The Raven: Waldo Forest McNeir, ’29

The biggest surprise in the 1927 issue of The Raven turned out to be the identity of one of its editors, Waldo Forest McNeir ’29 (or M’Neir as he sometimes styled himself). It seems to have been McNeir who was the chief provocateur behind the magazine and the one who drew the most fire from the rest of student body.

 

The instant the name registered in my mind I knew exactly who he was. I had encountered him many years ago in a wildly different context. While I was in Louisiana researching the desegregation of Tulane I also naturally came across lots of material about race relations at LSU. It was here that I first came across McNeir, an English professor at LSU (a Spenser specialist of all things) who had done something so magnificent and so crazy that even though I didn’t need it for my work I copied the newspaper article and brought it home with me. I had, though, no idea that he was a Rice alum!

Here we go, from a January 5, 1961 Associated Press report:

Given the context of Louisiana politics in 1961 this was a spectacular gesture, guaranteed to cause exactly what it did cause, as McNeir surely knew it would. And as if the contents of the letter weren’t provocative enough, writing it on LSU stationery ensured a public blow up of significant proportions. In the end McNeir shook the dust of Louisiana off his shoes and wound up at the University of Oregon, where he spent the rest of his career.

After his death in 1991 a memorial tribute appeared in The Spenser Newsletter. It describes a man with the energy and engagement of the boy who attended the Institute in the 1920s but with the warmth and generosity of maturity, a man who might provoke, but provoke in the interests of justice.

                                               WALDO F.McNEIR, 1908-1991

92.66 Waldo F. McNeir, born in Houston, Texas, attended the Rice Institute (now Rice University), where he graduated A.B. in 1929. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill he graduated A.M. in English in 1932 and Ph.D. in 1940. He and Corinne married in 1935. He taught English at North Texas State in Denton, 1940-42 and 1946, his tenure there interrupted by four years’ service in the US Navy, culminating in his command of an LST in the Pacific theater for the last two years of the war. He taught English at the University of Chicago, 1946-49, at LSU in Baton Rouge 1949-61, and at the University ofOregon, Eugene, 1961-74, where he was retired Professor of English Emeritus. He was Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Marburg in 1957 and 1964, and at the University ofMunster in 1968; and Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia in 1975.

Waldo McNeir participated actively for many years in the MLA and its South Central and Pacific branches, in the International Shakespeare Society, and in the Spenser Society from its inception. He was a contributing editor to the Spenser News/mer from its first volume until his death. He published numerous articles on Renaissance literature and edited several volumes of scholarly studies, besides co-authoring Edmund Spenser: An Annotated Bibliography 1937-1972 (l975). In 1975 he and Corinne retired to Houston, where they lived until death, Corinne in the mid-eighties and Waldo in July, 1991.

This bare sketch of his life of course misses the essential Waldo almost completely; for among scholars as among any other group of people he was an absolute original, a person who lived more intensely than anyone else I have ever known.

In 1974 I spent six weeks in Eugene as Waldo and Corinne’s guest while he and I were completing the Spenser bibliography. On the first work day, Waldo sat down after breakfast with Corinne and made a list of the day’s agenda: a clock to be taken for repair; a pile of papers in his carrel-office that had to be classified and filed before we could set up our program for the six weeks’ joint effort; a visit to the liquor store to get supplies for an at-home bash the following Saturday; a visit to a grad student who was sulking in his apartment, unable to get on with his thesis; and so on and on.

After four hours’ morning work in the library he and I lunched at a restaurant he had recently spotted (Corinne couldn’t eat dinner in the evening if she joined him at one of these lunches). I never drank at lunch for fear of drowsiness, but Waldo could and did have a cocktail or two, without any noticeable effect on his accuracy and diligence in the further four hours at the library. Before resuming work in the library, we dropped off the clock to be fixed and purchased the liquor.

In the evening, after we had visited the sulking graduate student and Waldo hadpumped the young man’s ego back up a bit, we went to another and better restaurant for cocktails and a feast (sometimes Corinne came to these nightly feasts, sometimes not). Afterward, Waldo wanted to stop in a student hangout and play one of the new video games made for two persons (he always beat me, no matter how I tried). Then nothing would do but we must see a Goldie Hawn movie, followed by a stop for a nightcap where we ran into a collection of characters, some academic, all of whom wanted to trade a few wisecracks with Waldo.

Except for the religiously pursued eight hours of work in the library, the agenda on succeeding days might vary a bit — different restaurants, different hangouts, different movies. But the activity ceased only when Waldo and Corinne took me to the Inn at Otter Crest on the Oregon coast, where the sauna reduced both Waldo and me to vegetables, barely able to crawl up to the suite he had rented for the occasion. It was a memorable, and highly productive, six weeks.

