A Half-Century of Harvard in Fiction
Short-sighted Satire Gives Distorted Views of College
When John Marquand '15 was asked whether he enjoyed his undergraduate days at Harvard, he replied without hesitation, "Not especially." Likewise, when somebody asks, "Is the fiction that has been written about Harvard eminently literary, perceptive, and distinguished?" the answer must be, "Not especially . . . but the variety is astounding."
Since 1900 there has been a small body of fiction-good, bad, and abysmal--that has tried to characterize Harvard and the "Harvard man." Just after the turn of the century, when American letters were still strongly influenced by the Genteel outlook, Owen Wister of Virginian fame wrote a short novel entitled Philosophy 4. In this work two fair-haired, hearty, fun-loving, all-American boys, Bertie and Billy, are contrasted to their supercilious, swarthy, second-generation-American tutor, Oscar Maironi. Bertie and Billy are well-rounded, while Oscar is a grind. The story centers around preparation for a final exam in Harvard's Philosophy 4. Bertie and Billy pay Oscar to tutor them in the course material, because with playing tennis, taking carriage rides, and learning to be men, they have not found time to attend lectures or do the reading. The day before the exam Bertie and Billy, tired of the city, go out to the country and visit a tavern; Oscar stays in his cheaply furnished room to study. As might be expected, Bertie and Billy get higher marks in the exam than Oscar, thus proving that well-rounded young American is by nature more successful that a narrow-minded foreigner. We are told that in later life Billy and Bertie are both important business executives, while Maironi publishes a book entitled The Minor Poets of Cinquesento.
A few years after the publication of Philosophy 4, an equally vacuous but somewhat differently angled novel appeared about the Harvard undergraduate. This was The Count at Harvard by Rupert Sargent Holland, whose name seems justly to have escaped posterity. Perhaps the best comments on the value of this book are found scrawled inside the cover of the edition now in Lamont. Various undergraduates from the class of 1912 up to the present have inscribed their critical sentiments there: "Only on person ever read beyond the first chapter of this book. That was myself. Don't do it." And from a member of the class of 1921: "If you start in the middle it's not so bad. Except now and then it is all unutterable rot." Another '21 contributed, "Most foolish book ever written." The book's appeal seems to have remained constant throughout the years, for a member of '55 felt impelled to add, "This book is the absolute worst. Be careful not to read it."
Fin de Siecle Writing
Actually, The Count At Harvard is an attempt to apply the slick amoralism of the fin de siecle approach to a story about a Harvard man. Roger Norris, alias the "Count," is a suave, charming n'er-do-well who drops Wilde-like epigrams on every possible occasion. He is lightly cynical about everything, except for one brief time when he meets a "good," serious and proper girl. She, however, rejects his suit, because the Count is not a very good security risk. The Count does not let this overly effect him, and returns to his flippant outlook. The most annoying thing about the book is the obvious and exuberant delight which the author takes in portraying a shiftless but engaging young man. The book is quite representative of run-of-the-mill fin de siecle writing, but the choice of Harvard scene and characters seems merely a vehicle for this glib and superficial kind of literature. In a few parts it is amusing, but one must wade through great heaps of banality to find something remotely humorous.
The Lampoon figured prominently in a rash of satires and parodies of college life and faculty members which appeared between 1910 and 1930. All of these were printed privately at the authors' expense or by the boards of the Lampoon. For the most part, these little "cartoon and comment" books were of the same rather inferior quality and content as their recent relative--Gullible's Travels Through Harvard, which had microscopic success in Cambridge last winter. By far the best were two printed by the Lampoon writers.
Alice's Adventures in Cambridge, published in 1913, is a quite clever adaptation of the Alice story to a Harvard environment. Written by R. C. Evarts '13 and illustrated by E. L. Baron '13, both Lampoon editors, the book whimsically ridicules a number of Harvard professors, and revels in the apparent non sequiturs of an academic microcosm.
The frog . . . suddenly began to write very fast on a blackboard behind him:
"If, other things being equal, the level of prices should rise, and thus falling create a demand and supply with, and as which, would you consider this a division of labor? If so, when, and in what capacity? If not, why not, and under what circumstances?"
As soon as he had finished, all the other animals produced paper from nowhere in particular, and began to scribble as fast as they could. Alice noticed that the Lizard, who was sitting in the front row, was the only one wrote anything original. All the others copied from his paper, and crowded round him so closely that Alice was afaraid the poor little creature would be smothered. Meanwhile the frog looked at the ceiling. "He couldn't look anywhere else, poor thing," thought Alice; "his eyes are in the top of his head."
About two seconds had passed when the frog called out, "Time!" and began to gather up the papers. When he had collected them all, he took them to his desk and began to mark them. He marked the first one A, the second one B, and so on down to F, when he began over gain with A. All this time he kept his eyes tight shut. "So he will be sure to be impartial, the white Rabbit explained to Alice.
Cartoons and Doggerel
Not so well done is Harvard Inside Out by Elmer E. Hagler '16, which appeared in 1916. The cartoons are very amateurish jobs, and the captions lack a good deal of punch. Written ostensibly by the barely literate younger brother of a Harvard undergraduate, these captions adopt an obvious vernacular which becomes more and more oppressive as each page is turned.
