riots at Cornell breed literary revisionist cult novel !
In an August, 1971 interview with this writer, J. Kirk Sale explained his take on the events at Cornell University in May of 1958 that eventually were distilled into the novel Been down so long it looks like up to me, noting that for years the events portrayed in that fiction were taken as reality. "I guess you know it has little relation to what went on at Cornell in 1958," he'd written to me earlier, "outside of its general outlines of some trouble on campus and a few recognizable characters, distorted and sifted through each other in strange amalgams... Naturally, because of this, I figure in the book as a square college newspaper editor, somewhat stupid, although you'd have to say that in his unfair portrait of me he drew young blood."
In May of 1958, Richard Farina (the ñ didn't come for another three years) and J. Kirkpatrick Sale were sharing an apartment in Ithaca, NY at 109 College Ave., while both attended Cornell University. That spring, there had been a movement by the administration of the college, mainly university president, Dr. Deane Waldo Mallot, to curb a dangerous intermingling of male and female students. At the time, it was common for colleges to be sectioned off with fences to wage the righteous war against the common idea, as H.L. Mencken suggested, that somewhere on campus, someone was having fun. Coeds were kept in separate dorms, with visiting hours heavily restricted, and visitations usually requiring meetings to be held in large common areas, rather than in the student's room, and even in those colleges where liberal attitudes prevailed, it was often necessary for doors to be wide open or modestly askew. Cornell wanted the door open and all four feet to be on the floor. At a time when freedom meant only having to keep one foot on the floor at all times, off-campus life was a different scene altogether - usually no restrictions were made or, if made, remained unenforceable. It was the promised land.
What Malott seems to have had in mind was best said in a 25 May, 1958 NYT article, which explained it thus : " Under present campus rules men who have registered apartments may invite girls to parties if at least two girls are present. The demonstrations were directed against proposals to forbid the attendance of girls at any off-campus parties." To this end, he appointed a faculty committee created to revise the student code of conduct, and headed by a home economics professor named Theresa Humphreyville, noted in a Cornell Chimes Newsletter as being a name that "suggested spinsterdom, if not sexual repression".
Kirk Sale, at the time a recently former editor of the campus paper, The Cornell Daily Sun, son of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and a life-long political activist, had been paying close attention to the administration's encroachment on the student's rights. Such was the motivating factor in the organization of students in opposition to the administration's determination that all students should live a modest and upright moral life, by force if necessary. When they began to train their sights off-campus, Sale saw this as an open provocation and acted. Using the College Ave. apartment as an organizing stage for the demonstrations to come, he had a hard time interesting his literary-minded roommate. In his freshman year, Farina "had been a rah-rah frat man" (reportedly in Delta Upsilon), "but after awhile he started wearing turtle-neck sweaters and boots... to give him a bohemian look". By his junior year, Farina was at best indifferent to anything not affecting his own welfare directly, and was a No Sale in Kirk's recruitment drive to paint posters or hand out leaflets for a proposed peaceful demonstration against the restrictions. "He wasn't very politically active on campus, ever."
Friday, 23 May : The first rally was held on Friday morning at about 10:00 AM - " We acted peacefully and marched around the administration building. We sang the alma mater. Dick sat back in the apartment." Obviously, this demonstration's moral indignation was being lost on the general population, despite being intentionally held at a time of the week when the fewest people had class. Sale, sensing the moment might be drifting away, and the demonstration having no formal leader, jumped up in front of the smallish crowd and said there were points he wanted to make and that people needed to hear. His piece being quickly said, the rally broke up and a number of people went back to the College Ave. apartment to discuss the doings of the day and the possibility of still more to come. Though he attended the midday meeting because it was a small apartment and he had no place else to go, Farina's interest began to perk up as momentum built for another demonstration to be held next evening, and he began calling a number of his fellow Latino students ("They were all born revolutionaries," Sale said, " ready to burn effigies..."), including his friend Juan Phillipe Goldstein ( the model for the novel's Juan Carlos Rosenbloom), and gave some thought to attending what promised to be the sporting event of the season.
