Glimpses of the Harvard Past By Bernard Bailyn, Donald Fleming, Oscar Handlin, and Stephen Thernstrom Harvard University Press; 149 pp.; $15.00
HARVARD'S DELUXE brochure in honor of the College's 350th anniversary, Glimpses of the Harvard Past, bears the distinguished imprimature of four Harvard history professors. Unfortunately, the authors--some of whom are quite popular for their lively lecture styles--seem to have thrown these essays together in a free weekend, using whatever information was easily available.
Amidst the swarms of well-heeled alumni returning for the 350th celebration, this slim volume--packed with pictures from the Harvard Archives--will undoubtedly sell out at local bookstores. Indeed, the book jacket proudly predicts that Glimpses "will quickly take an honored place on the shelves of Harvardiana."
The question is whether it will be opened before it gets there. The collection of essays will most likely travel directly from shopping bag to airplane seat to coffee table to Harvard memorial bookshelf and a place of esteem next to Erich Segal's The Class, last year's reunion volume. Alums should do themselves a favor by giving The Class another read and leaving this 350th momento to collect dust.
If anything interesting has ever happened at Harvard, it seems to have been systematically excised from this bland account. Historians generally tend to focus on the significance of periods of upheaval, but these essays emphasize the placid progress of an educational institution with a shifting population of faceless students and teachers. Student riots are glossed over or ignored. Wartime turbulence is omitted. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the most recent Harvard crisis of student demonstrations in the '60's. Clearly, such a short book cannot include every significant event in the University's past, but the lack of any disscussion of turmoil leaves this account of Harvard's history improbably dull and rosy.
At least the accompanying photographs are entertaining. An 1871 posed photograph of the Natural History Society in suits, bowties and hats captures two mischievous members stuffing a small alligator into a jug. Perhaps a shot in a future commemorative volume will show members of the Bibliophiles Club doing the same with this ill-constructed volume.