About the only thing Little Codfish Cabot at Harvard has to recommend it is its delightful title. This little inanity, written by Samuel H. Ordway, Jr., '21 and illustrated by F. Wendworth Saunders '24, could not possibly have enjoyed too much acclaim when it appeared in 1924. It follows the education of a prep-schooled boy at Harvard, his introduction to various customs at Harvard, and his impeccable Bostonian reaction to all situations. The cartoons are poor, and what comment there is can be summarized as inconsequental.
The Harvard Mother Goose, 1926, combines a maximum of bad taste with a minimum of talent. Frederick DeWolf Pingree '24 wrote the doggerel, and Robert Martin '23 drew the cartoons, some of which are amusing in conception, but suffer rather drastically in execution. At a time when Harvard was beginning to outgrow its reputation as a hotbed of social snobbery, Pingree and Martin reacted absurdly against the changing times with verses showing a jejeune anti-semitism, and a rather pitiable outcry against the expanding attitude of the Admissions Department. The following poem, called "The Club-Man-About-Ttown" or "Suaviter In Modo" is representative of both the style and interest of the author:
Georgie Porgie, Pudding and Fly,
Kissed a girl and smoothed his tie;
When her love began to pall,
Georgie Porgie let her bawl.
In 1931, the Lampoon again entered the much abused field of parody and satire of Harvard institutions with a remarkably polished publication entitled Mondays at Nine or Pedagogues On Parade. Paul Brooks '32 and T. Graydon Upton '31 contributed a great deal of consistently fine and funny light verse. Carl E. Pickhardt's '31 caricatures of famous professors of that era--Barret Wendell, Charles T. Copeland, Irving Babbit, George Santayana, and G. L. Kittredge--are excellent drawings in the style of Sir Max Beerbohm. Part of the verse that accompanies the caricature of Kittredge follows:
This is our farmer, stern and rather odd;
Although a mortal, yet he acts like God.
Behind him walks the world, no one before,
No living man precedes him through a door . . .
He lectures long on how to torture witches,
And hopes the happy days will come to pass
When men will burn for wearing hats in class. .
This type of writing, except for one or two decidedly anachronistic excresences, passed quietly away after the wane of Gold Coast Harvard. With the passing of a Harvard "type"--the well-dressed, "well-bred," socially conscious, prep-schooled, glib-talking, worldly, wealthy-son type of undergraduate, humor, both self-directed and outwardly directed, fell off sharply. Even today, a cursory glance at the kind of undergraduate publications at Harvard shows an overwhelming preponderance of the intense and earnest variety.
Of course, the Depression and the mounting of world problems, coupled with an increasing undergraduate awareness of the magnitude and immediacy of such problems, were not at all conducive to a humorous perspective. But this alone cannot explain the remarkably abrupt falling-off of the satires and parodies that were legion between the years 1910 and about 1930. It has been said that humor, or attempts at it, is the property of a particular sort of mind--a mind which is either frenetic or dormant enough to see the incongruity of situations or vocations. Humor, and especially satire and parody, requires a divorcement of the subject from consequence. In this respect, it is not an idle assumption that "learning at the College level" took on new importance to the typical Harvard undergraduate in the 30's. A new type the "learner," quickly infiltrated the student body and greatly influenced but did not wholly replace the old type, the "liver."
'Deadly Earnest' Period
However valid or ridiculous these generalizations may be, a novel appeared in 1944 which is probably the most deadly earnest work ever written about undergraduate life. This is Not To Eat, Not For Love, by George Anthony Weller '32. Weller attempts a serious treatment of the problems and complexities that beset an undergraduate mind, but his attempt to achieve a style somewhere between Joyce, Proust, and Ezra Pound is so obvious and consequently distracting that any perceptive statement is distressingly blunted. Weller also portrays his psychologically disturbed hero, Epes Todd, with such embarrassing earnestness and intensity that it is impossible for a reader to associate himself with Todd to the extent that Weller demands. For example, Epes Todd writes what we are to believe is an exceptionally brilliant if not conventional set of answers to an hour exam. The grader makes a series of picayune and absurdly literal comments on the exam and give Todd a D. The reader is expected to cry out against the injustice of such treatment--the submission of a great mind to a small mind, the curbing of genius by academic procedure, etc.--when his first, last, and only impulse is to laugh.
What is more than the diplomatic service, less than the Law School, and a fifty-five is nominated for Overseer of Harvard College?
But in a sieve I'll thither sail.
Rotterdam, Veeridam (ah, but the crew is cranky), Grande Dame (the liner she's), Rooseveltdam, Hotdam, Goddamn. Aphasia, Valeteria (founded in 1926), Ablaut, Umlaut, Nein and Ja (freight only).
Shall I? Manager sans avoir falm faire l'amour en tout temps.
No. I'll go and see John the Founder, if I can do so without en-count-er-ing John the Yardcop. . .
