Of This Time, Of That Place

by Lionel Trilling

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“Of This Time, of That Place” opens with Joseph Howe, an English instructor at Dwight College, preparing for the first class of his course in modern drama. After his opening remarks, he sets his students to work on a theme, and as they are writing, a tall, awkward boy enters and announces, “I am Tertan, Ferdinand R., reporting at the direction of Head of Department Vincent.” Tertan’s essay on the assigned topic, “Who I am and why I came to Dwight College,” is remarkable for the breadth of its learning but dismaying for its wild rhetoric. In answer to his own rhetorical question, “Who am I?” Tertan exclaims, “Tertan I am, but what is Tertan? Of this time, of that place, of some parentage, what does it matter?”

That same evening, Howe, who is also a poet, reads in the journal Life and Letters a sharp attack on the “precious subjectivism” of his poetry. The author of the essay, Frederick Woolley, practices a criticism informed by “humanitarian politics,” and he dismisses as trivial the “well-nigh inhuman” poets who ignore the “millions facing penury and want” while they scribble away in their ivory towers. Woolley identifies Howe as representative of these poets of irresponsibility.

Stung by Woolley’s denigration of his poetry, Howe is nonplussed a week later when Tertan appears in his office to announce that he has read Woolley’s essay, that he, Tertan, is an aspiring man of letters, and that he is on Howe’s side against Woolley. This confession of faith makes Howe uneasy as it reveals Tertan’s sense of a complicity between him and Howe against the Philistines of letters.

Howe is still absorbing the import of Tertan’s visit when Theodore Blackburn, vice president of the Student Council, presents himself in a flurry of servile yet self-important “sirs.” Blackburn expresses his admiration for “Shakespeare who is so dear to us of the Anglo-Saxon tradition,” and asks permission to audit Howe’s course in the Romantic prose writers. As they enter the classroom, Blackburn takes Howe’s arm to guide him in, but “Howe felt a surge of temper rise in him and almost violently he disengaged his arm and walked to the desk, while Blackburn found a seat in the front row and smiled at him.”

As the year wears on, Howe ponders the problems represented by Woolley’s broadside, Tertan’s growing disengagement from reality, and Blackburn’s resentment at the low grades Howe awards him. Howe finally presents the case of Tertan to the academic dean, who already has a sense of Tertan’s confusion as a result of a letter Tertan sent the dean praising Howe as a “Paraclete,” or one who is called to help. Eventually, at the dean’s suggestion, a physician examines Tertan and confides to the dean that Tertan is going mad. When Tertan approaches Howe to request a recommendation to the Quill and Scroll Society, Howe writes a brief, noncommittal testimony to Tertan’s “intense devotion to letters.” Several days later, Blackburn approaches Howe to complain of his grade, threatening to blackmail Howe into giving him a better mark. Blackburn refers to Woolley’s essay (which he does not know the dean has already read) and implies that not only will he expose Howe to the dean as an incompetent poet, but also he will charge Howe with recommending to the college literary society a student with an unbalanced mind. Howe’s quiet answer is, “Blackburn, you’re mad.” Howe then strikes out the C-minus on Blackburn’s essay and replaces it with an F.

In the conclusion, Howe passes Blackburn in his course simply to be rid of him, and Blackburn becomes the first man in his graduating class to get a job. On commencement day, Tertan appears attired in a suit of raw silk, wearing a broad-brimmed Panama hat and carrying a bamboo cane. As Howe stands reluctantly with Blackburn and the dean, Tertan walks by on his way to nowhere, eliciting a pang of deep sympathy from Howe. Tertan then vanishes in “the last sudden flux of visitors.”

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