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Remembering Princeton: II Further Memories of Parnassus Bookshop

Updated on December 17, 2016
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Before going to college, Richard F. Fleck grew up in Princeton NJ and summered along the coast of Maine northeast of Boothbay Harbor.

167 Nassau Street was the location of bookshop

Dr. Erich Kahler, 1944
Dr. Erich Kahler, 1944

Further Memories of Parnassus Bookshop


Almost every customer who visited Parnassus had or has fond memories. The poet Bruce Berlind (now with Colgate University) has written in a letter to me that he can remember the layout of the shop as though it were yesterday. He remembers the $2.00 poetry book table; if he had bought out that table of books and held onto them since 1944, he would be quite wealthy! But permit me to share some of my memories of the customers themselves.. Erich Kahler (pictured above in 1944) encouraged me to become a writer, no easy task to be sure. But I treasure his encouragement especially considering I was only 7 or 8 years old when he gave me this advice.

My mother and father greatly enjoyed talking with him. He was a true humanist. He was a man of compassion though Hilter had none for him. He took the trouble to answer the simplest of questions. My mother asked him if Albert Einstein ever came back to this little planet of ours in his thoughts and meditations. Dr. Kahler smiled and said "yah, yah, he did indeed. Let me give you an example, Anne," he said. "There was a little third grade girl who lived a few doors down from Einstein on Mercer Street. She was having trouble in class adding fractions. Her parents suggested she go knock on the door of Albert Einstein because he was a great mathematician. She did so. Dr. Einstein said 'Hello, what can I do for you?'She said,"I can't catch on how to add fractions.' 'Well, he said jokingly, 'how much can you pay me?' 'How about a grape lolly pop?' 'Fine,' he said. And so Dr. Einstein tutored the little girl on how to add fractions until she understood." What a tutor she had!

More mirthful memories include John Berryman's walking by Parnassus one evening when he saw the light of a slide projector flashing on and off. He stared through the window to see images of Baffinland, Canada on the screen. We were having a private showing of pictures taken by a professional photographer on the MacMillan Expedition to Baffinland and Greenland earlier in 1947. Berryman sinked in and sat in a corner to continue watching through his thick glasses.. Finally question time came and it was John Berryman, the uninvited guest, who had the most questions of anyone for the photographer.

Before the Monday Evening lecture/reading series had begun, we wondered how we could seat a crowd of forty or fifty people. My father came up with the idea of renting folding chairs from Kimball Funeral Parlor. One night it was William Arrowsmith's turn to give a talk on Cicero, but when he noticed the chairs all had Kimball Funeral Parlor painted on them, he said to my father, "perhaps I should be giving a talk on Roman burial customs!"

Charles Bell, writer and physics instructor, loved to charge up the stairs as though he were Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. He got into the habit of charging up the stairs to go to the bathroom whether at Parnassus or even at Dr. Kahler's home. One time, he said, he paid for this strange behavior. He had an apartment in the attic of an old Victorian home that had a trap door entrance. He charged up three flights of stairs only to bang his head fiercely on the closed trap door. No more charging up the stairs after that!

Bernard Ryan, an undergraduate poet who produced a privately printed collection of poems of fellow Princeton Poets including Merwin, Kinnell, Berlind, himself and others, got my father to stock a pile of these books on consignment at Parnassus. They sold reasonably well. I believe its title was Bread in the Bone, edited by Bernard Ryan. He had a few graduate student friends, one with quite a sense of humor. The grad student entered a conversation my mother was having with Erich Kahler on Nature's ability to adapt. The student said, "isn't it wonderful how nature has made mountain goats with two short legs and two long legs on each side of the creature--that way he can go around a steep mountain easily." My mother repeated this statement with wonder to Dr. Kahler who roared with laughter and asked, "but what happens when he turns around?"

When W.S. Merwin heard years ago that I was contemplating writing a bit of a memoir on Parnassus, he wrote to me to say I must include the story of Harold Waggie if I ever do write up Parnassus. Well Harold Waggie was a technician of some sort at Princeton and he had a hobby of building church organs. He was a bachelor and lived alone on a spartan schedule. One evening he told everybody at Parnassus that he had to leave a bit early because he had to go and work on his organ. Of course, everybody had to hold back their laughter.

There were darker moments as well like the time R.P. Blackmur refused to attend a Parnassus lecture by the German Jew Erich Kahler. That left a very bad taste in everybody's mouth. And then there was the Jewish-American poet Sydney Monas who told us of his horrible experiences in World War II as a captive of the Nazis. Apparently the Nazis segregated Jewish G.I's from non-Jewish. Sydney was put into a concentration camp instead of a POW camp. No one was given a morsel of food. He had such hunger. Finally, he said "God,God," and grabbed a live rat scampering on the floor and ate it raw.

