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Harvard Romances as Others See Them

Survey of College Amour In Recent Literature

By Geoffrey Cowan

In the last decade a stream articles purporting to present an intimate portrait of the Radcliffe dating community has flooded our national magazines. Usually these articles do not claim to discuss Harvard alone; they offer glimpses of promiscuity at Smith or tradition at Wassar, but in the end they focus Cambridge--the apex of college romance. For somehow, to the eyes of the world, the Harvard romance is indeed romantic.

Boroff records a conversation fragment with a Radcliffe campus U.S.A.: "While I was having lunch at Radcliffe someone referred to a magazine story about Harvard-Radcliffe romance. 'Does it deal with a seduction?' I asked. 'No,' a girl snapped, 'It deals with an affair."

One fumbles for the distinction romance, affair, and seduction, but call it what you will, an image of dating at Harvard has clearly emerged from recent literature. From a library of short stories, novels, and factual analyses dating habits, can be extracted a romantic tale of love in Harvard Square.

They has three distinctive parts: the need for affection, the and the affair itself. Happily there is rarely a question of ability to get the girl.

The Short story, "Sentimental Education", Harold Brodkey some of the reasons why Elgin Smith wanted to fall in love. On a warm September evening, standing on the steps of Widener Library, Elgin Smith "was thinking what it would be like to fall in love, worship a girl and put his life at her feet. He despised because he feared he was incapable of passion.... He was curses in English Literature, German Literature, in literature, in History--ancient and medieval, and every one of them was full of incidents that he thought mocked him, since they seemed to say that the meaning of life, the peak of existence, the core of events was one certain emotion, to which he was a stranger, and for which he was very likely too rational."

Radcliffe girls, almost all are agree that after an initial Freshman year carnival of dates, they are anxious to enter into an affair.

In an article published in the Atlantic Monthly last February, Dr. Carl Binger attributed the college girl's desire for an affair to a need for security engendered by social and academic pressure. Dr. Binger explains that the college girl is plagued by depression resulting from fears of inadequacy. She comes to fear comment or criticism and seeks security in the esteem of a young man whom she admires, and whose approbation hopefully will offset her self-doubt and feelings of insufficiency.

Thus, seeking security, fearing impotency, and hoping to realize a romantic conception of an affair, the actors take ther places.

NEXT comes the meeting.

For Boroff its terms are predetermined: "Boy meets girl at Harvard in an atmosphere of stylized distaste. The cold sneer directed at Radcliffe girls is a fixed part of the Harvard physiognomy. In the end, after the requisite sparring they marry."

But of course Boroff's comments neglect the personal agony of involvement, an agony which Jonathan Kozol in The Fume of Poppies, and Brodkey in "Sentimental Education", deal with at length.

Kozel's description of the meeting was in the form of excerpts from lecture notes in English 163:

Tuesday: Don't believe she's real

Thursday: She is. Flicks tongue to wet lips. Teeth are gleaming. Would like to be swallowed. Turns her head and touches her nose's tip with one little finger, to scratch. Don't like her jaw. Love her eyes. Twinkle.

Tuesday: First time I looked at bosom. Name is Wendy.

Thursday: Gray cashmere. Six buttons down front. Pockets on left side. She dropped her pencil in the middle of Professor Putnam's lecture.

Tuesday: Looked at bosom again. Love her as much as last Tuesday.

Finally, five weeks after he first saw her Kozel meets the girl:

Thursday: "Don't you have long fingers!" she said. "Good-sized," I said. Her fingers are long too.

And eleven weeks after their first encounter, Kozel invites Wendy to a party:

Thursday: Party! Party! We are going to a party. I can't do it.

Tuesday: I did it. She will come. I think she is a great pink god. Do not know much about goddesses. Don't be afraid. Schnieder put his hand on my shoulder. Good of him."

In "Sentimental Education" the meeting takes even longer. Elgin Smith sees a girl on the steps of Widener Library in September. Only occasionally does he think of her in the days that follow, until he again sees her at a Radcliffe Jolly-Up in Cabot Hall in mid-October.

"It was in one of the dimly lit common rooms, where couples were indefatigably dancing in almost total darkness. Elgin was swaying in place (he was not a good dancer) with a girl who helped him on his German when he caught sight of his Widener Library vision. When the next dance began, he wound through the couples looking for her, to cut in on her, but when he drew near her, he turned and walked over to the wall, where he caught his breath and realized he was frightened." After that, "when he walked through the Yard on his way to classes; his eyes revolved on all the walks in the hope of seeing her."

In February, Elgin finds that she takes a course on Metaphysical Poets of the Seventeenth Century, and he transfers to that class where, at last, they meet.

FINALLY, comes the affair.

In each story of a Harvard-Radcliffe romance the couple has its own place for making love. In "Sentimental Education" it is Elgin's room. In The Fume of Poppies it is first an apartment in Cambridge, and later it is hotel rooms and beaches throughout Europe. In "Winter Term", a short story by Sallie Bingham, it is the back seats of cars. In each case the nature of the love nest reflects the tone of the romance: the first a college affair, the second an epic romance, the third a grasping routine.

The importance of sexual inter-course in an affair is clear to Dr. Binger--in many cases it serves to relieve almost unbearable pressure. But that affair may at once have the healthy effect of relaxation and the disconcerting effect of distraction, is evident in Sallie Bingham's description of Hal's thoughts while studying with Eleanor in "Winter Term".

"He gave up trying to ignore the point of her elbow. He wondered if she would move first, as she often did, slipping her hand into his.... He noticed how rigidly she was sitting; why did they both go on pretending to study? He looked at the clock; already half an hour wasted. God, I wish we'd had a chance to make love so I wouldn't feel like I'm going crazy. ...I bet she needs it, he thought, that's why she's so quivvery, close to tears, and maybe that's why I loused up that exam. But he knew it was an excuse; he had failed the exam because he had not known the material." And he had not known the material because, as he had told her, it was too distracting for him to study with her.

IN each case the participants are self-centered; in each case they are self-conscious. It is this self-consciousness which is most striking in the descriptions of Harvard romance.

If the dialogue in "Sentimental Education" at times seems overly awkward, it serves to underline the couple's awareness of themselves:

"Elgin," Caroline said, "we've talked about a hundred things, a thousand things, I bet."

"Yes."

"But we've never talked about what we think of each other."

"No," he said, twisting his fingers together. "I guess we never have."

"I--I don't approve of it, actually," Caroline said. "Analyzing things and all. Some things are better left unsaid."

"I agree," Elgin said.

"Do you?" Caroline said. For her part, she was having difficulty hanging on to her poise.

"There isn't much people can say that hasn't been said before," Elgin said with finality. Then he added, "It's my reading, I've read so much I guess I'm a little jaded."

"I see," said Caroline. "Well it's a fascinating subject."

"Yes," said Elgin, "it is."

When finally Elgin summons the courage to invite Caroline out for dinner, and they link arms in walking together, they revert to the safety that a discussion Metaphysical Poetry offers:

"I think Vaughan is a little bit of a bore," Caroline said. "Really, the language has deteriorated so much since Donne."

Sallie Bingham capture much of the agony of physical self-conciousness in a single line in "Winter Term."

"They walked along, side by side, conscious of not holding hands."

There can be no comprehensive conclusion to a conglomerate romance; the possibilities are too various. In fact, none of the stories discussed ends happily: "Sentimental Education ends with resignation, and "Winter Term" ends with violence.

But in real life happy endings are more frequent than in modern fiction: 42 per cent of the women in the 1949 Radcliffe graduation class have married Harvard men

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