In the New York Times, Adam Van Doren, grandson of poet Mark Van Doren, writes about discovering a ledger that belonged to his grandfather which contained the names of the students that Van Doren taught during his time at Columbia:
There were hundreds of names. I recognized many: Allen Ginsberg, Jack (or as my grandfather wrote, John) Kerouac, Lionel Trilling, Thomas Merton, Herman Wouk, Clifton Fadiman, Arthur Sulzberger, Louis Simpson, Whittaker Chambers, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Robert Giroux, Robert A. M. Stern, Jacques Barzun, Robert Lax. The list went on and on, and what a list!
What I had in my hands was a singular piece of history, a collection of men (Columbia didn’t admit women at that time) who had helped shape the American literary canon for a better part of the 20th century. They had all studied under Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary editor of The Nation and legendary professor (though he would never have approved of that adjective).
Mark Van Doren believed that young people were intuitively capable of grasping even the most complex literature. After all, as he wrote in his autobiography, any student, by the time he has turned 18, has already experienced the deepest emotions of any Shakespeare play: he has fallen in love and been heartbroken, felt jealous, murderous and vengeful. Dostoyevsky and Sophocles have nothing over him in this respect.
The professor kept corresponding with these college youths years later, suggesting career paths, critiquing their manuscripts, promoting their work — even writing poems about them. “Death of a Monk (T. M.)” was written shortly after Merton’s death. He contacted publishers about promising students, encouraging Kerouac to publish “The Town and the City.” Kerouac quit the football team after getting an A in “Shakespeare.” (It should be noted that though the ledgers show my grandfather was a tough grader, those who would go on to make a literary impression on the world also did so in his classroom.)