How Harvard students created a new standard of manliness - and drove themselves crazy in the process.
opening the crimson covers of Kim Townsend’s new book “Manhood at Harvard,” suddenly I was a 20-year-old sophomore again. I am standing on a chair, wearing a blindfold, chanting Greek letters at a stuffed moose shot by Teddy Roosevelt. I am teetering; hands catch me … Dissolve to the sloping roof of a clubhouse. I declaim “To An Athlete Dying Young” to a less-than-delighted dorm across the street. Scotch sloshes out of my insigniaed glass. You get the point.
Nowadays I often ask myself: Did I? And if so, what was it? I wasn’t, after all, an obvious candidate for campus hijinks (Jewish, New York, day school). In high school I always took “preppy” to be a shortened form of “preposterous.” Yet soon after I got to Cambridge, I was dressing in corduroys and old tweed jackets and holding doors for Radcliffe students who could certainly open them on their own. There was a lot of peer pressure, of course — college is college — but that’s remarkable in itself, since it suggests that there were others at Harvard who shared my enthusiasms. In fact, we were legion. By the hundreds we attended final club pajama parties and teas, joined literary magazines and lunch clubs and wrote light verse to each other. Obviously, we were unbearable, but that’s beside the point. The point is that we had come to the modern university, to Harvard Inc., and found it confusing. We needed some narrower path to take us from boy to man.
One thing was clear to me even then: Our behavior had to do with women. Though women often participated in our efforts, subtly, we denied them parity. You could make the claim Harvard was still male turf — I’m thinking of those long rows of black-and-white photos of young men looking down at us — and when we boys sensed the power this gave us, we surrounded ourselves with it. It was as if we were on some sort of archaeological dig, blowing dust off old customs — senior proms, garden parties, final clubs — to get to some earlier, entirely male sense of what a college student should be. But whose? And what had they been hoping to accomplish?
with a title like “Manhood at Harvard,” Kim Townsend’s book gave me more than a little cause for hope I’d be meeting the guiding spirits of the Charles. Townsend, a (male) professor of English at Amherst College, tells the story of the small and very Harvardy circle, led by philosopher William James, who invented the rules of male conduct for the school and, by extension, for all of Gilded Age society. They did this for much the same reason we Reagan Era students ran around from club to lawn party: because who they were was in flux. Back then women were agitating for the vote, they were entering the work force, they had even set up an educational adjunct to Harvard, the Radcliffe Annex, right down the street. What, James and his colleagues were asking, were the tools required for a man to succeed in such a time?
In 1979, when I entered Harvard, not only our society but the school itself was divided at its core. The source of confusion had moved within the institution itself; for several years the university had been officially coed. Students were housed together, took classes together, exercised together. But Harvard’s more venerable structures — its professoriate, its alumni gatherings, its board of overseers — were still overwhelmingly male. And then, off to the side, Radcliffe still sat, now reduced to the name after the hyphen on the diplomas of women graduating from Harvard, but still a source of scholarships and advice we boys could not apply for. If we all went to the same school with the same opportunities, what was that little quadrangle up the street about?
We quietly shook our heads at a system that sent such a contradictory message. Some of us might have begun the backlash against gender preferences, but we were politically unfocused and, like most college students at the time, politically exhausted. Besides, our culture can never hope to match the enthusiasm the 19th century showed for re-molding human nature. A truly new kind of American man was called for, William James et al. believed, able to replace the religious, scholarly or martial archetype that had preceded him. This new man had to be aggressive, regimented and disciplined. He had to be “sound,” “fit” and, above all, “manly.” “During this period,” Townsend writes, “men approached all the issues that men face — physical, educational, domestic, and social … with a new sense of having to present themselves as manly, and a clear sense of how womanly they would be considered if they did not measure up.” Manliness came with its own list of dos and donts: Sports were manly, reflection was not; courtship was manly; sex was not; business was manly, college was — well, that was the question they were determined to address.
In answering this question, James and his fellow theorists gave birth to the preppy strain in American culture. The manly college man was to be a finely tuned generalist. He was to know a bit of everything and a lot about life. Sports were desirable, but only on an amateur level. His curriculum should be well rounded, leading to a healthy — as opposed to morbid — amount of knowledge. “The final result of intellectual culture,” Harvard’s president Charles W. Eliot wrote, should be “development of … character … Some men realize it without college training, but college training is in men of the right sort an inspiration to it.” In other words, school is really about what you learn outside the classroom — which was pretty much our mantra. How we bragged about how few classes we were taking, our few interactions with the real world: drinking sessions with Cambridge authors, playing video games with townies.
Turning boys into men turns out to be a tricky project. In order to encourage maturity and judgement, Harvard began allowing students to choose their entire course of study. According to Townsend, the result was that 55 percent of the Class of ’98 took nothing but beginning classes for 4 years. Eliot wanted students to spend 10 hours a day studying; instead they spent 14 hours a week. Students flocked to geology because it was a gut. And thanks to the attention college football commanded — the Harvard-Yale game was the Super Bowl of its day, and Soldier’s Field the largest poured concrete structure in the world — Harvard’s athletic director soon made nearly as much as its president. It all sounds familiar.
The incorporation of Radcliffe College in 1894 — a separate and unequal structure which allowed women to take Harvard courses and receive equivalency degrees, but not to use the Harvard libraries — poured fat on the fire. “How morbid we are on the subject of manliness,” the critic Van Wyck Brooks commented during his senior year in 1907. And in fact the generation that nominated itself to lead by example had by this time nearly gone mad under the strain. James had suffered a breakdown early in his career. President Eliot had a severe phobia. Their good friend Owen Wister (Class of ’82), author of the squinty classic “The Virginian,” collapsed in 1885; John Jay Chapman, the well-known historian, developed a psychosomatic condition that left him crippled. And Barrett Wendell, a professor of English who believed that coeducation decreased “virility” and “scholarly vigor,” was according to Townsend, “known to bark like a dog and crawl up the stairs on his hands and knees to bed.”
This masculine toll is really the most surprising part of the Gilded Age. After all, in the early 1980s, it was mostly the girls who got sick, suffered anorexia and bulimia, quietly checking out for a semester. Boys did better — an occassional drug overdose or drunken fall not withstanding. I can only imagine that the sensitivity and feminizing influence of a coed school, little as we appreciated it, helped save us from ourselves. The real reward to be found in “Manhood at Harvard” is that it shows the wonderful impossiblity of what James and his friends set out to do to their students, and what my friends and I set out to do to ourselves. To mold the soft affectionate soul of teenagers into tough, sinewy men. What is the great benefit to standing alone, split off from one half of humanity, in constant competition with the other half? I’m certain the students who graduated in the Gilded Age ultimately came to the same conclusion we did: Why drive yourself crazy when, in this country, you can stay a boy forever? For, in America, as John Updike once noted, a man is just a failed boy anyway. And failure, as we all know, is an orphan.
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