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This report is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

on Hyam Plutzik

Master of Two Worlds
Andrew Latimer
YOU CAN IMAGINE the anticipation: Hyam Plutzik, a thirty-year-old American-Belarusian farmhand, secretary, journalist and, most successfully, poet, licks the back of an envelope containing a seventy-two-page letter, which had taken him seven months to construct, in which he expounds upon the previous seven years of his life’s experiences since leaving Yale in ‘disgrace’ – complete with poetic extracts, mystical fibrillations and a varied, if not a little deflating, curriculum vitae. And who was the addressee of this epistolary magnum opus? None other than his old Yale professor, Odell Shepard.

More than just any old university professor, Shepard was the type of professor that has in a way come to define the golden age of American academia of the 1940s and ’50s – learnéd, without being overly scholarly, politically motivated (I mean a genuinely politically active citizen, not in the way that many university professors think of themselves as ‘political’ now) and first and foremost a teacher of first-class calibre. In fact, Plutzik described Shepard as ‘one of the great teachers of our time […] an upholder of dignity against system and mechanism’. Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1938 for his Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott.

And what was Shepard’s reply to his long-estranged student’s unexpected intrusion? A guarded two-page answer – never actually posted – full of the paternal restraint appropriate to a teacher not wishing to encourage his pupil further. Shepard’s response is almost beautiful in its curtness and is the absolute antithesis of Plutzik’s letter: the haiku to Plutzik’s ...

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