The Humanists: Oscar Mandel

Mandel taught English at Caltech for over 40 years. Born in Belgium, he is a bilingual French/ English author of poetry, fiction, and plays, as well as a translator and analyst of all these genres, plus art history. His Gobble-Up Stories, a series of brief morality tales with inventive animal and human characters, were recently performed by Theater Arts at Caltech (TACIT). A collection of his fiction, including the Gobble-Up Stories, was released this year by Prospect Park Books under the title Otherwise Fables.

I have been privileged to work at Caltech under every Caltech president but two. When I was hired in 1961, the chairman of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences was a professor of literature: Hallett Smith, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar. The way Hallett Smith hired me is worthy of note. I had met the division’s French instructor, Paul Bowerman, at a dinner party. I was looking for a job after a year as a Fulbright lecturer in American poetry in Amsterdam. Professor Bowerman introduced me to Professor Smith. The latter interviewed me, took into account the recent publication of my A Definition of Tragedy (New York University Press, 1961) and an article or two (perhaps he even read them), invited me to lunch at the Athenaeum together with Cushing Strout, a professor of history, and decided to hire me. It was a year’s appointment to replace someone on leave of absence. That someone became a dean elsewhere, and as I seemed to have done no harm during that year, I was made permanent. That is approximately how Caltech—or at any rate HSS— functioned in those years.

Caltech in general, and the division in particular, remained kind to me and rewarded me as a teacher, scholar, and writer. By teaching the basics of English literature, drama from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century, and fundamentals of the art of poetry, did I produce a generation of Caltech graduates who are cultivated scientists who read Jane Austen when not tweaking electrons or synapses, subscribe to chamber music series, and frequent art museums and theaters? We cannot know, but we do our duty by opening doors to realms of thoughts and passions neighborly to those that the sciences offer.

-O. Mandel