Monday, May 23, 2011

An apocryphal anecdote?

Stanley Vestal (1877–1957) was a prolific historian of the American West, known more particularly as an expert on the Sioux Indians. He was, in fact, made a member of the tribe by Chief Joseph White Bull, the oldest nephew of Sitting Bull. He grew up in the south-central part of the United States, mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1908, he became the very first Rhodes scholar from Oklahoma — which had officially become one of the United States less than a year before. In fact, he was one of the earliest Rhodes scholars, full-stop; the scholarship had been established just six years earlier. Vestal carried out his studies at Merton College, Oxford, from 1908 through 1911, earning a second Bachelor’s degree in 1911 and a Master’s in English Language and Literature in 1915 (awarded in absentia). In the same year, he began teaching at the University of Oklahoma. While there, he established a prestigious writing program, authored several textbooks on professional writing, and (much later) left the University an important collection of photographs of the American Western Frontier. Vestal was a pen name (he grew up as Walter Stanley Campbell), under which he wrote a few novels, none of them much remembered today.

These are the facts. But I came across an anecdote recently which gave me pause. Having already mentioned Merton College, you might wonder whether this anecdote has anything to do with Tolkien (who, as most of you probably know, taught at Merton College from 1945–59). It certainly does.

In Stanley Vestal: Champion of the Old West, Ray Tassin describes a return visit Vestal and his friend Frank Reid made to England from the end of June through August, 1953. This was some forty years after Vestal’s time at Oxford, and less than a decade after Tolkien took up his post as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Tassin writes:
Vestal’s first goal was his old college, Merton. He was eager to see it again, especially his old rooms and certain parts which had not been open to undergraduates when he had been a student there. But the porter was out and his boy dared not leave the lodge. While Vestal and Frank [Reid] talked to him one of the dons came in and volunteered to show them around. He was Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, well-known fantasy books. Tolkien took them everywhere, including the room where the queen lived when King Charles lived at Oxford. The tour concluded with Danish lager in the don’s rooms. [1]
This story — which was published the same year Tolkien died — well, it sounds like a bit of a stretcher, don’t you think? Consulting Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s exhaustive Chronology (and online addenda), there is nothing to corroborate this anecdote. Even if Tolkien were inclined to this sort of friendliness toward an American visitor, he was extremely busy with the galley proofs of The Lord of the Rings during the two months in question, conducting examinations, working with the BBC to set up a radio broadcast of his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and plenty more besides. He was so busy that he was postponing meetings!

So while I suppose it’s possible he showed a Merton alumnus around the College, it’s seems a bit more likely that he didn’t; or if he did, that the rest of the story is exaggerated, or made up entirely. Tassin’s book cites no sources other than Vestal’s letters of the period, but I don’t think these letters have been published. The University of Oklahoma has digitized and put online a pretty extensive portion of the Campbell Collection, but this doesn’t include much of his correspondence. It’s possible his letters are held privately in the Collection, and I know a reference librarian there, so I will have to make an inquiry. It would be interesting to learn whether Vestal himself records Tolkien’s name in his letters (though even if he does, it doesn’t necessarily prove the anecdote, in whole or in part).

It’s an interesting claim, though, isn’t it? Not something I ever expected to stumble on. Who knew there was a direct connection (claimed, at least) between Tolkien and the same U.S. state where I was born!

[1] Tassin, Ray. Stanley Vestal: Champion of the Old West. Norman, OK: A. H. Clark Co. [Imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press], 1973, pp. 260–1.


  1. I'd like to see a lot more examples in Vestal's letters of implausible name-dropping before I'd consider a claim that Tolkien showed a visitor around Merton to be inherently unlikely. He may have been busy, but he was also capable of being kindly to a visitor facing frustration, and furthermore did not always stick to his own priorities in time management.

    I'm more suspicious of the biography's identification of Tolkien as the author of two books one of which hadn't been published at the time of the event and the other of which he might not have been likely to mention. Did Vestal name Tolkien in a contemporary letter and the biographer identified him? Or is there no letter and Vestal went round in later years boasting that Tolkien showed him around Merton? Or something in between?

  2. What about “Danish lager in the don’s rooms”, David? Does that seem likely in your view?

    As for the biographer’s having mentioned Tolkien’s two books, I don’t see any reason for suspicion. I figured this was an interjection by Tassin. By 1973, when the biography was published, Tolkien’s name was very well-known, so it’s no surprise to me that a biographer, if he found mention of Tolkien’s name in a letter, would sit up and take notice! The question, though, is whether he found Tolkien’s name in a letter, whether it came up in an interview with somebody many years after the fact, whether it was subsequent boasting by Vestal (as you wondered), or what?

  3. Do we know anything about Tolkien's drinking habits that make Danish lager particularly unlikely for him? C&G says something about his tastes in wine (burgundy, port, and champagne, all preserving foreign places in their names) but not beer.

    But what was the biographer's source for knowing that the don was Tolkien - was it a contemporary letter or a recollection - and did he identify Tolkien as that author guy himself, or did Vestal tell him? Those are the questions whose answers could either allay or raise suspicions.

  4. Thanks, Jase, for noting this anecdote and also factors that make it questionable.

    I have an interest in "Inklings apocrypha." Here are two about C. S. Lewis:(1) The Sept. 2004 issue of Touchstone magazine contains an article by Charles Bressler that says a Jan. 1939 letter by Lewis calls George MacDonald’s What’s Mine’s Mine “the fourth greatest book he had ever read.” But this interesting assertion is nowhere to be found in the books of Lewis’s letters, and the editor of the magazine has apparently been unable, so far, to elicit details from the article author. (2) The British magazine The Spectator has a column, in one of Dec. 2004’s issues and available online, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “Poor Jack Is Dead” (referring not to Jack Lewis but to a dog). The final paragraph attributes to Lewis the remark that “dogs have three legs in the animal kingdom and one in the human.” Neither I nor some other longtime Lewis readers recognize that mot.

    I don't know much about Charles Williams and don't track any discussion lists on him. Given his interest in secret societies etc., I wouldn't be surprised if there are some dubious anecdotes about CW circulating in some places.

  5. Those are both interesting, Dale. The second quote is something I feel like I’ve heard before, and not attributed to Lewis. Hmm.