May 9, 2013
We landed at Hamilton fresh from from Planet 1959 with its cars, girls, private phones, television and movies, all the teenage entitlement that had put us at the center of American culture.
Now we found ourselves in the center of upstate New York, stripped of all those things but glad of it, at first—anachronism has an authenticity about it.
For some of us, first in our families to go to college, it was a chance to prospect for the gold of the American dream. For others, it was a chance to play sports, indulge intellectual passions or get into medical school.
For still others, many others, it was a rowdy Round Table our fathers had known and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce and J. P. Donleavy had written about. Did they have cars? Girls? Television? Some of us would even re-enact legends from our fathers’ college days, the ‘20s and ‘30s, going down to Clinton village to buy cider that would harden into alcohol, as if Prohibition had never ended. (The cider turned to vinegar and a muck called “mother.”)
We envied tales of pranks played long ago—the cow in the chapel steeple, hippopotamus footprints made in the snow with an umbrella stand. Oddly, we never came up with any of our own.
We returned to the five-and-a-half day work week that had been abolished in most of America. Under threat of expulsion, we attended Sunday night chapel services. We had to wear jackets and ties to be served dinner in Commons. We could cut classes three times in a semester. Hamilton seemed like a boarding school with beer.
There were signs of hipness—echoes of Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s North Beach. Portable phonographs played Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” over and over. In Tuesday student-body meetings in the chapel, one did not applaud, one snapped one’s fingers.
A few guys knew some folk riffs on guitars they tuned with a non-filtered cigarette sticking upright from the pegs, and the little joke of “Close enough for folk music.” There were gloomy beards at the Emerson Literary Society. Two political factions—small ones, I suspect – had taken the sides of the French or the Algerians in their colonial war. Graffiti appeared around the campus: “OAS” and “FLN.” How sophisticated and European that seemed to us as products of the Eisenhower years, well before everything in America—sexual positions, garbage disposal—was politicized.
There were still scions of gentry with their tweed sportcoats and deb party invitations, but they were losing ground to the scions of rock and roll, which had transformed young white America only five years before and created a new generation that dressed in Levis and admired vandalism. Cultural interbreeding produced students who wore tweed sportcoats with Levis and would later burn cars next to Chi Psi and push a grand piano out of a window at Psi U.
Nevertheless, the ordained ethos seemed to hark back to some halcyon 1938 or so, when Hamilton believed itself to be a tiny Oxford, a cloister preserving civilization and a modest aristocracy in the steppes of upstate New York. This belief had made Hamilton complacent, even smug, through the years, the sort of college where professors wrote no books, never changed their courses and had cute nicknames: Swampy Marsh, Noah Count, Digger Graves.
There were time-warp oddities such as the sanctioned hazing of freshmen. We were ordered to wear beanies, for instance, and to run a gauntlet every Tuesday after the campus meeting in the chapel. We filed out and the members of a sophomore cool guy society—Was Los?—would seize someone who had neglected to wear his beanie and humiliate him by hanging a toilet seat around his neck and ordering him to wear it all day.
There were the blithe cruelties of phys ed teachers—why were we all made to run a quarter mile so fast that the finish line was soaked with vomit?
Why, despite the college’s advertisements for itself, did professors shun contact with students? You’d ask to join a table of them in the snack bar, and they might say “Only if you don’t talk.” When Thomas Clive Pinney, a professor of freshman English, was dispatched to remedy this situation and chat with us in the lounge of Dunham, a student asked him why he had chosen to teach.
He permitted himself a thin smile. “I like to win arguments,” he said.
No cars, no girls, no movies, no television. There were fraternities behind whose walls lay secrets, prestige and glamor, we believed, but we weren’t allowed in them during our first semester.
There was little to do for social life when the studying was done except to walk down the hill and drink at the Village Tavern, the Park Hotel or Alteri’s, the drinking age being 18 then. Then we’d walk back up the hill. Other amusements included vomiting, masturbation and playing lacrosse in the hallways of Dunham dormitory, “that triumph of economics over the imagination” said one professor as he was finishing his long years of teaching 18th century literature. Rumor had it that one of his students had his father’s notes from the same course, and they still worked just fine.
The campus was beautiful, with huge trees and an all-American jumble of architecture—the Gothic library, the bulky neo-classicism of Root Hall, the brown bunker called Carnegie and the casement-windowed Tudor of the Sigma Phi house. Campus celebrities known as “hot shits” awed us.They were often personalities of the sort that Fitzgerald was talking about when he described college men “who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.”
There was the occasional glamorous faculty member such as Jascha Kessler who published short stories and poetry, and brought his dog to class. He left the next year. There were the nervous cheekbones of Professor Austin Briggs’s beautiful wife. Not having seen a female for weeks at a time (except for the cleaning women we called “harpies”), we would stare at her, maybe dream about her.
