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Ever since John P. Marquand discovered that there was a gold mine on Beacon Hill, books on Boston and Harvard have been hitting the stands with monotonous regularity. Last year's pseudo-Marquand, "Boston Adventure," was a very poor piece of goods, as most imitations are. But the latest effort, Helen Howe's "We Happy Few," is several cuts above its predecessors. Showing a speaking acquaintance with the Beacon Street-Brattle Street axis, Miss Howe's special target is the Cambridge cocktail crowd, the effete, hyper-esthetical group which knows all there is to know about Sex, Marxism, and God. The nucleus of the groups consists of several current and choice Harvard professors, notably "Puffer" Wiggam, master of Bromfield House, whose monocled eyes can only see the old school tie when it comes to applications to his house; A. R. Boyer, psychologist and professional Westerner; and Harry Keith, selfish and neurotic professor of History and Literature whose ambition, plus his predilection for other women, causes him to abandon his dipsomaniacal wife. If the parallelism is not one to one, quite clearly Miss Howe's Harvard faculty found its inspiration in the real thing.
The book jacket emphasizes that Miss Howe was not originally a novelist, but a monologuist, spending her salad days barnstorming around the country before beginning as a writer. With two books under her belt, Miss Howe is presumably deemed a novelist. Actually, she has remained a monologuist. "We Happy Few" is not a novel, really, but a series of vignettes, all of which black out with a punch line. Many of these are very funny, and Miss Howe's satire bites deep, but wisecracks do not a novel make.
As a stylist, Miss Howe is guilty of one of the things which she parodies so effectively: the constant use of literary allusion in conversation. The entire book is larded with supposedly apt quotations, most of them uprooted from English literature and sown broadcast through every chapter. When Dorothea's son wishes to enlist in the Navy, Miss Howe's comment as novelist is "No man is an island," a reference which since the publication of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" has been fighting it out with "This above all" as the most overworked phrase in all literature.
If you're pressed for time, read the first half of the book and toss it away. Some place midway between the middle and the last third, Miss Howe begins to search for a soul for Dorothea. She finds it for her--you've guessed it--not in Cambridge, but Out West, among the peepul. Not until Dorothea joins the bedpan brigade in a Boston hospital and follows it up with a train trip (tourist class) to Idaho, does she discover Life.
All of this is pretty hard to take. But if you want confirmation of your suspicion that certain local professors are made of clay from the kneecaps down, Miss Howe's treatment of the Harvard faculty and all the bright, glittering people who cluster round them like a beeswarm is just what you're after.
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