Arnold Canell, Class of 1930
Arnold Canell of the Class of 1930 died on Wednesday, March 30 at the age of 97.
Mr. taught in a school that in those years was peppered with the children of liberals, socialists and communists, where the students themselves vigorously refused to crouch during air-raid drills and protested outdoor nuclear testing. Yet Arnold Canell stood at the front of the classroom quoting William F. Buckley Jr. and his National Review, slyly enjoying the provocative disparity of views.
His students at the Bronx High School of Science in the 1960s forgave him his politics, his eccentricities and much else, however, because he left them with an ardent love of great writers. Mr. Canell, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 97, required his seniors to read “Anna Karenina,” “Madame Bovary,” “The Red and the Black” and “The Portrait of a Lady.” His readings of lyrical passages and his insights opened the eyes of students from working-class and middle-class homes to subtleties of character, finely turned sentences and the great human dramas during years when students were confined to such scholastic warhorses as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Silas Marner.”
Mr. Canell taught at Bronx Science from 1959 to 1968 and was one of those teachers who exercise enormous influence beyond the modest size of their paycheck and the provincial stage they stride. Although he enjoyed pointing out typos and grammatical errors in The New York Times, he respected good journalism and supervised the school newspaper, Science Survey, helping steer several students, including this one, into careers in journalism. “Many of us took Arnold’s journalism class not because we were interested in journalism, but because we wanted to have Arnold,” said Dr. Philip L. Cohen, a professor of medicine at Temple University, one of several students who stayed in touch with him into his old age, “He was a larger-than-life figure that taught us ideas we had never heard before and changed the lives of many people.”
Mr. Canell, a slightly built man whom the poet Edward Arlington Robinson might have described as “imperially slim,” was always impeccable dressed, preferring neatly pressed suits and vivid neckties pinned so tightly, as one student’s memoir had it, “they highlighted the thrusts of his Adam’s apple whenever he spoke.” He grew up in New York City, the youngest of eight children of an immigrant mother he described as having “almost alarming intelligence, as well as character and discipline.” On his first day of first grade, he wrote in an autobiographical essay, “I watched with amazement but without alarm, the antics of the others.”
“It apparently didn’t occur to me to join the crowd,” he wrote. “I never did, to the end of my days at school — and indeed to the end of my days.”
He was a top student at Townsend Harris High School and City College and taught at a number of high schools before coming to Bronx Science. “From the beginning, I had what Henry James called ‘the sense of the past,’ ” he wrote, adding with characteristic incitement: “Without it, people may be learned and intelligent, but are nevertheless, to my mind, barbaric.”
A lifelong bachelor, he left teaching to read full time at his home in Hudson, N.Y., north of the city. Mr. Cohen said that after finishing a book, Mr. Canell would jot down a summary and his critique.
“There are thousands of those cards in his home dating back to the 1930s,” Mr. Cohen said.