Williams English majors during our years were obliged to follow a sequence of courses that largely followed the history of English literature. Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Congreve, etc. Course numbering followed class year (201-202 for sophomores, 301-302 for juniors, etc).
So imagine my surprise, as a junior, to learn that numerous seniors, none of them English majors, none of them even close to being English majors, had signed up en masse to take Don Gifford’s English 402.
I had heard of the man, of course, and on a campus the size of Williams, seen him often. He looked intelligent, and intense, qualities not rare among the Williams faculty of the day, but also poised and confident, with a certain equanimity. But in many ways quite conventional. He certainly did not look like a radical or a revolutionary.
So what was driving these seniors to dive into the final course of a sequence they knew virtually nothing about?
Flash forward to Fall Semester of senior year. Intrigued by what I observed, I signed up for a seminar on Dickens and Eliot. I was not surprised by then to see non-English majors like Burt Cohen in the class. But I was surprised during one of the first classes when Giff asked us to submit ideas about a term project and he said, literally:
Send me a letter, drop me a line
Wait! That’s a direct quote from the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released only 3 months earlier.
To be sure we were on the same page, I replied:
Stating point of view (the next line of the song)
and he was right there. He nodded: you got it.
(Later on that same semester, he would ask whether the Vanilla Fudge version of You keep me hanging on was in any way a legitimate descendant of the Supreme’s original version or rather a complete mutant.)
Things took off from there. Before long, led by Burt Cohen, we had sponsored a campus wide Dickens film festival (largely directed by David Lean) which drew a good crowd.
But the readings were tough; we read almost all of Dickens and Eliot in one (12 week?) semester. I am not sure that every student read every page, but I know that Don Gifford did. He’d talk about the insights he’d had at 4:30 am while finishing The Mill on the Floss.
We finished off the semester with an all nighter at his house. Together with his wife Honora, we manged to discuss everything but Dickens and Eliot, until the sun came up. I have no idea what I did with the rest of that day, but I do know that my brain was buzzing for weeks afterward.
No wonder then when I was assigned to another section of English 402, I immediately appealed to Giff, and he smiled and said take a seat.
That semester was the intellectual high point of my entire Williams education. We read Blake, Swinburne, Yeats, and Joyce. Ulysses came alive in his classroom; we had the benefit of his critically acclaimed and recently published Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses but even more important was the benefit of his constantly active mind, seeking and finding new connections and patterns in that vastly complex and challenging work.
He said to us all: give me two papers by the end of the semester. You decide what to write about. For one paper, I wrote a critique of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in the voice of Donald Barthelme; for the other, I compared a Bob Dylan song to a Sibelius composition and to a Yeats poem. I don’t know where that idea came from, but I do remember him handing back my copy of John Wesley Harding and my transcription of the song with his correction (he had heard Dylan better than I did!). He liked the paper, but couldn’t decide on a grade for it, so I was left with some intriguing comments. And that worked.
The last time I saw Giff was in December of 1982 in Los Angeles at an MLA convention. He was going up the escalator that I was going down on. Crowded with people. He saw me first and greeted me by name. I couldn’t believe he remembered me after 14 years. To this day, I regret that I was in a rush to get to a job interview and couldn’t linger. After the interview, I tried to find him but we never connected again.
Don Gifford was a world class educator and human being. His obituary in the New York Times (published on May 25, 2000) cites the critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (reviewing Gifford’s 1990 publication The Farther Shore): ‘There is hardly a page of it that does not inform, provoke or make the reader see things in a different way.’
Stephen Fix, of the Williams English Department, in his 2000 eulogy (published in Williams College Faculty Meeting Minutes) observes:
“As a colleague and a teacher, Giff embodied the best ideals of our profession: a passionate belief in the power and beauty of words; a brilliant capacity to articulate that belief in the classroom and on the page; and a deep generosity toward anyone, of any age or background, who wanted to learn what he knew.”
I count myself lucky to have experienced that generosity, which amplified the effect of his luminous intelligence, extraordinary knowledge, and openness to new modes of thinking.