By Colton Johnson, Vassar College Historian, Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of English
Speaking in the Chapel at a memorial service on October 13, 1968, ten days after the sudden death of W. K. Rose at the age of 44, President Alan Simpson paid tribute to his late colleague’s “three great qualities”:
“First, a presence—collected, urbane, attentive, never without the power to please or impress.
Next, a mind—clear, quick and searching.
Finally—an abiding love for this college.”
“His illness,” Simpson continued, “overtook him this summer during a period of special service on committees that were planning the future of the college—its coeducational future and its new curriculum. He worked to within a week or two of his death, moving us all by his lucid, selfless concern for the progress of these plans.
“He should be remembered as one of the leading architects of this future Vassar, which he will not see, as well as one who exemplified many of the finest qualities of the Vassar he knew and served.“
Born in 1924 into an affluent California family, William Kent Rosenberg—his surname changed as he prepared for college—grew up in Healdsburg, a rural town in Sonoma County, “the prune country,” as he referred to it. Vassar colleagues recalled his affection for the California town and his nourishing life there but also for the cultural attractions of San Francisco, some 70 miles away. The Rosenbergs were a fixture in the area since the 1850s, and, on his mother’s side, he enjoyed the lifelong comradeship of his uncle, the cartoonist, sculptor and author Rube Goldberg, who, for example, sent him in 1944 some reminiscences of his friend, the writer Ring Lardner, about whom “Billy” was writing a college paper.
Rose joined Vassar’s English department in 1953, having received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford and, in that year, his PhD from Cornell. His doctoral dissertation on the English artist, novelist and social critic Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), a co-founder of the Vorticist movement, was the basis of his first publication, Wyndham Lewis at Cornell (1961), and it led to his highly acclaimed edition of Lewis’s correspondence, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis (1963).
At Vassar, Rose was a brilliant teacher of freshman courses, narrative writing courses and advanced courses in literature. “All his students felt in him,” three colleagues wrote in a “memorial minute” read before the Vassar faculty in November 1968, “a concern and respect for them, which somehow helped them to develop self-knowledge and self-respect…. He taught them—especially in the writing courses—to say quite directly what they saw in their lives, to enlarge their views, to develop imagination and to use language for authentic comment.”
Dance critic and author Barbara Newman ’66 experienced this engaged pedagogy in Rose’s senior seminar, English 380, “Studies in Language, Writing or Literature.” In “A bouquet for William Rose,” her contribution to Vassar Quarterly’s 1981 celebration of the Rose Fellowship, she wrote, “He cared about writing and teaching and me—us, all ten of us as students and as fledgling writers. Tacitly assuming that our intelligence and intellectual curiosity matched his own, an assumption that flattered us outrageously, he acknowledged no distinction between us but experience…. And that’s not all. He clearly respected me more than I respected me, and he trusted my potential so implicitly that it would have been both churlish and self-defeating not to try to justify that respect. He didn’t make it easy…but he made it the most revelatory process, and year, of my entire education.”
Bill Rose’s reputation as a scholar and critic mirrored that of his teaching. His work on the Lewis letters took him abroad frequently, putting him in touch with scholars, critics and writers in Britain and on the continent. During two sabbaticals and Vassar’s vacation periods, Rose spent a good deal of time in London, gaining entrée to both intellectual and social circles. T. S. Eliot allowed himself to become Rose’s confidant and agent when his project was threatened by an entanglement with Wyndham Lewis’s widow and executor—named Gladys Anne, but always known as Froanna—and the eminent novelist and critic Walter Allen hosted Rose when he was in England and taught at Vassar as a visiting professor at Rose’s instigation. The writer, heiress and activist Nancy Cunard, a former lover of Lewis, also became a good friend, writing to Rose in 1963, ”GOD how I wish you lived over here and as close as possible. ‘America giveth, but she also taketh away.’“ Cunard offered consolation during Rose’s difficulties with Froanna: ”You have had a hellish time with that book. Never shall I forget the appearance of Mme. L. the time I stood behind the two of you at that sale at Sotheby. It seemed to me then she was more than a ‘ghoul.’“
When the book appeared, the poet and critic Horace Gregory, writing in The New York Times, declared it, “the best book of its kind since Aldous Huxley edited The Letters of D. H. Lawrence over 30 years ago. In this book, Mr. Rose has shown that the editing of letters can be regarded as one of the fine arts. His running commentary and annotations have the authority of a freshly documented biography.” The English writer-critic V. S. Pritchett took Rose’s book for exactly that, reviewing it in The New York Review of Books as if it awakened or recalled, personally, the maddening qualities of “an egoist’s exhilaration in his rights and wrongs.” The Letters, he said, “nail Lewis down as a brilliant, touchy Welshman with a splendid power of invective and insulting laughter…an ingenious quarreler, a disarrayed commentator on public affairs—of which, portentously, he knew nothing; and give us a blurred view of his originality as an artist and of his glamour as a conspiratorial figure in literary and painting circles. He is clearly a man to beware of; he did not stab in the back.”
Rose’s enthusiasms and his curiosity about what was new and exciting in American arts also brought him friendships with American artists, writers and critics. His friends ranged from American poet Denise Levertov and the preeminent biographer and interpreter of Yeats, Joyce and Wilde, Richard Ellmann, to the writer for many years of The New Yorker ’s “Letter from Washington,” Richard Rovere. Another friend, the novelist Eudora Welty, having visited Vassar in the spring of 1962, wrote to Rose, thanking him for ”the many things planned for my good time“ and expressing her pleasure in meeting some students: ”We really did come out of the week with something good, though. A remarkable collection of women and after they thought they’d said what they ought they said what they wanted to, & then it was real and exciting.“
Beyond his literary acquaintances, Bill Rose forayed into modern art and that of antiquity with the heiress and collector Peggy Guggenheim, whom he visited many times at her palazzo in Venice. In 1964, they traveled together to Egypt to see treasures soon to be obliterated by the completion of the Aswan High Dam—a trip taken necessarily somewhat incognito since, as Guggenheim pointed out, despite her ”greatest enthusiasm…I fear [Egyptian President] Nasser would not feel the same way, Egypt being at war with Israel.“ Guggenheim seems to have traveled as Rose’s Unitarian mother-in-law, enjoying, she wrote to him, ”walking with you through the streets as ASSUAN [Aswan] in your disguise."
