Title:
A Hoosier at Harvard

Author:
William E. Wilson

Date:
1986

Source:
Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 82, Issue 3, pp 223-241

Article Type:
Article

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A Hoosier at Harvard

William E. Wilson

It was 1923, late August, in Evansville, Indiana, where I was born. I was seventeen. On the telephone Mr. John O. Chewning, principal of Central High School, from which I had graduated in June, was asking me if I would like to go to Harvard. At that time, for reasons that I can no longer remember, I thought I wanted to go to Yale.

But Yale was still a year or two away. My father had just been elected to Congress from the old First District of Indiana, and the family would be moving to Washington, D.C.1 I planned to enroll in one of the colleges in Washington and later transfer to Yale if my grades were good enough. Thus I would avoid the entrance examinations that only a few colleges required in those days. It was true that I had so far neglected to advise Yale University of my intentions or any of the institutions of higher learning in Washington on my list, for that matter. But in 1923 going to college was a more casual business than it is today; in most instances one simply packed one's bag at the last minute and went.


  • William E. Wilson is James A. Work professor of English emeritus, Indiana University, Bloomington. At times a reporter for the Evansville, Indiana, Press and New Bedford, Massachusetts, Standard and associate editor of the BaltimoreEvening Sun, Wilson has also authored numerous historical works and novels. Included are The Wabash (Rivers of America series; New York, 1940); The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony (Bloomington, 1964); Crescent City (New York, 1947); and Every Man Is My Father (New York, 1973). According to Wilson, "A Hoosier at Harvard" is to be the opening chapter of "an autobiography-in-progress." One brief portion of the reminiscence is adapted from an earlier essay that appeared in the "John Harvard's Journal" section of Harvard Magazine, LXXXIV (January-February, 1982), 72–73.
  • 1 In 1923 Indiana's First Congressional District included Gibson, Pike, Posey, Spencer, Vanderburgh, and Warrick counties. William Edward Wilson (1870–1948), the author's father, represented the district in the United States House of Representatives for one term, 1923–1925. He ran unsuccessfully for the same office in 1920 and 1924.
  • INDIANA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY, LXXXII (September, 1986). 1986, Trustees of Indiana University.

"Harvard—?" I said to Mr. Chewning.

I told him then that I had never given Harvard much thought. In fact, I said, I was considering Yale. Next year, maybe. Or the year after. I tried to sound blasé, but actually I was in a state of mild shock. Harvard—? Me—? Harvard and Yale were places only to dream about. No one I knew ever really went to Harvard or Yale. Hadn't I said to Mr. Chewning, "Next year, maybe, or the year after"?

But Mr. Chewning was not a man to waste time chasing rainbows. He said he was not talking about next year, he was talking about next month. Harvard classes would begin in September. He made it sound as if my shilly-shallying might disrupt the schedule of a great university.

He went on to explain that he had just returned from a vacation and found a letter from Harvard on his desk offering, for the first time, admission without examinations to the two top male graduates from certain selected public high schools. He told me it was a great honor for Central of Evansville to be one of those selected. My friend Alexander Leich, who had the highest boys' grade average in my class, was seriously considering the opportunity, Mr. Chewning said.2 He reminded me then that I stood second to Alex in rank. Now he was making me feel as if I owed an immediate decision not only to Harvard College but also to Central High School and Alexander Leich. Mr. Chewning had a very persuasive way. His favorite maxim was "A hint to the wise is sufficient."

I told him I would talk with my parents.

I talked with my parents.

My father was enthusiastic. The Harvard brochure projected an average cost of a freshman year at $1,500; Father's salary as a congressman was $7,500; he said he thought one-fifth of a man's salary to educate a son at Harvard was a bargain. (Recently, Alex Leich, who today interviews prospective Harvard students from southern Indiana, told me that the projected cost of a freshman year in 1985–1986 was $16,300. The 1986 World Almanac gives the salary of a member of Congress as $75,100.) My mother remarked several times during the family conference, with quiet dubiety, that winters in New England were very cold. (In her girlhood she had spent a winter once with an uncle and aunt in Norton, Massachusetts, where Wheaton College is located.) My


  • 2 Alexander L. Leich, now retired, later became vice-president and treasurer of the family wholesale drug firm, Charles Leich and Company, in Evansville.
sister Isabelle contributed to the debate by stating flatly that she had not cared for Yale University ever since I read to her "that book about Stover."3 (My dear sister was blind, and occasionally I read to her books that interested me—with something less than pure altruism, obviously.)

