The Advocate Rumors of Grandeur
IM LOOKING at The Harvard Advocate Centennial Anthology. It's an enormous book 460 pages of sermons, poems, informal essays. T.S. Eliot has some delicate lyrics composed while he was an undergraduate here. Theodore Roosevelt has written a bellicose speech on "Harvard and Preparedness" (including some remarks about "the absurd and mischievous professional-pacifist or peace-at-any-price movements which have so thoroughly discredited this country during the past five years. These men are seeking to chinafy the country."): E.E. Cummings wrote rhymed poems as an undergraduate, and these are to be found here too. Photographs of Wallace Stevens and Norman Mailer at the age of twenty stare out from facing pages. It is all nostalgic all literary. It is the way The Advocate had always been.
I don't know if it is because institutions seem to be crumbling about us, or because what happened in the past appears embarrassing, but this book strikes me as very unreal. The Advocate simply isn't like that any more. These earnest poems, this heritage! To think that all these distant figures were great, that we too may become like them. What seems so impossible to us now is that anything could have happened to damage them. Their names, engraved in faint gold lettering on wooden plaques, crowd the walls of the Sanctum on the second floor of our House at 21 South Street. Pegasus, the winged horse, has been carved into a wooden throne chair, featured above The Advocate's motto: Dulce est Periculum. There is also another: Veritas nihil veretur, which means (I read a translation of it the introduction to this anthology) "Truth fears nothing."
On Monday nights, the Advocate Board gathers about a rough-hewn, medieval table in the Sanctum, slouching in the grand wooden chairs with these mottoes carved in them, and talks about its own survival. Our emotions languish with the seasons, because there is seldom any heat in the building; during the winter, we huddle in our overcoats about the table (many choose to wear gloves and hats) or crouch like Milton's toad before the fireplace, burning old issues of The Advocate to keep warm. Exalted, we are artists, suffering through the cold moment of neglect. Our words perish in the brittle air; we are stunned at seeing our own breath dissolve in clouds above the table.
Still, The Advocate is America's oldest college literary magazine, and the only publication at Harvard to have preserved its reputation for 103 years, so there are reasons to endure. Plagued especially over the past decade by financial crises, it has managed to survive them all by means of affluent and generous trustees. Last month, while friends of mine were being smashed at M.I.T.. I was in New York getting smashed over oysters and wine at the Century Club. The trustees were meeting to decide whether the August issue would appear before December. Norman Mailer had been elected to their board, and as a consolation for his having failed to be elected mayor of New York, the dinner was being held November 4th. "And would it have been worth it, after all?" If only they had known what a dishevelled throng we really were, how insistent about our own modernity. In a sense, it has always been like this with us: glimpses into the rumors of our grandeur, predilections of our essentiality.
WHEN I ARRIVED at the Advocate House two years ago, there was a certain austerity to the proceedings. Several of us were elected in the Fall, met Updike, read poems in the late afternoon, and stylized ourselves. Things were taking their course, and it was acknowledged that some of us would take our place among those authors who had found their way into the Centennial Anthology. Occasionally, there were muffled complaints that no one read The Advocate, or even knew what it was; but this seemed to plague no one, nor had it probably ever. Literature was something to be administered, like medicine, in small, unpleasant doses. Even then, we would periodically receive poems from Vermont or Iowa, but The Advocate was a magazine written by its editors and for them. It was always the same script, with only the scruple of variation.
Not that there hadn't been some history of scandal. In 1935, a group of editors were charged with obscenity for publishing Henry Miller's story about the usual excesses of Henry Miller. The issue was promptly confiscated, and the editors' pictures appeared in the paper beneath a story about "the new decadence at Harvard." "Glittering Pie" was published with more dashes than words, but Miller's evocation of the American scene as "drunkenness and vomiting, or breaking of windows and smashing heads" must have been aggravating then. Years later, Robert Bly and some of his friends glommed Eliot's college poems from some old issues they found lying around, and republished the pieces without permission, but so inaccurately that almost no one recognized them anyway.
From the "sluggish excursions into beauty and truth" which characterized the epoch between the Wars, to Bly's annoyed proclamation in 1953 that MOST OF THE POETRY PUBLISHED NOW-A-DAYS IS OLD FASHIONED. The Advocate vacillated between innovation and a nervous caution. A reaction in the fifties against the poetic domination of Eliot was expressed by Peter Viereck in a parody of Prufrock: "Today the women come and go Talking of T.S. Eliot." Jonathan Culler, in his introduction to the Centennial Anthology, described a magazine that had "stayed Georgian ten years too late during the poetic ferment of the twenties"; the poets who found themselves at Harvard after the close of World War II, nearly thirty years later, had no patience with these traditions. Led by William Carlos Williams, poets like Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and later Frank O'Hara argued over the conventions of American prosody, while Donald Hall insisted that Lowell and Wilbur had become "the poles of energy and elegance on which the poetic world of the fifties turned."
Mysteriously enough, these discussions even then were finding their way into The Advocate more often than any place else: it was a privilege to publish there, and many of the more controversial proselytes for both schools were either editors or regular contributors at the time. Looking back on it all, on James Agee's parody of the Saturday Review. on The Advocate's politics in 1938 when they issued a ballot in Latin from their Bow Street offices, on the memoirs of Eliot haunting the Sanctum with his fin-de-siecle mannerisms, it seems as if this history has been severed from the present. Too much that is heretical has happened since that other age, and it is enough that literature should continue to be possible.
THE Advocate -sponsored readings at Harvard used to involve people like Robert Frost and Marianne Moore: they were events, and everyone in Cambridge attended them. Afterwards, the fortunate literati crowded about the bar in the Sanctum of the Advocate House and listened to performances. Late in the evening, the guest would be solemnly propelled over to the Register, where he signed his name, along with anyone else who was arrogant enough to think they deserved to be recorded as present.
This is why I realized several months ago that The Advocate is no longer disconnected from reality. It was the first week in October, and Richard Tillinghast was in Cambridge to give a reading. He had lived here for several years while writing his thesis on Robert Lowell, and then had moved out to Berkeley. Now he looked like he was from California. That night he read some poems which had appeared in the San Francisco Oracle, talked a lot about a book written by an Indian, Black Elk, and then a drug poem called "STP." There was a party at the House afterwards. Someone had brought a record player and the music was really loud. People were dancing beneath the plaques on the walls; the medieval table had been pushed aside, the wooden chairs were in a corner. It may be that "Truth fears nothing," but nothing seems to fear truth very much anymore, either.