When “An Expensive Education”, a novel by Nick McDonell ’06-’07 came out this summer, Harvard was, once again, fictionalized and seen anew through the eyes of a recent graduate.
But while McDonell explained that his focus was on writing an engaging spy novel rather than on representing the setting where so much of the novel unfolds, a number of young authors who choose to write about Harvard instead decide to incorporate the institution into their own stories.
“Having a bad depression and getting help and medication happens all over the place, but the specifics are really important,” says Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, a memoir of her depression that began when she was eleven or twelve and unfolded throughout her undergraduate years. “I’m not sure if I would have been able to write the book and get it published if it didn’t take place at Harvard,” Wurtzel says. “People are always curious about the place.”
Although many such memoirs are not about Harvard per se, the name and place are tied inextricably to the stories, and the memoirists would argue they couldn’t be set anywhere else.
WHAT KIND OF 25-YEAR-OLD WRITES A MEMOIR?
“If you write a memoir, particularly at a young age, there has to be something unique about your experience,” says Ruben Navarrette Jr. ’89-’90, who arrived in the Yard as one of 35 Mexican Americans in the class of 1989, five years before the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies was founded.
Navarrette left Harvard when he was 23 and decided to write his memoir just one year after graduating. By the time he was 26, his book, “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano”, had been published. He described the writing process as “cathartic” and explained his decision to pen the memoir so soon out of college.
“The emotions coming out of college were still pretty raw,” says Navarrette, “It was a very effective way, I think, to transition out of college and into the workforce and into what became a career as writer and journalist.”
While Navarrette explored his ethnicity to cast a unique spin on the Harvard experience, Lauralee Summer ’98 also seized upon her unusual path to Harvard in writing her memoir.
When Summer was making a name for herself in high school wrestling, reporters started asking her about her family background. She talked about how growing up she and her mom sometimes lived in homeless shelters, moving 20 times before she was 12 years old. Soon, she was making headlines as “Homeless to Harvard.”
“A lot of people, I think, had the perception [that] if you work really hard, you could overcome poverty, and anyone could go from being homeless to Harvard, and therefore the American dream was awesome and working for everyone,” Summer says. And so, Summer, the first woman to join Harvard’s varsity wrestling team, decided that if anyone was going to tell her story, it should be her.
“I felt like I had had a lot of lucky events in my life and a lot of people who cared about me. That was part of the reason that I made it from one place to another. That was the story I really wanted to write.”
And she wanted to do it right away. “I felt like it would be a different story if I waited a long time,” she says, “I wanted to do it while it was fresh.” She first wrote “Learning Joy From Dogs Without Collars” as a creative thesis, and her adviser recommended the manuscript to a publisher.
Elizabeth L. Wurtzel ’89, the author of “Prozac Nation,” initially set about to write an article for New York Magazine in honor of the 350th anniversary of the University about what Harvard was really like. While the 20,000 word piece was never published, Wurtzel held onto her material along with notebooks she had kept to journal her thoughts. She then wrote an article about taking Prozac to beat depression, and eventually it became clear that her untold story of Harvard life was actually about being depressed.
Wurtzel conceived of her memoir idea when the form was much less popular than it is today. “Any memoirs were pretty much written by famous people,” she says. “I was encouraged to either turn it into a novel or make it more of a sociological study of depression in young people or something.”
The title ended up suggesting a more sociological account than the book actually presents, and readers expecting a cultural study of depression found instead a very personal account.
“It got a lot of nasty reviews and I think a lot of people did have this feeling of ‘What’s this privileged person doing complaining?’” she says. “Although I think I make this point in the book that that’s the thing about depression–it’s ridiculous. It’s about being sad about nothing.”
Along with many of the other Harvard memoirists, Aaron J. Greenspan ’04-’05 wrote a deeply personal account that ending up having a therapeutic effect for him.
Although he only printed a thousand copies of his memoir, “Authoritas: One Student’s Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era,” Greenspan says that the real value of the project was in the writing process. “It was either that or seeing a psychologist,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a nervous wreck for my entire life because of something that happened when I was in college.”