I will never forget the sad-eyed Dr. Robert Oppenheimer who once said that after he witnessed the testing of the first nuclear bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico he said that in no way should we use such a device on human beings. He suffered such humiliation after recanting his work on the atomic bomb. It won the war, but at what price, he reflected. Curiously no nation has yet to repeat the use of nuclear weapons since 1945.... How can I ever forget these boyhood memories from Princeton well over a half-century ago.

Again, if the reader is interested in knowing more about the intellectual atmosphere of Princeton in the 1940s I recommend John Haffenden's biography of John Berryman. Parnassus Bookshop is mentioned a few times in this book.


© 2009 Richard Francis Fleck


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      Juneaukid 3 years ago

      Dear Soren, Many thanks for your comment. I certainly appreciate t! My doctoral dissertation is available on microfilm from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The date of the dissertation is 1970, The University of New Mexico. You may have noticed my new editions of John Muir available on or or from West Winds Press, Portland OR--including The Cruise of the Corwin. A new edition of my book Henry Thoreau and John Muir Among the Native Americans is coming out May 12th with West Winds Press. As to the 1944 photo of Erich Kahler which I have (signed on the back by Erich) was taken I believe at 1 Eveleyn Place in Princeton by Lily Lowes (deceased). I could have a high resolution digital image made from it and email directly to you once I have your email address (you could mail it to me or send it via facebook. I could have both sides digitalized with his signature. Sometime when we go to Ireland next I may get a chance to hop over the North Sea. Cheers, Richard

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      Søren Dixen 3 years ago

      Dear Richard.

      As you can see, I often return to these posts. I have also read around elsewhere on your hub, and incidentally, (or, perhaps, quite naturally), both Thoreau and Muir are also among my favorites. I thank you for the insights you have provided here on these majestic figures, and right now the royal library here in Copenhagen, Denmark, is trying to secure a copy of your 1971-dissertation on Thoreau, so that I might read it. When I do, I will surely return with a comment or two.

      The reason I'm writing you now is that I'm currently working on a peer-reviewed article in which Erich Kahler plays the leading role. However, the journal I'm writing it for asks for pictures to print along with the text, and I would like to ask you, if I could be permitted to use the picture of Kahler that you have put on top of this page. The one from 1944 where he is lighting his pipe. It's the best picture I have ever seen of him, and, as perhaps you know, not many pictures exist of the man, and certainly not from the war years - the exact years my article is concerned with. Would it be possible? I wouldn't be able to pay you much for it, but you along with the photographer would of course be duly credited, and perhaps, if I succeed in lifting Kahler a little bit out of the forgetfulness the world has shrouded him in, other requests could be submitted to you as well. Do you know who took that picture? And where? And would you happen to have it in a high enough resolution for print? Feel free to delete this message if it doesn't belong here; I have sent it to your Facebook as well along with a friendship request. And if your journeys ever happen to bring you to this part of Europe, please let me know and you will find yourself the most welcomed guest.

      Best regards

      Søren Dixen,

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      Richard Francis Fleck 6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you Soren Dixen. Back then, Blackmur along with others in his department was slightly anti-semitic. Upon much later reflection, he surely overcame it when he wrote his book. Did you see my first piece "Memories of Parnassus Bookshop"? Thank you for your comment.

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      Søren Dixen 6 years ago

      Another wonderful post. Thank you. But why did Blackmur refuse to attend Kahler's lecture? Were they on bad terms with each other? Kahler mentions Blackmur (with respect, it seems) in a few of his books including "The Disintegration of Form in the Arts" (1968), when Form is discussed at page 21. Have you written anything else about the bookshop or Kahler? Sorry to ask you all of this, but Kahler has become my sole interest since I discovered him a few years ago. Today, sadly, he is almost forgotten, but his work is of such importance. I try to imagine what it must have been like growing up surrounded by these people, but I can't. Such a gathering of the greatest spirits. Nothing today even comes close. Thanks again.

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      Richard Francis Fleck 8 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks Hello, Hello. It was indeed an interesting but complex childhood.

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      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      Talking about childhood memories. You were so priviledged it makes me green with envy. You definitely got to write this book. Your gift to describe scenes so vividly and yet in a pleasant language Thank you so very much for such a great hub.

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      Richard Francis Fleck 8 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Glad I took you back to 1944, dohn121!

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      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      What fascinating stories, Juneaukid. Thank you so much for sharing them. I just liked about all of them and felt like I was enjoying a cup of coffee while listening! Thanks.