After our conference at home, we conferred with the Leichs. Alex's parents said that Alex, who was only sixteen, could go to Harvard if I went. They thought he was too young to go alone. Before I had time to make myself obnoxious by assuming an avuncular air with Alex, my parents promptly said that I, too, was too young to go to Harvard alone but I could go if Alex went.

Alex and I decided to go.

Within a month, incredible as it now seems in this era of lengthy applications, interviews, and examinations, Alex and I boarded at Terre Haute the Southwestern Limited of the "Big Four" or C.C.C. and St. Louis, on its one-thousand-mile race from St. Louis to Boston after we had already made a four-hour journey on the C. and E. I. local on its daily one-hundred-mile smoky stagger up from Evansville.4 Unexamined and unheralded, we were probably as unlikely a brace of innocents as ever set off to enroll as freshmen in Harvard College.

Even the clothes in my "wardrobe trunk" were not altogether proper for the adventure. A week before our departure, I had persuaded my mother to buy for me at Strouse and Brothers store on Main Street an expensive suit cut in the height of fashion favored at that time by teenage males in Indiana. As I was fitted by Mr. Ed Lantz, who had masterminded my wardrobe ever since I was six years old, I had no idea how ridiculous I would look in the tight jacket and bell-bottom trousers among the equally ridiculous square, short jackets and wide trousers—known as "Oxford bags"—that had already become the vogue of collegians in the East. I am still embarrassed by the memory of that new suit, but not so much because of the freak it must have made of me as because of my willfulness in wanting it and my


  • 3 Owen M. Johnson, Stover at Yale (Boston, 1912).
  • 4 The Chicago and Eastern Illinois (Missouri Pacific Railroad) ran from Evansville through Terre Haute to Chicago. It is now a part of the Louisville and Nashville system. Elmer G. Sulzer, Ghost Railroads of Indiana (Indianapolis, 1970), 235. For a history of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis written at about the time of Wilson's journey to Harvard see Ared Maurice Murphy, "The Big Four Railroad in Indiana," XXI (June and September, 1925), 109–273. At that time the New York Central Railroad owned 92 percent of the Big Four's common stock, and the system served twelve states and two Canadian provinces. Ibid., 270. See also Alvin F. Harlow, The Road of the Century: The Story of the New York Central (New York, 1947), 373–97.
weakness in never unpacking it in Cambridge when I saw what others were wearing. Later, my parents would have to make great sacrifices to keep me at Harvard all four years, and it might have been better for my character if I had worn the outlandish suit until the bell-bottoms became frayed and shiny. Perhaps it was somewhat to my credit that I lived frugally at Harvard my first year until I had saved enough out of my spending money to buy another "best suit" to take the place of the first one.

Alex and I spent our first night in Boston in the Touraine Hotel, sleepless. Neither of us had ever been alone in a city so big as Boston. The nearest approximation to a college campus that I, at least, had ever seen was the remodeled synagogue across the street from Central High that the new Methodist college (now the University of Evansville) leased to house its first classes. I did not know that Harvard's campus was called "the Yard," and the next morning when our taxi driver called it "the Yadd," I still did not know.

His pronunciations gave Alex and me our first hint that we were going to have a problem understanding people in New England. In Evansville there were two principal types of speech in those days: white and black, with an occasional German accent heard mainly among elderly country folk. But Cambridge was a veritable Tower of Babel. Even the native Yankees did not talk alike. Maybe the native Hoosiers at home did not talk alike either, but I had never noticed. On my first night in Persis Smith Hall, which I did not know then was named for a woman and not a man because I had never heard the name "Persis" before, I wrote a homesick letter to my parents expressing doubts that I would ever be able to follow the lectures of my professors.

They did not speak with the brogue of the taxi driver or the Irish janitor in our dormitory, of course, but I was right about the difficulty I foresaw. Most of those learned men dropped r's where r's should be and put them in where they shouldn't be. Their lectures were divided into "pots," which I eventually concluded were "parts," and the "owah" ("hour") was never long enough, they said, for full presentations of their "idears." In a survey of English literature "Beowulf" created a problem for me for a while. At Central High I had not been introduced to that earliest epic in our literature, and so, in my Harvard notes, that early hero was "Bearwolf" until I got round to him in my reading and saw how the name was spelled. Even after I caught on to the general rules of Yankee mispronunciations, I was often so distracted by them that I missed much of what a lecturer was saying. Arthur Norman Holcombe of the Department of Government made a special difficulty. His favorite word was "potticulolly," and I became so charmed by it and so absorbed in waiting for him to say it again that there were great lacunae in my notes on what he told us about "the Maggner Cotter" and its influence on the "lawrs" of "Americker."

