Memoir demonstrates Yalies have always been crazy
By Jenna Baddeley
You can tell that the Yale Bookstore has a special place in its heart for
Stover at Yale. It is shelved right up front, alongside the bestsellers
and the recent publications by University authors. Dozens of blue-jacketed
copies of the book throng the front window, right at home with the extensive
array of Yale cups, mugs, shot glasses, bibs, and posters in the section across
the way. But Stover at Yale, Owen Johnson's, TD '40, fictionalized
version of his undergraduate career, is not just another emblem of generic Yale
spirit. Rather, it questions the very traditions that Barnes and Noble seems to
uphold so blindly.
|Courtesy the Yale Bookstore|
Serialized in McClure's magazine when it was first published, Stover
at Yale had to be gripping enough to make people buy the magazine every
week just to read another installment. Johnson uses words in all the right
ways: his sentences are short and digestible, and frequent passages of dialogue
keep the book moving forward at a fast pace. Although Johnson meticulously
conveys the nuances of Stover's emotional states and conflicts, the writing
itself is adequate rather than artful. In Stover at Yale, words serve
the simple purpose of conveying information; they do not shine in their own
right. The book is suited for serialization in a magazine precisely because it
lacks the complicated layers of text, laden with meaning, to which the reader
might return again and again, discovering something new each time.
Stover at Yale is the story of a student and athlete who climbs to the
top of Yale's social ladder. It traces his journey through Yale from his
arrival as a freshman to his graduation senior year. It chronicles a very
different University from our own, where rigid social hierarchies, rather than
residential colleges, structured students' lives. Social life centered on being
admitted to societies, and everyone either hoped to be one of the lucky few who
would make the cut senior year, or envied those with the necessary social edge
that would inevitably secure them a spot.
Initially, the plot seems stereotypical: naïve freshman trapped in a life
built on social prestige. Stover achieves his goal and becomes the most popular
person in his class, but he soon discovers that his life is empty and revolts
against the role that people expect him to play. In 1998, the conflict of one
idealistic individual against vicious social hierarchies has become
cliché. You see it played out in every Disney cartoon, where the
protagonist stands up at the end and sings a song about how wonderful it is to
have held fast to idealism and overcome the injustice of society as a result.
Fortunately, Johnson never stereotypes Stover's conflict by labeling the
forces of individualism unequivocally good and social pressures unequivocally
bad. Stover always feels the pull of the world of secret societies, and Johnson
examines the subtle pressures and motivations that contribute to his struggle.
Thus, Johnson conveys the universal conflict between the desire to direct the
course of one's own life and the desire to conform to others' complicated
expectations, a conflict that is particularly resonant within Stover's
collegiate setting. Instead of an icon of untainted idealism, Stover is a
character with whom we can all sympathize.
Although Stover's Yale is firmly rooted in the 19th century--it is rare to
overhear someone exclaim "What the deuce!" and "I say!" in dining halls
today--amidst the somewhat foreign texture of Stover's world there are pockets
of intersection with the Yale of 1998: we follow the characters as they walk
past Dwight Hall, peer into the windows of Durfee, and retreat to their rooms
up in Lawrence Hall. This aspect of Stover at Yale makes it a treat for
any Yalie to read--it is always pleasant to see the details of one's own
environment recast in a relatively foreign context.
The secret society tap nights from 19th-century Yale generated high hopes and
anxieties; students gathered on Old Campus, pressing themselves against the
windows in anticipation. This public hysteria over secret societies is
particular to what we like to refer to as "Old Yale," and the 19th-century
rituals surrounding secret societies are less prevalent. But remarkably similar
tap nights occur at Yale today; the only difference is that they belong to
singing groups. Recognizing this parallel is a reminder that we often face the
same question posed in Johnson's account: to what extent are student careers at
Yale modelled by the establishment rather than being directed by the students
The problem of conformity is intrinsic to any society or establishment, and it
is especially pronounced in an educational institution full of competitive
immediate ways to make their mark on the world. Sound
familiar? Although Stover at Yale may initially seem remote, the
questions that it raises are pretty close to home after all.
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