Theodore Spencer '23's journals, on display at Firestone, offer vignettes of the last century's great writers

Theodore Spencer '23 in 1945
Theodore Spencer '23 in 1945
Theodore Spencer Journals Collection, C1056, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

It may be easier to evaluate others than to look hard in the mirror, but literary critics seem able to do both. 

Edmund Wilson ’16, to pick the most famous example, matched his incisive analyses of other writers with copious journals recording his own life. Though he is less well remembered, Wilson’s contemporary Theodore Spencer ’23 did much the same thing. Spencer’s journals, which provide a fascinating insight into the literary and academic world of more than half a century ago, recently were given to Princeton by his son, John Spencer ’53, and will be on display at Firestone Library, along with a family guest book, through the end of June.

The journals, two volumes of notebooks bought at the Harvard Coop, cover the years from 1937 to 1947. Like all diaries, their chief attraction to the outsider is voyeuristic: Spencer knew nearly everyone in the world of arts and letters, and many of the great literary figures of the time, including Vladimir Nabokov, Conrad Aiken, Robert Sherwood, Archibald MacLeish, and Dorothy Thompson, stroll across their pages. The journals also record, in Spencer’s neat, tiny handwriting, his many affairs and infidelities.

John Spencer obtained the journals a few years ago, after his stepmother’s death. Although the rest of Theodore Spencer’s papers are at Harvard, Leonard Milberg ’53, a longtime supporter of the library, persuaded his classmate to donate the journals to Princeton.

Theodore Spencer graduated Phi Beta Kappa and served as poetry editor of the Nassau Literary Magazine and as a writer for the Triangle Show. In his graduation poll, Spencer was not voted “wittiest” or best dressed, but finished second for “thinks he is” in both categories. His PAW memorial in 1949 recalled him as “diffident almost to the point of shyness.”

After graduation, Spencer spent a year at Cambridge University, pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard, and was appointed an instructor in English there before completing his degree. He became an assistant professor in 1936, but three years later, apparently for budgetary reasons, Harvard President James Bryant Conant informed Spencer that he would not be rehired. Spencer then was hired as a lecturer in English literature at Cambridge, the first American to be so honored. But with the outbreak of World War II, that appointment never materialized, and Spencer continued to teach at Harvard — first as a visiting professor, and then as a permanent faculty member.

According to Leslie Morris, curator of modern manuscripts and rare books at Harvard’s Houghton Library, Spencer was the first professor at Harvard, and possibly in the United States, to recognize James Joyce as a major literary figure and to teach his works. A prolific writer, Spencer also published several volumes of poetry and literary criticism, including Death and Elizabethan Tragedy (1936) and Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1942), which grew out of the prestigious Lowell Lectures he delivered at Harvard. Spencer also was named Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric in 1946, a post once held by John Quincy Adams.

“Dressed in tweed jacket, grey flannels, and loud bow tie, he grips his lectern and recites poetry in a flowing, resonant voice and a Philadelphia accent improved in Britain,” Time magazine wrote about Spencer in 1946. “Characteristic advice to students: To understand James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, ‘lie on your bed, hold the book over you, and let the words just pour down.’” The Harvard Alumni Bulletin described him in 1948 as one of the university’s most popular teachers. Spencer had what might be called a professor’s warped sense of affection for his students. Proctoring an exam in the spring of 1940, he writes in his journal, “As usual, a sort of warm feeling of love and unity came over me when I saw those 45 students stripped and sweating, with ties loosened from their collars, bent over
the forms writing away like mad on the questions I’d given them.”

Spencer moved in the highest literary circles, and his journals are full of delightful vignettes. For example, he finds a 1938 meeting with James Joyce disappointing. “Knowing that I was from Harvard,” Spencer writes, “[Joyce] had brought his step-grandson around, with the idea that I could do him favors, and that was annoying and got in the way.” A few months earlier, Spencer and T.S. Eliot shared a night of talk and alcohol in London. “A glass of sherry — a bottle of Burgundy — a glass of Madeira — two double whiskeys — we left at 12 and separated in the subway.”

