ZELINSKY: Yale’s blue bible

In May, a friend of mine chose to attend Yale. I wanted to get her a gift to celebrate, and so I went to the Barnes and Noble on Broadway to buy “Stover at Yale.”

Copies of “Stover” line the top shelves of the store 20 feet overhead. I asked an attendant for a ladder to climb the shelves, and he scratched his head. No one, he told me, had bought that book in a long time. You could tell he was right. The many dust jackets of the books, once a deep blue, had paled from years of sun filtered through the store’s windows. Stover had become expensive wallpaper.

Most Yalies never open Owen Johnson’s great 1912 novel. The names Dink Stover, Tom Regan and Joe Hungerford mean nothing to the average student.

That’s a shame. Because at its core, Stover at Yale is about the Yale experience — not just the Yale College of a century ago, but the modern university in which we live and learn.

In the next few days, freshmen will begin their journeys through life as Elis. Over four years, they will be forced to choose between studying, sleep and going out with a pretty girl on a Thursday night.

And occasionally they will face tough decisions, ones that often take the form of remaining popular or doing the right thing.

The shortest, gladdest years of life will become complicated and difficult. At a point, they will despair, throw up their hands, and say “enough.” We all do — some more than once.

Stover at Yale is about those very moments.

Dink Stover and his crew grapple with the same underlying issue facing modern Yalies: How do we remain good people in a community pressuring us to excel? A freshman star on the football team, Stover gains social standing quickly. He conforms to accepted notions of success — doing just enough to get by academically and only fraternizing with the “right” crowd.

Above all, he keeps his eyes on the brass rings he wants to collect: the football captaincy, election to a sophomore society and, subsequently, a spot in a senior society.

Sophomore year, reality jolts Stover awake. He meets a classmate of lower social standing who, unbeknownst to Stover, runs a lucrative advertising business. Comparing himself to his socially dead but financially successful peer, Dink sees the hollowness of his own accomplishments. That night, the football celebrity chides himself as “a plain damn fool.”

With a little soul searching, Stover realizes that his self-worth should not be defined by what other people think of him. He rallies against Yale’s system of conformity — to the ire of his popular compatriots — and his social standing slips.

At the novel’s apex, Dink sacrifices his reputation to save a young woman of ill repute suffering from a ruptured appendix. Despite the resulting scandal, Stover walks away with his head high — he chooses to stand for something. In a fairytale ending, his peers recognize his strength of character, he receives a coveted tap into a senior society and he gets the girl.

Like any old book, some parts seem antiquated — even trite — today. And, yes, Dink and his friends are all white and male. There are no blacks, no women and no Jews. Yet the core message of the novel remains true and timeless.

Stover is Yale’s great text — a book that speaks about human desires and the quandaries those desires create. As new freshmen will find, Dink’s world and ours are not so far apart.

The football captaincy is no longer the quintessential brass ring, but other positions have taken its place.

Like Johnson’s characters, modern Yalies are adept at doing just enough to be passably excellent, usually defined as an A-minus. (Truly thriving intellectually, it turns out, is very déclassé — no one reads. They skim.)

Upperclassmen have all felt the pull of prestigious titles. We know people who value themselves and others based on sorority or society membership. And we have done it ourselves. Yale still tempts us with hollow success to become someone we are not.

So Dink Stover’s realization remains just as relevant today: Be faithful to your values, be a good friend and the rest will fall into place. It isn’t always easy. There will be, as Dr. Seuss says, hang-ups and bang-ups, but it all turns out okay.

But you don’t need me to tell you that — take a trip to Broadway, climb the ladder and see for yourself.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Published in 1912, a year after my late mother was born, “Stover at Yale” makes no mention of the fact that Yale men were not allowed to date town girls.

    Nor is it replete with scenes of the personal butler many Yale students would bring with them when they matriculated, butlers who had a special room attached to the Yale student’s room on [Old] campus, while my mother lived in poverty a few blocks away.

    She told the story many times to her own children, when they refused to clean their plates, that one particular Sunday as a child, she and her sister had nothing to eat for Sunday dinner but stuffing, because that is all her mother could afford.

    I wonder what the butler was serving Yale students that Sunday?

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    • 20paws

      and yet here you are….multiple degrees in hand…having attended one of the great places to explore ideas. It’s a testiment to you, your mom, and to Yale – all of whom – private in nature, were open to new ideas, new people and new experiences. Be glad for it.

    • River_Tam

      And today you sit in Vermont with a computer and an internet connection while millions of people do not have access to clean water around the world.

      • The Anti-Yale

        The world may be shrinking but the geographical juxtaposition of my grandmother’s ghetto apartment at State and Elm two blocks from Yale is hardly analagous to India 8000 miles from my internet utopia in Vermont.

        • River_Tam

          Stop paying for internet and donate the money you save to help provide clean water to Indian children.

        • CrazyBus

          The Internet makes everyone your neighbor

  • basho

    I’m on campus for an hour, and the first thing I read in this paper is someone shaming me for not reading a book. It’s like I never left…

  • River_Tam

    > Over four years, they will be forced to choose between studying, sleep and going out with a pretty girl on a Thursday night.

    Yalies are statistically more likely to date men than women.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I am glad for it. Yale was good to me, but not to my mother.

    Just sayin’

    PK

  • BR2013

    Great piece. I got one of my suitemates to read it last spring and he thoroughly enjoyed it. More Yalies really should because it still rings true at its core about the Yale college experience regardless of the great progress we’ve made in making our university a diverse and dynamic institution no longer centered around football.

  • SY

    Yale was not built for one generation. Yale started for a learned and orthodox ministry, but got Jonathan Edwards and James Davenport just 30 years later. Yale has been changing ever since. Enjoy the “Welcome Class of 2016″ banner at Phelps Gate. You don’t need a photo. You will never forget it.

    For the record, Stover’s Yale had Jews and Catholics, but they were from wealthy families also. (Osterweis, 20’s, the debate team coach, history professor–White Owl cigars, I think–Conn. tobacco leaves were best for wrapping cigars; Buckley, ’50, Skull and Bones–Texas and Latin America oil–though NY alumni decided he was a “misguided young man” who should have attended Fordham, after reading his WASP/collectivism critique, God and Man at Yale.) Yale changed, again. The Harvard president of the 1950-60’s pushed the SAT to supplement wealth with merit. But to the credit of Dink’s generation, the privileged had obligation, and discretion. Look at the names on the WWI memorial outside Commons.

  • lippolippi

    What a priggish recommendation – not unlike most of Mr Zelinksy’s opinion pieces.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “after reading his WASP/collectivism critique, God and Man at Yale.”

    Huh?
    Wm. F. Buckley was a practicing Roman Catholic.

    PK

    • River_Tam

      You’re misreading the comment – he was referring to Buckley and Osterweis as examples of wealthy Jews and Catholics.

  • The Anti-Yale

    So God and man at Yale is a critique of WASPs? I thought it was a critique of secular academia. WASPs fit Buckley’s definition, late in life, of “christers,” people who are not ashamed to talk of their faith at dinner parties.

    PK
    M. Div. ’80
    and a non-christer and proud of it
    (because I don’t attend dinner-parties)

  • Goldie08

    Stover at Yale is nothing more than pop fiction of its time – Designed to appeal to the people that couldn’t get into schools like Yale. It’s just like the modern subgenre of young women’s fiction about preppies in new york and various boarding schools. People want to live vicariously through the characters.

    Zelinsky likes it because he wishes he went to Yale 100 years ago.

  • RexMottram08

    Stover is a bit too twee for my taste.

    We minded the store: Yale life and letters during World War II is a nice read.

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