Charles Samuels was a professor of English and of Film Studies at Williams College in the 1960s and part of the 1970s. He was, by near all accounts of former students, a terrifying presence in the classroom — not maniacally nor physically nor in volume but in intellect, in rigor and in relentlessness. To a loner, as I was, he was a sharper, clearer edge than I had ever seen or imagined, a force of other nature. He read books with an almost gleeful ferocity and it took no moment to realize that I was moving not too slowly but in truth not moving. I was a tourist to reading.
Samuels was a Brooklyn native, a graduate of Syracuse (B.A.), Ohio State (M.A.), and Cal Berkeley (PhD), a Phi Betta Kappa. He came to teach at Williams in 1961 as a 25-year-old. Williams was proud of its English Department — they were a little surly, irreverent, and wry. Many of them smoked and peered, and poked and laughed with some profanity. They knew Chaucer and Milton and Joyce and they knew that none of them was an angel. They drank and loved food with more than decorum and they were all a little tweedy. Williams is a tweedy valley.
Samuels was not tweedy. When he smiled, part of you got nervous. When he looked at you, all of you got nervous. He had terrible skin, some of the time.
We handed in our papers like an unemployment line. When he responded (he did not always respond, sometimes the paper simply disappeared), he would begin at the first sentence and trail you to the very end and beyond, in a small, tight script, tracking your thought, your structure, your attempts and your grammar. You took these corrected papers to your own corner — they were you, dissected. If, in that jumble of your mess and his tracking there should appear a correct or a good or a very good, then you were indeed a happy soul.
We took notes, in part to keep up but more to keep at bay our fears of falling behind, being exposed as tourists or falling completely overboard. It was clear, if you went overboard, the boat was not circling back to pull you in. It was not that there was no sense of care or concern — it was simply that the ferocity was so primary that it might be a while before anyone noticed you were not there.
For diversion and action and pleasure, Samuels would turn his full analytic attention toward the cinema. His heroes — the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, for example — were his perfect opponents, equally fierce and relentless, righteous and passionate, present with their mind and their heart at every moment, every frame. A mythic match, in a field where few had brought such weaponry.
I had no idea, nor even image, that you could see a film with such intensity, that you could look and hear and feel such detail, that its construct had in every sense been intentional and literal. It was the 60s, so the air was filled with minds going off in many directions and Samuels was gleeful with the tasks of finding the brilliances and casting out the fools and frauds.
In 1974, to many peoples’ surprise and deep sorrow, Charles Samuels committed suicide in Williamstown, leaving behind his wife and their young daughter. I do not know any of the circumstances.
But I have imagined what might have been, had Samuels not had such a tragic turn and remained at Williams for a full career. I have even imagined a specific and mythic collision of Charles Samuels and three contemporary business titans — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, imagined freshmen at Williams, forced by requirements to take English 101. (None of them actually went to Williams and Bezos is actually nine years their junior)
An Imagined Meeting in the Chapin Library office of Professor Charles Samuels, year perhaps 1975 or so.
Gentlemen, I thought a meeting might help to clear up a few matters, regarding your performances in class. I am sure you each imagine there are more important things to do than to excel at English 101. This is a school of many strivers and you three obviously stand out in that regard, a detail that is only partly a compliment. But you are not striving for very much in my territory.
Mr. Jobs — you, for example, had the specific task to read 400 pages of Henry James, in a week. It is clear you have read no more than 30 pages, rather intently but 30 pages nonetheless. You reported that they were brilliantly designed and I agree but you seem to have fallen on the sword of their craft and not been able to move at all past. There is the book itself ahead, the brilliance is the brilliance but it is even more brilliant that it is but a part of the whole. No one writes with the craft of James and once realized, it is difficult to not forever be pleased with that craft but you must take into account the incredible effort that it must all matter. The craft and the design, but the humans and the consequence and the spoken and the silence.
Yours is an interesting Dickensian name, Mr Jobs, and it shall be worth keeping track as it unfolds with your life and your career, should they involve jobs, won and lost and, of course, Job, the most difficult of debt and trials.
To you Mr. Gates, I must say that you have done a rather intensive analysis of The Sound and the Fury, deep into its construct and history and you have obviously made a great attempt to understand it all. Most remarkably, you have taken everything into account except the sound and the fury, except the passion and the agony. You have missed the South, you have missed William Faulkner, and you have missed the soil of this book. I do not know how you have done this and not gotten any of it on you but that is the case.
And you, Mr Bezos, you have done the strangest work of all for you have not read the book. Do you even like books, Mr Bezos or are they too messy for you? You have written about the foolishness of commerce, the waste and mishandling of so many details left to labor and chance. Is it really your vision that our best course is to clean and simplify, to let people pull back from the layers of time and dirt and error and be delivered to, that our hopes are with screens? Have you watched people watch television? it is not an act of spirit — you may perhaps need a little time with the Italian films. They know about alienation, they know about modernism, they know about concrete and nameless work and the death of spirit — you should visit the films of Antonioni and feel the blood of a people who will not be drained.
But enough, gentlemen. Let me say that you shall each likely be a great success but let me ask you, at what cost? Do you know the phrase, “Too clever by half“?— you should keep it in mind. At one time, it was the skewer of skewers to be so described and no man wanted that skewer sticking out his ribs. But these are sterile times, of both culture and education and clever seems near a virtue now.
You are each too busy to read. You are each important characters, in a kind of Roman forum, but, contrary to what you might imagine, you are probably not the play, you are only characters. You are not the passion nor the reason — you are only the brokers. With luck, the course shall be set by a greater humanity. And, with luck, your work shall lead you to a chance to join that humanity.
It was the brilliance and fate of Charles Samuels to hold a line.
Many students went out of their way to avoid his review. There is a report from one of his students that upon hearing of JFK’s assassination on that Friday in November, Samuels screamed at the four walls of his classroom.
Salut, Professore, salut!