The Fall and Rise of Dartmouth Frats

I can’t prove it with statistics, but I’m sure that President James Wright’s Student Life Initiative angered and alienated many alumni.

“What, Wright is attacking the fraternities! Who is this guy? He’s attacking Dartmouth itself.”

And, of course, Dartmouth must have been embarrassed by the 1978 movie Animal House, the highest grossing profit comedy in the history of the movies. Based on stories in the National Lampoon by Chris Miller who entered Dartmouth in 1959, the “animal house” was Miller’s Dartmouth fraternity Alpha Delta Phi. The comical slob “Bluto” became a national symbol of the fraternity bum, the Dartmouth fraternity slob. This face is featured on posters and tee-shirts in the Dartmouth Co-op. Has Bluto replaced the Indian symbol?

To be sure, the Animal House movie is a comedy. But Chris Miller’s recent book The Real Animal House (2004) makes it obvious that the comedy was based on actual life, and much in this book is as funny as the movie. We will return to that book in a moment. And now remember that date, 1959, when Miller arrived at Dartmouth.

My father was in the class of 1921 at Dartmouth, and his fraternity, Sigma Nu, remained important to him throughout his life. He wore a silver Sigma Nu ring and a Sigma Nu plaque hung on our wall. I gather that the fraternity then was a place where the members sang around the piano, drank even though it was Prohibition, and of course had a good time.

In his essay “Woodrow Wilson at Princeton” Edmund Wilson recalls the Princeton clubs along Prospect Street as having “that peculiar idyllic quality which is one of the endearing features of Princeton. It is difficult to describe this quality in any very concrete way, but it has something to do with the view from Prospect Street from the comfortable back porches of the clubs, over the damp dim New Jersey lowlands, and with the singular feeling of freedom which refreshes the alumnus from an American city when he goes back to Prospect Street and realizes that he can lounge, read or drink as he pleases.” I think my father had similar feeling about Sigma Nu and fraternity row.

I was in the Columbia class of 1952 and joined the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi. In many ways the 1950s were a rerun of the 1920s, including the Scott Fitzgerald revival. The Phi Psi house was a three story town house on 114 Street, two blocks south of the Columbia campus. The Sigma Chi house was nearby off the same street.

Those who lived in the Psi house had sit-down dinners, jacket and tie required. The dinner was served by a Hispanic couple who lived in the house and received room and board for preparing dinner and helping to keep the place reasonably clean. The man had a regular job somewhere else, so it was a pretty good deal for them.

Every Saturday we had a cocktail party, jackets and tie of course, and faculty members were invited and usually came. Jacques Barzun sometimes showed up, Gilbert Highet, Lionel Trilling. We admired them and we wanted their approval. We understood that adults ran the world, and we aspired to be adults. On big weekends we had the usual Saturday cocktail party and a black-tie dance with live music. If this sounds respectable to you, then you should have seen St. Anthony’s Hall, down on Riverside Drive. That was so stratospherically preppy that oxygen would have been in order. That crowd wore tartan jackets and fancy vests.

At our black-tie dances at Phi Psi and at the Saturday dances at the West Side Club, we danced to the same music as the adults, the “standards,” as they are called, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein. All of that changed in the 1960s. Remember: Chris Miller entered Dartmouth in 1959.

In 1968, half the American population was eighteen years old. Let me repeat: half of the entire population was in the vicinity of eighteen years old in the 1960s, as the baby boomers came of age. At Dartmouth in the early 1960s, Chris Miller was a student. The baby boom was also affecting Europe, especially France, where student riots, beginning at the university in Nanterre near Paris, were joined by workers’ riots—France retains a revolutionary tradition—and rocked the DeGaulle government. A major student complaint was parietals, hours when women were permitted to be in rooms with men. In other words the riots were over conservative French attitudes about sex. Germany, England, and other European nations had the same phenomenon. A sociologist friend of mine, the late E. Digby Baltzell, compared the 1968 international Kids uprisings to the revolutions of 1848.

The American “baby boomers” formed a separate Kids Nation within the larger nation. Unlike the undergraduates of the 1950s, they did not want to be adults. They had their own music, rock-and-roll, their distinctive clothes and hair, their own sacrament in marijuana, and for extremists, LSD. As Scott Fitzgerald explains in his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” “The word ‘jazz’ in its progress toward respectability has meant first sex, then dancing, then music,” the music coming from black musicians in the red light district of New Orleans. The Sixties “Rock-and-Roll” also meant sex in black idiom. And the Sixties Kids had the pill.

Beginning in 1953, I spent almost four years in Naval Intelligence. I returned to Columbia and joined the English Department in 1956, and then moved to the Dartmouth English Department in 1963—Dartmouth having been impressed by a book I had published at Alfred Knopf.

