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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 themselves?

The problem of conformity is intrinsic to any society or establishment, and it is especially pronounced in an educational institution full of competitive people seeking
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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