Since the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley signaled the official opening of the American student revolt in 1964, so much attention has been given to various efforts to improve or reconstruct the obviously inadequate and dangerous model of American higher education that earlier efforts to found experimental colleges recede into the background. But the 1930s were perhaps more fruitful in devising interesting varieties of possible educational experiences than the past decade has been. Bennington, Antioch, Reed, Sarah Lawrence, and the College of the University of Chicago all launched programs designed to provide a more liberal approach to college education than that afforded by the major-and-elective system, course grades, and accumulated credits. All these institutions continue to flourish. But their survival and continued vitality may attest less to the excellence of their programs than to the relative abundance of their resources at the time they began them. Of these, only Bennington was actually founded in the Thirties. Sarah Lawrence was born in 1928, which, fiscally, was a different century, and the other three were long established.

Neither Black Mountain nor Commonwealth College, the subjects of these two books, survived. Black Mountain, founded in 1933, lasted for twenty-three years, but it came close to extinction two or three times during that period, and the one surviving member of its founding group did her best to force it to close a year before it finally did in 1956.

Commonwealth’s tenure was far briefer. It was founded as a school for radical labor leaders in 1923, began independent operations in 1925, and was closed by the state of Arkansas which auctioned off its meager property between December, 1940, and March, 1941, in payment of a $2,500 fine imposed for “disseminating propaganda with the intent to encourage and advocate overthrowing the present form of government of the state of Arkansas and the United States by violence and other unlawful means,” and two lesser charges. Under a law that had recently been passed in Arkansas, the possession of more than a single copy of any publication deemed subversive was prima facie evidence of guilt. The most damning evidence that might have been introduced in substantiation of the charge could not, at the time, be used since its implications had not yet become clear; but it is a sad fact that, in 1935, Orval Faubus served as president of the student body.

Though defunct for thirty-two years, Commonwealth College remains on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations, according to the Kochs, whose statement I must accept since the document is not available from the Queen’s Printer here in Canada.

Certainly, the most bizarre contrast between their book and Duberman’s is to be found in the photographs of college scenes which illustrate each book. Since both schools were economically built in Southern mountain areas, the landscapes and structures are rather similar; and they are nearly enough contemporary for styles of dress to be much the same. The faces, however, are quite different, since the Kochs humanely took the precaution of blacking out with a solid rectangle that of any member of the Commonwealth community who happened to be facing the camera, except for a few hardy souls like themselves.

Even if this had been done with the Black Mountain photographs, it probably wouldn’t provide much protection, and would undoubtedly have infuriated their subjects. Leafing through them one finds in the 1940s Eric Bentley, Walter Gropius, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham; in the 1950s Charles Olson, the college’s last rector, Francine du Plessix—not yet gone Gray—Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, among many others. As Commonwealth, socialist to the hilt, would surely have agreed, Black Mountain was an operation of a totally different class from its own. It was, as Duberman points out, in many respects the forerunner of today’s “counterculture,” not only in personnel but in its preoccupation with the arts and its tormented absorption with problems and conflicts of life in an intentional community, where intentions were depressingly often quite base.

Commonwealth, in contrast, was preoccupied with the problems of sharecroppers and sheer survival in an increasingly hostile political community, which finally destroyed it. If the Commonwealth campus community was wracked by the shifting but interminable Byzantine intrigues and power struggles that distinguished life at Black Mountain from its beginning, the Kochs do not record them. It is doubtful that Commonwealth could have afforded such a luxury.

Black Mountain was almost as poor—at its worst times the faculty got ten dollars a month pocket money, while Commonwealth’s got, and expected, none—but its faculty was infinitely better connected. Repeatedly, relatives of faculty members at Black Mountain came up with small sums of the order of five to ten thousand dollars to avert immediate calamity—the last time, melodramatically, just in time to prevent the mortgage from being foreclosed in 1955. Black Mountain either did not have or refused to provoke or recognize conflicts with the surrounding community. It sought to welcome people from the town and from nearby Asheville to its often very distinguished concerts and exhibits, but lived as much as possible to itself, as if the town did not exist. Both colleges were astonishingly cautious and circumspect about admitting blacks as students; by the time Black Mountain finally admitted one token “visitor” to summer school in 1944, Commonwealth had already been destroyed.


