Novelist Philip Roth '54 recalls John “Jack” Wheatcroft '49, 'the best of teachers'
By Philip Roth '54
I may not have the facts exactly right — this all happened oh-so-long-ago — but I believe I met Jack in my junior year at Bucknell, in 1952, when I was 19 and he was 26. He was an instructor in the English department and under what circumstances we met I don’t recall, since I wasn’t in any of his classes. As a consequence of not being his student, we hit it off as friends virtually from the start, and frequently I dropped in at his house to talk, alone or with my wonderful girlfriend Betty Powell, and once in a while, Betty and I would babysit for the Wheatcrofts when they went out for the evening.
Jack enjoyed my theatrics when he asked me to tell him about the Jewish neighborhood in Newark where I’d grown up during the Depression and the war. He got a special kick out of hearing about some of the more vivid characters who populated a tiny enclave wholly foreign to him, family friends and neighbors whose idiosyncratic styles of self-presentation he encouraged me to mimic while we sat over a cup of coffee in the Wheatcrofts’ kitchen in the late afternoon or evening. With no other faculty member did I ever feel such freedom as I did with Jack, so liberated in my behavior on what was then a typically straitlaced college campus of the 1950s, where (outside of the drama department) no student would dream of calling a teacher by his given name and students were addressed formally, as a matter of course, as Mr. and Miss. What made Jack and me intimates were those very qualities that made him the best of teachers: His sympathies were so extensive and his curiosity so deep that he unlocked in the young talents and aptitudes previously, at best, only half-known to them.
Less than a decade earlier, Jack had been serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed in the Pacific theater during World War II, though he never spoke back then about those years of service and the fierce battles he’d lived through as a sailor in a war zone. Otherwise he was open and accessible, and being an intimate of his when he was starting out as a young teacher was sometimes like being on a seesaw — gravity and darkness one moment, levity and lightness the next.
The gravity, I remember, impressed me greatly — the grim fortitude of the man of conscience. Jack, the unillusioned humanist, was serious in the most serious way. He came at you armed with means of focusing attention that dispelled all banality and superfluousness so as to zero in on the most important concerns. He could laugh, he loved to laugh, susceptible as he was to the comical side of living, but when talking about what truly counted — ethical issues, mortality, loneliness, the burden of suffering, flawed humanity, and above all, above everything, the unsurpassable absorption, literature — he was suffused with the severity of a cleric.
Literature was not merely a subject. I learned from Jack’s example that literature was not one’s field of interest but one’s calling, no less so than religious work, and that faithfully scrutinizing a revered literary text was a secular act of worship that could make the spirit soar. Jack was not just an avid student, an eager teacher, and a dedicated maker of literature — he was a priest of literature, and so I choose to remember this friend of my youth.
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