Retired professor turns from academia to fiction writing

Seymour Sarason is something of an academic Renaissance man. A professor emeritus in psychology who taught at Yale from 1945-1989, he is as comfortable talking in detail about his clinical research and the books he has written about the American education system as he is discussing three large Rembrandt self portraits displayed on a wall at the Frick Collection in New York City.

But at heart, he said, he is basically a writer.

At the age of 87, Sarason recently published his 46th book — his first novel. “St. James and Goldstein at Yale,” the tale of two academics who meet on a train from New York to New Haven on the day World War II erupts in Europe, describes a friendship that carries the protagonists through personal crises, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Vietnam War and the Black Panthers.

Sarason’s reasons for wanting to write a novel were simple.

“I was tired of writing books that had a bibliography, index and footnotes — I was tired of worrying about truth and fact,” he said. “If you like to write, which is another way of saying you like to think, fiction gives you a range that’s almost limitless.”

Sarason was born and raised in North Haven, earning both his Master’s degree and his doctorate at Clark University before taking his first position teaching psychology. Three and a half years later, he came to Yale, where he began his work in clinical psychology. He later became director of the graduate program in psychology and in 1961 co-founded the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic. Sarason credits the University for his prolific writing.

“One reason why Yale … is a great university is that they don’t give you three or four classes a semester,” he said. “They want you to write; they expect you to write. Yale expects you to be scholarly.”

While at Yale, Sarason made his mark on his colleagues as well as his students.

“One of the brightest thinkers in our field, he produced fundamental changes in the way the world thought about issues of human abilities,” psychology professor Kelly Brownell said in an e-mail. “Remarkably productive, but always with time to share a laugh and wisdom with those younger than him, Seymour has made a very real difference.”

Sarason’s field of interest while at Yale was community psychology, and though the novel is a work of fiction, his expertise in the subject is reflected in his writing.

“What I’ve been interested in is the ways in which the changes in institutions, societies, individuals, all interact and influence each other,” he said. “The idea [for this novel] had been percolating in my head. There are too many novels that I’ve read in which the relationship between the larger community and the individual was never really addressed.”

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, a psychology professor and a former student of Sarason’s, said Sarason’s lectures made “wise connections” and were filled with “unusual insights.

“He has a unique perspective on problems in psychology and in the community,” Salovey said. “He was essentially the person who invented community psychology.”

Sarason said writing the novel led to a process of self-discovery. He wrote a large part of the work a decade ago, but it was so long that four years ago he drastically cut and revised it, he said.

A history buff, Sarason cited Willa Cather, Susan Howatch, Philip Roth and Edith Wharton as some of his favorite novelists because of their ability to create a sense of place and history. Otherwise, he said, fiction tends to bore him.

“I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of times I started ‘War and Peace,'” he said.

While at Yale, Sarason researched a variety of subjects within his field. For 15 years, his work involved test anxiety in children. He said his work showed him what was seriously wrong with American schools and beyond.

“Classrooms tends to be boring, unstimulating places, both for teachers and students,” he said.

In 1965, Sarason was the only one to predict both orally and in writing the downhill slide of American schools. He commends places like Yale, where individual attention is taken seriously. Even as a professor, Sarason was averse to the idea of large classes.

“The thought of lecturing was something I could not tolerate,” he said. “I have to feel transaction between me and my students. For a number of years, I only taught small graduate seminars.”

In addition to St. James and Goldstein, Sarason has recently released a second edition of a book he wrote 13 years ago, Letters to a Serious Education President.

“The book was meant for the first president of the 21st century,” he said. “My publisher asked for an introduction to bring it up to date.”

In addition, Sarason is currently in the process of writing a second novel, about a young woman who was in the first class of females to be accepted at Yale.

“Writing is a way of making sense of your experiences,” Sarason said.

His other books include “The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform,” “The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Educational Reader,” and the autobiographical work “The Making of an American Psychologist.”

Although Sarason’s interests span a wide range of subjects, Janette Stone, who is one of Sarason’s neighbors at the Whitney Center assisted private living retirement community, said his vast knowledge base is not the only thing that defines him.

“He’s a man of tremendous intellect,” Stone, who has known Sarason since 1962, said. “He’s interested in every aspect of life and everybody, which is one of the most wonderful things about him.”

Maria Levenson, another Whitney Center resident, said she thinks Sarason is a strong writer and “delightful” company.

“I think he would be pleased to know that I give him very high marks as a human being,” she said. “He is what in Yiddish is a ‘mensch,’ which means that he is a good human being and has a lot of compassion. He also has a great deal of humor.”

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