At age 89, Mary Barnard is still at work. Her latest publication will be of great interest to anyone who has struggled with the muse of the Reed thesis experience. Erato Agonistes, Writing a Creative Thesis at Reed College in "The Golden Age," recounts her thesis journey in faithful detail from her student letters home during the years 1931 and 1932. The story captured in these letters is of a young student put through the paces by her professorial mentors, and of that triumphant moment when the student moves out beyond the mentors' influence into a territory of her own.
In Mary's case, she was coached and prodded by four of Reed's most illustrious professors: Victor Chittick, the professor of romantic and modern literature whose Gawd-Awful Society provided an encouraging workshop for her poetic efforts; Barry Cerf, the classics professor whose readings aloud from Homer's Greek inspired her to register for Greek classes in her sophomore year; Lloyd Reynolds, then teaching literature and creative writing, who persuaded her to relax her style and work at free verse instead of conventional meter and form; and finally, Rex Arragon, the high priest of Reed's humanities program, who would become her lifelong friend. With the exception of Reynolds, then new to campus, these professors were in mid-career at Reed, having been recruited during the college's early years and destined to remain there until retirement. It was a time still commonly referred to as Reed's "golden age."
With their diverse styles and academic interests, these four men come to life with surprising intimacy in Mary's letters, reminding us that apart from the professors one studies with, Reed hardly exists. Matching wits with fellow students may polish the corners of a developing intellect, much like stones rubbing against one another in a river bed, but interactions with professors supply the current that moves the river along. Carried forward on the energy of a dynamic teacher, the fortunate student comes to find that most intangible of qualities: a voice.
So it was for Mary. As evidenced in her letters, she emerged from the messy swamp of the thesis process in triumphant voice, gratefully acknowledging the influence of her mentors and confidently proclaiming her truth in the "Confessional" and the "Creed." After reading Erato Agonistes you can easily imagine how she had the courage, only a year out of Reed, to strike up a correspondence with Ezra Pound. Nor is it difficult to see the threads of her poetic creed_perhaps best characterized by literary critic Molly O'Hara Ewing as seeking the complex beauty of the simple_woven through her sixty-odd years of creative output, from lyrical poetry to short stories, verse translations, an essay in verse, and a book on the origins of myth. Never an imitator, she has invariably gone her own way, often with resounding results. Victor Chittick foresaw and acknowledged as much when he praised Mary's thesis back in 1932 as a "beautiful example of the pedagogic juggernaut overturned by a butterfly."
John Sheehy '82 is a writer and publishing consultant living in the Bay Area. His last article for Reed was a profile of Gary Snyder '51 in the May 1999 issue.