In 1963 the Kids Nation had really begun to rebel not only against adults but also against the idea of being adults. The war in Vietnam, and the draft, soon began to raise the temperature of the Kids’ rebellion, and by 1968 it was as if the gates of hell had opened. For a few months in early 1968 I was in Sacramento as a speechwriter for Governor Ronald Reagan, who was running for the Republican nomination, sort of.

In California most of the young men looked like Charlie Manson. Walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley near the great university you could get high just breathing the air. Mario Savio had led an uprising at Berkeley. The black riot had burned Watts a couple of years earlier. When the Black Panthers in Oakland threatened a “bloodbath,” Reagan said at a press conference, “If they want a bloodbath they can have a bloodbath.” And he meant it.

1968 was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then Robert Kennedy, running for president, was assassinated in Los Angeles. Jack Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963. The country felt like a shooting gallery. This was the closest our country ever came to a revolution.

In March 1968 Lyndon Johnson, finally understanding that the Vietnam War could not be won, announced that he would not run for re-election. Nixon ran promising to “end the war and win the peace in Vietnam.” Notice that Nixon didn’t say “win the war.” He would pull out, turning the war over to the hapless Vietnam army (“Vietnamization”), which would take the loss. In the fall of 1968, I wrote Nixon’s “Law and Order” speech, delivered in Philadelphia.

A collage of Dartmouth's fraternities throughout the years.

A collage of Dartmouth’s fraternities throughout the years.

The Kids uprising and the black revolution helped elect Nixon. In 1972 I was tear-gassed at the Republican convention in Miami when Vietnam Veterans Against the War rioted outside the Convention Center. Tear gas is no joke, painful, even dangerous, and the air conditioners carried the fumes into the convention.

Back at Dartmouth I remember teaching a course in English poetry in which many students were so glazed over with drugs that discussion was all but impossible. No one seemed interested in seventeenth century poetry. Students in that class included the son of a famous journalist and also the son of a mid-western governor. One of them disappeared into Tibet, seeking nirvana, I guess.

The Kids’ rebellion against adulthood was often destructive in the fraternities. There used to be a DKE (Deke) house on West Wheelock Street, where that building on stilts now stands. The Deke house was a fine old white wooden building. By the early 1970s, the members had gutted the place, destroyed it from within. The whole place had to be torn down, its destruction a symbol of the Kids Revolution.

I remember the spring “Hums” one year during the 1970s when the fraternity singing groups were singing in front of Dartmouth Hall. In the past this had been a beautiful event. The Dekes showed up carrying a small pig and insulted the few women undergraduates then enrolled at Dartmouth by singing “Our Cohogs (clams).” I suppose the pig was part of the insult.

In Chris Miller’s The Real Animal House you can see it all coming. In the Fall of 1960, his sophomore year, Miller joins Alpha Delta Phi on East Wheelock Street. This is the “Adelphian Lodge” of Animal House. On his first visit as a prospective pledge, the first man he meets sets the tone for what follows:

Speakers on the balcony were blasting “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” by Ruth Brown. A big guy in Buddy Holly glasses greeted me with a smile. “Hey! Hello! Welcome to the AD house!” he stuck out a hand to shake with me but discovered there was a can of Bud in it. “Christ!” he snorted, and smote his forehead. Curiously, he used the hand with the beer in it, which struck with a metallic glorping sound. A golden geyser fired up, spread its foamy arms, and fell back on his head. “Oops,” he said.

Clearly this AD man is high on something more potent than beer. Remember, Chris Miller had arrived at Dartmouth in 1959, and this was the fall of his 1960 sophomore year. Welcome to the Sixties. The curtain was going up on that horror show. I have quoted from Chapter Six. Hilarious stuff follows, including a lot of sex, but I won’t quote that in this family newspaper. Maybe this book is better than the movie. Ha ha! I have the only Baker-Berry copy.

“Where have all the flowers gone?” Joan Baez used to sing. 1968 was forty years ago. All those people who were eighteen then are on Social Security. We have our own un-winnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there’s no draft. And there’s no Kids baby boomer population bulge, and no Kids drug-soaked culture.

It amazes me when Dartmouth athletic coaches refer to their players as “kids.” Is a 240 pound six-foot-three football lineman a “kid”? If he were in the military he could be in the Marines or the Special Forces killing Muslims. Kids! They are college men.

I’ve been invited to speak at a couple of fraternities. Recently at a house on Webster Avenue I gave a talk on the importance of the irrational in both poetry and political theory (Wordsworth and Burke). The fraternity men wore jackets and ties. Food was laid out on a buffet table. We drank a bit of beer.

If I had been an undergraduate, I might have joined a club like this. I think a fraternity should be a preliminary to a good club in the city after graduation. The culture has changed a lot since the Sixties.

This set piece to the Review‘s Green Key coverage was written by Jeffrey Hart.