Professor Herb West delivered his farewell address on May 28, 1964, in historic 105 Dartmouth Hall to over a thousand students who gave him a seven-minute standing ovation. Part of the football marching band was seated in the balcony with trumpets, tuba and drum ready to blare the Dartmouth fight song after the talk as if he had scored a winning touchdown.
Herbert Faulkner West was beloved Professor of Comparative Literature for 44 years at Dartmouth College and I signed up for every course he offered.
Many Big Green brethren took Herb West’s Comp Lit classes because of its reputation as a “gut.” Yet decades of students were also inspired by his keen wit and offbeat subject matter engaging them in works considered too avant-garde by the intellectual mainstream elite. He dissected James Joyce, T.E Lawrence, Henry Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, and F. Scott Fitzgerald with unsparing critical analysis.
Fellow iconoclast H.L Mencken donated manuscript copies of his autobiography to the Dartmouth Library based on his friendship with Herb West. In late December 1940, Herb was having a drink with writer Budd Schulberg at the Hanover Inn. Two years prior Schulberg accompanied F. Scott Fitzgerald on a trip to Hanover for work on a film script about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. The journey turned into a drunken escapade that knocked Fitzgerald off the wagon and began his death spiral that later served Schulberg as the inspiration for his post-World War II novel and Broadway play “ The Disenchanted.” West was engaged in casual conversation with his former student when he looked up from his glass and said, “Isn’t it too bad about F. Scott Fitzgerald?” Schulberg had learned of Fitzgerald’s death from Herb West.
Herb’s religious skepticism is best recalled anecdotally by his son describing an incident that occurred with his dad’s close call from a heart attack in his late forties. One day in intensive care he heard Father Hodder, the Hanover Episcopal priest, making his hospital rounds. Herb grabbed some lilies out of a vase, clasped them to his chest, and closed his eyes. When Father Hodder entered the room, he took in the scene and fled.
Herb West was a man for all seasons who loved Scotch and skiing. His winter advice: “Every student coming to Dartmouth should learn to ski or else miss one of the greatest advantages the college possesses.” When he was a student in the winter of 1921-1922, he and several classmates survived the Vale of Temp Ski Jump on a toboggan.
He dressed in nondescript wrinkled suits bought on sale at Campion’s campus emporium, always fronted with a tattered LL Bean tartan button down shirt and forever-stained tie. As a courtesy to me, he occasionally visited the traveling J.Press road show exhibit upstairs from the Dartmouth Co-op. He once purchased a Dartmouth Green Blazer that I instructed the J. Press traveler include a set of Dartmouth blazer buttons plus an Indian tie gratis, informing the professor it was meant as a token of student appreciation by young Press, not bribery for a decent grade.
Half a dozen of my 1959 class buddies regularly trooped every couple of weeks to his home several blocks south of Main Street bringing along a quart of Johnny Walker. We were greeted at the door by his elegant Swedish wife whom he met in Weimar Berlin. Mrs. West understood her husband’s predilections as she quickly departed after leading us into the thousand-edition West-holm rare book library toting a tray of Ritz crackers, a mound of Vermont Cheddar Cheese and cold veggies with her husband comfortably ensconced in a deep leather chair awaiting our literary locker room binge.
Intellect, wit and Johnny Walker so many years ago on the Hanover Plain. Dear Old Dartmouth bless her name.
One can only agree with the erudite Professor Boyer.
Professor West’s 1953 book “Rebel Thought: Stimulating and Unorthodox Thinking from the Greeks to the Present” is as readable today as it was when first published. Secondhand copies are readily available on the Web.
A warm recollection that motivates me to look deeper into my college experience
Prof West – a man to remember
Thanks for the memories, Dick. While I never made it to “Scotch Night” I took two courses with HFW and two with Vernon Hall, the other prof. in the Comp. Lit. Department. They were all “coming of age” courses. I have in my bookshelf a copy of “Herb West’s Last Lecture”, a book that an appreciative alum had printed and bound. You have inspired me to find it and re-read it, for the first time in many years. Stay well. Bob
Dear Mr, Press: Thanks for the clarification. According to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) there are “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” — this has been one of them. An extensive Press wardrobe is another.
Mr. Wilson, I really did mean T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), a great favorite of Prof. West, but now that you mention it, D.H. Lawrence also made it into his lectures, Comp Lit 101.
I wonder if there still great lecturers like Herb West and a couple of others I had at Dartmouth. It may be a lost art.
Nice article. Fay Vincent wrote a wonderful article on writing to your past teachers. Baseball and Yale Law and Williams. Wise man.
T. E. Lawrence wrote an autobiography which got some attention.
Dear Mr Press,
Did Prof. West ever discuss Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s figure Herb West?
Was Prof. West related to the infamous psychiater West about whom MK Ultra victims Cathy O’Brien and Brice Taylor describe?
Wonderful reminiscence! I missed Herb West by a couple of months. He was already a legend.
I think that in the third paragraph of your recent message, you meant to mention “D.H.” Lawrence and NOT “T.E.” Lawrence. D.H. Lawrence, the novelist, wrote SONS AND LOVERS, LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER and other notable books. “T. E.” Lawrence was better known as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.
He was one of my favorites too.
Brian forwarded your blog about Herb West and asked if I had “had him.” This was my reply. How are you and Veda? I’m still working full time from my home office in Saratoga Springs where we’ve lived since 2017 and love it….not unlike Hanover in many ways.
Please add me to your blog.
“My name is OROVITZ…..” Wah-hoo-wah.
This was a great treat, Mr. Press.
Herb West was one of my favorite teachers and I still have the books from his courses.
I graduated in 1954, but I began buying my clothes from J Press when the salesman came
to Hanover. I am still buying my clothes from J Press in Washington, DC.
Dear Mr. Press,
What wonderful memories and sentiment. Professor West was obviously an amazing teacher. It is important that you have memorialized him.
Please maintain the same reverence for the clothing tradition your firm has charted. Please don’t abandon the classic designs like so many of your competitors.
He would most certainly have fit in at Sewanee, with the agrarian writers that were there at the time, Lytle and Tate.
I didn’t go to Dartmouth and didn’t know Prof West but I do appreciate Peter’s appreciation of and affection for his teacher. I had similarly admirable professors (Princeton ’54) but not the opportunity for drinking scotch with them. Well done, Peter.
I was there at his fairwell lecture. Great scene. He was always fun to talk with over his favorite drink. I bought the vinyl recording of the event. But sadly lost it. He was a remarkable character who wrote letter of recommendations to med school. I think it got me into Duke for which I shall always be grateful. A great Dartmouth memory. Thanks Richard.
I am a college professor, and appreciate every word of this fond rememberance.
Richard Press has had the good fortune of knowing so many interesting people, and we should thank him for relating some of these relationships with such vivid and endearing prose. He writes so clearly and with such sly humor a reader might be tempted to think it came easily to him. But I know better. Writing that good hides the effort. I’m only so happy he’s taken the time and work to bring us these stories. It almost goes without saying that we envy him having these wonderful experiences.