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With a sprawling urban campus of more than 200 acres currently hosting over 30,000 students, Wayne State University is one of the country's largest and most diverse universities, claiming roots dating to 1868. Situated amid museums, the Detroit Public Library, and other cultural and social spots, Wayne State is also the heart of Detroit's University Cultural Center and the academic home of many of Detroit's writers.
Wayne State University in Literature
Philip Levine returns to his alma mater in several interviews and essays, often wavering between pride in and derision for Wayne University, as it was known in his student days of the late 1940s and early '50s, though he scorns some aspects of academia rather than the university itself. He laments Wayne's evolution, in his opinion, from "the city university of Detroit" ("Keats's Letters" 3), which "really functioned as a school for the city" (Interview with Terkel 63, emphasis added), to a state school merely in the city. With its spectrum of scholars ranging from the traditional college student to the decidedly non-traditional in his college days, Wayne
This intersection of the working and the academic worlds during Levine's years at Wayne "made an education, say, in English literature not seem as hopelessly irrelevant as it actually was. [….] Here we were sitting in the classroom pretending that it was important. That somehow life would change if we all read Milton, and we all read Milton, and nothing changed" (Interview with Garrett 114-15). Similarly, reading the poetry of John Keats "potently lifted the gloom that hovered over my small portion of Detroit [….] Wonderful too, it seems to me, that I found him at Wayne, a campus of seedy old homes and temporary buildings bursting with the new students the postwar years deposited" ("Keats's Letters" 8, 12). And yet, though he ponders the worth of literature and of a liberal arts education for his working-class contemporaries, many of whom did not find his success beyond the factories, Levine appreciates the prospect of change that Wayne offered to the proletariat-in his college days, at least: "I was able to go to college because the school welcomed working-class people, and I think that's not quite true anymore" (Interview with Terkel 63). He recalls with admiration a Wayne old-timer gently instructing an imported newcomer in university teaching philosophy and values:
Despite his belief that one's opportunity for an education, particularly at Wayne and schools like it, should be a right rather than a privilege, Levine contemplates life and the world beyond academic pursuits-and the worth of those pursuits themselves-in his essays "The Key," which is "largely a fiction" (Introduction, Bread vii) based upon his days at Wayne, and "The Bread of Time Redeemed," in which he has "taken great liberties with actual events" (Introduction, Bread vii). "The Key" begins with Levine sitting in class at "a long, scarred wooden table in the seminar room on the second floor of Old Main" ("Key" 116), Wayne University's foundation and oldest building, completed in 1896. With a novel, "the holy text […] marred and mangled by […] undecipherable notes" (116), before him, his is the lone dissenting shake of the head in a room of students silently nodding in agreement with their distinguished professor. Dr. Joseph Prescott, Wayne's formidable Joyce scholar, face "clouded with sadness" at the betrayal, asks his student if he cares to speak his opinion. However, Levine cannot ignore the world beyond the historic walls to ponder a potential response: "it is quiet or relatively so at this great urban university, because the traffic light at Warren and Cass is red. [….] The light changes from red to green" (117). He listens to the roar of traffic, of city buses and cars and trucks hauling more cars, and imagines their race to the next traffic lights, cities neighboring and distant, and "beyond that […] the wide world" (117); the question and his "unformulated answer vanish forever in the roar of 1952" (117). And, Levine hints, do this small unfinished professor-student exchange and grander scholarly aims really matter? He returns at the essay's conclusion to Dr. Prescott and the final meeting of the seminar in Old Main, in which the professor asks for any last questions: "We were twelve totally befuddled students who knew at least that it was too late to begin asking. No one said a word. Dr. Prescott began his summation, the magical key by means of which we could open every impossible, Byzantine text." Instead, Dr. Prescott simply declares his many years devoted to the subject of the seminar "a wasted life" (137), his objective unfulfilled.
In "The Bread of Time Redeemed," Levine recounts his relationship with Dorothy Shaughnessy, the thirteen-year-old granddaughter of his landlady during his college years who exhibited both great poetic talent and ambition. At a Wayne University poetry reading to which Levine has proudly brought her with visions of a protégée, Dorothy "chok[es] with hilarity" (271) at the "inept[ness]" (273) of the participants, "expecting something better from a university poet" (273). Her response destroys the golden academic cast that had settled upon the poets and rouses Levine's critical ear and memory: "like so many of the young Detroit poets-myself included-[one poet] cultivated the role of the writer too sensitive for the world. [….] I recalled that the first time I'd heard a poetry reading at Wayne-it too had been given by students […]-I'd been stunned by how seriously these young people took themselves and their writing and how totally opaque and uninteresting I'd found most of the poems" (272). Years later, Levine learns from Richard Werry, "one of two practicing poets who taught at Wayne" (277), that Dorothy, after changing her name to Teo Zoisha,
Though she abandons Wayne and Detroit and ceases to write poetry, "[i]n truth Dorothy was the most precocious child I'd ever met, one who possessed a dazzling gift for language, a gift far greater than my own" ("Bread" 289). Yet, Levine implies that her gift-not typical of most college poets, who learn and write and share with fellow aspirants-prevented her from becoming the conventional college poet, a role that Levine and his contemporaries often embraced without question.
Moreover, Levine declares, Wayne poets had the difficulty of place with which to contend: "Detroit was not Greenwich Village, Cambridge, or even Berkeley; it taught you not to advertise all of your ambitions. Its stance was ferociously masculine, and most of its citizens seemed to have little interest in or tolerance for the arts or for what might be described as 'artistic behavior'" ("Keats" 7). Levine and many of his Wayne contemporaries struggled for lives beyond the seemingly inevitable factory existence, beyond functioning as cogs in the great machine of Detroit-yet his observations often suggest an academic assembly line producing fruitless scholarship or artistic conformity.
