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Arts

A Novel Refracting Harvard History

12.13.13


Ed Cantowitz ’63 and Hugh Shipley ’63 weren’t really friends until the fall of their senior year, although they knew each other on sight and were taking the same Shakespeare seminar. But one night in front of Lamont Library, Ed found himself suddenly seized by an impulse to get—and hold—Hugh’s attention. It was “strange, even vaguely crazy,” says Cantowitz. But he grabbed his arm, started making small talk about some cute girl who had just walked by, and minutes later, they ended up getting drinks and sandwiches at Cronin’s in the Square. The two of them made an odd friendship for the time—the short, scrappy Jewish scholarship kid from Dorchester and the tall, thin scion of a prominent New England banking family. But they became surprisingly close—and remained friends through ups and downs that span the past 50 years, as Cantowitz built a career as one of the most precociously gifted businessmen in New York City and Shipley went on to do humanitarian work around the world.

You won’t find either of them in the alumni directory, though. That’s because Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley are the protagonists of Joanna Hershon’s new novel, A Dual Inheritance (Ballantine Books, 2013. 496 pages), the story of two unlikely friends who meet at Harvard in the early sixties and whose lives intertwine through the turbulent second half of the twentieth century. “This book is, among other things, an exploration of people’s reaction to nostalgia,” Hershon says. “There’s an almost violent reaction against getting pulled back into nostalgia: some people really go for it, but other people resist it.” And, she adds, “What could be more nostalgic than college campuses?”

In a review of the novel for Tablet Magazine, Adam Kirsch ’97 writes, “Man and woman, parent and child, rich and poor, native and immigrant—all of these clash in Hershon’s story, which has an old-fashioned breadth of scope, spanning 50 years and several continents.” The past also contrasts sharply with the future in the novel, with Harvard playing a role as a kind of temporal anchor, a point of origin for the characters and their concerns. “In 1962, a Jew at Harvard feels himself to be an outsider,” Kirsch notes. “In the 1980s, Ed’s daughter at an elite boarding school is part of a common youth culture, with drugs and music as the great levelers.”

Harvard Yard might not seem an obvious first-choice setting for Hershon, herself a 1994 graduate of the University of Michigan, but she grew up circulating through Cambridge regularly: “My father [Stuart Hershon ’59] went to Harvard, and he has a very close friend from Harvard. And I think that as a child I was always just really taken with whole thing—with the Harvard-Yale game, and going to Cambridge,” she explains. (The elder Hershon was a tight end in his student days and, under the influence of Dr. Thomas “Bart” Quigley ’29, became an orthopedic surgeon and a team doctor for the New York Yankees.)  Hershon talks enthusiastically, her face alight when she comes to a new point of interest in a conversation: “I love Cambridge. I find it very romantic and exciting.”

In the first section of A Dual Inheritance, set entirely in Boston and Cambridge, Hershon develops a colorful snapshot of early-sixties Harvard without allowing details to become overbearing. Hugh, a budding anthropologist who is working on a film, lives in Adams House; Ed buys Hugh a sandwich at the now-vanished student hangout Cronin’s. Crucial scenes play out in the office space on the third floor of the Peabody Museum and a faculty member’s house on Brattle Street; characters meet for dates in bygone restaurants; yet the novel avoids the historian’s showiness that permeates so much fiction set at Harvard. Hershon explains that she didn’t want “to show you how much I know—because I really can’t stand that kind of writing, actually—but to focus on understanding something concrete, like: how did you get around that city?…It certainly was realism, but I was interested in an impressionistic kind of feeling, because the rest of the book was going to span so much time. [The Harvard chapters] would be looking back through the scrim of memory.”

 The author spoke to many Harvard and Radcliffe graduates of the era—many of them family friends—and their experiences and memories fill the book, in some cases providing the rough contours of characters’ lives. Florence Phillips ’59 (daughter of longtime Kirkland House master Mason Hammond) was one of the first alumnae whom Hershon interviewed. She was still in the process of creating the character of Hugh Shipley when she spoke to Phillips: “I described in detail this…study of this character I was working on, and I said, ‘Does that sound realistic, like anyone you might have known?’ And she just looked astonished and said, ‘You have to go meet this man,’ because a lot of what you’re describing is so resonant, and I think you’ll really enjoy talking to him.” That man was Robert Gardner ’48, who directed the Film Study Center at the Peabody Museum for four decades, and is widely regarded as one of the pioneers in the field of visual anthropology. Gardner’s globetrotting life, interest in diverse cultures, and passion for ethnographic film reinforced the character Hershon had already started to create.

Similarly, speaking to Marshall Cogan ’59 helped to create a convincing professional trajectory for Ed Cantowitz, who leaves Harvard and quickly rises to the summit of the business world thanks to his knack for understanding the automotive industry in a time of radical transformation. “His career has been very colorful and fascinating, and he’s a larger-than-life kind of guy,” Hershon says of the real-life model for Cantowitz, quickly adding, “I just want to make it clear that he didn’t go to jail, like my character!”

Hershon also vividly evokes Dorchester, Ed’s hometown, after most of the Jewish community had left the city and moved to the suburbs, leaving only a few remnants—like Ed’s father, Murray Cantowitz. “I had been really interested in Jews in strange places, diaspora life,” she explains. “I knew that Jews had been in the Boston area very far back in American history. But I had never really heard much about it.” While she was concocting the character of Ed Cantowitz during a book tour for her previous novel, The German Bride, she spoke to a man in Minnesota who asked her what she was doing next. “I had a very vague idea that I wanted to write about this scholarship-student, working-class guy from Jewish Boston, but I didn’t really know that much about what that would entail.” It turned out that the man’s father had grown up in early-twentieth century Mattapan, and she ended up talking to him at length.

Much of the novel sprang from “really immersing myself in conversations and listening to people’s memories in detail,” she says, and in the end, that process of accumulating background information steered her writing in a new direction altogether. “Stepping into these worlds and getting hold of another time and place” heightened the act of writing itself, she explains. “There’s something of alchemy to it—but I feel that doing all that research freed me up [to make] my writing more fluid and more complex,” and the process ultimately made her “a better writer.” That sense that knowledge of the past might not shackle but rather liberate ends up feeding the spirit of A Dual Inheritance, where the past turns out to be a bit like a college campus. It thrums with a sense of nervous but eager tension, full of stories yet to be told. 

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