My most vivid mental image of the Olden Days at Yale comes from having read a very small book that a former suitemate of mine used to leave on the coffee table in our common room. This book, entitled “The Ways of Yale,” was written in 1895 by an Old Blue named Henry Beers, who graduated from our illustrious university in 1869. Along with some humorous anecdotes about pranks he plays on his hapless freshman “chum,” Henry, a very jolly chap, cheerfully describes his participation in Yale’s annual Spoon Exhibitions, Promenade Concerts, and Cock Suppers.
But, although he glorifies his own bright college years, Beers laments the more recent incorporation into student life of activities such as glee clubs, whist clubs, yacht clubs and banjo clubs, which he sees as having taken over undergraduates’ time to the extent that, by the 1890s, unplanned leisure time has been virtually phased out. He recollects that “every fair Wednesday and Saturday afternoon saw knots of men, from four to half a dozen, setting out with their walking sticks, to explore the country about New Haven: Light House Point, and the old fort, Lake Saltonstall, Rabbit Mountain, and the North Haven meadows, Cedar Hill, Wintergreen Falls, and all the Rocks, Edgewood, Maltby Park, and the west shore.” Beers marvels that any students managed to graduate “without ever going so far afield as East Rock or the Judge’s Cave.”
The kind of free time Henry experienced during his time here — his long afternoons of frog-catching and pheasant-hunting — probably seems as alien to most current undergraduates as the possession of the buoyancy required to exclaim jubilantly, “The birthday of George Washington!” in one’s diary on the twenty-second of February, as the ingenuous Henry does.
Over the past few weeks, Yale students have each received about eight thousand emails from the Tercentennial Office, along with the deans and masters of their residential colleges; characteristically, the most recent in my inbox has the subject line “When to be where, etc.” I will admit that the prospect of participating in this painstakingly-planned weekend makes me feel, a little, as if I am part of something important.
But I relate to Henry Beers in thinking that my experience at Yale is more significant for the beautiful and exciting things that happen on a smaller, less formal scale than for all this ceremonial stuff. I am only going to be a part of this bubble for a few more months before I have to go out and seek my fortune, and all of a sudden the world seems a much scarier place to go out into than it did a few weeks ago. Last weekend, for the first time, I drove up to the top of East Rock with a bunch of friends to watch the sun set. We sat on the wall overlooking New Haven and drank some red wine and talked until it got dark, and then we drove back down.
Emily Weiss is a senior in Branford College. She is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Literary Magazine.