MARTHA RITTENHOUSE AT BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE
I came to Black Mountain College in the Fall of 1948, and left the next June at
the close of the year. Since it was a long way back to Maryland, I spent
Thanksgiving at the college, along with a few other students. I enjoyed every
minute of my stay at Black Mountain College, and if I had had the money, I would
have stayed on indefinitely.
When I first arrived, I joined other students who decided to pick up apples and
make hard cider. We picked apples on the college grounds, and probably even
where we did not have the right. There were a lot of old apple trees around the
countryside. Eric Renner added raisins to some of the cider and sugar and stored
it in his room for a month or so. Then he had a party in the dining room and
invited the whole school. I remember it as more vinegary than cidery, but it was
a great party anyway. Black Mountain students had a party at the drop of a hat,
and the parties were always a success. Where else would college students dress
up in their handmade costumes? One party was a costume party of black and white
costumes only. Another was cave men clothes. I sewed azalea leaves all over my
two piece bathing suit, and over my boyfriend Bill’s trunks.
There were no drugs at Black Mountain except for alcohol, and the usual uppers
and downers. Since I did not take drugs, I might not have known, though. One
student would take sleeping pills and sleep for nineteen hours, then wake up
I thought of myself as a teetotaler and nonsmoker, but felt obligated to try
alcohol and cigarettes. Neither provided any pleasure to me, and I was horrified
that other students drank and smoked until it was a pleasure to them, or, as it
seemed to me, they suffered in order to become addicted. Still, the parties were
fun whether one drank or not.
After a week of playing around, classes started. I took two art classes from
Josef Albers, drawing and color. He was a wonderful teacher, and I loved his
classes. There was never a dull moment, either. He had a friendly argument going
with Bob Rauschenberg. Albers thought Bob was just too wild sometimes. One day
Bob brought in a color study that had Albers raving with admiration. “Bob,” he
said, “how did you do it?” Bob said, “I held it as tight as I could, and then I
wiggled a little bit!”
Albers said at the start of our painting class, “You don’t start out painting a
masterpiece. You have to practice first.” And that is what we did. At our
twice-a-week classes, we brought anything we had been working on, and we painted
during class often. At other times, he would use someone’s painting as a
starting point for a talk on color. He would point out to us that a white wall
was not white, but took on the colors of the green trees outside the window, or
the red shirt of the student sitting nearby. Another talk was on the use of
color to create three dimensions in our painting.
We started out by using flower pots as our models. I could not please him. I was
not using the color to create the picture; I was using the paint to draw. At one
time, he pointed accusingly at my effort and said, “That damn triangle! Always
the triangle in the background.”
But, how sweet the day when the glorious words, “She comes! She comes! See how
this works!” were directed at me for once. When I had used up all my paints
except the jars of red, purple, and orange, it was still fine. We were on to
painting an old office chair by then, and somehow I had grasped the idea of
using the color to create the picture, and my red, purple and orange paintings
pleased me and Albers, too.
I still save my color studies from his classes, and remember his insights about
color and paint. When he was leaving, I went up to his house to say good-bye. He
gave me a kiss on the cheek and said with a smile, “Stay healthy!” I felt a
little put down, but decided I was a healthy farm girl. So what!
Bob Rauschenberg had a sewing machine that he would generously lend to other
students. I told him he should charge, and suggested something like twenty-five
cents an hour. He said he had not planned to charge, but that was OK. Then, when
I borrowed his machine to put a zipper in a dress, I hurried so much in order to
save money that I put the zipper in backwards. He never got over razzing me
about the backward zipper.
Bob was one of the students at Black Mountain who had rhythm in their souls and
toes. The other ones were Delores Fullman, Donald Alter, Ulrich Heinnemann-Rufer
and Erissinola Genesi, called Mitzi. I envied them with all my heart. It was
such a pleasure at parties to watch them dance. MiTzi and Uli did teach me the
Charleston, and we performed it in one of the drama productions that Uli wrote.