Most unintelligible of all for me was the speech of my young section man in Philosophy A. He was a Greek named Raphael Demos who later became a distinguished professor of the Harvard faculty, but he sounded nothing at all like the only Greek I had ever encountered until then, Mr. Acos, who owned a candy store back in Evansville. Mr. Demos ended by making the philosophers studied in Phil A—from Aristotle to Kant and Hegel—all Greek to me.

Meantime, my own speech baffled others. Dr. Roger I. Lee, not sure whether I had appendicitis or was wasting away with homesickness, committed me to Stillman Infirmary for observation early in my first year at Harvard.5 Dr. Lee was a kind man and, I am sure, took a fatherly interest in me. But I think he was also inspired by curiosity about my use of our common language. He had probably never heard a southern Hoosier talk before. One day he came right out and asked me if I had "an impediment" in my speech.

Mrs. Lowell, the wife of the president,6 made the rounds of the infirmary twice a week, and one day, at my bedside, she speculated on the name of the only other Harvard student from Indiana that she had met. She said she could not be sure whether his name was "Moss" (meaning, I supposed, "Moss") or "Moss" (meaning, I supposed, "Morse"). Finally, I said I thought there was a Hoosier in my class named "Moss" (meaning, since I was mischievously making it all up, that she could take her choice). But she won that little word game in the end. "My dear young man," she said archly, "how am I ever to know whether you are saying ‘Moss’ or ‘Moss?’"

The Harvard accent, so-called, stood apart from all others. There are several explanations of its origin, and I do not know which is correct. I am sure it had to be acquired by everyone who used it, and I never tried to acquire it. But my speech must have been affected by what I heard round me every day. Years later, I was told by a linguist that my speech revealed that I was born on the north shore of the Ohio River but came of mixed Yankee and southern stock and had studied at Harvard. When


  • 5 Dr. Roger I. Lee was Henry K. Oliver professor of hygiene at Harvard from 1914 to 1924. While on the faculty, he organized the department of hygiene for the care of students' health.
  • 6 A. Lawrence Lowell was president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933.
I went to Washington my freshman year for Christmas vacation, my sister, who was ever my most loyal friend and most outspoken critic, told me I "talked funny."

There was a new vocabulary to learn as well as the strange pronunciations. In Cambridge and Boston poached eggs were "dropped eggs," soft drinks were "tonic," and tennis shoes were "sneakers." I had never heard of "finnan haddie" or "shad roe" until I arrived in New England and learned that they were both fish or akin thereto. (The first time I ordered shad roe in a restaurant, I asked the waitress if it had many bones in it.) Finnan haddie, I decided, was not so good as Hoosier catfish. In Durgin-Park's famous restaurant I discovered that "apple pan dowdie" was a delicious dessert and "johnnycakes" were nothing more than fried mush and not so tasty. At the college you paid your bills to "the bursar," and when you took examinations in Memorial Hall, the teaching assistant who watched you like a house detective and even insisted on accompanying you to the toilet, if you had to go, was called a "proctor." We had proctors in the dormitories, too, to keep us in line with the "parietal regulations." Ours in my entry of Persis Smith was a captain in the United States Army who taught an ROTC course in "Hippology." We labeled him "Professor of Horseplay." Incidentally, ROTC was not called "Rotsy" in those days before the universal invention of acronyms.

Possibly Harvard is no longer a snob school; the twenty to eighty ratio of public to private school boys of my day has been reversed, I am told, and the House Plan, inaugurated some time after my graduation, may have democratized the college; I don't know.7 Possibly, in our day, much of what Alex and I regarded as snobbery was simply New England reserve. Both of us had the experience of sitting beside the same man in our alphabetically organized classes for four years and never being noticed by him when we passed in the Yard. Maybe that was our fault more than the other students'; Alex and I were both shy and never fully at ease, I think, in that alien land. Maybe the other students were wondering why we did not speak to them. But there was a certain stiffness, a formality in undergraduate life at Harvard,


