Memories of Dunstan Thompson, by Sanford Gifford

A letter from Sanford Gifford, taken from “Dunstan Thompson:  The life and work of a Lost American Master”, pp 79 – 82, published by Pleaides Press, Warrensburg, MO. 

Sanford Gifford was born in 1918 and educated at Harvard University and the Northwestern University Medical School. He served in theArmy Medical Corp in the South Pacific until 1946 and, since then, has lived in the Boston area, where he has worked on the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and Harvard Medical School.


My earliest & longest-lasting memories of Dunstan concern his sarcastic wit directed at all & sundry, including us, his circle of close friends on the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly. And yet when I try to recall an example, I can only come up with his mocking tone & talent for mimicry.  When my ex-roommate would join us, Dunstan would say “Why Charles, we were just singing your praises!” What made this funny, as well as cruel, must have been his delivery, his tone of voice. He also had a novelistic gift for creating dramas out of commonplace events & acquaintances, such as Why does Robert Davis, our composition instructor sit only with a mirror behind him? His fear of the Secret Police, suspicious of his Marxian sympathies.

His sarcasm created some protest when he published his satirical essay “Fragrant Futility” on the Cowley Fathers’ monastery on Memorial Drive. He had charmed his way into theit confidence, & they felt betrayed when he made fun of their High-Church efforts to be more Catholic than their Episcopal denomination. His own Catholic background made him the perfect critic, & we always felt that Dunstan’s Catholicism was derived from an aristocratic tradition related to his father’s high-ranking Naval career & his descent ftom Count Rumford, the Tory scientist of the Colonial Era.

I have no memory of when Dunstan joined the Monthly, a revival created by Herschel Berman of a 19th century student publication that had folded during the First World War. It had many distinguished former editors, from E.E. Cummings toJohn Dos Passos, whom Hetschel believed we could exploit for donations. I also have no idea why Dunstan chose the Monthly, rather than the more traditional literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate. He quickly became its star, however, & wrote prolifìc poems, book reviews & extended set-pieces during 1937-38, when he became president. A major satirical essay took issue with Mrs. Jack Gardner & her revered private museum, & another foresaw “The Battle for Harvard Yard” in a fantasy of a fascist future. All Harvard poets wrote about the Spanish Civil War in 1937 for the Boylston Prize, & we were all amazed that Dunstan did not win it.

I remember Dunstan’s decision to leave Harvard without graduating, & his fierce pride in applying for a passport with “Occupation: Writer,” not “student.” He soon returned from England, his would-be literary destination, & I have had short encounters with Dunstan in several locales. First, he spent most of the summer of 1939 with me in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was in summerschool, & again on two summers in San Miguel Allende, an art-school in Mexico created by American & Mexican artists.  My younger brother was enrolled in the school, where we visited & traveled around Mexico together afterward, accompanied by Katherine Kuh, a Chicago art critic whose sarcastic wit was a match for Dunstan’s. We repeated the expedence the following summer, with another Harvard classmate, & drove from San Miguel to New York City in the car of the school’s director, Cossio del Pomar, an aristoctatic Peruvian revolutionary. Three passengers & the driver meant that one of us took turns in the rumble-seat, where we were drenched in tropical downpours. Dunstan took his turn, but made great fun of his attempts to dodge his obligation.

In many ways Dunstan was the ideal traveling companion, intensely curious & observant about everything we saw, & equipped with the historical background to make dramatic sense of it. This is born out by his latest travelwriting like “The Phoenix in the Desert”, but traveling with him was an indescribable light-hearted experience, with his high spirits, sense of humor & optimism in encountering obstacles.

My wife Ingrid & I had a Iast series of visits from Dunstan when we were in medical school in San Francisco & he would come up from Fort Ord. As a draftee in boot-camp, he was not happy with military discipline but he made fun of his hardships & found a suggestible bunkmate who would shine his shoes in return foi poetry-readings. This was a tour-de-force no other unhappy literary draftees of my acquaintance could have managed successfully.

Many years later Ingrid & I, with our two young sons, made a summer visit to Dunstan & Philip Trower at Ciey next-the-Sea, East Anglia. On the beach of flint pebbles the size of marbles, with a cold wind blowing off the North Sea, I asked Dunstan what it was like in winter. Not very different, he told us, but he never complained about the British chill, even though his cheeks were acquiring the mottled purple of a true Englishman, which he had indeed become.

This brief account of my contacts with Dunstan omits the most important element of our lifelong friendship, his irrepressible flow of animated conversation, in person & in correspondence. Much of it was about books & poetry, but also about politics, world events & our many mutual friends. He remembered them, naturally, as they once were, & his prodigious memory included details that many of us had forgotten, as if our early years together were preserved in amber. 

All the best,

Sanford Gifford

PS:  An absurd anecdote about Dunstan comes back to mind.  During his years at Harvard, there was a peculiar screening process, compulsory silhouettes of posture decreed by the famous anthropologist (I forget his name) of the ectomorph-mesomorph-endomorph classification.  Those who flunked it, like me and Dunstan and a few other literary types, were condemned to special gym classes with a Mr. Fradd, ageless and rubbery-muscled who tossed around a medicine-ball, grotesquely heavy, as if it were a basketball.  Dunstan plotted a method of getting out of this compulsory class: a totally imaginery encounter with Mr. F, who had floored him with a medicine-ball, humiliating him before the class and creating a traumatic neurosis that should excuse him from class.  The dean however outwitted Dunstan by relieving him from class attendance but assigning him instead to one-to-one sessions with Mr. F himself.  In short this was not a triumph for Dunstan, but it illustrates his imaginative skills.