Ezra Pound comes across as a boor, though a pretty good tennis player who beats Spencer — 17 years his junior — in straight sets. “E.P. doesn’t drink but ate nine slices of roast beef and four potatoes and, well, swilled tea,” Spencer records in 1939. On another visit, not long afterward, Pound “ordered our maid about all over the place — made her wash all his shirts, etc.” Upon leaving, Pound left the
maid a 50-cent tip. The poet Robert Frost “droned away” during a 1943 train ride from Boston to New York, “sometimes reciting poems, sometimes telling anecdotes.”

“Yesterday at 6, Frost dropped by with his dog,” begins another entry that year. Frost is “likeable and the reverse at the same time. Very lonely for one thing. ... Jealous of any poet who might rival him.”

If Spencer’s professional life was rich, his personal life might be called salacious. John Spencer, with more than a trace of bitterness, calls his father “a world-class philanderer,” a charge for which the journals provide ample evidence. Spencer records at least five affairs — one of which resulted in another son — during the decade covered by the journals. He first began seeing Martha Bigelow Lyman, referred to throughout the journals as “M,” in 1937, and kept up an affair, with regular assignations at hotels and borrowed apartments, for at least eight years. Spencer’s feelings for her swerve between devotion and condescension; he frequently bemoans M’s “provinciality.” Given to intellectualize matters of the heart, one day he assesses his feelings for M by drawing their areas of compatibility in a Venn diagram.

Another conquest was the writer Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson’s wife, though it is not clear who conquered whom. After one tryst at the Wilsons’ summer place on Cape Cod, Spencer notes that “Mary and I began arguing about Othello,” before moving to the bedroom. Writing later that weekend, he records, “Edmund arrived at noon the next day — Sunday. Not a very simple situation.” Ever urbane, however, Wilson, McCarthy, and Spencer make the best of an awkward morning and proceed to have lunch with novelist John Dos Passos. (Wilson and McCarthy are two of the 29 visitors to the Spencer house whose autographs are contained in a two-page guest book, covering the years 1940–41, which is included in the Princeton exhibit. The book also contains the signatures of poet Delmore Schwartz and Nabokov, who decorated his with a tiny butterfly.)

John Spencer says he remembers desultory games of catch as a boy whenever his father felt guilty about his regular absences. Still, being the son of a literary light sometimes made life interesting; he recalls being given a teddy bear by T.S. Eliot. The younger Spencer followed a different path than his father did: After graduating from Princeton (where he, too, majored in English), John Spencer became an infantry platoon leader in the U.S. Marine Corps, a Peace Corps program evaluator in Senegal, and a program officer in the African and Middle Eastern department of the Ford Founda-tion. With a deep interest in Africa, he became a professor of African history at Middlebury College, served as dean of the college from 1976 to 1981, and just completed a term as a college trustee.

Today, Theodore Spencer is little remembered as a poet or a critic. “He’s like a lot of academics who don’t leave a lot behind. That goes with the trade,” suggests Michael Wood, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Sean Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era, who has read the journals, credits Spencer with promoting the literary modernists within academia and for deepening the modernists’ understanding of 17th-century literature. In a review of Spencer’s criticism for The New York Review of Books nearly 20 years after his death, the poet W.H. Auden suggested where Spencer’s true strength lay: “His observations about [Shakespeare] are not, and make no claim to be, startlingly original,” Auden wrote. “It is much to Professor Spencer’s credit that ... he makes no effort to secure applause for a brilliant performance, but concentrates upon doing his duty as a professional teacher of Shakespeare.”

As his journals reveal, however, Spencer himself sometimes was haunted by his ragged life. After a visit with mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in 1939, he reproaches himself.  “Am I wrong to be astonished in what I find in myself? On the one hand, there I sit, talking to Whitehead, a saintly old man of 78; perhaps — certainly — the greatest living philosopher — about Montaigne, about the relationship between philosophy and literature. The room is full of books, of wisdom and speculation. Yet 36 hours later, where am I? Having lunch at the Statler with M, rushing with her from one place to another looking for the contraceptive she couldn’t find. ... ”

Fed up with his running around, Spencer’s first wife, Nancy, divorced him in 1946. Eventually, the relationship with M petered out; she moved to California and out of Spencer’s life. Years of hard living may have been catching up with him, as he suffered a heart attack in the spring of 1948. That summer, he married Eloise Worcester, but barely half a year later, on Jan. 18, 1949, Spencer suffered a second, fatal, heart attack as he got into a taxicab outside his house in Cambridge, Mass. He was 46 years old.

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.