Creeping Continentalism: In Search of the Exotic
The adolescent subculture in America has James Dean and sensual hillbilly singers for its idols; it clothes its particular brace of complexes in motorcycle jackets, elaborate hair styles and sullenness.
In this unique microcosm, Cambridge, where every social and economic level in the country can be found, there also is a sub-culture; its idols aren't individuals, who can be pinned down and publicized, and it is not without a kind of cause, but it is a rebellion all the same.
The rebels here protest against the everydayness, the drab practicality and utterly unfashionable common sense of the middle-class existence that is the national norm. This battle at Harvard against the colorless certainties and dread gaucherie of the bourgeois, (that is to say, the hometown) is fought for romanticism, for the unordinary and exotic--something to clothe the bare subsistence of bringing-up in a middle-class world.
Desire for the unordinary in Cambridge has become desire for the foreign, the European. It is manifested in many ways, and on many levels. There are, of course, the beards. The beards are to an extent echoes of the Oxonian, and many have mildly literary connotations: their owners make themselves reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence, or even Shaw. But above all they are from abroad, and have the same exciting piquancy as imported food. The bearded faces in the Square are juxtaposed, indeed one might say thrust out glaring, noses touching, to the shiny, just-shaven whey face of the average American business man. Outside of the Schweppesman, nobody can get ahead in the business world bearded; it is such a contrast that is sought.
A fairly popular variation, the vandyke-beret combination affectation, like the man's from Phillips', has more the implication of the Parisian connoisseur.
Beards are fun, but they itch. An example of a less personal possession with an enduring European flavor is the motor scooter. Vespas and Lambrettas are noisily rampant on the streets of Rome and Venice, and so they are arriving in Cambridge in ever-increasing numbers. They not only attract attention, but impart that desirable note of devil-may-care hardiness when they come abreast complacent, insulated Buicks on Mass. Ave.
A less unique but still popular off-shoot of the imported transportation mania is the cult of the little car. The little car can be anything from an Austin to a Renault or Volkswagen (never a Hillman Minx, of course); it has unusual features, such as the engine being in back (which makes for question-provoking louvres where the trunk lid should be), or turn signals that point out from the door posts instead of blinking from the rear fenders, lending a quaint, Old World flavor. The real virtue of the little car, of course, lies just in its being little. The great amount of crowding necessary, and the uncomfortableness that arises, make up for the loss of the windblown Lambretta feeling and impart a certain air of post-war frugality which is especially good for the contrast it makes to the over-stuffed and over large Buick and its driver.
There is also the widespread interest in sports cars, but this is not first-class Continentalism. They are dashing enough, but have too opulent a look about them; besides, they are on too national a level--even people in Hollywood own them.
An important institution for the advancement of Continentalism is the coffee house. In an ill-lighted room, furnished with a gigantic coffee maker and a comatose young man playing the guitar, you pay 60 cents for a demitasse cup to fool with while you inhale the atmosphere of delicious imported wickedness. In an atmosphere of such exuberant freedom the most prosaic Radcliffe student can entertain titillating existentialist opinions, even though the only feeling of anxiety she may ever have is to wonder if she can pay for all the cafe au lait she has drunk, and her only feeling of dread, that provoked by the approaches of the young man sitting across from her. The Harvard community now supports two of these reasonable facsimilies. Like (and, of course, pointedly unlike) the corner soda fountain, the coffee houses, with their exotically late hours, provide not only somewhere to meet, but someplace to be.
The replica coffee house is not a first-hand idea, admittedly, but comes to Cambridge via lower Manhattan; it is tied up, as Continentalism is, with the limping bohemianism that survives here and elsewhere.
In the category of clothing and personal affects lies the bulk of Continentalist expression. To penetrate from the outside inwards, the raincoat is a universal fact. Anybody knows every Frenchman has a trenchcoat and that (Britain may be thrown in with the Continent in this case) every Englishmean has got his McIntosh.
The raincoat must be tired-looking, and to be correct should have grimy rings around the collar and cuffs, and perhaps a torn pocket. The raincoat is to be worn to excess indoors, at Hayes-Bick's, for example, or in lecture, since besides the elements this garment is meant to fend off the hostilities of a mundane world, and by sheer yardage at that. A mutation in the foul-weather line is the army-surplus trenchcoat; while it does not have the buckles and straps and rings of a good Burberry, it is distinctively green and of a suitably rude material.
