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A Friend Remembered

A tribute to David Porter ’58

This is the story of the most sustained intellectual friendship I’ve had in my life. It’s with David Porter ’58 (1935–2016), whom I met at Swarthmore in the fall of 1955, my freshman year. It was probably at a piano recital or chamber music performance. Soon afterwards, we discovered that we shared a passion for the classics, by which was meant the history, literature, and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome.

David took piano lessons at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music with Edward Steuermann (1892–1964) who in Europe had studied with Busoni, Humperdinck, and Schoenberg, and in America, where he taught Alfred Brendel and Gunther Schuller. David was the principal editor in 1989 of The Not Quite Innocent Bystander: Writings of Edward Steuermann

My love for music had been implanted by lessons with Ruth Crawford Seeger from 1945 to 1953. Unlike David, I was far from being a performer. I learned elementary music theory, knew what it meant to idolize Bach, and through Mrs. Seeger came to enjoy folk music. At Swarthmore David’s and my our mutual friends who were musicians included Peter Schickele ’57, Cliff Earle ’57, David Schickele ’58, Peter Rosenfeld ’58, Al Carmines ’58, Than Ward ’58, and Ralph Nash ’59.

David majored in classics, while I took or audited two years of Greek that included classes with Lucius Shero who performed, that is, he sang Homer (“When ’omer smote ’is bloomin’ lyre,” as Kipling put it). Professor Shero had learned a technique for the singing at Oxford in the early 20th century.

David taught music and classics first at Carleton College and after that at Skidmore, where he served as president from 1987 to 1999. One of his accomplishments during that period was launching a program of scholarships in science and mathematics, perhaps unexpected for a man whose life was devoted to the humanities. The program is now named in his honor. (Here is a link to Skidmore's tribute to David.)

I attended David’s wedding to Laudie Dimmette ’58. He and I carried on a voluminous correspondence for over half a century. When I retired from Lake Forest College in 1998, he honored me with a lecture rectal entitled “The Well-Tampered Clavier: Play – Musical and Otherwise.” The examples were drawn from the music of Charles Ives, John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Erik Satie. (A “well-tampered clavier” is a play on Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” two books of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys that were composed, in Bach’s words, “for the use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”)

In his annual letter to friends and relatives David could let loose with interrelated plays on words. After a semester as visiting professor at Indiana University in the fall of 2009 he began his letter: “Late last December I was returning from a term as an Indiana interloper – a Who’s Here? – across icy roads that led me to Skid more.” He ended with an account of working with Helen Nelson, his second wife, on a book about Lucy Skidmore Scribner, who founded the college in 1922: “We will be listed as co-authors, though I get my name in merely by helping write up someone else’s research: ‘Whither Helen goest, there ghost David.’”

David sometimes sent me syllabi for seminars he was teaching. They remind me of syllabi for Honors seminars at Swarthmore, but David’s were more detailed and elaborate. In the spring of 2010 he taught seminars on the Sophists and on Willa Cather. The bibliography for the first seminar begins with “Hermann Diels Die Fragmente der Vorsokatiker [Fragments of the Pre-Socratics] The standard source for the original Greek texts (Translations in German.)” 

David was led to Willa Cather (1873–1947) by his first wife, Laudie. He very soon began reading everything available about this magnificent and sophisticated American writer. Then he began publishing about Cather. Two of his publications are so substantial that they will appear on any Cather bibliography: as the author of On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather (2008); and as the principal creator of the Willa Cather Scholarly edition of Lucy Gayheart (2015). The required texts for the Cather seminar were the two Cather volumes of the Library of America, Willa Cather: Early Novels and Stories and Willa Cather: Later Novels. In the bibliography, David names two of his own writings, The Many Lives of Willa Cather, just mentioned, and Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters (2009), co-authored with Lucy Marks. David also developed a special interest in the book jackets of Cather’s novels, particularly how Cather dealt with her publishers in preparing the text.

David was selected for the Lucy Gayheart job only partly because he was a Cather scholar. Mainly, I’m certain, he was selected because the novel is about music, from beginning to end. The novel is divided into three “books.” In Book I, we learn that Lucy Gayheart’s father gives lessons on clarinet, flute, and violin to local children. Lucy, a piano student in Chicago, is ice skating on a small lake in her hometown of Haverford, Neb. On her return to Chicago she attends a piano performance by Clement Sebastian. The next day she goes to Sebastian’s place for singing practice. There she learns that she will temporarily replace Sebastian’s accompanist. But on a tour in Europe, Sebastian drowns in Italy’s Lake Como. In Book II, Lucy herself drowns during the winter in a small lake back home in Haverford. After this, one wonders what Book III will be like. The short of it is that the music has died out.

The last news from David I would like to report can be found in an article he wrote in the fall of 2007 for Amphora, the outreach magazine of the American Philological Association, now called the Society for Classical Studies. The article has two sections. The first, by David, is titled “Introduction: A New Antigone.” The second, is by Godfrey M. Bakuli, a student of his when David, in retirement, was teaching at Williams College. Bakuli wrote Antigone.

In his Introduction, David says that his course at Williams on Greek and Roman drama required “an original creation inspired by one or more plays read during the term.” In this case the plays were Sophocles’s Antigone and Anouilh’s Antigone, performed in Paris in 1944 during the Nazi occupation and therefore under Nazi censorship. It is more ambiguous than the play by Sophocles with regard to Antigone’s rejection of authority and Creon’s acceptance of it. 

They also include The Island, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, first performed in Cape Town in 1973. The Island is an apartheid-era drama, inspired by a true story, and set in an unnamed prison that is based on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years. In the description of the play on Wikipedia: “It focuses on two cellmates, one whose successful appeal means that his release draws near, and one who must remain in prison. They spend their days performing futile physical labor and their nights rehearsing in their cell for a performance of Sophocles’s Antigone for other prisoners. The play draws parallels between Antigone’s situation and that of the political prisoners in South Africa.”

Re-reading Bakuli’s Antigone makes me wish I could just copy it out to let new readers see why David thought it well worth publishing. The first surprise, which seems natural a few seconds later, is how it begins: “She remembered . . . .” It’s Antigone speaking. The sentence continues: “. . . . how her father had taught her.” In Greek myth her father Oedipus, king of Thebes. In Bakuli, the father is a slave on a plantation in the South. He is instructing his daughter how to climb a tree, and what the larger meaning and purpose of it is. She climbs it first when she is very young and then again later, “as though history were repeating itself, except on this night there was no audience to witness the ascent.” “The reddened fingers of her right hand held a hunting knife that slowly but unshakably gnawed at a thick rope knotted around the branch.” She cut the rope. “Aside from childhood memories of her father one other thought steadied her. A thought that had led to a silent supplication before she scaled the tree. That thought concerned the body of the man at the other end of the rope.” 

The rest of Bakuli’s Antigone cannot be imagined, and I won’t attempt to summarize it. The complete piece, which includes David’s introduction and Bakuli’s Antigone, can be found online here, pages 18–19.