Something approaching the importance which undergraduates attach to their studies and to extra-curricular activities is depicted in Weller's book, however. Brant, the young, troubled assistant professor going nowhere, and unable to "find" himself in the role of an educator, is pictured with a right amount of pity and disdain. Plainly, the great value of Not To Eat, Not For Love is that is treated the Harvard undergraduate not as an adolescent facing an adolescent's problems, but as a man facing problems involved with particular environment and situation. Although the novel's excesses are many, it was the first serious suggestion that a Harvard education had more to do with life than four pleasant years as a "college boy."
Probably the two oddest books over written about Harvard were also published in the 30's. Why their authors chose Harvard to be the location of the stories will always be shrouded in mystery. The first of these, Harvard Has A Homicide by Timothy Fuller, was published in 1936. It might well have been called The Count Turned Sleuth At Harvard. Jupiter Jones, the clever-thinking fast-talking, Fine Arts post-graduate, discovers a murdered professor, and pockets one of the clues. After successfully matching wits with the Cambridge police (which at that time seemed to be no very difficult task) he apprehends the murderer. The villain, of course, in not a Harvard gentlemen but a seedy, dissheveled little man with a foreign accent--who for all one known might be Oscar Maironi thirty years after.
Athletic Success Story
Fuller At Harvard by Robert S. Playfair is one of those athletic success stories which boys under sixteen are usually subjected to. This is one of the few, understandably enough, which has been written about Harvard athletics. Hank Fuller, son of the past football great, Toby Fuller, has the curse of his father's gridiron fame upon him, and suffers indescribable anguish when he proves himself an utter clout on every sort of playing field. In time, however, he overcomes what appears to be only a psychological condition, and wins the Yale hockey game with brilliant playing. This epic contains the usual amount of back-slapping, athletic "horse-play", and fighting for the team which such works usually offer.
These two books are interesting, for they represent decided throwbacks to the turn of the century at a time when the dean of observers of the Harvard scene, John Marquand, was levelling his sights on the Yard. Despite the accuracy and perception of many of Marquand's comments on the nature of Harvard, his viewpoint has certain limitations. Marquand's Harvard is that of the pre-World War II days: Harvard as a veritable breeding ground of class-consciousness, and the very soul of New England social-financial distinctions.
It is probably true that Harvard is still regarded in certain New England homes as "really the only possible place we could send our boy," but this is a reflection of an atmosphere, not of Harvard, but of those certain families and homes. Naturally Marquand is aware of this distinction, for he is not writing exclusively about Harvard, but about a small segment of upper and middle class New England.
Nonetheless, Marquand has undoubtedly been greatly responsible for some outdated and rather absurd popular conceptions about the interests and caliber of the post-War Harvard undergraduate.
The Late George Apley, whose narrator is the perfect embodiment of the kind of Harvard man that Marquand has been satirizing for the past twenty years, explores with amazingly sustained deadpan humor the narrow social sensibility that one usually associates with the "Old Grad" type. Clubs, the "Pudding," and afternoon tea at prominent Boston houses are the essential activities of George Apley at Harvard. With very minor variations, this type of society is the one that Marquand writes about when, as in Wickford Point and Sincerely, Willis Wayde, he turns specifically to Harvard. It would be silly to base a general criticism of Marquand on the fact that he does not give an entirely accurate picture of the contemporary undergraduate; he is writing about the Harvard that he knew.
The two most recent books that have devoted any considerable space to Harvard are John Phillips, '46 The Second Happiest Day and Faithful Are the Wounds by May Sarton. Phillips, who (as everyone will tell you confidentially) is Marquand's son, takes a closer look at the institutions which Marquand satirizes. But final clubs and social prestige are still the main thoughts of his Harvard students, although they have a far broader outlook than the George Apley type. Phillips plainly has an acute understanding of the kind of Harvard man he depicts, and has probably written the most valid and sympathetic description of the vanishing "Club Man:"
Spiritually Fuzzy had never left Cambridge. His was the narrow, complacent, unenergetic attitude for which a Harvard man is criticized. It was not aggressive, or positive; it had nothing to do with that disquieting intangible known as campus spirit. It was particularly dangerous when Yale men were at hand, since Fuzzy Eaton felt that all Yale men were fundamentally hypocrites.
Faithfully Are the Wounds is a disturbingly bitter indictment of the effect which a quest for "security" might have on the Harvard faculty and students. Although its location is Cambridge, the book is not so much a characterization of Harvard as it is a eulogy of a magnetic past member of the faculty. Sarton is concerned less with the Harvard scene and more with the struggle of a liberal mind in a time of national crisis.
When one views the great variety of literature and sub-literature that has been written about Harvard over the past 50 years, there is one common quality that is glaringly apparent. That is the inability or unwillingness of any of the authors to consider fully a Harvard student's raison d'etre--the process of acquiring an education. Although this gap in the authors' perspective is somewhat disturbing it can hardly be taken as evidence that all the authors think learning is outside the sphere of the Harvard undergraduate.
Probably the best explanation for this chronic shortsight is simply that a studying undergraduate is an awfully dull subject. A student closing his book of Greek paradigms is far less interesting than one who goes to the club to break beer bottles, or one who goes down to the field to slap backs