Saturday, 24 May : The second rally was held on campus Saturday night, with a much larger, and rowdier, crowd. Farina, keen to see some action, went along to see what his roommate was up to, but with no commitment beyond an abiding interest in the adrenaline. " At the night rally, I wasn't even going to do anything but the crowd kept yelling ' WE WANT SALE !', so I got up (on a wall) and started talking. Some fraternity guys tried to knock me off the wall, and so Dick and Tod (Perry) held my ankles. That was all Farina did at the Cornell demonstrations: he held my ankles." Though no source was exact about the time of it, dean of men, Frank C. Baldwin managed to get himself egged that evening somewhere on campus, probably not as a target of the main demonstration, though probably through the efforts of a splinter group. Baldwin, an intense, white-haired man with a center part making him look - and a moralistic streak making him sound - more like a throw-back to Teddy Roosevelt's administration, had been a supporter of Malott's proposed edict, and was certainly a prescient family-values proto-type, and no friend to anyone on campus who bucked authority in any way. According to Sale, the eggwork was the work of Baldwin's daughter.
Things were heating up and the campus cops began counting heads.
According to the Times article, the crowd moved on by torchlight to the home of President Malott, arriving around midnight. "The crowd went out to Malott's house - it must have been three miles - but I didn't go - I tried to break it up and went off in another direction. I heard that the South Americans tried to drop Goldstein over the edge of this bridge that was on the way to the house..." The NY Times account of that evening says that though the day's earlier demonstration had been peaceful, the second demonstration featured smoke bombs, rocks (breaking at least one window) and another round of eggs being tossed at the house, dripping down on Malott when he appeared in his doorway at around 1:00 AM to address the crowd.
"The campus cops fingered me because I had spoken, Dave Seidler, and Tod [Perry] and Dick, because they had all been in trouble a few months before and we were all known to them. [Dick] and another guy took some figures from the manger scene and someone saw them and said they were going to report them to the campus police. And did."
Sunday, 25 May : In the early morning, Kirk was already speaking to eager reporters, with the Times reporting he'd tried to stop the demonstration as it moved to Malott's house. Later that day, they reported Kirk as issuing a statement : "We feel that the administration in the past eight years has consistently hampered the rights of both the students and the faculty and has sought to impose improper administrative standards upon the educational area." For his part, Malott announced a suspension of what was tantamount to "the usual suspects", of Sale, Seidler, Perry and Farina, with Sale being pointed out as "leader of two out of three demonstrations". Sale apologized for "the minor but unfortunate displays of violence."
"We were all suspended. But they ( though not Seidler) were all on some sort of probation anyway and it really didn't matter much to them. Dick was on academic probation already, I think it was for Spanish (my italics). So he figured that as long as he was probably going to bust out anyhow, he might as well make it look as if it was for the demonstration, not his grades. The next day, Dick was lying in bed being the stricken martyr." Faith Sale, a fellow Cornelian, friend of Farina , Kirk's wife and later highly regarded editor for Putnam books, added in Kirk's defense, " (Dick's) father came up. Dick had decided that as long as he might be leaving anyway, he may as well be forced. So he made it look like he was all for the cause from the beginning. And he didn't really stand anything to lose. He was just taking advantage of the situation. Kirk had everything to lose; he might not graduate, he also lost a job because of this. He was supposed to be going to California to work for a newspaper, but they called him when they found out about the demonstration and told him he did not seem to be the type of person they wanted."
As events unfolded... "We didn't make any apology. We went up in front of a student board who gave their findings to the Humphreyville committee. I had to ask each of my teachers if it was all right to take my finals."
It is thought that Farina returned for one last semester at Cornell, but it is not thought that he graduated.
copyright 2010 - Greg Pennell
last updated 7 mar'10