Black Mountain was also bourgeois—at times shamefully so—in other ways. When, in June, 1945, Bob Wunsch, one of the founders of the college who was then serving as rector, was arrested in his car outside Asheville, charged with committing “crimes against nature” with a marine, and pleaded guilty, the charge was changed to trespassing and the judge released him with a suspended sentence. But:

After release from jail, Wunsch waited, as agreed with the Board of Fellows, until one o’clock in the morning before coming back to pick up his things; and, as was also agreed, he then slipped away for good before the community awoke. When Molly Gregory protested the arrangement, she was told, “Well, he wouldn’t want to see anybody.” To this day Molly regrets that as she lay awake that night and heard “those little feet go back and forth, back and forth, carrying books,” she resisted the impulse to go downstairs and offer Wunsch her help—“because I’d been told I shouldn’t.”

…Wunsch climbed into that same little roadster in the early hours of the morning and drove away forever—without an embrace or a word—from the place he had been titular head of the day before…he drove his roadster to California—where he literally disappeared…. The only rumor about Wunsch anyone from Black Mountain has had from that day to this is that he went to work as a mail clerk in a post office.

Commonwealth, for its part, was no more faithful to its commitment to equality and Marxism than Black Mountain was to its less explicit obligation to defend the human dignity of its rector. The Kochs observe that in 1932:

Though most of our students had arrived that fall looking to Commonwealth as an instrument of their education and self-education, a few had come already equipped with the arrogance and doctrinairism characteristic of northern urban short-term apprentices in the labor movement. They challenged the administration with proposals for reorganizing and reorienting the school and agitated vaguely but effectively for admission of black students and teachers, offering no answer to the practical question of how to guarantee the safety of blacks in a lily-white county….

When Lucien [the president of Commonwealth] returned to the campus after his fund-raising tour, he was presented with the two nonnegotiable demands by a committee of two who claimed they had the support of most of the students. He had not even time to become oriented to the discontent. Outraged at being treated like a boss, Lucien chose an awkward course. He proposed expulsion of the two “troublemakers.”

The pot was on a hot flame. The whole campus was boiling. When the committee countered with a call for a general strike, over fifty per cent of the students responded, though some had expressed their reluctance. The strikers took over the plant quickly and efficiently, assumed responsibility for industrial work and maintenance chores, and blocked members of the administration from entering office, library, store, and kitchen…. The local sheriff appeared later that day and saw to it that the two young expelled strike leaders departed from the campus. Thirty students went with them.

We were in the position of having “called the cops.”

Nothing emerges more clearly from these two books than the atmosphere of petty rancor and bad faith that pervaded both colleges, as it seems to pervade most colleges and universities, especially in times of acute threat—and these were acutely threatened all their lives. Duberman is troubled lest this aspect of the picture he draws of Black Mountain be unfair; the place could be idyllic. He quotes the novelist Peggy Bennet Cole at length on what he calls “the frequent joy of daily life at Black Mountain.” Yet, of the two, Black Mountain seems much the more rancorous. This is probably due to the greater complexity of the rapidly shifting issues that divided it and the greater acumen and intellectual vigor of its faculty. Commonwealth, though radical, was not chic; Black Mountain was hardly radical, but suffused with the malice generated by urban insecurity.

The two colleges certainly did not quite exist in different worlds. Commonwealth’s founder, William Edward Zeuch, whom the Kochs recall with warmth but “do not remember him as a creative thinker,” joined the Black Mountain faculty in 1936 and served for a year before again aligning himself on the losing side of a power struggle. Commonwealth, too, had its poets: Kenneth Patchen attended it as an undergraduate. Later, Charles Olson while at Black Mountain was to express disapproval of Patchen’s work, which creates a kind of bond. But they must have felt like different worlds to the people in them: Commonwealth, pastoral; Black Mountain, the South Village Other.


