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But You Can't Tell Him Much

YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A HARVARD MAN, by Richard Bissell. McGraw-Hill, 1962. $5.00. 281 pp.


If I were Richard Bissell '36 (and I'm not: my name will be found below) and if I didn't need the money (and I take it he doesn't), I would never have submitted You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man to a publisher. I would have kept it within the privacy of my own family. And if I had submitted the book (and by God I wouldn't!) I would have disguised the fact by contriving a pseudonym (yes, Josiah is my real name but my friends call me Lee). Because let's face it: Bissell's book is as outrageously written as the scrawlings in the Lamont Library johns. Got that, you guys?

I don't say that the book isn't amusing, if you happen to be infatuated with either Harvard or a Harvard man (and which of us isn't?). It is, indeed, full of juicy facts, fine jokes and charming miscellany about the College and the men who made it. But to take more than 17 pages at a single sitting you must also be infatuated with Richard Bissell '36, who, as we soon learn, is a Harvard alumnus, a Harvard son, a Harvard father, and an exuberant Harvard bore.

The problem is not so much that Bissell reproduces verbatim his Freshman diary, his conversations with his son, his reasons for majoring in anthropology as an undergraduate, and his favorite recipe for Harvard beets. And one really can't blame him for mentioning on innumerable occasions that he wrote the script for the Pajama Game; it really was a fine show. The problem is that Bissell's prose style is lousy.

I don't mean to call it repelling, not at first anyway. The browser in a bookstore who picks up Bissell's book is delighted by the dash, irreverence and unorthodox sentence structure of the opening pages. He buys the thing. He takes it home. And then he sits back and reads it.

What is it like reading Bissell in the comfort of one's living room? It is like reading the first paragraph of this review, over and over. Can you imagine a book written like this review? The self-indulgent asides, the outrageous similes, the conversational tone--all these become pretty deadening after a while. And by the time Bissell comes out with "a temper like a keg full of rattle-snakes" we know we have had one simile too many. The tolerance limit is 17 pages a day. And only members of Richard Bissell's immediate family are advised to exceed it.

One exception: alumni fresh from their 25th reunion may find the book unflaggingly enjoyable. It is noteworthy that Bissell's 25th was in 1961. He must have found it inspiring, because he researched You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man sometime during the following academic year. Then he sat down and wrote this book, see, in which he sounds like a brash young man. If you happen to be an old grad, it will take you back to your own irrepressible youth. What a cut-up you were. Just like Bissell, who is pictured on the dust jacket astride his motorcycle. As you read his zany writing you are transported back to those wonderful years (during the Depression) and all the jokes ring true. Even so, weeping with laughter and nostalgia, you put the book down after 17 pages.

But then, not every book is made to be read all at once, certainly not You Can Tell a Harvard Man. For this book is a compilation of wisecracks, some good, some bad; it is a haphazard anthology of anecdotes from the lives of Richard Bissell and Harvard College.

If I were a Yalie (and by God I'm not) I would probably find the entries under Richard Bissell the more interesting; they are certainly written with more zest. But there are also some good things on Harvard first among them the sections on the undergraduate days of Teddy Roosevelt.

My only advice to the many Harvard people who will buy this book is to learn from my error. Read only a few pages at a time. Richard Bissell and Harvard College become very tedious if one sticks with them too long.

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