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Philip Wylie’s Invitation to Alfred State College

Philip Wylie’s Invitation to Alfred State College

Richard L. Kellogg 

            For several years, I have been researching the life and literary legacy of author Philip Wylie (1902-1971). Wylie was one of America’s most popular and prolific writers during the period from 1930 to 1970. He wrote in a variety of genres and produced hundreds of novels, short stories, and magazine articles. Wylie is remembered today primarily for his controversial best-seller Generation of Vipers (1942) and for his pioneering work in the field of speculative fiction. 

            Upon his death in 1971, Wylie left his voluminous papers to his alma mater, Princeton University. These papers are stored in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Princeton University Library. While perusing the collection, I discovered an item under Correspondence titled Alfred State University (Box 169, Folder 15, 15 pages). Curious as to whether the letters concerned Alfred State College or Alfred University, I ordered photocopies of the correspondence. 

            To my surprise and delight, I found that the correspondence was between Wylie and officials at Alfred State College. The letters involved the offer of an appointment as Distinguished Professor to Wylie for the 1965-66 academic year. 

            On March 19, 1965, Dr. Warren Bouck, Chairman of the Division of General Studies, sent a letter to Philip Wylie which offered him the position of Distinguished Professor at the State University Agricultural and Technical Institute at Alfred for the 1965-66 academic year. Bouck notes that the position is a flexible one in which the appointee would lecture to students, lead small discussion groups, teach a section or two of elective courses, and meet with faculty and students in seminars. The salary for the appointment would be in the neighborhood of $20,000. Bouck concluded by stating that “our faculty who are acquainted with your published works agree with me that you would bring much to our educational program.” 

            Philip Wylie responded to Dr. Bouck’s letter on March 25, 1965. Wylie writes that he is both intrigued and flattered by the offer but has some questions which he would like answered. He comments that he is familiar with Alfred because he spends summers with his wife’s family in Rushford. Since his daughter attended Cornell University, he has often passed through Alfred on the trip from Rushford to Ithaca. 

            Wylie then asks whether he might be granted release time to make television appearances for publicizing his new book (They Both Were Naked) scheduled for release by Doubleday in October, 1965. He also expresses a concern about the cost and type of housing available in the Alfred area. He and his wife require two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a modern kitchen, and a living room adequate for entertaining a dozen guests. 

            Wylie states in his lengthy letter that he is an uneven and often mediocre lecturer before large audiences. However, he is comfortable in conducting seminars and panel discussions. His teaching experience is limited to short sessions which he taught at the University of Colorado and at the University of Miami. 

            The letter concludes with a statement that he will discuss the offer of an appointment with his friends, his publisher, and his literary agent. He suggests the possibility of meeting with college officials toward the end of April when he returns to his summer home in Rushford. 

            Professor Alan Dirlam, Chairman of the Faculty Nominating Committee, responded to Wylie’s questions in a letter dated April 12, 1965. Dirlam discusses the nature of the school, teaching responsibilities, vacation periods, and housing options in the Alfred area. 

            Dirlam writes that Wylie would be assigned to the General Studies department of the college. This department consists of about 15 professors teaching in the fields of English, history, speech, philosophy, psychology, art, and music. Duties of the Distinguished Professor are flexible but the formal hours of work range from 8 to 10 per week. Activities could include a series of lectures, faculty seminars, teaching an elective course, and serving as advisor-critic to the Department of General Studies. 

            As to salary, the stipend for a ten-month appointment is $20,000. If housing were provided by the college, the salary would be adjusted to $18,500. Dining privileges for Wylie and his wife at the college dining hall could also be provided at the discretion of the appointee. 

            Professor Dirlam comments that housing options are limited in the Alfred community. However, President David Huntington has assured the Faculty Nominating Committee that modern housing will be made available to the Distinguished Professor and his family. This could be in the duplex family housing project currently under construction or in the home of a faculty member who is on leave. 

            Dirlam concludes the letter by requesting that Wylie visit Alfred toward the end of April so that a final decision can be reached on the appointment. 

            Philip Wylie responded to Professor Dirlam on Easter Sunday, 1965. He thanks Dirlam for answering all of his questions. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wylie is hospitalized with a severe kidney infection and this medical problem will delay the planned return to Rushford in late April. Wylie still hopes to visit Alfred in early May for a meeting with the Faculty Nominating Committee. 

            On April 22, 1965, Dirlam wrote to Wylie and suggests two possible dates for a meeting in Alfred: Thursday morning of May 6 or Saturday morning of May 8. Other times for the conference can be arranged if the suggested dates prove to be inconvenient. 

            Philip Wylie sent his final letter to Professor Dirlam on April 27, 1965. He writes, with the greatest regret, that he has decided not to accept the invitation to become the first visiting Distinguished Professor at Alfred. His primary concern is that he has too many professional commitments to accept a position that would demand his continuing presence for a period of ten months. He has recently started writing a new book and feels that teaching classes, conducting seminars, and meeting with students would distract him from his writing schedule. It is essential for Wylie to write everyday and he often tells students that an author “spends most of his life alone.” 

            Wylie was obviously interested in relating to college students and realized the great value of higher education. In his March 25, 1965, letter to Dr. Bouck, he writes that his “sense of intrigue is owing to my enormous interest in young people which arises from the core of my philosophy and my own notion of a proper etiology for ethics.” He goes on to state that “the generations beyond us are our sole and completely sufficient immortality and hence what we do that harms them or their prospects is evil and what we do that abets their chances to become greater human beings is good, all else being neutral and nil.”

            In reviewing the correspondence between Wylie and college officials, one is struck with the boldness and vision of those who invited the author to become a Distinguished Professor on the Alfred campus. Alfred State was a very small college in those days and it would have been marvelous if a writer of Wylie’s stature had accepted such an invitation. President Huntington, Dr. Bouck, and Professor Dirlam deserve considerable recognition for their heroic efforts to bring Philip Wylie to the campus. 

            As Alfred State College continues to grow and to develop additional four-year programs, it may be the proper time to again consider bringing a visiting Distinguished Professor to reside on the campus for a semester or academic year. Students and faculty would benefit from their exposure to seminars and lectures presented by someone with a national or international reputation for achievement. 

            Dr. John Anderson, current president of Alfred State College, is fond of using the expression “Small college. Big dreams” when discussing his vision for the future development of the school. It is pleasant for us to recall that this optimistic perspective was already operative in the spring of 1965 when Philip Wylie received an invitation to spend the following year as a Distinguished Professor at Alfred State College.

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