Donald M. Hassler received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967, taught in Montreal prior to that, and then taught English at Kent State University until retiring in 2014; [email protected] He has published books on Erasmus Darwin, Arthur Machen and others and has published poems in Academic Questions, most recently “Still Life Art,” (Winter, 2018).
“What, if I live, I hope to do”
John Keats, in a private letter
This is a personal essay in a divided time, an essay of sentiment, and certainly an odyssey of sorts, a journey of changing ideas. I think it is part of a genre of journey essays from liberalism to conservatism, from hopeful and elaborate abstractions to personal freedom and personal responsibility. I have read some of these intellectual odysseys, and read about them, in Academic Questions since I first discovered this tidy and attractive journal several years ago and its energetic parent organization the National Association of Scholars. But I have known about Grove City College, my father’s alma mater, from the time of my youngest memories when he would drive me from our home in Akron to football games at the college.
Many of my cousins graduated from Grove City. My father’s oldest brother, Uncle Jake, was Bursar of the College from 1924 to 1964. Hasslers have been deeply involved with Grove City for many years, but I more or less forgot about these connections, as I have many such family matters, during most of my own academic life. In the decade of the fifties, I wanted to go to Yale and could have, but got more scholarship money to go to Williams College, and from Williams on to Columbia and a decent and very politically correct academic career.
In college, I would write my Dad long, enthusiastic letters about what I was learning, about FDR’s presidency and, purportedly, how the government saved us from the Depression. He was not a fan of Roosevelt, but I was an eager liberal. Later I had a couple of friends at Columbia who told me how wonderful National Review was, but I paid little attention. My scholarly interest was in science and literature, and I did decent work on Erasmus Darwin and, later, on modern science fiction. I never lost interest in the Dutch Reformed Church, so I had a tough balancing act reconciling my faith with unequivocally secular academics, and I knew this helped me to understand the balancing act Darwin’s brilliant grandson continually performed in his own good marriage to his devout wife Emma Darwin. At Williams, the chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who had earlier been at Yale, helped me to balance faith and work. But I need to get back to Grove City, always there in my family past but mostly ignored until recently, rediscovered thanks to the grace of serendipity, a favorite idea of another of my tortured, intellectual heroes Samuel Johnson.
When my cousin Bob Hassler died unexpectedly (he was the only son of my Uncle Jake the Bursar and a good friend to my wife and me) we gave some money to the college in his memory. In return, Grove City sent us a copy of Freedom’s College: The History of Grove City College by Lee Edwards (Regnery Publishing, 2000). The set of excellent quality glossy photographs in the book includes one labeled “Dr ‘Jake’ Hassler handled college finances for 40 years . . . ” His image in the headshot bears a striking resemblance to his son, as well as to my Dad and his twin brother, my Uncle Dave. Up to my generation, at least, the Hassler men have a marked resemblance.
I read the Edwards book and began to think a lot about my Dad and his brothers, all long gone. Their father, my grandfather, was a minister in a German Reformed denomination and had done his seminary work in eastern Pennsylvania (Franklin and Marshall) and gradually moved westward in his church assignments. My father and Uncle Dave were born in Grove City in 1905. The Reverend Hassler moved his family of six boys and two girls to churches in Ohio and eventually ended up in Shelby, Ohio, where my Dad and Uncle Dave graduated from High School. They briefly attended Heidelberg College, a denominational school north of Shelby, but came back to Shelby after their freshman year. They worked together running a small restaurant in town in order to raise money to continue college.
Uncle Dave wanted to go to Yale, and I have by me now an aging book of browning pages— History of the Class of 1929 Yale College (New Haven, 1929) published under the direction of the Class Secretaries Bureau —with pictures and biographic sketches of the Class of 1929. Uncle Dave was known as “Ed” for some reason. My Dad went to Grove City and graduated the same year with a major in chemistry. He hired in at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Akron and worked there for a little over forty years, proud and grateful that the company kept him working all through the Depression.
Goodyear has changed a lot since those days, but my Dad always maintained a strong loyalty toward what he considered their “paternal” treatment of our family. For my part, I was anxious to get away from Akron and from the GT & R Company in order to try my fortunes in the heady, intellectual world of “coastal” America.
At the time of the Great War, the four boys who were older than the twins all enlisted when America entered. My Dad told great stories of conversations and arguments around the dinner table prior to that. Apparently, my grandfather was a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson while the boys were enthusiastic about Teddy Roosevelt’s more pugnacious position on what was going on in Europe. Though they all served, none of my uncles was a casualty of the war, so the discussions of values continued until my grandfather’s death in 1929, and even beyond that, with opinions on FDR and the New Deal.
I can recall long phone conversations my Dad would have with his Yale educated brother; like the fierce tennis they liked to play—and they were both very strong tennis players. These are the strong Anchises-like ghosts that haunt me, my own personal and academic ghosts and individualized ghosts of strong men. And also, just like in Vergil, the strong volleys in my memory that have been wakened by reading the Grove City history make me weep at the passing of these vigorous kin. The family roots and the sense of simple truths about personal freedom and personal responsibility conveyed in the Edwards history seem like ideas I could recover again, or “uncover.” In the predatory climate of modern times, and especially since Darwinian liberalism, such notions of personal freedom and personal responsibility together seem friendly and necessary for our humanity and for our educational survival. In fact, the open-ended “liberalism” that evolves from the theories of Darwin contains such vicious competition among so many that sensitive individuals find it quite unfriendly. That is why the “comic tone” continually comes into play with such individuals. My favorite example in my study of science fiction is Hal Clement—a very liberal man and thinker and a very funny man at the same time.
So my final ghost to evoke in this short essay is not from my personal family but from the academic family that took me away from my father’s college. It is the ghost of one of my favorite literary descendants of Charles Darwin, a leading hard science fiction writer from the school of Asimov and Heinlein and others who populate the beginnings of modern American science fiction. Hal Clement died in 2002. My own book of criticism on him had come out twenty years earlier (Starmont Reader’s Guide #11). Hal Clement liked my little book, and made me feel like a son. I think now of his most well-known novel Mission of Gravity (Doubleday, 1954). It is a nice paradox that the most liberal notions about the nature of the universe and its nearly infinite potential for development and change are expressed in a heavily rule-driven and conventional genre mode. Science fiction, as we have been studying it, is specific, disciplined and conventional—almost as “driven” by convention as the heroic couplet.
In any case, the introduction to the Edwards history of Grove City, written by Stephen H. Balch, the founding president of the National Association of Scholars, carries echoes of Clement. Balch could tell us if he has read Hal Clement, or many of the hard science fiction greats and Darwinian followers. But his reflection of the college is clearly an echo from Mission of Gravity. The title is a pun. Clement’s planet is one of powerful gravity and a massive, forbidding shape that resembles Earth in a difficult geography that makes travel and even movement more of a challenge than we have to deal with in our movements from, say, Ohio to “coastal” densities. The plot is a journey. Tiny, insect-like creatures with great intelligence have to scurry and scramble across the enormous and odd planet, Mesklin, with huge escarpments; and with the help of human “brothers” they invent means of flight.
It is a great read. Here is the opening sentence or two of the Balch introduction that reminds me of the images in Hal Clement: “Grove City College cuts a dramatic figure on today’s academic landscape. Towering butte-like above parched planes, it stands as a monument to conviction’s power to resist erosive change.” I suspect the key word here has to do with “erosion,” so that the debate will continue over how destructive or constructive change can be. But academically it may be wise to have that debate in the context of personal freedom and a sense of family rather than a context of total predation.