The Government Issue influence doesn't stop at this, though. The story is told of a somewhat drunken soldier, A.W.O.L., who took the wrong subway, and found himself in Harvard Square. A week unshaven, with uncut hair, wearing combat boots, olive drab pants, a khaki shirt and a combat jacket, he was stumbling around Arrow Street when two Radcliffe would-be bohemians found him and brought him to the Capriccio because they thought he must be an avant-garde poet.
Beneath this outer skin there is no set costume: anything dowdy and off-beat enough to be considered European will do. Such outfits as wide-welt corduroy suits cut in odd shapes seem popular, but ordinarily Continentalism can be spotted in smaller, more specific articles of dress. Foulard scarves and desert boots are, admittedly, more British than European, but they should be counted. Dark-colored shirts are being worn too much by the Cantabrigian Gentleman types now, with tweeds, to be much good to Continentalism; and grey-and khaki-colored work shirts are part of the bigger, people-yes movement.
A feature peculiar to Continentalism, however, is sun glasses. These are lifted right from the French and Italian Rivieras and from the left bank, and give a dashing and alien air to one's whole appearance. What is so foolish is that they are worn indoors; and while most may think the wearer suffers from dilation of the pupils, he himself has transformed his table in the Waldorf to a little wrought iron one in some sidewalk cafe, where he sits reading a foreign language newspaper. Dark glasses are a little farther than most care to go, though.
The next surface we reach is less pleasant; many of those taken with the exotic air of Europe equate a dashing, alien air with uncleanliness. And indeed the air around them often seems to have a dash of something in it, and sometimes does serve the purpose of alienation.
Uncut hair, grubby hands and nails, an unctuous face and general disorder of appearance, along with the tattered clothing and an accompanying look of explosive distraction, or sometimes protracted introspection, build up to the effect aimed at--an appearance of depravity. Cantabrigians under the spell of Continentalism would join the desperate people in Sartre's stories and the creatures of Camus in their state of elevated wretchedness--a vilifying yet inexpensive estrangement that sets them off from their humdrum fellows. They have in their minds' eye the limbo of clandestine disbelief they think is occupied by post-war, or just post-nineteenth century, European intellectual degenerates. Needless to say, they fall short, and usually end up feeling what they imagine French poets feel or at least what philosophy students at the Sorbonne feel when they look at American tourists with a disdainful glare.
Continentalism is as hard to study as it is easy to incur. Its relatively new thread is often hard to single out from the longer-established strands of traditional New England Anglophilism, or impotent Cambridge bohemianism, or merely the shabby genteel. Are that tweed cap and turtleneck sweater and that pair of Colin Wilson glasses long standing affectations, with family sanction, or have they been induced by a fortnight in London? Does that hawk-shouldered young lady with the unattached hair and dangling earrings long to be at Mary Vorse's place instead of the Mandrake? Or is she dressing funny to emulate the women she saw in Vander Elk's "Paris At Midnight" photography exhibit? It is hard to tell. Are those lacerated loafers, that patched jacket, and ragged shirt collar a disdainful protests against the brandnew clothes, the slick show of affluence by the ascendant vulgar, or just magnificently down-at-heel aristocracy? Perhaps the diagnosis of a sophomore trying to look like a pre-publication existentialist is all wrong. It is hard to tell.
One can be pretty certain of one thing, however: the people in Cambridge who dote on the illustrious decadence of the Continent lack the strength of the convictions they don't have. Their eccentricities are externally wrought. They do not have the extraordinary values that extraordinary dress and manners ought to spring from.
For this reason we shouldn't take the devotees of Continentalism too seriously. The Continentalism movement is as harmless as its members are ineffectual. In another few years they will probably have terminated their college fling, got a hair cut and a family, and will have swapped their Creeping Continentalism for a Galloping Professionalism, or at the least a Beaming Suburbanism.
The cart will fall apart and the rider will drop into an Ivy model suit. Fetishism such as this is like an old school ring; when it begins to pinch, you leave it at home in your dresser drawer