It is a mediocre book.
The language is affected. The characters, flat. The plot, contrived. But what could be better for some light summer reading than a juicy love triangle peppered with conjugations of bibo and hymns to “good old Yale, she’s so hearty and so hale / drink her down, drink her down, drink her down?”
Richard T. Holbrook’s Boys and Men: A Story of Life at Yale is a fictional account of how life at Yale turns boys into men. When first published in 1900, the book did not meet with much critical acclaim. According to a review that year in The Nation, “readers who do not find the matter uninteresting are likely to find the manner intensely so, and a few unhappy mortals will be repelled by both.” The review fiercely concludes: “The whole lacks the nameless grace that we call, for want of a better term, literary quality.”
Poor Mr. Holbrook! Though widely published, he never did purport to be a “graceful” homme de lettres. He was, rather, an academic through and through. After attending Andover, the Connecticut native graduated from Yale in 1893, then studied in France and Italy, completed his doctorate at Columbia, taught philology at Bryn Mawr and Berkeley, wrote treatises on Dante, and died at the age of 64 (for further details, see Who’s Who in America, vol. VI). Apparently, for a few years after his European travels but before his graduate study, Mr. Holbrook returned to Yale as a Romance language tutor. It was at this time that he authored our illustrious novel.
In 278 pages, Mr. Holbrook has tried his hand at crafting the collegiate companion to Tolstoy. Friendship, love, loss, and above all, maturation, are the themes of this freshman-to-senior-year epic. The plot largely traces Mr. John Eldredge’s infatuation with Miss Margaret Glenn: “the best of living creatures, pure-souled, high-minded, incapable of injustice; beautiful too.” But any astute reader will soon discover who Mr. Holbrook’s main character really is.
Undoubtedly marked by memories of his own undergraduate experience, the narrative is propelled forward by the world in which it is set. Our stale protagonists walk past Durfee and Battell on their way to Farnam. They often sport “white or plain blue sweaters,” which, for Varsity athletes, “bear huge Ys — a token of high
estate.” “Secret conclaves” take place in windowless “tomb-like houses.” And each November, the “tried and chosen defenders” join forces against the enemy (“just as it is told in the Iliad”).
Much has changed on campus in the past 110 years. Freshmen are no longer greeted by black children offering to shine their shoes. Boys and men have been joined by girls and women. And most importantly, students are now referred to as “Yalies,” not “Yalensians.”
But in ploughing my way through the novel, it becomes strikingly apparent that some things at Yale are, in fact, universal. Is it not true, freshmen, that after arriving on this hallowed soil, “in a week you have known your neighbor a year; in a year you have known him all your life?” And, as seniors and graduates surely know, “the Yalensian calls himself a man as early as freshman year, but…once out of college, will call himself a boy.”
Mr. Holbrook may not have captured the poignancy of first love or the subtlety of personal growth, but he did capture some truths about his alma matter. Whether in 1900 or 2010, “St. Elihu is the tie that binds. It is his spirit — the Yale spirit — that…has breathed such force and optimism into his innumerable blood.”