Poet Andrei Codrescu's "Detroit Love Song" describes an immigrant's first glimpses of mid-1960s America via Detroit, from the Lodge Expressway to the Wayne State University cafeteria to the rest of the city. Of the university cafeteria "that is no more"-the only campus location that he mentions-Codrescu reminisces about the scene of his "happiest days" and his "best poems," where he pursued women rather than anything as trivial as an education. He wanders away from Wayne State "looking for the center of the city," unwittingly but unflinchingly colliding with "the psychedelic Sixties / [that] came to Detroit & to me." Though the cultural center area is his haunt and haven, he mentions no tangible benefit from Wayne State but his wife, who worked at the university cafeteria lost and found and "found me I guess"-but not at Wayne. He is born into American society not on a campus but in the street, in a Detroit that, for Codrescu, suddenly descends from artistic and social community to rioting.
Former Detroit resident and University of Detroit instructor Joyce Carol Oates's National Book Award-winning novel Them explores, among other themes of Detroit history throughout a thirty-year period, the tense race relations that culminated in the Detroit riots and their supposed connection to Wayne State University and its environs. On a scorching day in 1967, Jules Wendall, a young white man, walks "past big apartment buildings where students from Wayne State University lived, crowded and noisy, in the midst of a clutter of garbage cans and cardboard boxes that the city workers didn't bother to collect" (418); he attempts to avoid the notice of black police officers because "[d]own here white men were more suspect than Negroes. What were they doing down here? Down here? Had they chosen to live down here?" (419). From the student shot for his anti-war beliefs to the drop-out who becomes a prostitute to the drug addict who steals a typewriter from a professor's office, Them stresses the influences of urban tribulation and political strife as they encroach upon the university, which cannot remain emotionally and ideologically detached from the city and its inhabitants.
Oates remarks upon the changing role of the university, from traditional base of education and culture to a simmering core of late 1960s radicalism, determined to destroy the old order of Detroit by any means necessary and regardless of consequences. White sociology professor Mort Piercy laments "getting by, getting along" with "[m]oney from a university, money from the government," feeling no need to distinguish between the two institutions, "while everything around me is rotting, going to hell"(423), yet he declares himself "eminently qualified to sell my brains, goddam it, and figure out a way to burn it all down" (427). He tells Jules of his intention to create controlled chaos, with the ultimate goal of purging Detroit and creating "a new, beautiful, peaceful society" (472):
Idealism and radicalism thus converge, as Oates uses Wayne State as a pivotal setting-recognizing the university's status as intellectual and political center of Detroit-in the planning of the riots: university intellectuals, mostly white, plan and initiate the city riots as a racial and social revolution, intending "'to see this city burned down and built up again'" (423). Candidates for a political assassination range from President Johnson to the Michigan governor to Martin Luther King Jr., but one revolutionary, to the amusement of his peers, proposes "'someone significant like'" Wayne State president William Keast: "'He has more significance than people know-he's a symbol. And the black revolution and the youth revolution should converge on the university, should get together on the campus. The campus will be the battlefield, not the slums'" (432). To "get into this community" (426) may be their objective, but, after the riots begin, those supposedly responsible, "a group of white people […] standing around, drinking beer" (461), watch the revolution "playground" (462) from a rooftop until their relatively safe refuge is raided. Mort and Jules soon abandon the scene of the failed social experiment for Los Angeles, the riots having vastly widened the already considerable gap between black and white in Detroit.
In his 1977 crime novel Unknown Man #89, Elmore Leonard notes the seamier aspects of Detroit as they intertwine with culture and academia. While searching for a missing man, process server Jack Ryan notes the mix of bar patrons, not just students, and the odd banality of everyday urban life: "'I parked near Wayne University and walked south looking in the bars, every bar on Cass down to Temple, then another four or five blocks to be sure [….] I saw a lot of hookers getting their afternoon eye-opener and going to the grocery store" (59). Ryan later meets Denise Leary, who reminisces about "'the art center area […] around Wayne and the art museum, the main library,'" where "'I felt I was into real life, there was so much going on around there. Sort of a Left Bank atmosphere with the art and the freaky students at Wayne and the inner-city stuff, the hookers and pimps in their wild outfits, all sort of mixed together. At the time I thought, wow, beautiful. Or bizarro, if it was a little kinky'" (177). In Leonard's view, the university is not separate from the city; the lines between are more blurred.
In their mentions of Wayne State University in various forms, several writers examine the separation of the university from the rest of Detroit but consider Wayne a haven of intellect and culture and politics entrenched in sometimes unpromising surroundings, made all the more intriguing because of this improbable combination.
Wayne State University Writers
Marygrove staff member Jamie M. Babcock is pursuing her third Wayne State University degree.
Photos courtesy of Wayne State University.
Codrescu, Andrei. "Detroit Love Song." Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001. Eds. Melba Joyce Boyd and M. L. Liebler. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001. 95-99.
Leonard, Elmore. Unknown Man #89. 1977. New York: HarperTorch, 2002.
Levine, Philip. "The Bread of Time Redeemed." The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1994. 260-292.
- - -. Interview with Jan Garrett: Sydney, Australia, Summer, 1978. Don't Ask. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1981. 108-137.
- - -. Interview with Studs Terkel: Chicago, Illinois, Spring, 1977. Don't Ask 60-88.
- - -. Introduction and Acknowledgements. The Bread of Time vii-viii.
- - -. "The Key." The Bread of Time 116-139.
- - -. "Neruda y Yo." So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002. 47-52.
- - -. "On First Looking into John Keats's Letters." So Ask 1-12.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Them. 1969. New York: Ballantine, 1983.