My Radcliffe

PrintPrintEmailEmail

My mother was a member of the class of 1899 at Radcliffe College, having come east from St. Paul, Minnesota—a sort of reverse pioneer. She was one of the two or three students from west of the Berkshires and was considered rather exotic by her classmates because of her Midwestern background, which she loved to describe in exaggerated detail, implying that a fresh Indian scalp was hung over the fireplace every week or so. Her years at Radcliffe were, it seems, passed in a state of continual euphoria. Her enthusiasm and energy appeared to be overwhelming, for she held every office in her class, acted the ingenue in the Idler plays, played basketball in serge bloomers, and went with her classmates on picnics and canoe trips on the Charles River. She threw herself into her courses with the same zest, taking a wide sampling of everything that suited her inquisitive and darting intelligence. She “chose the man and not the subject” and in that way became “remarkably inspired.”

In its early days Radcliffe must have been something like a superior female boarding school, full of highly motivated young women eager for knowledge. They lived in carefully chaperoned boardinghouses and were not allowed to go to Harvard Square without hat and gloves. The camaraderie and loyalty of my mother’s classmates were intense. Even in very old age they would come together for class reunions, leaning on their canes and often still wearing the hats, left over, it would seem, from those lighthearted, undergraduate days.

Upon her graduation my mother returned to St. Paul to teach (teaching being one of the few respectable professions open to educated women in those days). But her high spirits were in no way dimmed by such a fate, for she apparently caused a furor by applying for membership in the Harvard Club of Minnesota, one of the first Radcliffe women to storm the sacred precincts. “I thought I might as well make a test of myself for membership, and the poor things have called a special meeting at the Club to consider the question.” She must have presented too much of a hazard to the gentlemen—there is no mention of her being admitted.

However, her sojourn in Minnesota did not last long. She married my father, who was a young professor of physiology at the Harvard Medical School and a fellow Minnesotan, and came east to spend the rest of her life as an academic wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

We children, four girls and a boy, were therefore brought up as academic children in a Cambridge that in those days was a sharply divided city, its neighborhoods isolated from each other by tradition, by economic considerations, and by ethnic factors; and no group was more isolated than the academic community. On the one hand, the college, although always the pride of Old Cambridge, was an institution apart to the family-oriented society of Brattle Street, which kept its distance in the presence of “scholarship” and “learning.” These endowments were respected as admirable social benefits, but they seem to have produced in old Cantabrigians certain feelings of uneasiness and insecurity. After all, a community of intellectuals, especially one increasingly peopled with “men from away” whose names were not familiar , did not make for social ease. On the other hand, the rest of Cambridge—occupied, to be sure, by the largest segment of the population—was a trackless wilderness to both Old Cambridge and the academic community.

So we children fell between two stools. We were unplaceable. Recently I was discussing with a friend of mine, the son of a distinguished professor of mathematics who was a member of an old Boston family, the peculiar isolation we felt as we grew up. I recall saying to him: “You mustn’t have had the sense of not belonging that we did as children. After all, your family has been around for generations.” “Not at all,” he answered. “My father felt isolated from the Harvard community because he was a Bostonian, and was in turn treated by his Boston friends as a ‘queer duck’ because he was a Harvard professor.” There was still a sense in which these families, in some ways the most parochial in the country, considered professors to be hirelings who taught their young princelings but were considered otherwise rather like exotic zoo animals.

We were academic children with a vengeance. Our house was completely surrounded by Harvard buildings—on one side the old Harvard University Press, on the other the Semitic Museum, across the street the Germanic Museum and the chemistry laboratories, and up Divinity Avenue, the Zoological Museums. Moreover, we were part of a small contingent of academic offspring who went to public school, most of our contemporaries having been hustled off to the “safety” of private day or boarding schools. A large number of Catholic children passed their whole educational life in parochial schools, so that the sharp divisions within the city were further accentuated by the absolute alienation that existed between the various educational institutions. Harvard, above all, was “over there,” aloof, remote, tacit in its sense of superiority, almost a rebuke to the rest of Cambridge.

The college course at the Cambridge High and Latin School was full of bright, aspiring students determined to make their way in the world, and academic child or not, one had to fight tenaciously to keep in the contest. It was a real rest to get to college, where the pace seemed relaxed after the demands laid on us by some of our hard-driving teach- ers and fellow schoolmates.