My Radcliffe

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Radcliffe in the thirties was thought of as something of a poor relation by the other women’s colleges. The chic girls went to Vassar, the intellectuals to Bryn Mawr, and the comfortably placed bourgeois types to Wellesley and Smith. At least that was the way it seemed to us. We may have been Cinderellas but we knew something our haughty stepsisters did not. We were getting the best education in the country, and besides, we weren’t banished to the sticks to rusticate. Weekends at Yale and Princeton may have been the answer to a maiden’s prayer at Vassar, but we did not have to wait for ceremonial weekends for our entertainment: there were those among the Harvard population who recognized our merits. It took more than a decade and the Second World War for these facts to sink in.

Radcliffe was still in part a commuter college when I was there; perhaps half my class came by streetcar or subway from Boston, the Newtons, Dorchester, or Cambridge. The rest lived in dormitories presided over by house mistresses and were waited on at table by maids in white aprons and caps.

This was still the time of the gentleman’s C at Harvard among certain of the prep school graduates and the “clubbies,” who treated “greasy grinds” who got A’s with contempt and looked upon Radcliffe women as “bluestockings” to be avoided at all costs. Some of us, too, were rather hierarchical and snobbish in our judgment of our classmates. Concentrators in the sciences were thought to be rather “wet,” and taking a laboratory course was something to be avoided, for it meant long hours of work in the late afternoon and a freezing walk back home or to one’s dormitory in the winter’s twilight. In our carefree approach to the whole subject of education, convenience rather than intellectual stimulus seemed to have been the basis for a good many course choices. Nine o’clocks were taboo, eleven o’clocks desirable.

The aesthetes frequented the Fogg Museum, where Paul Sachs produced platoons of future museum directors in his museum course, and the intellectual elite concentrated in history and literature, where a remarkable group of tutors like Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Kenneth Murdoch created an atmosphere of excitement for whole generations of students. The emphasis in literature seemed to have been on English authors. If one read Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies , or dipped into Zuleika Dobson , it was a true sign of sophistication. French literature was pretty much uncharted territory, except in my case, for I received a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal with a “sensitive” inscription on the flyleaf from some moony boyfriend. The unexplored terrain of the Russian novel was as immense as the steppes themselves.

Sociology was an academic stepchild and psychology a minor pseudoscientif ic discipline not much discussed in those days. It was history that held a paramount place in the curriculum. Those of us who took Sydney Fay’s course in modern European history emerged imbued with the idea that the Germans were not solely responsible for the First World War, a revolutionary thought that we digested with a certain amount of skepticism. Our bible was the Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, which we read with a sense of the author’s courage and valor that we all longed to emulate. It fitted in well with our firm conviction that there must never be another world war and that, of course, there never would be. The world simply could not afford it. So deeply was this concept instilled in us that in spite of Hitler’s rise, the Japanese invasion of China, the Spanish Civil War, and all the other signs of international anarchy, when the Second World War finally broke out, it seemed absolutely inconceivable.

In comparing the academic interests of her college years with those of her daughters, my mother said: “We were avid for science—the theory of evolution, the decline of outdated theology. Now girls are interested in world affairs, international relations. The world does move!”

Harvard Square in the thirties compared with its present incarnation resembled a country crossroad. The streetcars still clanged along Massachusetts Avenue, and the newsboys under the shelter of the kiosk leading into the subway sang out the list of newspapers, the Boston Herald , the Boston Globe , the Evening American , the Evening Transcript , and the Boston AD-VA-TISA , like an incantation. On the first warm days of spring there would be the usual ”.spring riots” on the part of high-spirited undergraduates, who threw rolls of toilet paper out the windows of their ancient dormitories in the Yard, or snake-danced through the Square—mild stuff by modern standards but considered pretty far out for the times. The Cambridge police looked on with a certain amount of benevolence and left the nabbing to the college “cops.” And late in the spring, during the “reading period,” the Harvard Glee Club used to give concerts in the early evening on the steps of Widener while couples sat on the grass and held hands.