by Bob Bell
Fred Holly Stocking ’36 was a revered and beloved professor of English at Williams for some 40 years. He was curious about everything, generous and encouraging of different opinions and perspectives, clear in his attitudes and convictions, reticent in his manner. Fred had reams of poetry by heart. “If I get far enough from civilization, walking in Maine at low tide,” he said, “I recite poems at the top of my lungs over the screeching seagulls. It’s a pure personal indulgence.” When you memorize a poem, Fred said with a smile, “You have music in your head whenever you want.” Though personally modest, Fred was a compelling performer. He always valued theatricality more than sincerity. He would say that a cockroach trying to get out of a bathtub is completely sincere!
He stressed that he taught not to advocate ideas or attitudes but “to give intelligent delight.” Fred made us remember that the word enthusiasm derives from the Greek for “full of the gods.” His dynamic performances were not to show off or strut his stuff; he was bearing witness to the glories of Shakespeare and Keats, Jane Austen and Tolstoy. He believed in the eternal value of literature not as a gospel of morality or ethics but as a source of pleasure, meaning and purpose. “I feel coherence reading ‘To Autumn,’” he mused. He hoped to provide access to “a pleasure that would be otherwise unavailable” by requiring and encouraging careful attention to its language. This was the principle of the introductory course, English 101, he helped implement in 1942.
“Our job is to develop in our students a skill—a skill for reading prose fiction, poetry and drama in such a way as to realize the potentialities of these forms,” he said. “We must also organize and direct the critical powers of our students so that after they leave us they will continue to refine their critical discrimination and to intellectualize their taste.”
Once after his retirement I sent a senior major, who was researching the history and rationale of the Williams English curriculum, to interview Fred. She returned aglow with excitement. Fred had talked with her for two hours and written several pages of detailed observations. “He kept apologizing for the vagueness of his memory,” she noted, “and quoted what some freshman said in class 50 years ago!”
One of Fred’s favorite projects was the Winter Study course “Shakespeare in England.” Fred told the student travelers that there was only one rule: “You’ve got to be cheerful, no matter what.” Everybody stayed at a rustic inn in Monmouth, South Wales, where they would discuss and enact plays they would then see produced in Stratford and London. Every evening before dinner there was a cocktail hour, which Fred regarded as another important teaching opportunity—“I want the students to see that a gentleman can have a drink, remain civilized and polite, and have a marvelous time.” Fred believed that courtesy had an ethical dimension. A gentleman should never say or do anything to make another person uncomfortable. Style was essential. Once he took 10 boys to the mirror in the men’s room to demonstrate the art of tying a bow tie—an important part of their liberal arts education, he joked.
Immaculately attired in a white shirt, bow tie and a dark cape, Fred was a familiar presence on campus. He corresponded with his brother about the undergraduate plays, recitals and lectures he attended. Travel, especially to see theater, art and architecture, was a priority for Fred and his wife Carol. A recovering Anglophile, he had encyclopedic knowledge of English history, culture, politics and follies—those perfectly useless and splendidly grandiose structures adorning English estates—and subscribed to a little publication featuring them. He wrote vividly about discovering the Albert Memorial shortly after his graduation from Williams. “I was strolling through Hyde Park in London, preoccupied with my favorite subject, my own state of mind,” he said. That blend of rueful selfirony, exuberance and perception made Fred an ideal companion and marvelous storyteller.
Fred Stocking was Williams through and through. Once walking with a friend he looked toward the horizon and commented, “Damn it. It is purple.” So was Fred, to the enduring benefit of the Williams community.
Bob Bell is the Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of English.