Jeffrey Hart is Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth College, and a cultural critic, essayist and columnist. He holds an A.B. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, both in English literature, and formerly served four years with U.S. Naval Intelligence. During his more active teaching tenure, professor Hart often made a point of nettling colleagues: while they protested the price of gas, he drove to school in a Cadillac limousine. Professor Hart is still a Senior Editor with National Review, and a founder and adviser to The Dartmouth Review.
Below is Professor Hart’s 2008 essay on fraternities, much butchered for space.
To be sure, the Animal House movie is a comedy. But Chris Miller’s recent book The Real Animal House (2004) makes it obvious that the comedy was based on actual life, and much in this book is as funny as the movie.
My father was in the class of 1921 at Dartmouth, and his fraternity, Sigma Nu, remained important to him throughout his life. He wore a silver Sigma Nu ring and a Sigma Nu plaque hung on our wall. I gather that the fraternity then was a place where the members sang around the piano, drank even though it was Prohibition, and of course had a good time.
In his essay “Woodrow Wilson at Princeton” Edmund Wilson recalls the Princeton clubs along Prospect Street as having “that peculiar idyllic quality which is one of the endearing features of Princeton. It is difficult to describe this quality in any very concrete way, but it has something to do with the view from Prospect Street from the comfortable back porches of the clubs, over the damp dim New Jersey lowlands, and with the singular feeling of freedom which refreshes the alumnus from an American city when he goes back to Prospect Street and realizes that he can lounge, read or drink as he pleases.” I think my father had similar feeling about Sigma Nu and fraternity row.
I was in the Columbia class of 1952 and joined the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi. The Phi Psi house was a three story town house on 114 Street, two blocks south of the Columbia campus. The Sigma Chi house was nearby off the same street.
Those who lived in the Psi house had sit-down dinners, jacket and tie required. The dinner was served by a Hispanic couple who lived in the house and received room and board for preparing dinner and helping to keep the place reasonably clean. The man had a regular job somewhere else, so it was a pretty good deal for them.
Every Saturday we had a cocktail party, jackets and tie of course, and faculty members were invited and usually came. Jacques Barzun sometimes showed up, Gilbert Highet, Lionel Trilling. We admired them and we wanted their approval. We understood that adults ran the world, and we aspired to be adults. On big weekends we had the usual Saturday cocktail party and a black-tie dance with live music. If this sounds respectable to you, then you should have seen St. Anthony’s Hall, down on Riverside Drive. That was so stratospherically preppy that oxygen would have been in order. That crowd wore tartan jackets and fancy vests.
At our black-tie dances at Phi Psi and at the Saturday dances at the West Side Club, we danced to the same music as the adults, the “standards,” as they are called, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein.
In California most of the young men looked like Charlie Manson. Walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley near the great university you could get high just breathing the air. Mario Savio had led an uprising at Berkeley. The black riot had burned Watts a couple of years earlier. When the Black Panthers in Oakland threatened a “bloodbath,” Reagan said at a press conference, “If they want a bloodbath they can have a bloodbath.” And he meant it.
In 1972 I was tear-gassed at the Republican convention in Miami when Vietnam Veterans Against the War rioted outside the Convention Center. Tear gas is no joke, painful, even dangerous, and the air conditioners carried the fumes into the convention.
Back at Dartmouth I remember teaching a course in English poetry in which many students were so glazed over with drugs that discussion was all but impossible. No one seemed interested in seventeenth century poetry. Students in that class included the son of a famous journalist and also the son of a mid-western governor. One of them disappeared into Tibet, seeking nirvana, I guess.
I remember the spring “Hums” one year during the 1970s when the fraternity singing groups were singing in front of Dartmouth Hall. In the past this had been a beautiful event. The Dekes showed up carrying a small pig and insulted the few women undergraduates then enrolled at Dartmouth by singing “Our Cohogs (clams).” I suppose the pig was part of the insult.
In Chris Miller’s The Real Animal House you can see it all coming. In the Fall of 1960, his sophomore year, Miller joins Alpha Delta Phi on East Wheelock Street. This is the “Adelphian Lodge” of Animal House.
Chris Miller had arrived at Dartmouth in 1959, and this was the fall of his 1960 sophomore year. Welcome to the Sixties. The curtain was going up on that horror show.
It amazes me when Dartmouth athletic coaches refer to their players as “kids.” Is a 240 pound six-foot-three football lineman a “kid”? If he were in the military he could be in the Marines or the Special Forces killing Muslims. Kids! They are college men.
I’ve been invited to speak at a couple of fraternities. Recently at a house on Webster Avenue I gave a talk on the importance of the irrational in both poetry and political theory (Wordsworth and Burke). The fraternity men wore jackets and ties. Food was laid out on a buffet table. We drank a bit of beer.
If I had been an undergraduate, I might have joined a club like this. I think a fraternity should be a preliminary to a good club in the city after graduation.