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  • The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities
  • James P. Barber
The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. Nicholas L. Syrett. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 432 pages $30.00 (hardcover)

Due to the exclusive and traditionally secretive nature of their organizations, fraternity members have long been some of the most scrutinized students on college campuses. In The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, Nicholas Syrett explores the evolution of fraternal organizations and their members from 1825 to present. He employs the concept of masculinity to examine how fraternity men have changed and remained the same over nearly two centuries. As the definition of masculinity has evolved over the past two centuries, so has the way fraternity men see themselves and wish to be seen by others. Syrett is explicitly exclusive in the focus of his book; this is a history of a select subgroup of American Greek-letter organizations: traditionally White, Christian fraternities.

Chapter 1 explores the original purpose and founding of American college fraternities. The early fraternity chapters developed from literary societies and debate groups, and served two main purposes: socializing and rebellion. Secret societies of any kind were discouraged if not forbidden on college campuses, and Syrett argues that membership in such groups served as a means of rebellion against the faculty and tutors who controlled student life on campus. In a campus context that was almost exclusively male and White, masculinity was defined in contrast to boyishness. Masculine identity was therefore enacted through independence, oratorical skill, and an undying loyalty to one’s peers.

The second chapter, titled “The Sacred, the Secular, and the Manly,” discusses the ways in which fraternities in the antebellum period quickly became a way for students to distinguish themselves on campus. Although many colleges were focused on preparing men for the ministry, a disproportionally small percentage of fraternity members were headed for the ministry. Syrett provides several explanations for this, including economic class (fraternities were expensive, and those entering the ministry were often poor or on scholarship), and a general ministerial opposition to secret societies. However, Syrett begins to build his central argument with a more unconventional explanation: the fraternity members sought a more “manly” image than that of their religious peers. The most handsome, athletic, social, and confident students were invited to join fraternities. During this period of the 1810s through the 1850s, fraternities also allowed members to set themselves apart from a small but growing population of “others” on campus, particularly women and African Americans.

Chapter 3 focuses on the national aspects of fraternity membership in the 1800s. As fraternal organizations began to expand in the 1840s and 1850s, the benefits of membership in a nation-wide, elite, and White network of alumni became apparent. Business and social connections were substantial among fraternity alumni, and provided a sense of stability during the upheaval of Reconstruction. Alumni clubs became well-established following the Civil War, and alumni became more involved with [End Page 109] the operations of undergraduate chapters. These formal structures developed in the mid-1800s still remain today in the form of Alumni Boards, Chapter Advisors, and National Headquarters.

Syrett investigates the explosion in fraternity membership in the post-Civil War years until the 1910s in chapter 4. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, American campuses began to admit a more diverse student body, including women, Catholics, Jews, African Americans and Asian Americans. However, fraternities generally did not diversify their membership, and remained bastions of White, Christian, upper class men. Syrett notes that with the integration of women into academic and campus life, masculinity came to be contrasted with femininity rather than boyishness. Womanhood quickly replaced boyhood as the antithesis of manhood. Fraternal masculinity during this period was based largely on athletic ability, campus involvement, wealth, and Whiteness; academic performance declined in importance during this period.

Chapter 5 describes fraternity men and masculinity in the early twentieth century. In the Prohibition era, drinking was elevated from rebellion against university faculty to a violation of federal law, and in the process became even more attractive to college students. Syrett argues that it was...


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