  • 7 During Wilson's years at Harvard freshmen had their own halls, or dormitories, and seniors generally lived in the Yard. Sophomores and juniors, however, roomed anywhere they could, and few had decent dining places after the freshman year. The House Plan instituted in the early 1930s assigned students to the same "house," with resident tutors and a master, for all three of their upperclass years; the freshman halls were later added to the plan. In Wilson's time a tutorial system did already exist for all students above the freshman class.
[Figure]

WILLIAM E. WILSON AS A SOPHOMORE AT HARVARD, 1924, IN DOORWAY OF ROOMING HOUSE AT 25 TROWBRIDGE STREET, CAMBRIDGE

Courtesy Alexander L. Leich.

that aggravated our own diffidence. Today, the Harvard classmate who sends me appeals for money democratically crosses out the impersonal "Dear Classmate" heading his letters and substitutes "Dear William" in handwriting (probably a secretary's); but the trouble with this attempt to break the ice of sixty years ago, when the classmate and I were not properly introduced and, hence, not on speaking terms, is that almost no one but my mother ever called me "William" and my classmate's chummy letters only embarrass me. In fact, they have an adverse effect on my generosity.

[Figure]

WILLIAM E. WILSON, IN FOREGROUND, AS A FRESHMAN AT HARVARD, EXERCISING ON THE COLLEGE ATHLETIC FIELD, 1923

Courtesy Alexander L. Leich.

The worst example of Harvard snobbery I encountered in my four years in Cambridge came early, when I entered the competition for the freshman tennis team. I was never an athlete. When I went to college, although I was five feet ten inches tall, I weighed only 115 pounds, not yet fully recovered, I suppose, from the series of illnesses that the low-lying, badly drained, and miasmic Evansville of the first two decades of the twentieth century exposed me to in the first twelve years of my life. The illnesses ranged from malaria to diphtheria and typhoid fever, and when I was nine or ten, I even wore a thick plaster "corset" all one hot summer as a result of what was probably undiagnosed polio. By 1923, however, I was a reasonably good tennis player and had taken part, with modest success, in Evansville's city tournaments.

For my first scheduled match in the freshman competition at Harvard I donned a pair of comfortable, old, gray summer pants and a blue shirt, rolled up its sleeves, and with three new tennis balls stuffed into my pockets set off for the courts with my trusty old racket that I was soon to learn I had trusted too long. My opponent arrived at the courts attired in beautiful white-flannel trousers and a white tennis shirt and a prep-school blazer. He seemed to me better dressed for a garden party than for tennis. He carried not three tennis balls but a dozen, in a net bag, and not one racket but two, both brand new.

I took the first set from him easily; too easily, I thought, because he seemed to me indifferent, not sufficiently "hyped up" to play his best. Looking back now, I am sure that he could not believe that an opponent as improperly dressed as I for the game could know how to play it. In the second set his game improved a little, but I was still winning easily when my old racket broke. The whole thing collapsed at once—like the Deacon's One-Hoss Shay.8 Its long New England winter at the bottom of my trunk had been too much for it, I guess. As soon as my competitor saw what had happened, he went to the score chart, crossed off my name, and wrote after his own, "Winner by Default." Tucking his two new rackets under his arm then and picking up his bag of balls, he sauntered off the court without so much as a "Sorry, old chap."

I am beginning to sound as if I did not like Harvard, but I did like it. I never came to love the place, as a certain type of Old Grad professes to love his alma mater. (How can one "love" a multimillion-dollar corporation?) I gave my sister a Harvard pennant for Christmas my freshman year, but I never bought one for myself; I disliked as ostentatious the Harvard drinking glasses my sons gave me once when they were children, and I was glad when my inebriate friends finally broke them all; my Harvard chair is a handsome piece of furniture, but I keep it in my study because it is uncomfortable and discourages visitors; I have never gone back to a Harvard reunion, although my absences have been as much the result of circumstances as of choice; I don't know the words of "Fair Harvard" beyond the first two lines and could not tell you who won the Harvard-Yale game last year; I don't address strangers by their first names because they happen to be classmates; and I give more money annually to colleges other than the institution on the Charles because it seems to me they need it more. On the other hand, I have sent one of my three sons through Harvard and would have sent the other two there if they had wanted to go. One of the other two did apply, but when he was accepted, he chose Amherst instead. When I happened to remark to John Mason Brown at the time that Amherst was, for my son, a better choice, Brown laughed and said, "Spoken like a true Harvard man!" and promptly appointed me to the Harvard Overseers Committee to visit the


  • 8 Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss-Shay: A Logical Story," The One Hoss Shay … (Boston, 1892), 12–29.
English Department, of which he was chairman. I would have been happy to see all my sons at Harvard because I remember many incidents from my own years in Cambridge that have enriched my whole life; but I believe the two who did not go there have been just as well educated and probably happier at Amherst and Wisconsin.