Charismatic John Baldwin led the choir and played the organ with bright-eyed, pink-cheeked rapture that argued well for the amount of drinking that was customary among WASPs back then. One sensed that a tip-serve half-gallon whiskey caddy stood on every faculty sideboard.
The administration insisted that Hamilton’s archrival was Union, a college in Schenectady that no doubt had meant something in the world when upstate was a culture unto itself, with its factories and progress.
We were supposed to care deeply about the football game with Union, and share the enthusiasm of Dean Winton Tolles up in the top row of the bleachers. He’d sip attentively at a thermos and bellow “Go Blue!” so loudly that he embarrassed people. He was said to be a great man. No one said why. “Great Man” was his assigned role in the Hamilton pageant.
Of course, lurking beneath Hamilton’s complacency was an inferiority complex. Had it always been there, or had it arisen as upstate New York declined and New England revived?
We knew we lacked the prestige of New England’s Little Three —Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams —but we thought of ourselves as a big cut above nearby Hobart and Colgate. Tom Wolfe once referred to Hamilton as “threadneedle Ivy,” after the heavy-soled faculty shoes also known as “corridor creepers.”
We’d also been left behind by beatnik existentialists and their fascination with America as nightmare (as in Henry Miller’s “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,”) and Europe as a dream of a place “where they really know how to live.” A film society, founded a year or two later, would struggle to catch up by naming itself “Kinokunst Gesellschaft.”
There was a sense of something skewed about the place, perhaps a feeling that we were being asked to live up to something that may never have existed.
One night I heard the chaplain, a fierce and glaring Scot, explain it this way: “Hamilton is everyone’s second choice.”
But there we were, doing our best to pretend it wasn’t. We were helped by the fact that the first-rate part of Hamilton revealed itself instantly and totally to incoming freshmen—a curriculum that was an intellectual boot camp designed to show us we were not yet able to write, read, think or be worthy in any way of the civilization we were supposed to inherit.
Our English composition themes came back littered with elegant sarcasms: “Do tell,” or “One trembles!” Freshman biology hammered the sentiment out of us and hammered the scientific method in. In the freshman history course we scoffed when Digger Graves and company handed out blank maps and asked us to mark the locations of various world capitals. Hadn’t we learned that in junior high school? When the maps were handed back we saw we’d confused Ireland with Iceland and misplaced Moscow by 1100 miles.
We were challenged. We responded. And those who didn’t respond to the challenge of writing three perfect one-page English papers were threatened with expulsion at the end of the first semester. There was something at stake beyond today’s self-esteem. Except for some flunk-outs, the system produced confidence and competence and we were —and are—the better for it.
We soothed our doubts by reciting a litany of famous alumni such as the drama critic Alexander Woolcott ’09, who was quoted frequently as saying that Hamilton was a small place, but there are those who love it. As it happened, it was Daniel Webster who had said that about Dartmouth in 1819.
There was B. F. Skinner ’26, a father of then-fashionable behavioral psychology, noted for raising his child in a box and teaching pigeons to play ping pong. There was Sol Linowitz ’35, head of Xerox and an ambassador. A Jew, he was said to have had a lonely existence at Hamilton, and even in our time a persistent anti-semitism limited the Jews in certain fraternities. Any black student was always in danger of being elected class president.
Ezra Pound ’05 was a giant of 20th century literature, but he was also a fascist traitor and a loon, and he was scarcely mentioned in English classes. Though a statue of Alexander Hamilton stood on the campus, I never heard anyone talk about him either. What had he done wrong?
Elihu Root had been secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt and sometimes one could see his descendants wandering around Clinton with the preoccupied air of aristocrats who know they’re failing at something but aren’t sure what. There were a number of families of that sort in Clinton.
Midwesterners thought of Hamilton as Eastern. New Englanders thought of it as Midwestern. Those who came from New York State were less puzzled, I suspect. They had grown up in the gray upstate where Hamilton hung onto its prestige by providing big frogs for small ponds—vice presidents of banks in Skaneateles or Olean or Glens Falls, say.
In that first semester of freshman year everything seemed possible, even if it never seemed quite real.
Gradually some of us discovered that Hamilton was a legend we had to create for ourselves, like all the students before us. I expect that those who knew precisely what they wanted—admission to law school, a mastery of Milton—had an easier time of it than those who were looking for a place as wondrous as Princeton was to Fitzgerald.
Why should we be happy in college anyway? As the British actor Robert Morley said: “Show me a man who has enjoyed his school days and I’ll show you a bully and a bore.”
I recall an unhappy Vassar girl of our era telling a psychologist, “These are supposed to be the best four years of my life.”
The psychologist replied: “No —these are the worst four years of your life.”
I found it wildly and perversely liberating, this neat assault on the myth of bright college years. We would have more than enough time and wintry solitude to think about whether he was right.