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CRITIC AT LARGE

A Remembrance Of Life At Harvard In The '40s

September 11, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Harvard College has been celebrating its 350th birthday with fetes, fireworks, cover stories and special books, including "The Unofficial Harvard Book of Trivia" (Quinlan Press, Boston, $7.95).

One learns among the trivia that Warren Beatty bit the novelist Rona Jaffe ('51) on the stomach in her agent's office (she was wearing a halter top) and asked permission to do it again. The book also reminds us all that a religion major in "Brown of Harvard" (1926) was played by Francis X. Bushman.

The college was only 307 and I was 17 when I entered in the wartime summer of 1943. It has been a source of bemusement to me ever since that although I was still the same pale, thin, owlish bookworm I was when I boarded the New York Central at Oneida, N.Y., in the morning, by late afternoon I was a Harvard man. I'm not sure even now what one is.

I was wearing a canvas hat, because my stepfather had told me everyone wore hats in Cambridge, and a double-breasted chocolate-brown suit chosen from a mail order catalogue for reasons that were unexplainable then as now. I don't remember that I ever wore either item again, even in the rain.

In some other, non-war summer, we might all have felt more like new passengers on that long train of the college's history, at one with Cotton Mather, Ralph Waldo Emerson and F.D.R.

There were indeed the lads from the better prep schools, who moved about with a kind of proprietary assurance and who were, I thought as an outsider, exactly what the world presumed Harvard men to be.

But Harvard's peacetime customs and pursuits were suspended or largely curtailed. There were troops in training and billeted everywhere, marching at ungodly hours and singing cadence. My three roommates and I were crowded into quarters built for two. None of us had been to the proper prep schools, nor had many of our friends. I began to think we were all outsiders. By the accidents of age, we had been given time for a taste of college before we went into service--as we all did. You might have expected an eat, drink and be merry celebration of the days we had left. But inadequate funds raised their chastening hand, and I remember only an urgency to make the most of our time--and to grind out acceptable grades in a tougher environment than I'd ever dreamt of.

Any university is a life-changing experience, if only in the inundating sense it gives you of how little you know in relation to everything there is to know and think about.

Harvard is not unique in its power to change lives, although I would have bet in 1943 that it had few equals in its capacity to overwhelm and humble an Upstate interloper. In later years, an irreverent friend said in another context, "You either sink or swim or you don't." So I'd have wryly agreed in 1943. But it was heady stuff. There were plays (Rex Ingram in "The Emperor Jones" at the Brattle), films with subtitles (a forgivable nuisance then as now), and a wartime sense not of ivory tower isolation from the real world but of immersion in it.

The last president of a democratic Germany lived in our house, and so did a gnomelike anti-Fascist scholar from Italy. There were guest lecturers who had been names on a flyleaf, or in the papers.

The midterm and final exams, even for the smallest courses, were printed, not mimeographed. I ran across a couple of them in an old notebook the other day, and the memory of the cold sweat and the clenched gut rushed over me like a bad dream. Did I possibly presume to answer these things? ("Discuss," the questions always said, a word made newly terrifying.)

Survival, I suppose, was the great achievement of the college years--survival, and a kind of emerging definition by yourself of yourself, for yourself. It is an isolating time, often cruelly isolating, stripping away the supportive comforts of family and tradition and replacing them only with your own gifts, such as they are.

Three of the four of us were lucky and, against our darkest expectations, survived the war and came back to Harvard in the peacetime autumn of 1946. By then the place seemed impressive but no longer overwhelming. It was easier to sort out the pompous snobs and the posturing academics from the rest.

There was then a different kind of urgency among us, to get on with our lives after a two-year interruption. Harvard had returned to something like normal and there were noisy freshmen in the Yard, where troops had lived in the ancient dormitories during the war.

But it was not the prewar institution we had read about in novels like George Weller's "Not to Eat Not for Love" from the mid-'30s, a tightly, WASPy New England institution, with a kind of implicit class structure defined by wealth, heritage and whether you boarded or commuted. The GIs and the ex-GIs had a leavening effect and my impression is that a geographic democratization is now university policy.

I never quite knew what a Harvard man was and have never quite got over feeling like an outsider who snuck in when no one was looking. But the years in Cambridge were a mind-blowing experience (long before Timothy Leary and requiring no artificial ingredients) and a career-defining time for which I'm lastingly grateful. I was there persuaded that I could try to make my way as a writer, and I could not have asked for more. I wish the place another happy 350.

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