In the 1920s Harvard had many charms that it has since lost, as I discovered in 1985 on a visit to see a step-granddaughter graduate from the Harvard Law School. In fact, I am not sure that, if my sons were entering college today, I should want them to be thrown at seventeen into the maelstrom the megalopolis of Boston has become. Sixty years ago the town of Cambridge and the university were so small that a freshman came quickly to be a part of them if only because he soon recognized as no more than fellow-Cantabrigians the great, the near-great, and the oddities of that academic world in the streets and in the Yard.

Haughty, ferocious, white-bearded, Ph.D.-less ("Who could examine me?" he was said to have replied when asked why he lacked the advanced degree.), George Lyman Kittredge was one of the "greats" then, crossing Harvard Square with cane upraised to halt traffic. Little, nonstop-lecturer John Livingston Lowes was another, scurrying about like an overwrought graduate student, who, it was said, once had his hat knocked off in Widener Library by Kittredge's cane. Still another, also without a Ph.D., was Charles Townsend Copeland ("Copey"), taking his daily two-mile constitutional in an overcoat several sizes too large for him and wearing a derby hat like a second melon balanced atop the flat, oblong melon of his head.

Roger Bigelow Merriman—"Frisky" Merriman—was among them, the best-dressed man on the faculty until he took off his jacket and occasionally his shirt on hot spring days as he pranced up and down the platform of New Lecture Hall explaining the rise of the Spanish Empire. Kirsopp Lake was there, too, in full panoply of buck teeth and flying coattails on his way to Sever Hall to weep over his reading of the Book of Job in his course on the Bible; and gentle, learned, Ph.D.-less (Who could indeed examine him?) Bliss Perry; and bustling Ralph Barton Perry, the philosopher. For a while we saw old Charles William Eliot in the Yard, his rugged, birth-marked face sublime, and there too his elegant successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, already seventy, taking the steps of University Hall three at a time to prove to himself and to the whole world that he was still vigorous enough to direct the fate of Harvard University. As elegantly dressed as the president but the youngest of all, Kenneth Murdock loped with long legs across the square, lantern-jawed but genial, perhaps already cherishing his never-fulfilled dream of one day following in Lowell's lithely planted footsteps into the president's office.

We, the students, knew all these men in those days and gossiped about their foibles and what we thought were their innermost secrets. At the same time we identified the minor players in the daily drama of Cambridge. Among them were the perennial students, most ubiquitous being a man in his sixties with flamboyant orange-pink whiskers whom everyone called "The Professor of Heraldry." Aristocratic old ladies in black silk were ubiquitous, too, fluttering along Garden Street, always, it seemed, with books in their hands, prepared to ask searching questions of the "greats" if they could detain them and even of the ghosts of Mr. Lowell (James Russell) or Mr. Longfellow (Henry Wadsworth) or Mr. Emerson (Ralph Waldo) if any of these should miraculously appear at the next corner. Max Keezer, the secondhand clothes man, was everywhere at once on foot with a bundle of clothes slung over his arm to sell, much of his merchandise worn only once or twice by student residents of the area known as "the Gold Coast" who needed cash before their papas could send it to them. Occasionally one saw one of these Golden Boys in person, drifting sleepily up from that gilded region of private dormitories to attend a tutorial at "The Widow's" on the Square, where a "Gentleman's C" was all but guaranteed for a fee.9

All students, rich and poor, wore one stamp or another of Harvard in those days, in dress or in manner, too much like a uniform perhaps; but today students wear another uniform, and there are so many hangers-on in Cambridge that it is impossible to distinguish their threadbare tatters from the threadbare tatters affected by the sons and daughters of millionaires. The old stamp of the 1920s, like the new one of today, was a protection from reality, and there is nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Harvard students, like all others, become acquainted with reality soon enough.

