UVM Quarterly Essay: Apppreciation of Exeter Professor George Bennett

Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

On the strength of a sonnet I had written at Exeter, I was accepted into a senior creative writing class taught by legendary Harkness professor George Bennett. Over his forty-five-year career he taught several American writers like James Agee and the poet Charles Pratt.

Mr. Bennett sat at the head of an oval Harkness table, saying little other than to occasionally ask unsettling questions about a work we had read or written, or to challenge an assertion by one of us, or to catalyze a flagging discussion that we were expected to sustain for the length of the class.

Once, as a class began with the fourteen of us stymied and mute when asked to discuss T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Mr. Bennett sat quietly for fifty-five minutes and simply stared at us until the bell rang. We were all at a loss and desperate to evade his serene and questioning regard. And, when the bell finally rang, we bolted from the classroom, vowing to one another never to let this happen again.

At eighteen, I was convinced that Erato, the muse of poetry, would infuse me and my clattery Smith Corona portable typewriter with inspiration and that, like Kerouac, I would produce a finished stream of lyric poems and novels that would be the envy of my cohorts and inspire awe in Mr. Bennett.

I returned, however, from each classroom reading with copious notes on my work. Mr. Bennett routinely suggested that I revisit the fifty-page Strunk and White Elements of Style that we had all committed largely to memory. Any literary arrogance had long since fallen by the wayside.

I learned of Flaubert’s pursuit of le mot juste. I learned to write, rewrite, and to question every word choice and phrase. I learned to strip my work of florid descriptors and lofty phrases and to rely more on declarative sentences composed of well-chosen verbs and nouns. I avoided adjectives and adverbs and gradually my short stories and poetry earned a nod from Mr. Bennett rather than a blank stare.

The Harkness roundtable discussion, then characterized as “cooperative inquiry,” was not expected to impart knowledge. Students were expected to acquire this for themselves. The inquiry was designed to test reason and to induce creative thinking.
There are many gaps in my knowledge today, but I credit Mr. Bennett with my ability to reason and to think creatively.

In the spring of 1963, we began to see blood spots in the white handkerchief into which Mr. Bennett increasingly coughed during class. Rumors circulated among us about a diagnosis of lung cancer and we were indeed the last class to experience his minimalist teaching style. For me and many other writers, he remains a legend.

Bill Schubart ’68 is a retired businessman living in Hinesburg. His commentaries can be heard on VPR and he is the author ofThe Lamoille Stories and Fat People. His new novel, Photographic Memory, is coming in the spring.

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