Greenspan’s memoir, which he began writing in August 2004, describes his personal history and unique college experience.
During his undergraduate years, Greenspan says he designed a web-based email system, a textbook exchange, and a course review tool for a statistics class. Eventually, he decided to combine his programs to make a web service he called houseSYSTEM. Greenspan tried to spread the word about this program, which included a universal directory called the Face Book (known also as the Universal Facebook and The Universal Face Book) that integrated all of the Harvard House facebooks.
Only a few hundred of the 1200-1300 people who were using houseSYSTEM started using the Face Book. One user, briefly, was fellow Harvard student Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06-’07. By the time Greenspan was about to graduate–early, because he had opted to pursue Advanced Standing–he was reading about reports of Zuckerberg’s success with The Facebook.
Greenspan decided to explain his side of the story. While his friends were toiling over theses, he took on his own massive writing project and wrote a 333-page memoir of his life until graduation. Though he developed a computer program to contact every literary agent in America, he ultimately couldn’t find a publisher and self-published the book instead.
“There are several ways of approaching a big subject like Harvard,” writes Richard P. Bissell ’36 in “You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man.” “One is to take the subway cars from Park Street or South Station, getting a fine view of the Carter’s Ink sign as you cross over the Charles River bridge.”
Though Bissell was being clever, the opening of his 1962 book hits on a common element of the modern memoirs set at Harvard: focusing on the entrance.
Like all the memoirists FM talked to, Summer started the Harvard section of “Learning Joy From Dogs Without Collars” with Freshman Move-In. Summer, whose picture in the Freshman Directory showed her with fluorescent orange hair and a multicolored striped shirt and tie, brought friends from Quincy High School to help her move her things into Weld. She wrote: “‘Where do we park?’ Jeff asked. ‘Pahk the Cahr in the Hahvahd Yahd,’ Mary said, and we all giggled.”
Move-In Day is foreshadowing in “Prozac Nation.” The first Harvard chapter begins with Wurtzel’s mother chiding her for commenting that the rain on the drive to Boston “doesn’t bode well.” She hoped the change in environment would snap her daughter out of her depression. “But when we got to Matthews Hall on Saturday afternoon and discovered I lived on the fifth floor and there were no elevators,” Wurtzel wrote, “even she became a little less optimistic.”
Greenspan’s portrayal of his arrival is similarly ominous. “It was far too early in the morning, and the September air was brisk as we sped up Western Avenue,” he wrote at the opening of Chapter 11 of “Authoritas,” “I was reading printed directions off a bright red sheet of paper. Unlike most streets where you had to strain your eyes to read any addresses at all, the numbers here were larger than life, almost two feet tall and bold, so that they looked like they might hurt if they fell on you.”
The fear he reads into the large numbers suggests the unease that will underlie the rest of the events in his detailed account of the disappointments of his college career, which culminate in watching others get rich off of an idea he claimed he developed.
Consistent with the reflective but positive tone of “A Darker Shade of Crimson,” Navarrette is a more upbeat than Wurtzel or Greenspan, but he too describes his arrival in words laden with significance. He is preoccupied with the “Enter to Grow in Wisdom” inscription when his taxi pulls up to Johnston Gate. “As I walked awkwardly with too many bags and not enough hands through the darkness of Harvard Yard, the driver’s words echoed. Good luck. Odd.”
“I was, after all, merely going to college,” Navarrette writes, “As so many of my classmates from high school–60 percent of them, to be exact–were doing and as others had done for generations before me. Good luck? I didn’t need luck, I thought to myself. Public school or not, I was bad.”
Characters in “An Expensive Education” are forever gazing up Annenburg’s spires, and McDonell name-checks Square restaurants and student organizations in his third novel. But beyond casual allusion is the more challenging task of describing things not obvious to anyone but those familiar with Harvard. Sometimes this means defining terms like concentration or TF with a jab at Harvard’s refusal to conform. Sometimes that means dispelling rumors.
