Monday, August 1, 2011

Class Consciousness at Brown

The July/August 2011 issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine carries obituaries of two men who strongly influenced me as an undergraduate. Both Charles J. Lynch, a dorm mate, and Elmer E. Cornwell, Jr., a professor of political science, raised my hitherto minimal class consciousness, one through his experience and the other based on theory.
Charlie Lynch was a lean, working-class Irish Catholic from Springfield, Mass., with the ascetic look of a priest; his speech was close to a brogue. He and I both lived in Hegeman B, one of the older dorms at Brown, a Victorian dark-brick and stone affair, and we both majored in English and became English teachers following our graduation in 1958.

More important, Charlie and I both had “grant-in-aid” jobs to help us afford our room and board. While I waited tables in the dining hall, he cleaned rooms in a fraternity where looking “shoe” was primary. When he came by to talk in the suite I shared with three upwardly mobile students, he would often bitterly recount the snubs he had received from members of that fraternity. I’d gripe that a snob in the wealthy fraternity where I waited on tables would call me, “Waiter!” although we had lived on the same floor of a dormitory for a semester.

Charlie also marveled at the affluence of the fraternity brothers, one of whose closets, he told me, contained “about 30 Brooks Brothers sport jackets.” Charlie and I each had one “lunchy” (from “out to lunch,” meaning “unstylish”) sport coat from high school. “Come the revolution,” he would jest, but he did not mean a revolution that would bring equal distribution of tweed jackets.

Elmer Cornwell, a native of Holyoke with a Harvard Ph.D., taught the only poli sci class I ever took, on Presidential politics. We met in a large, dimly lighted hall in an antique building on the quad, about a hundred seated students and one tall, pencil-slim instructor standing at a lectern on a podium. Cornwell, seemingly immune to the allure of tweed, was clad in pastel polyester coat and slacks and wore his wavy hair unfashionably long. He looked owlish in rimless spectacles, and he spoke in what today would be called a laid-back manner, even when he was pressing an important point.

The moment I remember best occurred when he was analyzing the connection between voting patterns and socioeconomic class, arguing that the more affluent the citizen, the more likely he was to vote Republican. A few of his listeners demurred. To prove his point, the professor asked for a show of hands to signify each student’s class affiliation. He would eliminate the upper and the lower class, he said, to avoid putting anyone on the spot. He then began at the top, asking how many identified with the upper middle class, and most of the students raised their hands. Those who thought of themselves as middle class made a lesser showing. And when he asked how many identified as lower middle class, only four hands went up, tentatively. One was mine.

Charlie Lynch went on to chair the English Department at a Bay Area high school, and Professor Cornwell not only wrote many books and articles but also applied his expertise in service to Rhode Island state and local government. Though Charlie and I rarely saw each other after I’d switched dorms and I never spoke with Professor Cornwell after I took that class, I mourn their death and remember each of them fondly and gratefully.

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