Bill Rose’s sudden, startling loss, from an inoperable brain tumor, left friends, colleagues and former students shocked and grieving. In the weeks after his passing, his faculty colleagues remembered, in their “memorial minute,” “an energetic and creative teacher, scholar, writer, friend and citizen. His nature was complex: he was a man of ranging interests both social and aesthetic; a man of deep sensibility; a man both open and reserved; a man possessed of a tragic sense of life and a richly comic way of seeing and talking about it. For all the complexity, a unified being was there, and a unified achievement shines out of his short life.”
Denise Levertov recalled, in Vassar Quarterly in 1981, Rose’s charm, intelligence, wit and candor. “He would call me every few months,” she wrote, “when he was going to be in New York for a day or two…. Talking to Bill one experienced the rich context provided by his alertness to the interaction of the arts and ideas and of the various arts among themselves. And his urbane wit was accompanied by an impeccable sense of intellectual probity and a lot of warmth. While he didn’t ‘suffer fools gladly,’ he was concerned for his students’ feelings as well as for their mental development.”
In England, shortly after Rose’s death, Walter Allen wrote, in The Times, “For the past decade there was scarcely a year in which Bill Rose was not in London for several weeks and often for several months. I suspect he was as much at home in London as in New York, and he was the friend of many English poets and novelists. His personal charm was great, and his intelligence was formidable: he was one of England’s warmest and most candid friends; and for many Englishmen he stood for everything that was best and most hopeful in American life.”
And in a note of condolence to his close friend and executor, Professor Eugene Carroll, Rose’s frequent hostess and fellow aesthete, Peggy Guggenheim, said, simply, “I am very sad to lose so dear a friend. When I heard he was dying I wrote him a sort of farewell letter without making it seem so…. I’m glad to hear my friendship meant so much to him. His meant so much to me.”
At the time of his death, Bill Rose was at work on an eagerly awaited study of the literary revolution centered in London between 1909 and 1920, involving, principally, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis—tentatively called, after Lewis’s term for them, “The Men of 1914.” “Thanks to their declaration of independence,” he had said of these writers in the preface to Lewis’s letters, “English and American writers felt a new pride of craft, greater freedom of expression, and stronger obligation to truth and intelligence. Forty years later we have not come to the end of their impact.” This doubtless illuminating, subtle and important study had reached only a very early stage.
Rose was also planning in his last months the W. K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts, an emblem of his confidence in the college, his students and their futures in the creative arts. His artistic friendships, his many years of teaching Vassar writers and perhaps even his own undergraduate experiments in fictive writing may have informed his thoughts about the fellowship. In another 1981 “bouquet for William Rose” in Vassar Quarterly, Alexis Greene ’69 suggested that his study of Wyndham Lewis also played a role in the specific nature of the Rose Fellowship. Rose “was attracted,” she wrote, “by Lewis’s concern with the conflict between the artist-intellectual and the rest of society. Rose was a critic who truly admired the creative over the critical sensibility. According to a number of his friends, he distrusted over-intellectualization and the cloistered academic, believing instead in the kind of truth human beings discover in moments of passion.”
Rose’s own descriptions of the particular kind of fellowship he proposed support Greene’s assertion, suggesting as they do the idea of protective shelter for a vulnerable, intimate process. Stipulating from the beginning that the fellowship should afford “a worthy young artist with a chance to be free after college to get on with his work as an artist,” he added his hope “that this fellowship will attract to Vassar in greater number the kind of student that it proposes to aid.” Distinguishing between the performing arts, where collaboration was both requisite for further development and presumably remunerative, and the solitary nature of the creative arts—poetry, fiction, graphic arts, sculpture, musical composition—Rose underscored his intention in a letter to his lawyer written two weeks before his death: “I only want to emphasize my notion that any recipient should receive a stipend that will support him or her adequately for a year. The idea is to free this young person from financial worries so that he or she can get on with his or her creative work.”
In April 1969, President Simpson appointed a Rose Fellowship Committee to draw up procedures for the solicitation of applicants and the selection of Rose Fellows: a painter and graphic artist, a composer, an art historian, a teacher of writing and a professor of English, chaired by Professor of Music Richard Wilson, himself a composer. The first fellows, poet Kathryn Kilgore ’67 and painter Eleanor Daniels ’66, were appointed in 1970, and the 48 subsequent fellows are an impressive body of poets, writers of fiction, composers, printmakers, photographers, painters and sculptors. (Eligibility was subsequently extended to include filmmakers and videographers.) Fellowships, originally yielding $6,500, are now in the $50,000 range, and, remarkably, nearly three-quarters of the first 50 Rose Fellows have entered and remained active in the fields they set out to master, validating Bill Rose’s plan and his vision.
As President Simpson predicted, both in his rigorous example as teacher and scholar and in his work during the last weeks of his life helping define a future Vassar that would retain its traditional values in its original home but also emerge as a freshly imagined, coeducational institution, Bill Rose’s influence is part of today’s college. And his faith in its students and in the creative arts is alive in the tradition of the Rose Fellowships.