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Class Report

By Craig K. Comstock

published in Harvard Class of 1961, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Report

Woody Allen, admirable as a clarinet amateur, had a story about a schlemiel who, through the agency of a magician’s box, is transported to visit the literary figure of his choice. Allen’s hero chooses Madame Bovary. For me, the magic of arriving at Harvard led to an even more rusticated eminence. Upon climbing to my assigned room--it was Hollis 31--I found on the door a printed notice of previous occupants. Somewhere in the 1830s was the name of Henry David Thoreau. Having come to college like everyone else to qualify for a profession or other lucrative pastime, I suddenly saw a future centered around a self-made cabin, a bean patch, visions of the Ganges glimpsed in New England waters, and forms of disobedience not only civil but literary.

This terrifying self-image was reinforced when John Monro, then dean of the college, honored me with an invitation to assist him, while still an undergraduate, in teaching a course on expository prose, a skill that he had watched me learning, in public, gradually, on the Crimson. When I asked the dean his model of excellent writing, he suddenly looked even more transcendental and lanky than usual and described a style as compact and polished as an acorn, with noble consequences when it was planted in the ground. I did not need to ask whom he meant.

With this background--reinforced by two of my favorite Harvard authors, F.O. Matthieson and Stanley Cavell--I am not surprised, in looking back at what others call my career, to find a certain tendency to go off to the edge of things (in my case, to the Pacific rim), seek to help my society move beyond some of our self-defeating practices, and scribble in books. The first of these was called Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness, a subject not wholly suitable for the beach or hammock. I have returned to a positive twist on this theme in co-editing two books, under the auspices of the Ark Foundation, on the sources of peace and security....

The grandiosity necessary to this task was nourished in me by the experience, in my senior year, of realizing that various small private programs that sent young people abroad to work in the Third World could serve as the model for a similar national effort; publishing in the Crimson a proposal that drew on the wisdom of pioneers in the field; having access to John F. Kennedy as a result of a political broadside on which we had enjoyed collaborating; and persuading him to propose the Peace Corps in his 1960 campaign....

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