Peter Prescott came to Harvard last week to shill his most recent book, A Darkening Green, which purports to be a memoir of the 1950s and the author's freshman year at Harvard. He was very nervous and understandably so, since anyone who writes a book like that has quite a bit to answer for.
The first unanswered question is precisely what in Prescott's freshman year, or anyone's freshman year for that matter, is worth reporting to the general public. Like a number of people, Prescott kept a journal while at Harvard. Like most of those journals, Prescott's is spotty and uneven (which means, incidentally, that it does have some good parts). Unlike those other journal keepers, though, Prescott has inflicted his own account of his rites of passage (if freshman year can be so dignified) on an unsuspecting and innocent public.
And why any public--innocent or otherwise--would be interested in the school life of one 18-year-old prig in the middle fifties passes my comprehension. Prescott claims that his journal is a documentary of a life style of his time, and thereby assumes a social importance beyond that which it possessed intrinsically, but it isn't and it doesn't. Prescott's alcoholic prep-school degeneracy did not, as he himself admits, characterize all Harvard any more then than it does now. His freshman year was a private thing that he went through--and it is a private thing that, in different forms, many people go through. Merely detailing the particular form in which Prescott experienced this state of his development says little about the stage of life or about the general customs of the period.
Which brings up the second question: what is such a journal good for? Prescott can hardly be faulted for keeping such a journal if the use to which he has put it is what is dubious.
Prescott says he wrote his journals with an eye toward their becoming the raw material for a novel, but that he realized that the market was glutted with young-man-grows-up novels, so he sat on the thing for twenty years and then decided to publish it as was, with an explanatory commentary threading the reprinted selections of the journal together. He did not think he could have duplicated This Side of Paradise, which is undoubtedly true, and he used that as an excuse to duck any obligation to turn his book into a novel.
So instead he presents a journal that an 18-year-old Harvard freshman intended as the research for a novel and adds to it commentary written by a 35-year-old Newsweek book review editor. The one thing that must be said in his favor--and it is significant, for many other memorialists fall into the trap--is that he completely avoids sentimentality or indulgence for his 18-year-old self. He makes no attempt to portray his friends or his earlier self as anything other than imperfect individuals. He appears to possess that higher form of egotism that prompted Oliver Cromwell to have himself painted warts and all.
Which brings up a third question: what are those warts? After all, it is the substance of this journal-and-commentary that makes the enterprise objectionable, and not just the from alone. The form is strained, ungraceful and disjointed, but if the substance were not quite so vapid, strained and lacking in grace, perhaps the book would be passably tolerable. If Prescott should be locked up, it is not for the book he has written--which is not that bad. Rather, he should go for the life he has led--for from the pages of A Darkening Green it appears to have been awful.
And talking to Prescott offers no reassurance that the book is misleading. Though he had just written a book about being a Harvard undergraduate, he really had nothing to say about what he got out of Harvard back in the fifties, or what he thought were its most important aspects, or what he had done there. The one thing he knew was that the friends he made at school were not the most important part of the experience for him.
It is difficult to say how accurately Prescott portrays his roommates, their activities, their problems and the general tenor of life at Harvard in the mid-fifties. Certainly his roommates--Crawford Williams and Henry Bercovic--are not just foils off which the juvenile diarist Prescott reflects himself. Rather, they have something of an existence to themselves, and they develop some momentum of their own. They might even have been the bases for almost viable characters in a first novel written 15 years ago. As it is, they are just three-dimensional oddities.
Generally it is difficult to assess the personal validity of this kind of memoir. After all, it is so very private as not really to be worth public attention, so it is sufficiently private to be unimpeachable in its own way. But as social commentary, as a unique document of its times, A Darkening Green faces some severe problems. First off, it is not unique. Novelists have dealt with the problems of students since Christ was a corporal (or at least since Raskolnikov murdered his landlady), and A Darkening Green is nothing except the notebooks and commentary of someone who aspired to be and then was not a novelist.
As comfortable pop sociology the book is a failure, too. The sliver of life Prescott concentrates on was small, and almost incomprehensible without being placed in some sort of context. And he makes no attempt to develop a context. He just chronicles his own activities.
That is unfortunate. For freshman year is an interesting time for most people. They usually have more leeway than ever before. They face a more complicated environment and have more opportunity to build themselves up or dig themselves a deeper hole than they usually imagine. Very few people are not in some way embarrassed or repentant for some of what they did to others, and it is to Prescott's credit that he shows himself and his roommates on occasion behaving incredibly tactlessly and stupidly.
Prescott's major failing, aside from not placing his experiences as a freshman in some kind of a context, is the incredible mash he makes of sex. Evidently he was not too good at handling the business as a freshman 20 years ago, and in the interim has not made much improvement. A Darkening Green does not begin to explain the sexual problems facing his generation, all it does is show that (a) they existed (b) they obsessed Prescott perhaps 75 per cent of the time (c) they warped his approach to Harvard and (d) they made him an incredibly nervous individual.
Understanding this display of exhibitionism is difficult. The motive for it is not clear. In the last paragraphs of the book, Prescott tells of his great aunt describing him by saying "you are used to thinking a long time about things and keeping them to yourself." Perhaps that is true, but it is unfortunate that Prescott did not keep these things to himself indefinitely. They certainly are not fit to be read.