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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Crimson Bookshelf

ENGLISH LITERATURE AND CULTURE IN RUSSIA (1553-1840), by Ernest J. Simmons. Harvard University Press. $3.50.

By W. E. H.

THIS is the first novel written by Paul Hoffman, a graduate of Harvard College with the class of 1932. It is frankly autobiographical, though it does not slavishly follow fact: it is a heightening of the small incidents in a young man's life, set in a unique framework. Each chapter is devoted to one day in the week and to that day's associations in the mind of the narrator. The significance which Mr. Hoffman attaches to the calendar may be a private symbol, like the phrase "Consul Romanus" for DeQuincey; but Mr. Hoffman manages to make the symbol bear meaning and relevancy for his readers.

There is no attempt, stylistically, to re-echo the taut and simple brutalities of Hemingway; nor is there nay imitation of Dos Passos' inchoate complexity. Mr. Hoffman is not be obvious disciple of anybody who is being toasted by the aesthetes, 1933 model. His innovation in method places him in Proust's debt, if in anybody's, since the book is an attempt to remember things past, and to recapture their essence. The author muses on life in a German Lutheran minister's household, situated in a German settlement in New York State. The life that is led there is not melodramatic, and is quite devoid of any pretense to greatness as commonly conceived. Yet each little incident, in itself hardly of vast importance, is worked into a pattern or mosaic which, as a unity, has meaning and significance.

If any one detail is prominent, it will be, for Harvard at least, the exciting pace which the chapter called "Thursday" takes on, as the protagonist draws near his goal: graduation from college. Here--and no chauvinism can prompt such a feeling-- is a sport forever hallowed. Or rather, here are spots cherished for their associations, the West Court of Lowell House, the dimly illuminated arch of Sever's doorway, the strange Gothic allure of Memorial Hall, the quadrangle at Commencement with the fine clear voice of President Lowell declaring, "By virtue of authority delegated to me, I confer on you the first degree in arts or in science, and admit you to the company of educated men." Accents unforgettable!

Though Harvard is the logical climax of the novel it is by no means the only peak. For, after all, who at Harvard is ordinary and does ordinary things? Her scholars devote their lives to great things, at any rate to recording and commenting upon them, in an heroic endeavor to persuade greatness to yield its secret. And the point of Hoffman's novel is that life can be led without greatness, for life contains enough besides to be always interesting and intense. There is pathos, as the story, of the old Grandmother shows; there is evil, as the story of Mr. Guppey, homosexual Christian Endeaver uplifter, warns us; there is good, as the family history abundantly illustrates. Indeed, this domestic novel might almost be conceived, by a perverse fancy, as a preachment for the domestic virtues, banished from speech and thought since the good Queen's death. Mr. Hoffman, however, is no propagandist. He is merely chronicling events which have been registered on his very keen and subtle sensibility.

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