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.