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.