violence. I did not then realize, as I now do, that for close to a century the educational world of Germany had been subjected to systematic despiritualization which could result only in the dehumanization now apparent. This made it possible for such despiritualized men to serve both the Nazi and later the communist power with a terrifying loyalty and efficiency.
In Germany I frequently discussed the rising tide of conflict, but on one thing professors and students alike were agreed — that fascism could never come to Germany. It was possible in Italy, they said, because of the lack of general education — such a thing could not happen in Germany. Two institutions would prevent this: the great German universities and the German Civil Service.
When, contrary to their statements, it did happen in Germany, the two great institutions which collapsed first of all were — the German universities and the German Civil Service. They were the first to serve the Fuehrer, and it was from them that we were to learn the lesson that education in and of itself is not a deterrent to the destruction of a nation. The real questions to be posed are: what kind of education? to what purpose? with what goal? under what standards?
I was happy to leave Berlin. And now I insisted on a trip which was not on our schedule. I had hitherto generally refused to spend much time in museums and churches but I wanted to go to Dresden and see the Sistine Madonna. It was worth the long trip to see the lovely Virgin and Child and the cherubs at their feet looking like gay little urchins. The day I spent in Dresden was my happiest in Germany.
I was looking forward to Vienna. It was fortunate that Beatrice had relatives in that fabulous capital of the Hapsburgs. But once again we were struck by the pain in the pinched white faces of the native Austrians. We wore our simplest clothes in order not to give offense to the people we met. We had wanted to go to the opera. In an act of renunciation we decided against it because we had watched men and women who loved music stand outside the opera house while tourists and profiteers jammed the place.
Beatrice’s uncle, who had been a financial adviser in the regime of Franz Joseph, entertained us by taking us to some famous coffeehouses. As he talked of the history of Vienna, I became aware of the fact that he loved the city deeply but recognized it was dying. He told us he had made arrangements to take his family to Uruguay. Once again I was struck by the fact that those who deplored the blight that was upon them had no standard to which to rally. They were frightened. There was a sense of Weltschmerz and a longing to return to the past, but not the slightest awareness as to where they were going.
From Austria we went to Italy. I had looked forward with ill-concealed excitement to a return to the land of my birth. I expected the sense of not belonging which was part of me suddenly to disappear. I was counting on a mystical transformation. We crossed the border, the customs inspector delved through our luggage, we arrived in Venice, and went to a hotel with a German name. But I searched in vain to find the Italy which my memory had treasured and my imagination had embellished.
Venice was a highly sophisticated, gay, brittle, materialistic city. It was overrun by men in uniform. Practically one out of three was a soldier. I went to the Cathedral, but was unmoved by the services. It was crowded with well-dressed people of all nations. Outside, the merchants drove sharp bargains with those who had money. The spiritual, brooding quality of Italy which I had treasured was nowhere apparent and I realized that I did not belong in the country I had left as a child. I now saw the tangible evidence of the blight of fascist philosophy.
As a student at Hunter College in the early twenties I had declared myself an anti-fascist at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. It had been an emotional declaration against those smug members of society who talked about the wonders that fascism had accomplished for Italy. I felt they were more concerned with train schedules and sanitation than with the beauty of its culture and the soul of its people.
Yet when we reached Florence I found that even fascism was unable to corrode the unbelievably beautiful symbols of the past. I loved being in Florence. The delicate restraint of its scenery and of its architecture seemed to reflect the character of the people themselves. I found myself standing in the public squares and watching the faces of those who went by, struck by the fact that the simplest shopgirl looked like one of Raphael’s models.
I was continually amazed to see the diversity and the beauty of the past culture of the cities of Italy. Venice was unlike Florence. Verona and Bologna were a world apart from Rome. In this day, when there is so much talk about mass culture and so many worship, or are frightened into, an acceptance of the idea of one-world government, I look back to the joy I had in the past culture of these little city-states and wonder if the art and architecture of our day will ever achieve the beauty of that of those earlier times.
When I reached Rome I was more interested in the ruins of classical times than in the monuments to the living spirit at the heart of Christianity. It was evidence of how far 1, through my education and my own perverse pride of mind, had traveled from the past of my own people and from the accumulated wisdom and safety which two thousand years of Christianity could provide for the modern children of the Western world.
I drove miles in the hot sun to visit the grave of the poet Horace and spent hours at the Baths of Caracalla and other ruins of antiquity, and on a moonlit night I looked with awe on the tiers of the Colosseum and had a sense of the length of its past. I visited the Vatican and some of the churches, but the truth is that I visited them largely for their priceless art treasures and was blind to their real significance.
In Rome the power of the fascist state was everywhere in evidence, especially in the number of men in uniform. I thought suddenly of my mother who had a farmer’s disdain of the military. “They all live on our backs,” she used to say. And now I thought of Italy as one aching back carrying the vast array of government officials and soldiers.
I had decided to visit the town where I was born to see my foster parents, with whom we had lost touch over the years. However, when I reached Naples there was news of an earthquake so I returned, instead, to Florence. From there we went back into southern Germany for a brief visit.
Beatrice and I went together to Paris, where I picked up my mail at the American Express office. Ruth had cabled, “You passed both parts of the bar exam.” My mother and father wrote, “Come home. We are lonely without you.”
On the boat returning home I met a group of New York City schoolteachers, who told me they belonged to the Teachers Union. They discussed the importance of having teachers organize within the labor movement and they urged my friend and me to join the Union. When I pointed out that their union consisted largely of public schoolteachers and that I did not think that college teachers had any place therein, the persistent recruiters assured me that the brains and the original organizers of the American Federation of Teachers were college teachers. I promised to join as an evidence of my willingness to throw in my lot with the working class, even though I did not think the Union could be of help to me personally.
On my return to New York I went to meetings of the Teachers Union. I found them disconcerting because there was so much strife between groups seeking control. I did not then understand why intelligent adults should struggle so hard to control an organization which in numbers was small and insignificant. I was dumfounded to find the names of distinguished professors such as John Dewey and George Counts involved in the controversy.
It was only later, when I better understood left-wing politics, that I became aware of the significance of control of this beachhead.