One of Our Own: Ernest Sandeen (1908-1997)

Author: Edward Vasta '52


I knew Ernest Sandeen for almost 50 years, first as a student, then as a faculty colleague. When I came to Notre Dame as a freshman in l948, Professor Sandeen, pictured at right, had been here, in the English Department, for two years. He still wore his World War II Navy crew cut, and he stood straight and square-shouldered, his chin prominent. He chuckled and snuffled a lot in class. My roommate and I had our private nickname for him: Chuckles. Chuckles Sandeen.

At that time, Frank O’Malley was Notre Dame’s most admired and inspiring teacher, not only in the English Department but on campus. Professor O’Malley was eccentric, and he cultivated eccentricity. If a professor wasn’t in class, the rule at that time said students could leave after waiting in the classroom for at least 10 minutes. Professor O’Malley often came late, but students never left. Once, well before the closing bell, he abruptly closed his notebook and left. We sat there, not knowing what to do. When the bell rang, we left, too, and found him waiting to chat with us in the hall.

Professor Sandeen was the opposite. He showed up on time with the text and a few jottings on a slip of paper. Whereas Frank O’Malley read his lectures straight out, in his own elegant and moving way, and rapt students listened quietly and took notes, Ernest Sandeen turned the classroom into a think tank. He would call our attention to a line of poetry or a scene in a novel and ask questions raised by the text. His questions drew us into an intellectual absorption that generated not debate but deep, thoughtful conversation. We explored and discussed so meditatively that time disappeared from our consciousness.

Speaking of himself as a poet, Professor Sandeen once said that he learned by going where he had to go. That is also how he taught. We students learned by going where we had to go, and Chuckles Sandeen was our guide. I remember when we were discussing Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a novel about communism in Russia. After drawing us deeply into that book, Mr. Sandeen raised the final topic of the day. “Does the world,” he asked, “run on actions and circumstances, or does it run on ideas?” And that started it. Off we went. His question led us into explorations beyond the boundaries of our knowledge, so much so that I still remember leaving that classroom inebriated with thought.

After graduation I went on to postgraduate studies in English literature. In one of my M.A. courses at the University of Michigan, we were assigned a paper on Henry James’s The American_. We had read that novel in one of the six or so courses I took from Professor Sandeen at Notre Dame, so I pulled out my undergraduate notes, which I kept with me all through graduate school. Re-oriented by those notes, I moved into that novel in my own way and wrote my paper. I not only received an ‘A’ for that paper, I also received a note from the professor asking for a copy of it so he could use it as a model for his students. The University of Michigan professor wanted to elicit from his graduate students the kind of paper Professor Sandeen elicited from his undergraduates.

I moved on to Stanford for a Ph.D. in English and Humanities and returned to Notre Dame in 1958, to join the English Department faculty. I discovered that Frank O’Malley no longer solely taught English majors. When I was a Notre Dame undergraduate, the English Department required all of its majors to take Frank’s two-semester, senior year Philosophy of Literature course. Now, Frank taught one course per semester, open to all students as a University elective. He still drew large enrollments and a devoted student following, but Frank, I discovered, represented the closing down of a previous phase of not only the English Department’s but Notre Dame’s education, a period that had striven to bring to education a certain pastoral depth.

Ernie’s teaching strove for intellectual heights. His kind of teaching, I discovered, and the teaching of faculty appointed since Ernie’s arrival, was now the norm and future direction, and not only of the English Department but of the University. That kind of teaching is still Notre Dame’s commitment and direction.

Administrative changes

In 1965 Ernest Sandeen was named chairman of the English Department. He accepted the appointment with the understanding that he would serve for three years and no more. He kept to that understanding. One of his first changes was to create the office of Director of Graduate Studies. His immediate successor added a Director of Undergraduate Studies. Anyone who looks around campus will discover departmental administrations so organized to this day.

Ernie also appointed an executive committee to frequently inform and advise him. At a time when authority descended from the Main Building and stopped at the department chairman’s office, Ernie’s executive committee extended that authority into the faculty. Such committees are also typical in University departments today.

Ernie went further. He created an elected faculty committee to deliberate and recommend every faculty appointment and promotion. Some years after Ernie left office, the University faculty’s revision of the Academic Manual mandated that a Committee on Appointments and Promotions exist in every department. The mandate was accepted by University authorities and stands to this day.

Years before any campus discussion about bringing co-education to Notre Dame, Ernie did his utmost to appoint women to the English Department faculty. In this he partially failed, because no female candidate—and Ernie interviewed many and offered appointments every year—was willing to join an all male faculty in an all male school. At the same time, Ernie appointed our own female doctoral students on a full-time, though temporary, basis to our regular faculty. It broke the ice and anticipated by a number of years the University’s move to co-education.

Ernie also founded the Ward-Phillips Lectures, a four-lecture series given in a single week by a distinguished visiting professor and published as a monograph by the University of Notre Dame Press. Those lectures continue to this day.

Ernie, finally, stimulated the English Department’s intellectual activity through faculty meetings, readings and seminars, and by appointments of distinguished visiting professors. Like the Ward-Phillips Lectures, each of the latter focused on a different literary specialism or area, one at a time.

Indeed, Ernest Sandeen was not only an important teacher and administrator at Notre Dame, he was also a major cultural resource. A published scholar and a poet, with five volumes of poetry published from l953 to l995, he introduced Notre Dame to poets and writers from across the land. He invited them to campus, arranged their presentations and discussions, fed and housed them at his home, and introduced them to as many students and faculty as could be accommodated. He promoted and served the Sophomore Literary Festival from the day of its conception.

Ernie’s home, in fact, was a center of cultural activity. Students and faculty dropped in virtually every day and night of the week, unannounced, welcomed and free to stay. Books, journals and magazines lined his bookshelves and covered his tables. Ernie would introduce these to his visitors and spend the evening discussing them. Student and faculty writers met at his home for sessions both regular and impromptu, and he personally read, commented on and encouraged aspiring writers of every age.

He attended to his own work after everyone left, from about midnight to 5 or 6 a.m. It became his habitual work schedule.

Ernest Sandeen came to Notre Dame a little more than 100 years after its founding. Yet he, himself, was a founder, a founder of today’s Notre Dame. I used to call him “Old Timer,” after a character in several of his poems, but Ernie was of the present, not of the past. Ernie laid down lines that this University still follows. When we, of today’s generations, turn to our reflections upon Ernest Sandeen, we pay our respects to a man who was truly one of our own.

_Edward Vasta is a Notre Dame professor emeritus of English.