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Reviewed by:
  • The Company He Keeps
  • Edward G. Whipple
Nicholas L. Syrett. The Company He Keeps. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 432 pp. Cloth: $30.00. ISBN-13: 978-0-8078-3253-0.

In The Company He Keeps, Nicholas Syrett focused on fraternity men and their role on American college campuses since the first social fraternity was founded almost 200 years ago. More specifically, this book is about the history of gender and about how men in fraternities promote their masculinity and behave accordingly. It is also a book about power and prestige where fraternity men must rely upon their Whiteness, socio-economic status, masculinity, and heterosexuality to prove themselves to one another and to women.

Syrett's research information came from archival analyses conducted at 12 different colleges and universities across the United States and from more than 20 national fraternities. He chose to focus on fraternity men in this study of gender because of their significance in higher education and society.

Syrett wrote that men who join fraternities have been a force over the years primarily due to their views on masculinity. He traced the archetypes of masculinity throughout the history of the college fraternity and advanced three opinions. First, Syrett argued that fraternity men gain prestige and respect from other men by displaying excessive traits and behaviors portraying their masculinity. Second, he determined that American higher education culture promulgates a culture in which men who get the most respect on campuses are those perceived as the most masculine by their referent peer groups. And third, Syrett wrote that some men have struggled with understanding or accepting the standards which were determined to define a masculine man on college campuses.

In addition, this book is about how fraternity men influence other men, how these men behave on a daily basis, and how fraternities structure men's college lives. Syrett asserts a connection between fraternity members' current flagrant misbehaviors and the exclusive, secretive, and masculine-oriented culture of White college fraternities since their beginnings. These flagrant misbehaviors centered on their mistreatment of women and their homophobic nature.

In addition, Syrett emphasized that social class status and race were important determinants in the perception of the exclusivity of White fraternities. As he traced the history, Syrett posited that, by the 1900s, the changing roles of women and the emergence of homosexuality also impacted the exclusiveness of fraternities. The majority of his book actually focused on this exclusivity, the relationship of fraternity men towards women, and the critical need for fraternity members to prove their masculinity.

Syrett provided caveats that not all fraternities are as bad as those portrayed in his book. He briefly commented on the masculine ideals and standards of fraternity men found in the printed materials of national organizations. He also indicated that not all fraternity life is bad or negative and that the versions of masculinity, as written about in the book were not just limited to those affiliated with fraternities.

Syrett's research and subsequent findings targeted White, Protestant fraternities, not fraternities that were primarily multicultural, such as National Pan-Hellenic Conference organizations, chapters from the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, or even gay fraternities.

The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the history of the American fraternity movement, and highlights their homogeneity, based on the fact that college enrollment was restricted to White men from upper-class society until after the Civil War. The initial culture of secrecy, coupled with competitive collegiate environments caused by literary debate clubs oncampus in the 1800s has continued, according to Syrett, to influence fraternity members' behaviors almost 200 years later.

Throughout fraternity history, Syrett traced the development of the culture of secrecy; the rising social class system, the role of women as "objects" with which to impress others; the addition of formal membership clauses to constitutions that excluded Blacks, Catholics, and Jews; and the increasing preoccupation of fraternity men with their masculinity as proved by athletic prowess and sexual conquests. He concluded that fraternity men today distance themselves from appearing to be less masculine through behavior such as drinking to excess, hazing, and sexually abusing women—all of which allegedly connote being "a...


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pp. 304-306
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