As we danced, we sang a song Uli had written for us that went something like
this: “We are the witches. We are hunting game. We don’t know any feeling of
shame. Do as we do, everyone. The purpose of life if FUN! FUN! FUN!”
Ulli’s production was a spoof of Black Mountain, and hilariously funny to all of
us in the know. When Uli came out onto the stage in a pair of wire-rimmed
glasses, and said, “Ah! So! Victor comes!” we all laughed until we hurt, even
Albers. We all recognized the words Albers used when he saw that a student was
really getting it, and doing it right. Another scene was of a plump David
Hochstein lolling on a divan in nothing but a jock strap and a big blue ribbon
on his toe. David looked soulfully at us out of his large beautiful dark eyes,
from under his locks of curly dark hair. It was so funny that I don’t even
remember what naughtiness was supposed to be going on. Uli had worked hard on
his production, and was pleased that everyone thought it was a great success.
But then, as I said, all parties and productions were a big success at Black
Mountain, because everyone was enthusiastic, full of energy, and ready to have a
I enjoyed all of my teachers, and had excellent teachers. I took Frank Rice’s
linguistics class, and found it fascinating. One night, at the request of one of
the members of our class, Frank and his wife, Anne, hosted a party at their
house. During the evening, Frank got the hiccoughs, and there was much merriment
as he received suggestions for curing the hiccoughs. I recommended Robert
Benchley’s putting your head in a bucket of water and breathing deeply twelve
times. Someone suggested drinking a glass of water from the far side, requiring
the drinker to put his head close to the floor. Frank tried that. The next
recommendation was to breathe with his head in a paper bag. Frank tried this,
too, and it seemed to work.
While Anne was putting the three little children to bed, there was a certain
amount of crying in the background. Natasha Goldowski, another faculty member
who was present at the party, said. “I have always thought that children should
be chained up in a cage and fed through the bars until they were twelve years
old.” This struck me as the height of bad taste, and so terrible that I could
not even see it as humorous. But our host took it in stride with perfect
Madame Goldowski, my French tutor, said that my French pronunciation improved,
and I gave all the credit to our linguistics class. She told Frank, and he was
pleased. This was typical of Black Mountain that teachers could work together.
Madame taught students one at a time in her home. I had had five years of
French, but never complained about doing the rudimentary exercises she assigned
for homework. As a consequence, she liked me, and we had a grand time having
French conversations during class time. Madame was a shameless gossip, and it
was from her that I learned of sexual shenanigans among a couple faculty
members, and her opinion of everyone, good and bad. She could imitate with
devastating accuracy, one of her students, who left his shirt unbuttoned, and
scratched his tummy. I will never forget the sight of little Madame, dressed in
black, with her diamond studs in her ears, scratching her belly, I knew Madame
did not care if I laughed. She knew she was good.
Charles Olson came to teach during my second semester. He made us write, and he
made us read aloud what we wrote in class, so that everyone could comment on it,
as he did himself. This seemed a good way to teach, and during the seven years
that I taught English in a college prep school, I used this method, copied
straight from Charles Olsen. When we read literature, he always elicited good
discussions from us because he took every reading of a text seriously. He
belittled no one. I took this from him, too, and used it in my own classroom. My
senior thesis at Goddard College was in teaching English, but I learned more
from the teachers at Black Mountain about teaching than I did from the dozens of
books I read while I was writing my thesis. The best pedagogical books agreed
with my BMC teachers: it is what the student does, not what the teacher does,
that the student learns from.
It was hard for me to concentrate on what Charles Olson was saying sometimes
because I got sidetracked watching his cigarette. He was about seven feet tall,
broad in the shoulder and deep in the chest, and he could burn a cigarette down
a third of its length in one good pull.
What he was saying, however, was great. He was generous about letting us ask,
“What do you think of Dreiser?” or Gertrude Stein? Or Nathaniel Hawthorne? Or
Melville? He was patient with us, and always ready to consider our questions
seriously, and to teach us something with his answer. Whenever he praised a
book, I wanted to read it. One of these was The Golden Bough. I had never heard
of it before, and it opened up a new panorama of ideas for me.