As one can surmise from reading “Prozac Nation,” when Wurtzel attended Harvard in the ’80s, it was a different time. “The Adams House swimming pool was still open, and people just had orgies in there,” she says, “That’s not a myth.”
Although Keith A. Gessen ’97, the author of “All The Sad Young Literary Men,” is a novelist, the sentiments he conveys through his characters are indeed tied to his own feelings about his Harvard experience. In his 2008 novel, one of the things Gessen hoped to convey in a protagonist’s flashbacks to his days at Harvard was the letdown Gessen experienced when he realized the college of his dreams was not what he had imagined.
“I had a lot of ideas of what Harvard was going to be like, and that it was going to redeem all the time I had wasted getting into Harvard,” he says. “And then you get there, and it’s a lot of the same shit as the rest of the world. A lot of the same kind of class divisions, and a lot of people who just want to drink beer and go work at investment banks.”
Sometimes it is necessary to marshal less than scintillating aspects of Harvard life to hold retrospective weight. In “A Darker Shade of Crimson,” Navarrette wanders into the Yard earlier than his classmates, reporting for “a special work detail.” And in this special work detail, he writes, “a group of us would clean and ready the dormitory rooms of arriving undergraduates.” And like many other recorded events, Dorm Crew gets vested with symbolic and personal significance. “When asked of all Harvard taught me, I sometimes joke that my very first lesson was how to scrub a toilet. Appropriately so, perhaps.”
And if the dressed up term “special work detail” makes you laugh, Dorm Crew’s shout-out in “An Expensive Education” is imbued with a similar significance. While the elite are out swilling Bloody Marys for Sunday brunch at Deadalus, international students are swishing Mur-Kil down their shower drains. “The introductory meeting looked like an abbreviated European Union of reluctant janitors. A Scottish piano virtuoso, two Irishmen, half a dozen girls from Eastern Europe who were either short and stout like potato balls or tall and thin like dune grass on the Baltic,” McDonell writes.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
But far stickier than explaining Harvard places and objects is the quandary of whether to use real names of people. Gessen’s titular sad young men represent what he describes as three guys who are each similar in different ways to the author.
“One of them is in the first person, and it just seemed natural to go ahead and call him Keith. And in a way, he’s the character who is least actually like me.” The roommate character is an amalgam of Gessen’s actual roommates. As for other central figures in the book, Gessen graduated two years ahead of Kristin Gore, but he insists that Lauren, the vice president’s daughter in the book, is not based on Gore, who he only knew “a tiny bit.”
For Greenspan, the decision to use only real names–no pseudonyms or composites– was difficult. “There were a lot of my friends who I wanted to include in the book who actually just aren’t in the book at all, because I wanted to write about them and they didn’t want to be tied up in the craziness that is my life,” he says.
Wurtzel’s friends may have even more reason to be scared. “On Halloween of my freshman year,” she wrote, “I found myself running through Harvard Yard because my best friend (at least so far), Ruby, was pursuing me and threatening to kill me, her pocket knife unsheathed, screaming something like, ‘you bitch, I’ll kill you.’”
Is Ruby real? And is she okay with having her knife-wielding chase immortalized in “Prozac Nation”? “It’s not her real name, but she’s a real person,” Wurtzel says. “And she’s actually, it’s amazing now, she has three kids and works in private equity. And she is nothing like she was in the book.”
In fact, the two stay in touch. “I adore her,” Wurtzel says.
Although the uniqueness of their experiences gives interest and profundity to their memoirs, paradoxically, many of the Harvard memoirists’ stories actually have universal appeal.
Just as Gessen characterizes his novel as one about the “disappointments of young men with the world,” — first, perhaps, with Harvard, and then with what they encounter next — so too do the trials Wurtzel and the others memoirists describe extend beyond the realm of Harvard.
After “A Darker Shade of Crimson” was published, Navarrette got a call from a retired doctor in Fresno, where Navarrette now works as a journalist. “He said, ‘When I was going through USC in the 1930’s, I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids. And so my experience of being Jewish at USC in the 1930’s,’ he said, ‘was exactly the same as you being Latino in Harvard in the 1980’s.’”