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Professor David Allen White and the Great Books

Wednesday, December 10, 2008  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

For more than eight years, Professor David Allen White of the United States Naval Academy has been a regular guest on my show, leading programs and segments on Shakespeare, Dickens, and many other literary giants, as well as debating Christopher Hitchens on faith and culture.

Professor White is retiring after close to 30 years of teaching the midshipmen. One of his colleagues, Bob Madison, sent along the remarks he delivered to see DAW off. And while they are wonderful (see below), they are in one sense premature. Professor White has agreed not only to keep teaching via the show, but also to do a series with me on the great books, a series which we began by recording this past week DAW’s guide’s to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Learning to Love the Great Books-Conversation 1-War and Peace and Moby Dick

So it is more accurate to say that rather than retiring, Professor White has moved on to a different, virtual classroom. Here, though, are Professor Madison’s remarks on the occasion of DAW’s retirement from the USNA:

There is a Doc White everyone knows, and there is a David unique to each of us. Finally, there is a David only he knows.

When I came to USNA, Masqueraders was gearing up for a production of Kings, Professor Michael Jasperson’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II through Henry V. David White was to play Falstaff. Words cannot describe . . . so use your imagination. Shortly afterwards, in Wisconsin, I saw him in Sly Fox, an adaptation of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. It too was magnificent: imagine David in a tumbling routine (I saw it with my own eyes). I had combined that theatre excursion with a trip to the Boundary Waters, but in a subsequent summer something came up and I didn’t make it out to see his Captain Hook in Peter Pan. In Annapolis I saw him in The Dresser, a backstage-version of an aging actor playing King Lear: was it foreshadowing? I built the minimalist set for his production of The Cocktail Party, which he fortunately had the opportunity to direct as an expression of his affection for T.S. Eliot. (“What major poet has a show on Broadway?” he would ask. The answer was Eliot with Cats. As you might expect, his favorite seems to have been “Gus the Theatre Cat,” which I think David has by heart.)

One day I walked into his office (across the hall from mine for twenty-five years) and made some comment about the old poet character in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana: old Nonno was at death’s door and was struggling to finish his magnum opus before he died. David recited the entire poem from memory, beginning (and ending) with

Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair.

David rejoices in literature, in the beauty of the word (both spoken and written, and in both the literary and the religious sense). He has been profoundly excited to be ending his USNA teaching with the Forms of Poetry course: to prepare for it, David memorized batches of poetry-and shared much of it with his colleague across the hall.

For a quarter of a century I’ve witnessed David’s mood each time he walked out of his office to go to class. As like as not, each exit was accompanied by an enthusiastic “Today I’m going to teach . . .” followed by the title of the work of the day-and often several lines. On a hard day, one or the other of us would spout “Down I go, like glistering Phaeton.” David’s griping is also legendary-but however far it has extended to unimaginative administrators or poorly prepared students, it has never clouded his joy in words or his appreciation of those midshipmen who have responded to his love of literature, and who, like Melville’s stoic, were “astounded into heaven” at last.

And now, he must be going.

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