Even the local tradesmen and laborers and politicians were affected by the presence of the university in their midst when I was a student in Cambridge. Witness the naming of the "City of Cambridge Offal Department." (In Evansville, even officially, we


  • 9 "The Widow's" was the students' name for the privately owned and operated tutorial school on Harvard Square; it was an establishment designed for force-feeding knowledge into the minds of the idle rich.
[Figure]

TRAFFIC ON MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE, NEAR HARVARD SQUARE, CAMBRIDGE, 1923. HARVARD YARD AND CLASSROOM BUILDINGS IN BACKGROUND

Courtesy Alexander L. Leich

called garbage "garbage.") Hear the clerk in Leavitt and Pierce employ the correct uses of "shall" and "will" as if he had just come from Copey's class. See Mayor Curley, implacable enemy of the "godlessness" of Harvard, appear at the dedication of the new subway pillbox in Harvard Square wearing a top hat with the savoir faire of a Harvard Overseer.10

When I think of the Cambridge of my youth, accustomed as I was to the mild winters and somnolent, steaming summers of southern Indiana, I remember, first of all, the bitter cold of New England and how the boardwalks laid down in the Yard against the ice and snow crackled under the flopping, unbuckled galoshes we all wore as we went to learn—many of us gladly—in such courses as English 41, which Bliss Perry gladly taught; to sit in conferences with a university-appointed graduate-student tutor


  • 10 Leavitt and Pierce was a tobacco store on Harvard Square. Democrat James M. Curley was mayor of Boston on and off for sixteen years (1914–1917, 1922–1925, 1930–1933, 1946–1949) and served four terms in the United States Congress, one term as governor of Massachusetts, and two terms in jail. This controversial Irishman from a poor background is the subject of Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah (Boston, 1956).
[Figure]

HARVARD YARD IN THE WINTER OF 1923–1924. SENIOR DORMITORIES IN THE BACKGROUND

Courtesy Alexander L. Leich.

like Whitney A. Wells; and to keep appointments with Charles Townsend Copeland in his rooms in Hollis 15, where Ralph Waldo Emerson once lived.

Bliss Perry, who taught more gladly than any teacher I have ever known, made the reading of literature seem like a high moral pursuit, yet always without pedantry and didacticism. He spoke above the lectern in Sever 11 deliberately, in a melodic, resonant voice, his homely face benign and wise, his mottled hands as eloquent as his words. Whitney Wells, a Californian, an outlander like me, was disdainful of ignorance and taught his "tutees" to abhor it as he himself abhorred it and, at the same time, to carry as lightly as they could whatever learning they acquired. Copeland with a word could plunge a young man into black despair of ever becoming a writer or lift him to heights of renewed ambition.

To these three men, Perry, Wells, and Copeland, I owe the best of what Harvard College means to me. "Copey," however, I remember most vividly, if only because my principal obsession then, as it always has been, was writing.

I got off to a bad start with Copey. I went up to Hollis 15 with my friend Edd Parks—later a poet, critic, and distinguished professor of English at the University of Georgia—for our first interview after our names had been posted in Wadsworth House for the final choice of members of English 12. Both of us were nervous, but Parks's jitters produced a jaunty manner, whereas mine made me timid. As Parks preceded me into Copey's study, the great man sat forward on his horsehair sofa and stared at us. Before we could tell him our names, he said, "The first young man seems affable enough; but you, the second, why are you so belligerent?"

I was not belligerent; I was scared—scared stiff and, at the same time, happier than I had been at any time since I left my Indiana home for Harvard College. Being admitted in my senior year to Copey's course in writing meant the realization of a dream I had cherished ever since I was a freshman. But of course I could not tell Copey this. Indifference was the vogue then at Harvard, and to express jubilation over anything was infra dig. I remained silent and let Parks do the talking.

Perhaps it was because of this awkward beginning that I always felt somewhat ill at ease in Copey's presence and never became one of his disciples. But I think not. Better men than I rebelled against his personality when they were his students, including T. S. Eliot and John Dos Passos. Nevertheless, in the course of that year, Copey managed to teach me a great deal in spite of my reaction to him. And in spite of his reaction to me, too, I think. He was a vain man who loved flattery and favored toadies, and I never had much expertise in that line. However, students who were lazy or without talent, toadies or no, he ignored as much as possible and crowned their ignominy at the end of the course with what he called "a contemptuous Gentlemen's C"; at the same time, students who were not in his "crowd" and never became members of the Charles Townsend Copeland Alumni Association were treated to full justice in his teaching. Parks and I, for example, not among his favorites, received two of the three or four A's he gave that year.

