- Campus Novels and the Nation of Peers
Happy, happy college-days! When are friendships so ardent, so unquestioning! When does the wine of life sparkle so brightly, so enticingly!Mark Sibley Severance, Hammersmith: His Harvard Days
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1893 Donald Marcy begins, as do many postbellum campus novels, with the annual freshmen–sophomore football match. Unlike her genre cohorts, however, Phelps uses the sporting event—and, indeed, her narrative as a whole—to reenact the horrors of slavery, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and, ultimately, white sectional reconciliation. During the match, Southerner Lee Calhoun, “white with rage,” strikes down George Washington Clay, “[a] colored student,” who “played quite fair, and dealt no foul blows” (28–29). Calhoun provides a simple and, for him, sufficient explanation: “He is a nigger, and I knocked him down” (29). The northern white students react swiftly and punitively. Trouncey O’Grian, a prizefighter’s son, knocks Calhoun “flat upon the ground” and instructs him in the ways of northern justice: “‘This is a free college and a free country’” (29–30). Reconstruction proceeds apace: “Calhoun was subjected to almost every indignity that Harle”—Harvard + Yale = Harle—“Sophomores, in those long-past days, ever inflicted upon an unpopular Freshman” (44). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Calhoun’s resentful threat to “shoot every man of you down as I would so many niggers” fails to win him any reprieve (45); nor does a letter from the elder Calhoun to Harle’s President (“My son complains to me that he is required to sit by the side of a negro student” ). Calhoun’s actions, we’re told, constitute not merely [End Page 462] racism but “snobbishness,” “the last fault which a college full of sturdy young democrats will overlook,” and we’re led to believe that he will endure continued punishment until he can thoroughly reform his ways (38).
As a sophomore, Calhoun reforms his snobbish ways, losing “most of the swagger with which he had ornamented Freshman year,” while retaining his racist ones (137). Nevertheless, the hazing ceases and he begins to relate more easily to his white northern compatriots. Then, in the novel’s junior-year climax, a dramatic near drowning gives Calhoun the opportunity to team up with his former adversary, O’Grian, to save the popular Donald Marcy. Within the novel’s historical allegory, this is 1876, the moment that secures sectional reconciliation without demanding racism’s reformation: “The three principles in that memorable event looked at each other with something of the curious tenderness of reconciled sections after civil war. . . . It is the delightful thing about college friendships, that they easily override grudges and trifles, and gather together all sorts of sympathies and loyalties, from all kinds of natures; each bound to many by that young glow and fervor of feeling which adoration for his Alma Mater, and nothing else in life, can give a man” (148–49). Historian David Blight persuasively argues that “sectional reunion” occurred through the “resubjugation of many of those people whom the war had freed from centuries of bondage,” and here Phelps emphasizes the metamorphosis of white feeling that naturalized and affirmed such resubjugation (3). She foregrounds the tremendous appeals of white affinity—“tenderness,” “glow,” and “fervor of feeling”—which overwrite lingering commitment to antiracist or radical Republican principles (including, if we recall the novel’s 1893 publication date, attempts to reinstate Reconstruction, such as the 1891 “Lodge Force Bill,” which would have restored Federal supervision of Southern elections).1 Phelps records a newly reconciled world in which opposition to resubjugation finds itself removed from political discourse, turned into so many “grudges and trifles,” overridden by “college friendships,” and neutered by the more potent force of “sympathies and loyalties.”
This essay aims to demonstrate that Phelps’s representation of “college friendships” usefully distills an entire generation of popular novels: campus fictions, focusing all but exclusively on homosocial scenes of undergraduate merriment, published between the Civil War and World War I. Centering on the camaraderie of fraternal sociality, the genre models friendship as a democratic ideal for dispensing with conflict, featuring plot lines that progress inexorably toward resolution in an intense affirmation of unity. As...