It is Black Mountain whose world is continuous with our own, not merely because its faculty included persons whose stature as artists and writers has since been confirmed beyond question but because the vision of life that developed there became a vital, if not wholly benign, cultural force. Commonwealth’s vision aborted. Although it was founded as a training college for labor leaders, the American labor movement repudiated everything it stood for, driving from its ranks and assuredly from its offices everyone it held to be tainted with communism. Commonwealth and Black Mountain are related to our current cultural life, Carthage and Rome, respectively. If the comparison seems a little out of scale, attribute this to the shortened time perspective.

Whether or not Black Mountain bears comparison to Rome, Duberman certainly does to Gibbon. His book cannot be overpraised; it is at once a landmark of scholarship in the history of ideas and a pioneer model of how the vexing problem of subjectivity and objectivity in historical interpretation should be handled. Duberman was not himself a part of the Black Mountain scene and did not become interested in writing about the place till long after its demise; but he has strong feelings about the issues raised by its history and draws a poignant parallel between some of the paths of conflict there and his own experiences at Princeton. He is not only scrupulous in reporting his own point of view as distinct from the events he interprets; he is clear about both. And the style remains, withal, both elegant and casual.

Black Mountain is a long book and took nearly five years to write, some of them in Raleigh, where 100,000 documents related to Black Mountain are lodged in the State Archives. (No such riches awaited the Kochs: the sheriff confiscated Commonwealth’s own records in 1940; they have since disappeared from Polk County’s dubious official vaults.) It is astonishing to find that such detailed documentation of struggles, events, and personalities—many of each ephemeral—could have been possible; but it never becomes obtrusive or hangs the narrative up.

When interest flags, as it occasionally does, it is because a sense of plus ça change… gradually develops, intensified by the recurrent chic. Was Alexander Schawinsky’s production of “Danse Macabre” at Black Mountain in 1938 really the first mixed media event in the United States, rather than “the famed 1952 performance at Black Mountain that involved, among others, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Robert Rauschenberg, and which is usually credited with being the first such event in the United States”? Biased observer that I am, I would have said that the first mixed media event was the attack on Fort Sumter; though that, to be sure, was not located within the United States at the time.

The history of Black Mountain also suffers from the same irritating defect as that taught in schools: too much of it is about battles, and the battles are too hard to distinguish. Unlike the College of the University of Chicago or Antioch or Sarah Lawrence, Black Mountain was not founded to create a specific alternative to the conventional college curriculum. It was founded by a group of six faculty members—one, actually, a faculty wife—who had been fired or forced to resign from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, by its president, Hamilton Holt, an academic autocrat whose ideas about education were nevertheless as imaginative as those of any of the Black Mountain group. Some forty of the students of the six dissidents went with them. Their leader, and the most prominent victim of the Rollins purge, John Andrew Rice, was a stimulating and gifted teacher, though in his own way as dominant a personality as Holt. Price was himself driven from the community as an autocrat in 1939 in the first of its major power struggles, and resigned permanently in 1940.

His wife stayed on. It was she who, in 1954, persuaded the benefactor who held the college’s mortgage notes to finally foreclose, only to be foiled when the family of another, more recently appointed, faculty member provided the necessary payment which kept the college open for its final year. Neither Rice nor anyone else ever attempted to formulate a coherent educational philosophy for the college—a good thing, possibly, since it left room for the natural growth of the arts as the creative center of the curriculum in a way planning would probably have stifled. But this means that its history, like that of Rome, becomes even harder to concentrate on because the struggles were not usually about anything whose meaning clearly transcended the context in which they occurred.

There were always, of course, broader meanings. Much of Black Mountain’s history could be summed up as reflecting the rise and fall of the influence of the German artist Josef Albers, whom Rice brought to Black Mountain at its beginning and who combined in a not unfamiliar way a dedication to free expression in art with an intrusive puritanism toward his colleagues and, especially, Black Mountain students. Though he did not formally become rector until 1948, and kept the post for less than an academic year, he and his wife were dominant influences in the Black Mountain community for the first sixteen of its twenty-three years.