We quickly learned who he liked: Homer, Melville, Hemingway and Pound, that’s
who. The only books I read in a whole semester were Herman Melville’s eleven
hundred page Pierre, his Billy Budd and Benito Cereno, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and
the Lattimer translation of the Odyssey, and a few Hemingway short stories. I
wrote poems and short sketches. Olson was particularly interested in my efforts
to translate Villon’s "Ballade" of the corpses hanging out under a tree limb. He
rewrote it, put his name on it, too, and mailed it out to a magazine. It was not
accepted. But, I was pleased the Villon grabbed Olson’s imagination as he did
Olson was also obsessed with Norbert Wiener and his book on cybernetics. He had
heard about it from Natasha Goldowski. He spent several class times to talk
about the book. I was not interested in the book and to this day could not tell
you what exactly cybernetics is. I do remember thinking that it did not sound
like anything I had to worry about in the near future, if ever.
We were expected to work at work crew but some of us worked more than others. I
worked with a boy named Bert Morgan to clear the path along the lake that went
from the Studies Building to the Dining Hall, I got a terrible case of poison
ivy. One of the maintenance men, Ben Sneed, had suffered his whole life from
poison ivy, and he and I had many a good discussion of the foul blight. His
horror tales could top mine any day. He had had a case of systemic poison ivy
that we don’t even want to think about.
There were sports at Black Mountain, but they were few and far between. Some of
us played touch football for a few weeks until winter came. Usually the favorite
sport was talking, or hiking. Bill and I did a lot of hiking when we were
courting, often with a faculty child or another student with us, and we did not
have the heart to chase them away.
Dancing was a popular sport, too. Herr Bodky played waltzes until sweat poured
off of him. And Charlotte Schlesinger played waltzes in her apartment. One night
when we went to say good-bye to her, she played for hours. I had on a pair of
slipper socks, and had a blister the size of a fifty-cent piece on the ball of
my foot, but it was worth it. Charlotte, or Bimbus as we called her, taught us
vocal music. She was ambitious enough to teach us Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion,
and I still think it is one of his most beautiful. Chorus singing had exciting
moments too, that had nothing to do with music. One boy annoyed Bimbus so much
that she threw her metal ashtray at him. Unfortunately, she hit an innocent boy,
who was hurt not at all physically, but very much in his feelings, and he quit
the chorus. I secretly hoped that I would be asked to sing one of the solo parts
when we put on the Passion, but a faculty member got the solo.
Black Mountain was a great experience for me. I not only met Bill Treichler, my
future husband, and enjoyed the beautiful physical setting of the college and
the stimulating interactions with the bright, friendly, and energetic students,
but I learned wonderful things from my classes. From Albers I learned to see
everything around me more intensely, to see color where I had not seen it before
and to understand where each color would fall in the color sphere. He taught us
to appreciate both the subjective perceptions of color as well as the physical
properties of color.
From Olson I learned to trust my judgment when I read literature. I think that,
like Sartre, Olson believed the reader completes the work.
From Frank Rice I learned that language cannot be changed, and cannot be stopped
from changing. It moves in directions decided by the choices of millions of
individual speakers. Frank taught us that language is the spoken sound, and can
exist without writing. Because of Frank’s inspiring class, I took another
linguistics class when I was working on my Masters at Dartmouth.
Whenever I looked for books in the library, Librarian Nell Rice was always there
to help. She also invited just Bill and me to her house for a fudge-making party
afternoon, where we talked about the early days of the school.
Madame Goldowski improved my spoken French by encouraging me to speak French
with her. And what great conversations we had, full of gossip and insight about
students and faculty both.
I saw that some of the faculty were not always doing what was right and
reasonable for the long-term health of the college, but that did not dim my
appreciation of the advantages for me in this free community of learning. I
loved Black Mountain College.
© Martha Treichler.
Permission of Martha Treichler. All rights reserved.