Towards the end of his life, Waldo seemed to live more in his letters than in his Houston apartment; but from very early he had lived as much in his letters as in his very active life. Corinne told me that she considered him the best letter-writer who ever lived, and I think she may have been right. A typical letter from Waldo was full of narrative accounts of his recent doings; descriptions of the persons whose company he had recently enjoyed or whom he had disliked and resented; pithy and accurate assessments of movies and plays he had recently seen; vituperation of Republicans generally and of people who didn’t want him to smoke in their houses; accounts of his flower garden; disclosures of his current hopes for the education of his son; panegyrics on good students of the previous semester; opinions on baseball or football; accounts of meals, TV programs, books; reports on the activities and health of his sister and brothers; accounts of projected European trips for the next year or of trips recently completed.

It would be wrong to suppose that these accounts in his personal letters, any of them, would be tedious. They lived with the same vigor as Waldo himself. The only letters that ever dragged even slightly were some of his Christmas chronicles of the previous year’s activity, and this (I think) happened because he had no single person in mind as his audience. Waldo apparently conceived all his other letters with the addressee sharply in mind. They always concerned things that he knew would interest the addressee, to judge by the letters he wrote me and by what others have told me of the letters he wrote them.

To Waldo a letter constituted an act of personal communion. In his middle seventies he confessed to me that it mortified him if he went to bed without having answered every single letter he had received that day. These letters, often written after midnight, almost never turned out to be short notes, scribbled off as an obligation. They were all readable, alive.

I feel that his correspondence, conducted with such verve and devotion, was the reason why Waldo produced relatively little scholarship. As a scholar, certainly he committed himself with the same energy that he gave to his correspondence. I probably know this aspect of him better than anyone else — now that Corinne is dead — because he and I were colleagues for seventeen years in the production of the Spenser bibliography. In this project he never lagged, never lacked the energy to pursue the current lead until he could put a completed, annotated card in the box. For a person who maintained a regular correspondence with scores of persons, probably more than a hundred, there simply wasn’t time for much more scholarship.

In another dimension, Waldo was a hero to his graduate students, and not just because he was so solicitous about their state of mind when they wrote their theses and dissertations. He knew a great many of them personally, whether he was directing their theses or not. He mixed with them almost as an equal, but without breaking down the student’s consciousness of his superior position as a professor. When I was Waldo’s guest in 1974 I had ample opportunity at various parties to hear graduate students talking about him. Astheytradedaccountsofhiswarexperiences,hispostwartravels,andhisencounters with students in out-of-the-way places, these graduate students perceived a titanic man. Yet the thing they seemed to admire most about him was human rather than heroic: it was that he had, during World War II, selected the officers for his LST (presumably from an otherwise qualified list) exclusively on their answers to this question: do you play bridge?If they did, they were in. Incidentally, the LST, which saw a good deal of action, returned from the Pacific with all hands. And over the years after 1945, Waldo conducted regular reunions with his crew, the last one in the late 1980’s!

It could be that the Waldo imagined by his graduate students was larger than the real Waldo. But I think not. The central fact of Waldo’s academic career, probably, was his injudicious but quite heroic confrontation with the Louisiana legislature at the tum of the sixties, over a letter he had written as president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The letter challenged the position of a number of legislators respecting desegregation. Waldo had written the letter (as he should not have done) on LSU stationery, and the legislature not only called him to task publicly but ran him out of the state university for his pains. With magnificent aplomb he immediately found a better job at the University of Oregon, where he happily lived out the rest of his academic life.

I don’t think I have done justice to Waldo’s unflagging generosity. No exertion, no sacrifice was ever too much, whether someone asked him for something or whether Waldo simply perceived that a graduate student (or some other needy soul) had to have some help. So far as I know he was not a professing Christian, but people looking for someone to canonize for sheer generosity could do a lot worse than Waldo F. McNeir.

Foster Provost

Duquesne University

Bonus:  I’ve been reliably informed that the capacity with covid 19 restrictions has been worked out for over 750 spaces on campus. Once again I am deeply grateful for the hard work and careful efforts of my colleagues in FE&P.

 

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6 Responses to The Raven: Waldo Forest McNeir, ’29

  1. What an great person and what a courageous stand he took! I became part of the Rice family merely because of my attendance at the school. I am always thrilled and humbled to hear of the stories like this of how other members have distinguished themselves. Amazing.

  2. almadenmike says:

    I wonder if some of his Rice profs and/or classmates were among his regular correspondents.

  3. billbremer says:

    In a somewhat similar vein, I recently encountered this article from the October 30, 1933 Houston Chronicle:
    https://1drv.ms/u/s!AhajPOFGUFQohJItPl2mqSWP8lpRJg?e=OMK3cA

  4. billbremer says:

    This link may work better than the one I posted earlier. The link is to a jpeg file of a Houston Chronicle article headlined, “Rice Club Drops Plan For Staging of ‘Uncle Tom.'” https://1drv.ms/u/s!AhajPOFGUFQohJIqPl2mqSWP8lpRJg

  5. Matthew Noall says:

    Thank you for this post! It restores some of my badly damaged faith in people after the ridiculous public behavior of many recently.

  6. almadenmike says:

    Among Dr. McNeir’s publications is the 1961 Cliff Notes for Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice” — https://www.abebooks.com/9780822000525/Merchant-Venice-Cliffs-Notes-McNeir-0822000520/plp

    🙂

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