Copey's class of twelve selected seniors met twice a week in Emerson 5, but those meetings were seldom more than a Copey performance, with finicky adjusting of window shades and reading lamp, arranging of papers and books and drinking glass on his desk on a platform high above the seats in the room, clearings of the throat, petulant complaints of drafts, and whimsical roll calls "to make sure that there are no newspapermen in the room," as if the meetings of the class were public events. All this fussing and fuming was a preliminary to twenty minutes or so of the famous "Copeland Reading," more often of the Bible or Kipling than of our own efforts.

The real work of the course was accomplished when Copey's students went singly to his rooms in Hollis after dinner for hour-long conferences about their writing. They would sit at his desk and read their work to him under the soft light of a green-shaded gas lamp, while Copey himself reclined on a sofa in the shadows, eyes closed, sound asleep for all we knew—unless he was so moved to agony over our literary ineptitudes that he interrupted us with a groan and a short lecture for our margins on "the debilitating passive" or "elephantine jocosity." When our reading was ended, he opened his eyes and dictated long, detailed criticisms of what we had just read, which assured us that he had heard every word.

His emphasis was on style: clarity and purpose in writing. I am not sure that he knew much about the craft of fiction, although he recognized a good story when one was read to him—and especially when he had one to tell himself. My work seemed to puzzle him at times, like Dr. Lee's mystification by my Hoosier speech when I was a freshman. I think Copey had never encountered before a midwestern background like mine, and following his advice to write about what I knew, I baffled him with the setting and characters of Evansville that I put into my stories. He had himself never ventured far out of New England and only went to New York City for his birthday and the annual meetings of the Copeland Alumni Association in the Harvard Club. J. C. Furnas was in that class, and Joe came from Indianapolis; but Joe's interest was primarily in writing editorials and essays in which his personal background played little part.11 "Wilson," Copey asked me on one occasion, "how do you know so much about such people?" But it was more an expression of wonder at the oddities of my fellow Evansvilleans than a questioning of my verisimilitude.

Only once was I courageous enough to submit a poem in English 12. It was a love poem addressed to a girl who was breaking my heart back home in Indiana, and it contained more truth than poetry. I was too shy to read it to him and pretended that I had forgotten to bring my glasses. Copey obligingly traded places with me and read the poem aloud at the desk while I perched nervously on his sofa. When he finished, my jaw must have been slack with amazement at my own genius; for Copey smiled and said, gently, "You have apparently forgotten that the poem was read by Charles Townsend Copeland. The Boston Symphony Orchestra can make ‘Yankee Doodle’ sound like great music."


  • 11 Joseph Chamberlain Furnas is the author of popular sociological studies of American life in the twentieth century, including Great Times (New York, 1974) and Stormy Weather (New York, 1977), and of biographies of Fanny Kemble and Robert Louis Stevenson.
[Figure]

WILLIAM E. WILSON AS A SOPHOMORE AT HARVARD, 1924, IN DOORWAY OF ROOMING HOUSE AT 25 TROWBRIDGE STREET, CAMBRIDGE

Courtesy Alexander L. Leich

On another occasion I came to our evening session in a dinner jacket because I was going afterward to a dance and would not have time to change. That night, instead of pretending to doze, Copey peered at me steadily through the shadows as I read; and when I finished, he ignored my literary contribution and said, "Are you in mourning, Wilson?" Startled, I told him that I was not. "But they are black," he said. "I can see from here that they are black." I asked him what was black, and he said, "Your shirt studs. You should never wear black studs unless you are in mourning."

Before I left, he insisted on lending me a set of his own studs and cufflinks, so that I would be properly dressed. As he escorted me to the door, he sniffed at me and said, "Yardley's Lavender. That, at least, is correct. It is the only scent a gentleman ever wears."

It was not until I was back in my own room in Matthews that I realized he had given me the ultimate among his many ways of adversely criticizing a manuscript; he had not mentioned it.

Copey, vain as he was, never became my model for sartorial correctness, but I never mistrusted him in matters of correctness in writing. His spirit still chides me when I commit a "debilitating passive" or indulge in an "elephantine jocosity."

In my four years at Harvard, especially in my first two years before my father was defeated in his third race for Congress, there was a succession of girls to take occasionally to tea dances and evening dances and to the theatre, girls from Wellesley, from Smith and Simmons and Wheaton. But there were not so many as there might have been if I had gone to Indiana University or DePauw (which many members of my mother's family attended) because at Harvard girls cost too much money for my limited budget even in the beginning. Most of them had to be transported on trains and sometimes provided with chaperoned overnight accommodations. Dating was formal and expensive in those years. Coffee and coke dates were unheard of. And the male always picked up the tab. After my sophomore year, until I finally met, a month short of my graduation, Ellen Cameron, the Radcliffe girl I would eventually marry,12 my life was almost as monastic as the undergraduate life described in the best Harvard novel of my era, Not to Eat, Not for Love, by George Weller of the class after mine. ("A good novel," a faculty colleague of mine at Brown University said to me when it was published in 1933, "but where are the girls?" The answer was that there weren't any girls handy for many of us at Harvard in the 1920s—not in the Yard, at least.)

