Miss Dusenberry was a formidable presence. She was a teacher of English at Erasmus Hall High School. It was 1954 or 1955 and I was a junior, carrying just sixteen years of experience on my skinny back. To my shy, inhibited self, Miss Dusenberry (Edna? Grace?) was perceived as ancient (50s), statuesque (5' 10"), domineering (she spoke authoritatively on all things literary) and wildly eccentric. She wore fragrant cosmetics and bedecked herself with so many bracelets and bangles that she jingled atonally when she strode around the room.
My performance did not please her. It was Miss Dusenberry who derailed my career, demoting me from the honors track in English (where the bright students were grouped and where lessons were taught) to the general track where classrooms were disorderly, students ranged from noncompliant to sociopathic, and it was assumed that nothing would be learned, and it wasn't.
Yesterday, on an odd impulse, I read Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown for the first time in close to sixty years. It is more shocking to me now than it could possibly have been in the 50s, when I had no equipment to understand puritanism or the manichean view of the world. The story is more alarming for what it takes for granted about American culture than for what it consciously critiques. It's not, and never has been, my America.
Not only was I distressed by the story, but my mind flew back, or regressed, to Miss Dusenberry, who tried to present the story to unsophisticated, unempathetic me back there in the Duke Snider/Joe McCarthy/Sid Caesar era. No wonder that I flopped in Miss D's class. Good grief, was I ever unwordly/unPuritan. On my intellectual horizon, the big question was whether Roy or Gil went hitless for two days in a row. I had not the merest tad of experience (or even reading0 to bring to bear on the elucidation of a dark allegorical treatment of severe Calvinist soul-sickness. Didn't, for that matter, know what Christians were talking about, except that the women and the kids dressed up and went to mass on Sundays (in our Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrant neighborhood, men stayed home and washed the car). There were no devils, real, imaginary, or allegorical in my deep, mysterious forests -- and no forests either, in concrete Brooklyn. I had no concept of spiritual despair or sin or damnation or salvation or any such things -- still don't in fact -- not in any personal way.
Anyway, back in Erasmus Hall, Miss Dusenberry led the class through some stories by Hawthorne. We might even have read The House of Seven Gables -- that other novel, the one with the A-word, would have been far too sexual and embarrassing. Then came the unit exam and that's when the allegorical world of Calvinism hit the fan of naive literalism. The topic on which we were assigned to write an in-class essay was "Is there balm in Gilead?"
I got to tell you, I was buffaloed.
It's easy to look back now, fifty-five years later, and translate the sentence into "in Hawthorne's view, is there hope for spiritual redemption in a fallen universe?" An invitation, I must say, to turn the bullshittery up to eleven. But I didn't know "balm" and I certainly didn't know "Gilead." I didn't know the hymn or "The Raven" and I most certainly didn't know that there was any such thing as a Book of Jeremiah containing dark sentences to be interpreted allegorically or mystically.
So I failed, ignomiously. Not the worst failure of my childhood -- being thrown out at home plate when I had been sent in as a pinch-runner was a far greater ignominy. But to tell truth, I've never made my peace with Miss Dusenberry. Her bangles occasionally rattle my sleep. Hawthorne? well, I've just kind of set him to one side.