There were six of us in that first group admitted to the Ph.D. program in English at UH Manoa. Two of us were local born and bred. I was the only non-white person – well, the only half non-white person. I’d gone to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for my Masters. Babs Kolowitz and Robert Fasbinder had done their M.A.s at UHM, Lisa Moore at Berkeley, and I’m not sure where Janelle Short had received her B.A. or M.A. David Allen had earned both his B.A. and M.A at the University of British Columbia. He actually deferred for that first semester, so we didn’t meet him until the spring. Canadian, he was the only foreigner in the group.
I don’t know about the others, because none of us ever talked about it, but for me it was a great privilege to be a part of the inaugural group. Several hundred people, I think I heard, had applied, and we were the little group chosen. And as I said, we really didn’t know what we were in for at the beginning of this journey into the unknown, but everyone seemed ready to be part of the breaking-in process.
We were now the official guinea pigs. No one, obviously, had been through the English Ph.D. program before. We were the first. The grand experiment had begun.
But some days it didn’t feel grand at all. For example, for sure, we took our fair share of exams as part of this streamlining process.
One of the scariest tests had no name, but I called it the One Week Nightmare. One day — you never knew when it was coming because all of your professors decided among themselves when you were ready to take it according to them — So one day out of the blue, when you least expected it, one of your professors would spy you in the hallway, accost you and say, “Oh Lanning, it’s time for you to take the author exam a week from today. Your author is Henry James.”
“Ah, okay, thanks very much.” Hah. Thank you. It was like saying, “Thank you for giving me a one-week long panic attack.”
So off I ran like hell to Hamilton Library. I was good on James’s primary material, especially his short stories, but I definitely needed to pack more of the critical literature into my hysterical brain.
When I arrived panting at the James section of the stacks, all of the overhead lights in that row were out for some reason. Jeez, I thought, this is one great omen. As I began squinting my way down the row, a little elderly gentleman squeezed past me and stopped near the end of the James section. He pulled a book from one of the shelves and began inspecting it in the semi-dark. I continued down the row, pulling books published by reputable presses, stacking them on my arm, spine up. When I reached the man, I said, “Excuse me, sorry, I need to get at these shelves. “
He looked at the line of books on my arm. After a second he pointed to one book of articles edited by Leon Edel, the foremost James scholar in the world. “That’s a good one,” he said, touching the spine with his forefinger. Then he looked up at me. Whoa. It was Leon Edel — he finished his academic career teaching at UH Manoa. “Thank you,” I stuttered. And I meant it this time. “I’ll be sure to look at that one first, Dr. Edel.” He smiled, put the book he’d been perusing back, then disappeared down the darkened aisle.
“Holy holy holy shit,” I thought, “now that really is a great omen.”
I passed the exam one week later, and I did well because of mostly memorizing the critical material in Dr. Edel’s book.