‘Presidential’ Poetry–A Candidate Teaches at Maryland

Having guest or visiting lecturers is nothing new on college campuses, but students in the University of Maryland English department got a special treat in the fall of 1971.  Eugene McCarthy, presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator, arrived to teach two classes, ENGL243 and ENGL479.  The former course would cover poetry and poetics for undergrads, and the latter was an advanced undergraduate seminar in literature and politics.  McCarthy, who had not yet given up politics entirely, was initially noncommittal about his future past the end of the semester.

UMD's English Department announces former Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy's arrival on campus.  Department of English newsletter, November 1971.
UMD’s English Department announces former Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s arrival on campus. Department of English newsletter, November 1971.

McCarthy “appeared fidgety,” according to the Washington Post, which attended and covered an early ENGL243 class.  While McCarthy had previously taught economics, he had never taught poetry before.  He purportedly sought to combine political thought and poetry, the Post reporting that McCarthy “plans to inject a note of politics into his course,” assigning Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

Ultimately McCarthy stayed just for the fall 1971 semester, deciding to seek the Democratic presidential nomination again in 1972.  Perhaps this was not a moment too soon: in January 1972, two Maryland state legislators, irritated by what they perceived to be McCarthy’s creation of a “political action course,” and dubbing him “the politician of student unrest,” demanded his firing and the recapturing of his salary. McCarthy labeled the charges “ridiculous,” noting that he had explicitly rejected teaching a politics class, and had never abused his position.  McCarthy’s job performance was supported by Morris Freedman, chair of the English Department. One source to the Post described McCarthy’s classes not as partisan, but as “a bit of a bore.”  McCarthy would be unsuccessful as a presidential candidate in 1972, and again in 1976, running five times without success.

(Non-UMD Sources: The Washington Post, “McCarthy, the UM Poet, Staying in Political Arena,” Sept. 15, 1971; “2 Delegates Seek to Fire McCarthy, say he taints UM class with politics,” Jan. 8, 1972; “McCarthy ends his UM career,” Jan. 12, 1972.)

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