With Alex and new friends, most of them from the Middle West and the South, there were dinners, when we could afford them, at Durgin-Park's and Jacob Wirth's and other places in Boston, but never at Locke-Ober's, which was beyond our means, and there were excursions to Marblehead and Salem and Concord and Lexington. From the second balcony of the Boston Opera House, at a distance of a quarter of a mile, I fell in love with


  • 12 Ellen Janet Cameron was born in 1902 and died in 1976. As Ellen Wilson, she wrote many books for young people, including Three Boys and a Lighthouse (New York, 1951), with Nan Hayden Agle; Ernie Pyle: Boy from Back Home (Indianapolis, 1955); and They Named Me Gertrude Stein (New York, 1973). In 1977 Wilson married Hana Benes, who was an editor of Victory magazine during World War II and, later, foreign editor of Svobodne Slovo, Prague, Czechoslovakia, until 1948.
[Figure]

WILLIAM E. WILSON'S ROOMING HOUSE ON HARVARD STREET, CAMBRIDGE, DURING HIS JUNIOR YEAR AT HARVARD, 1925–1926

Courtesy Alexander L. Leich.

Mary Garden and watched, with less passion, the gyrations of Anna Pavlova, whom I still think of as a tiny doll only an inch high because I had no opera glasses. I was also captivated by the magic make-believe of Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell in Boston's theatres, and in Symphony Hall I listened spellbound to Kreisler, Elman, Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. To balance this diet of high seriousness I did my share of gaping at the strippers, like Ann Corio, and laughing at the comics, like Sliding Billy Watson, in the Gayety Theatre on Scollay Square, and once I went behind stage and met Joe Cook, the popular, stand-up comedian of those days, because he had a routine about his "boyhood in Evansville." (It must have been a precocious boyhood, because all he could remember of Evansville in our backstage conversation was Gold-blume Beer.)

My second year in Cambridge, I moved into a rooming house with Alex at 25 Trowbridge Street and the next year, alone, into a mansard room on Harvard Street, observance of parietal regulations in the one proctored by a Cockney landlady named Mansell and in the other by an Irish landlady named Tobey, both of whom scolded me when I misbehaved and cosseted me with chocolate cake and apple pie between times. I paid Mrs. Mansell five dollars a week and Mrs. Tobey four dollars. Harvard tuition was raised to four hundred dollars and then to six hundred dollars in those years, but by that time I had scholarships that took care of the increases and a little more. In my junior year I entered the HarvardCrimson's competition for would-be editorial writers and lost out in the final selection to Joe Furnas but had the reward of making his acquaintance and enjoying his friendship the rest of my life and of knowing the senior editor, Edward C. Aswell, who became the editor of two of my novels, Abe Lincoln of Pigeon Creek and The Strangers, a quarter of a century later.13 In our senior year Alex and I moved into the Yard, according to the custom of that time, Alex into Stoughton Hall and I, with Haydn Huntley, into Matthews 5, which was one of the cheapest rooms available in the Yard that year.14

Now, looking back again at that August day in Evansville long ago, in 1923, I am grateful to Mr. Chewning for making up my mind for me and to my father for deciding that Harvard on $5-a-day was worth it. As for the longjohns that my mother packed in my trunk, I never wore them until nineteen years later when I served in the navy during World War II. My dear sister remained a loyal Harvard fan until she died seven years ago. I inherited her Harvard pennant, and someday I hope I can bring myself to give it to my Harvard son—if I can ever find where I have stored it in Hana's and my present condominium apartment in Bloomington, Indiana.


  • 13 Edward C. Aswell was Thomas Wolfe's final editor at Harper and Row, Publishers. Aswell ended his career as editor of McGraw-Hill Book Company, where Wilson published Abe Lincoln of Pigeon Creek in 1949 and The Strangers in 1952.
  • 14 Haydn Huntley lives now in California, retired after many years as professor of fine arts at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.


Published by the Indiana University Department of History.