Van Doren

April 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the fall of 1961, I took a semester of freshman lit. The instructor was a young man named John Van Doren. He would pace slowly back and forth at the front of the narrow classroom, often pausing mid-sentence and looking up at the wall, apparently searching for just the right word or idea. He held his white handkerchief to his mouth, as though his intense concentration might be causing him to drool slightly. Then he would turn back to the class and continue speaking.

There was something familiar about him, but what? After a few weeks, I finally realized what it was: Charles in the isolation booth.

Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Mr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: “The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and … Bulgaria.” [from the obit in today’s Times.

I had watched the show, though not often. I don’t know what relation my teacher was to the Columbia professor who four years earlier had drawn millions of Americans to their televisions each week to watch “Twenty-One.” A cousin perhaps.* Certainly there was a family resemblance.

I remember almost nothing of Henry IV, part i or As I Lay Dying and whatever else was on the syllabus. What I remember is Van Doren’s performance and its similarity to that of his famous relative, right down to the handkerchief held to his mouth, as in the right-hand frame above.

* UPDATE, April 12.  John was the younger brother of Charles. (Thanks to Anonymous for providing the link. In 1961, such information was not a click away.) John died in January of this year.

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