Later this year, I will have the opportunity to teach the introductory class in a doctoral program in higher education leadership—a program designed for people who have decided they wish to pursue a career in higher education administration. My experience appears to lend me some credibility in the area of administration, for which I am grateful. But unlike the graduate students with whom I will have the privilege of engaging, I wandered into higher education administration. There was little that was conscious or deliberate in determining that administration was a career I wished to pursue. This post is the first installment in an explanation of how I ended up spending some thirty of my more than forty years in higher education in administration.
To simplify, I will focus on the role of George Henry Boker in leading me to administration. When in the late 1960s I was selecting a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I was enamored—as I still am—of the Elizabethan sonneteers, of whom Shakespeare was, of course, one. I was delighted to discover that an American poet, George Henry Boker (1823-1890), had written an extensive sonnet sequence—in fact, more than one sequence—modeled on the Elizabethan sequences. I knew nothing about Boker when I discovered him. I did discover early on that although he was married to Julia Riggs, who came from one of the most prominent banking families in America, Boker apparently had not written his sonnets to—or about—her. I suspect she was grateful for that.
One might ask why any American poet would have bothered writing sonnets in imitation of the Elizabethans, let alone this particular poet from a wealthy background in Philadelphia. Well, since one might as well ask that question as ask any other, I asked it—and proposed to my major professor that I would explore Boker’s career and answer the question, which, I happily assumed, the world was anxious to know.
I am not certain my major professor knew much about Boker other than his name and that he was associated with the history of American drama, having been famous in his own time both as the author of Francesca da Rimini and as “the handsomest man in America.” (He was either famous or notorious, depending on your point of view, as a man with remarkable success with women—candidly, based on pictures of Boker, I am not sure I understand this.) Interestingly, Boker’s most famous play appeared in 1855, meaning it comes at the end of the remarkable five years (1850-1855) in American literature that saw the publication of many of American literature's most significant works.
What neither my major professor nor I thought anything about was the marketability of a person whose area of specialization is so rarefied that it did not auger well for success in the job market of the early 1970s--a time when thousands of Ph.D.s scampered to secure a few hundred open positions teaching, if one were fortunate, freshman composition, as opposed to an upper-level seminar in obscure American poets—of whom Boker was certainly one.
I did go on to publish a book on Boker in the Twayne Series on American Literature. The most interesting aspect to Boker, which my book touched on, but did not meaningfully explore (I must admit) was the anxiety of masculinity Boker and others at the time felt about the implications of a man's pursuing a literary career.
The anxiety received expression from Nathaniel Hawthorne, when he complained of the "damned mob of scribbling women" whose work dominated American literature and made it impossible--in his view--for a real writer to succeed. But to succeed, a male had to clearly indicate that he was not one of those "scribbling women."
In Boker's case, he, and especially his friend and fellow-Princeton graduate, Charles Godfrey Leland, were admonished by their powerful and socially prominent fathers to "act like men" by going into business.
Especially intriguing was Boker's relationship with Bayard Taylor, whose Joseph and His Friend is counted as the first American novel to deal openly with homosexuality and whose letters to Boker--and his to Taylor--often express intense affection.
In any event, armed with a specialization in the American sonnet and an even narrower specialized little book on a minor American author, I sallied forth, only to discover through any number of accidents and chance encounters that faculty positions in American literature would not materialize for me and that the path to more secure employment lay--as Boker's father had tried to tell him--in pursuing a career in business--the subject of my next installment.