- Historic Sites
An Unofficial Tour Of Yale
A guide who has been taking it all in for sixty years leads us on a lively, intimate, and idiosyncratic ramble through quiet yards where students once argued about separating from the Crown and to hidden carvings high on the Gothic towers that show scholars sleeping through class and getting drunk on beer
April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
"That building on the left,” said the tour guide, “is William L. Harkness Hall. It was given by Mr. Harkness in 1926 and completed in 1927. It is built of Aquia sandstone with Ohio sandstone trim. It has a lecture hall seating two hundred and forty-nine persons. It has classrooms and faculty offices. Shall we move on?”
I was kibitzing, shamelessly. It was a hot July morning. Some twenty tourists were being introduced to the glories and mysteries of Yale. Traffic was busy on College Street, and I doubt if they heard more than half of what was said. The guide had studied his lesson, all right, but it seemed to me that he grossly overestimated the interest of his audience in sandstone.
I thought for a moment about what that building meant to me. Many, many years ago I had learned in it what you could do—and what you couldn’t—with a class of sleepy freshmen. I had seen Professor William Lyon Phelps pass by my door on the way to his office morning after morning. During the war years I had shared my office there with Eugene O’Neill, Jr., and listened awe-struck as he pumped Greek into five 4-Fs. It was there that my department chairman had told me I was fired. It was there that months later he told me I wasn’t. That building was a vital chapter in my career.
But how could even the best-instructed tour guide look at Harkness Hall as I did? It takes a lot of living to make a house a home—and a university more than a conglomeration of handsome buildings and well-kept lawns. So when American Heritage offered me the chance to see what I could do on paper (free from noisy traffic and July heat), I said yes.
There’s an old saying, bristling with bias: “Harvard has the students, Yale has the faculty, Princeton has the campus.” Objections thunder in. Students? Yale and Princeton do very well, thank you. Faculty? Eras come and go; departments rise and fall—a tossup. Campus? How about the stately Harvard Yard and the lovely sweep of the Charles River? But for beauty, it’s Princeton surely. By comparison, Yale has no campus at all, just a series of enclosures. It lives, as someone said, “in moated inwardness”—indeed, some fifteen inwardnesses and at least nine moats, surely enough to warrant the metaphor.
Ah, but those inwardnesses. It is these we must explore on this unofficial tour, and my biased opinion is that you will not meet, this side of England’s Oxford University, with any greater diversity, more interesting paradoxes, curiosities, eccentricities, and charm than right here in this traffic-bedeviled university (that last being a condition it shares, incidentally, with Oxford itself). A very human university, set in the thick of things.
So thick, indeed, that when I struck it in 1929, fresh from Williams, a country college in the beautiful Berkshires, it was a shock. The Ph.D. grind I’d got myself in for allowed little time for the fascinations listed above; one looked neither to the right nor to the left. It took me another four years to warm to the place. Add another five, and I began to feel at home; those inwardnesses aren’t penetrated easily. And now, after forty-three years of teaching, part-time deaning, full-time mastering at Ezra Stiles College, and fourteen years of retirement to think it all over, my loyalty is complete.
Yale has no campus at all, just a series of enclosures. It lives, as someone said, “in moated inwardness.”
By this time you’d think I’d know all about it. I don’t. I’m still running into wonders I never knew were there. Only two years ago I discovered the magnificent Medical School Library. There are splendid collections I’ve only nodded to: the Yale Center for British Art, the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection of American painting and decorative arts, the Musical Instruments Collection, and the wonders of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (which must be seen from the inside, preferably on a sunny day, to bring out the effect of the translucent marble facing). We’ll touch on some of this but far from all. Remember, I’m a bit of a tourist myself.
Our tour begins where all tours begin, official and unofficial, at the Phelps Archway on College Street, midway between Elm and Chapel. Take a good look outward at the Green, the pride of New Haven, before we enter the Old Campus. Take a look, too, at those gates at each end of the archway, necessary, on occasion, to preserve inwardness. May Day 1970—when nine Black Panthers were on trial in New Haven—was thought to be one such occasion. Twenty thousand “dissidents” were expected to rally on the Green, surely the makings of a mob. Furious debate: Close those gates or leave them open? Answer: The gates were left open and, although fifteen thousand demonstrators attended, there was no violence. Post hoc or propter hoc? I like to think it was a victory for humanity.