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Clarkson Crane

1894-1971

 

With his first novel, The Western Shore, Clarkson Crane (‘16) took the cliché-ridden genre of the “college story” — with its pennants and hip flasks and coonskin coats — and gave it a new and unexpected twist: one of the main characters is a homosexual professor of English teaching at Berkeley in the year 1919. First published in 1925, the book failed to find an audience, and received mixed reviews from literary critics. “Through personal shrewd seeing and dry notation,” droned the New Republic, “the book stands as the first mature presentation of the material of the American college. Having abstracted several pregnant figures from state university life — for though his scene is Berkeley, his types are true of a great number of democratic schools — [he] has coolly exposed them in a series of significant related episodes, and discovered where others had found romance and childish fantasy, the outlines of a tragedy of youth.” Stephen Vincent Benét, writing in the New York Herald, was less sure, warning that some readers might find parts of narrative “distasteful.”

While an undergraduate at Berkeley, Crane was a member of the editorial board of the Blue and Gold, the Pelican and the Occident, and only a few months after graduation he sold his first story to the Atlantic Monthly. With the outbreak of World War I, he joined Section 586 of the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps, made up largely of University of California students and recent alumni. He was cited for bravery in action by the French Army. After the war he returned to California, but found it difficult to support himself with the sale of an occasional short story. In 1924 he returned to France and took up the bohemian life of an expatriate writer, living on a small stipend provided by an aunt. It was in Paris that he wrote The Western Shore, in a small hotel on the Left Bank. He drew on his experiences as a Berkeley student, but the gay professor (called Philip Burton in the novel) has never been identified.

   
From The Western Shore:

    “And so you’re going away. I’m sorry. I hoped I’d see you during the summer.”
    The tender melancholy in the man’s voice disconcerted Milton. He replied:
    “Yes, I’m going with my aunt. We’ll stay for a while in Paris, and then go down into Italy.”
    He gave a few more facts, talking rapidly. As they entered the campus and walked along the dark path beneath the trees toward the library, Burton took his arm and pressed it slightly against him and seemed so much on the point of saying something that Milton turned his face and waited. But no sound came forth, and Burton, looking down, seemed preoccupied, and held Milton’s arm as if he had taken it by chance, and now, thinking of other things, had forgotten to release it. The same uneasiness that he had felt before on the mountain invaded the boy. He said, as naturally as he could:
    “Aaron told me that George Towne is living up with you. I know him slightly. We were in the same German class at the beginning of the year.”
    After a moment, Burton answered:
    “Oh, yes. He’s been staying with me for a while. I — ah — he couldn’t find a place to live, and I let him have that little upstairs room of mine.”
    Silence came. Once more Milton felt that Burton, who had turned toward him, was about to speak. After a while, Milton said:
    “I hardly ever see him now.”
    “He thinks he may go back to Wyoming this summer,” Burton remarked. Then, squeezing Milton’s arm more tightly, he said in a gentle and agitated, almost broken, voice:
    “You’re a nice boy. I’m awfully glad I met you.”
    Embarrassed, Milton laughed. The sediment of innumerable jokes heard at school or in the fraternity house and long forgotten rose now from the bottom of his mind into memory, and he waited, a bit nervous, half pleased, almost understanding, for Burton to say more. But suddenly Burton dropped his arm and said in a drawling and slightly ironic manner:
    “I envy you your trip abroad this summer. Perhaps in a year or two I’ll be able to go over for a few months. But I hope you’ll come back.”
    “I don’t know. Perhaps I shall.”
    He was unable to say more. For a while they went on without speaking. Then Burton laughed and said:
    “You may have noticed that I have the Thousand and One Nights at my place. I read them all the time. It — ah — I — it has given me a rather curious habit of mind. Sometimes, when I’m off on a holiday or something of that sort, I imagine I’m some one else. I’ve told people strange things.”
    The gray façade of the library was dim before them. Milton smiled.
    “Yes,” he answered, somehow pleasantly disturbed. “I often do that too.”
    Laughing shortly, Burton took his arm again.
    He accompanied him to the Alpha Chi Delta house, and said good-by rather gruffly, and walked on toward College Avenue where he would take a car. Milton watched his stocky form move away in the darkness, and then climbed slowly to his room on the third floor. His roommate was snoring lightly. Undressing, he thought that if he should return to Berkeley for another year, the instructor would be an interesting person to know.

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  • Clarkson Crane. The Western Shore (Salt Lake City : Peregrine Smith Books, 1925, c1985), p. 280-282.
 
 

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