During this time, the Alberses repeatedly appeared in the college’s successive struggles as the protagonists of artistic integrity and personal order and conventionality against the mounting and now familiar forces of disorder. It is hard to believe they would have admired the photograph of Robert Creeley, seated pensively on a clearly nonfunctional toilet, taken outside one of the college buildings in 1955—handsome though it is. They were strongly influential in driving John Andrew Rice away, partly because of their disapproval of what appear to have been some very mild extramarital escapades that would hardly have caused comment at Black Mountain a few years later.

But sometimes their conflicts dealt with more important issues. The Alberses were strongly antagonistic to one of the most interesting and promising appointments made at Black Mountain—that of a twenty-seven-year-old psychologist, John Wallen, who came to Black Mountain in 1945 and left with his wife after two years to found an intentional community—but not a college—in Oregon. Wallen was in many ways all the Alberses might have approved: decent, normal, a bit square, and orderly to a fault. He was also warmly interested in students and shrewd in his appraisal of the aspects of the Black Mountain social climate that created difficulties for them—as well as for the faculty:

Far from feeling resentful over a lack of privacy, moreover, or overwhelmed by the constant demands for contact (as so many at Black Mountain did), Wallen lamented the lack of “understanding, affectionate friendships” with other faculty members. That was due less to everyone being busy, he felt, than to the semiconscious fear that constant proximity to one another made relationships more difficult to control and therefore more threatening.

In a classic example of deeply rooted cultural conflict, Wallen’s empiricism and political simplicity antagonized the entire Black Mountain European contingent, which was powerful at the time, and led to his virtual expulsion from the community. Duberman observes justly:

Yet it would be a calumny on Albers to imply that his distrust of Wallen was due solely to some irrational fear that he himself might be displaced as community guru. In my reading of the dispute that fear does have its place. But Albers was also concerned (and on these grounds I sympathise with him) that Wallen’s interest in efficiency and neatly defined structures might, as a by-product, stifle variety and spontaneity. Wallen would have disowned any such intention, yet it’s true that when he finally resigned, one of his chief complaints was that “the pulling and hauling in different directions that occurs here makes BMC an academic chaos….”

Meanwhile, enrolled in Wallen’s Group Process class, and “less than enamored with Wallen’s techniques and results,” Arthur Penn, a student just five years his junior, was using the class to work out his own methods of acting for a drama course he was teaching at the college. In just such ways does Black Mountain crop up unexpectedly in the histories of those who continue to play prominent roles in American cultural life.

Yet these people remain almost completely outside the prevailing culture. The names we now recognize from Black Mountain’s old rosters—especially those of the poets—are either those of perpetual, self-excluded outsiders like Edward Dahlberg or of others who became familiar as part of the scene around San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore after the college closed; a few remained identified with New York. Many are the same names that recur as idols in Emmet Grogan’s recent and underrated book Ringoleavio,* which though incredibly vicious in parts is also either one of the great underground social documents of our time or one of the richest works of fantasy since Irving’s The Alhambra. Like Black Mountain College, Ringoleavio is saturated with an explosive mixture of malice and vitality, though Grogan’s mix is warmer and more brutal. The juxtaposition raises a very serious question.

What, after all, is a nice guy like Robert Creeley—and, presumably, many of the others I don’t happen to know—doing in places like these? Why are the most creative minds in America, at least in the arts, condemned to live on the margin for decades, if not all their lives? Why is it absolutely impossible even to imagine Harvard—the one university John Andrew Rice admired, because it had survived two chemists as presidents—providing the kind of sustenance for them that Black Mountain did, despite its own poverty, insecurity, and frequent lapses of generosity? Why does American society have to make outlaws of its poets?

The question is not a novel one, and may even have lost its meaning, now that American society also makes outlaws of its more distinguished editors and journalists, and its most socially responsible priests as well. The margins of such a society, though its most exposed positions, may be much less unsuited to human life than its dead center. Be that as it may, Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain is a rich chronicle of the sweet uses of adversity. The college itself must clearly have been a real garden with real toads in it which, though in some few cases ugly and venomous, bore yet a precious jewel in their heads.

This Issue

November 16, 1972