I first met Leo Strauss when I was nineteen years old and a student in the College of the University of Chicago. It was the spring of 1949–this was during the epoch of the presidency of Robert Maynard Hutchins, when the University was at the height of its glory. At that time, the College was famous for the eccentricity and precociousness of many of its students, and also for its highly unusual custom of allowing entering students to take examinations on the basis of which they were assigned course requirements. The intention of this program was to extend the time we spent in graduate school, provided that we already possessed the necessary foundation. It was therefore possible to graduate with a B.A. from the College in less than a month of residence. Apparently the graduate of a Swiss private lycée accomplished this some years after my departure. In 1949, though, the record was one year, which was matched by eighteen members of my class, including myself and my classmate and friend Seth Benardete.
Another peculiarity of the College was that one could enter it at any age, and among my classmates were a number of virtual children. I still remember a party given by some of the older students. There, I entered into conversation with a man who seemed to be in his mid-thirties, a guess that his thick glasses and advanced baldness only strengthened. He informed me that he had broken with Catholicism and, thanks to a recent visit to Europe, with existentialism as well. I first inquired whether he was an instructor at the University, and then a graduate student. He replied in the negative to both queries and informed me that he was an undergraduate. “How old are you?” I asked. “Thirteen,” he replied. I should add that when I arrived in 1948, I was, relatively speaking, an old man. I had been admitted to the College following graduation from high school in 1947, but I had chosen to live in New York for a semester, under the mistaken impression that I was a burgeoning novelist.
By the time I arrived in Chicago, my vocation had shifted from fiction to poetry. If I am not mistaken, I was the only one of Leo Strauss’s long-term students who came to him from poetry. I was also virtually uninterested at the time in politics, unlike the majority of Strauss’s students. Instead, I was an avowed metaphysician, who had elaborated a philosophical position partly influenced by T. S. Eliot, one of whose main tenets was that philosophy and poetry are two different languages about the same world. In addition to these intellectual propensities, which most of Strauss’s students regarded as deficiencies, I was undisciplined in the academic sense and spent most of my time writing poetry, with some professional success and with reasonable hopes for future progress. These hopes were sustained by Hayden Carruth, who was then the editor of Poetry Magazine, and Henry Rago, who was about to assume that position, but also by Allen Tate, who taught in the College for a year.
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