In Response to the 'Tunicata'

I had an idea about what I was planning to do here. I was going to call up this guy named Charles Kingson, who was once a reporter on The Harvard Crimson, and ask him if he was sorry about what he’d written. Even though what he’d written was sort of true. Still, I was hoping to browbeat him into an apology, or make a fool of him if he wasn’t willing to apologize. Something like that.

In l959, when I was a freshman at Wellesley College, Kingson wrote a piece about Wellesley in The Crimson. It was a vicious piece. It said that Wellesley women were tunicata, a subphylum of fish that spends its early years swimming madly around exploring its environment and then, afterwards, settles down on the ocean floor to breed.

This was extremely irritating, not least because it resonated in a horrible For-Whom-The-Bell-Tolls way, and everyone in my class remembers it vividly. My guess is that the only other person who remembers it as vividly as we do is Charles Kingson himself.

Not that any of us actually read it. I must point that out. The Harvard Crimson wasn’t delivered to Wellesley in those days, or anywhere else as far as I know. But we read about it in The Wellesley College News, which played it on the front page.

A couple of weeks ago, an editor at The Crimson asked if I wanted to write about the piece, and I read it for the first time.  It was so mean, so condescending, so superior, and so sexist, a word that had not yet come into common usage in 1959 (if it had even been coined, which I doubt). To my surprise, most of the article was not about tunicata but was instead a wrong-headed, simplistic attack on Wellesley’s academic philosophy, which Kingson felt was too broadly liberal, didn’t stress independent study, and coddled the students by, for example, not correcting them for mispronouncing the word Telemachus. I got irritated all over again.

I immediately Googled Charles Kingson, hoping to discover that he was a used car salesman with no more than eight Google listings, but he turned out to be an expert in tax law.  A picture of him in a Yale publication (he taught there last year) showed him to be a cheerful-looking man, and while I was unable to make any sense of his latest work, “The Nonenforcement of Section 305 Dividend Treatment.” I’m sure it makes perfect sense if you care about such things.

Anyway I called Kingson up the other day to see if he was sorry about what he’d written.  And guess what?  He was. I didn’t even have to push it.  He’d apologized years ago. In 1996, he’d heard that I’d mentioned his article in a commencement speech at Wellesley. He apparently fired off a letter to the Wellesley Alumnae Magazine saying that after college, he’d married a woman whose mother was a Wellesley graduate, and the experience had changed his views about the place. I had no idea he’d done this, and I couldn’t help admiring his mother-in-law, who (it seemed clear to me) had schmikeled him into this concession.

I asked Kingson if he’d read his article in the intervening years—he had—and what he’d thought of it.

“I was very young,” he said.

I found this response so satisfactory that I decided not to press things any further.

Nora Ephron is a writer and film director whose credits include “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,”  “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie and Julia.” She graduated from Wellesley College in 1962.

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Editor's note: The following excerpt, originally part of a piece by Charles I. Kingson '59 published May 8, 1959, was the Wellesley installment in a series of articles The Crimson ran on the Seven Sisters colleges.

(The Tunicata are thin, lithe animals that move about the sea in their youth, investigating their surroundings. Then one day they grow fat, settle down on the ocean floor--never to move again—and reproduce.)

Wellesley College offers perhaps the finest terminal education in America; and both its virtues and defects arise from this fact. The College is able to produce a girl with a “broadly liberal” back-ground, yet Wellesley is a very tempting target because it does this so well.

The phrase “broadly liberal” comes from the college catalogue, which itself defines the emphasis: “limitation of the amount of specialization safeguards the broadly liberal purpose of the four-year undergraduate curriculum.” This is a double-edged ideal; for, despite the increasing numbers of its graduates who go on to take higher degrees, Wellesley itself gently discourages the academic. The Wellesley girl may not be narrow; but on the other hand there is the danger which Malcolm Cowley pointed out in the Harvard of 1915--that “culture was something to be acquired, like a veneer.”

The lack of concentration, of independent study, is reflected in the fact that of 70 senior English majors, only three are writing theses. This statistic does not necessarily indicate preference. At Wellesley students do not apply to write theses; they are notified of their eligibility, largely based on course grades, by a committee of the College.

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