The first thing I needed in college was a good thorough dressing down.
And this I got without any delay. In the first few weeks my artist's
ears and eyes and soul were hazed to a frazzle. From "that boy who will
go far" I became "you damn young freshman." I was told to make love to a
horse's hind leg, I was made to perch on a gatepost and read the
tenderest passages of "Romeo and Juliet," replacing Romeo's name by my
own, and Juliet's by that of stout Mrs. Doogan, who scrubbed floors in a
dormitory close by. Refusals only made matters painful. Besides, I was
told by a freshman friend that I'd better fit in or I'd "queer" myself.
This dread of "queering" myself at first did me a world of good. Dumped
in this community of over a thousand callow youths, three hundred in my
class alone and each one absorbed in getting acquainted, fitting in,
making friends and a place for himself, I was soon struggling for a
foothold as hard as the rest. Within a month the thing I wanted above
all else was to shed my genius and become "a good mixer" in the crowd.
This drew me at first from books to athletics. Though still slight of
build I was wiry, high-strung and quick of movement. I had a snub nose
and sandy hair, and I was tough, with a hard-set jaw. And I now went
into the football world with a passion and a patience that landed me at
the end of the season—one of the substitute quarterbacks on the
freshman team. I did not get into a single game, I was only used on the
"scrub" in our practice. This made for a wholesome humility and a real
love of my college.[Pg 51]
The football season over, I tried for the daily paper. One of the
freshman candidates for the editorial Spring elections, I became a daily
reporter slave. Here at first I drew on my "queer" past, turning all my
"descriptive powers" to use. But a fat senior editor called "Pop"
inquired one day with a sneer, "For God's sake, Freshman, why these
flowers?" And the flowers forthwith dropped out of my style. At all
hours, day and night, to the almost entire neglect of studies, I went
about college digging up news—not the trivial news of the faculty's
dull, puny plans for the development of our minds, but the real vital
news of our college life, news of the things we were here for, the
things by which a man got on, news of all the athletic teams, of the
glee, mandolin and banjo clubs, of "proms," of class and fraternity
elections, mass meetings and parades. Ferreting my way into all nooks
and crannies of college life, ears keen for hints and rumors, alert to
"scoop" my eighteen reporter rivals—the more I learned the better I
loved. And when in the Spring I was one of the five freshman editors
chosen, the conquest was complete. No more artist's soul for me. I was
part and parcel of college life.
Together with my companions I assumed a genial tolerance toward all
those poor dry devils known to us as "profs." I remember the weary sighs
of our old college president as he monotoned through his lectures on
ethics to the tune of the cracking of peanuts, which an old darky sold
to us at the entrance to the hall. It was a case of live and let live.
He let us eat and we let him talk. With the physics prof, who was known
as "Madge the Scientist," our indulgence went still further. We took no
disturbing peanuts there and we let him drone his hour away without an
interruption, except perhaps an occasional snore. We were so good to
him, I think, because of his sense of humor. He used to stop talking now
and then and with a quizzical hopeless smile he would look about the
hall. And we would all smile broadly back, enjoying[Pg 52] to the full with
him the droll farce of our presence there. "Go to it, Madge," someone
would murmur. And the work of revealing the wonders of this material
universe would limp quietly along. In examinations Madge gave no marks,
at least not to the mass of us. If he had, over half of us would have
been dropped, so he "flunked" the worst twenty and let the rest through.
The faculty, as a whole, appeared to me no less fatigued. Most of them
lectured as though getting tired, the others as though tired out. There
were a few lonely exceptions but they had to fight against heavy odds.
The hottest fighter of all against this classic torpor was a tall,
joyous Frenchman who gestured not only with his hands but with his
eloquent knees as well. His subject was French literature, but from this
at a moment's notice he would dart off into every phase of French life.
There was nothing in life, according to him, that was not a part of
literature. In college he was considered quite mad.
I met him not long ago in New York. We were both hanging to straps in
the subway and we had but a moment before he got off.
"I have read you," he said, "in the magazines. And from what you write I
think you can tell me. What was the trouble with me at college?" I
looked into his black twinkling eyes.
"Great Scott!" I said suddenly. "You were alive!"
"Merci! Au revoir, monsieur!"
What a desert of knowledge it was back there. Our placid tolerance of
the profs included the books they gave us. The history prof gave us ten
books of collateral reading. Each book, if we could pledge our honor as
gentlemen that we had read it, counted us five in examination. On the
night before the examination I happened to enter the room of one of our
football giants, and found him surrounded by five freshmen, all of whom
were reading aloud. One was reading a book on Russia, another the life
of Frederick the Great, a third was patiently droning[Pg 53] forth Napoleon's
war on Europe, while over on the window-seat the other two were racing
through volumes one and two of Carlyle's French Revolution. The room was
a perfect babel of sound. But the big man sat and smoked his pipe, his
honor safe and the morrow secure. In later years, whatever might happen
across the sea would find this fellow fully prepared, a wise,
intelligent judge of the world, with a college education.
"This reminds me," he said, "of last summer—when I did Europe in three
weeks with Dad."
The main idea in all courses was to do what you had to but no more. One
day an English prof called upon me to define the difference between a
novel and a book of science.
"About the same difference," I replied, "as between an artist's painting
and a mathematical drawing."
"Bootlick, bootlick," I heard in murmurs all over the hall. I had
answered better than I had to. Hence I had licked the professor's boots.
I did not offend in this way again.
But early in my sophomore year, when the novelty had worn away, I began
to do some thinking. Was there nothing else here? My mother and I had
had talks at home, and she had told me plainly that unless I sent home
better reports I could not finish my four years' course. And after all,
she wasn't a fool, there was something in that idea of hers—that here
in this quiet old town, so remote from the harbor and business, a fellow
ought to be getting "fine" things, things that would help him all his
"But look what I've got!" I told myself. "When I came here what was I? A
little damn prig! And look at me now!"
"All right, look ahead. I'm toughened up, I've had some good things
knocked into me and a lot of fool things knocked out of me. But that's
just it. Are all the fine[Pg 54] things fool things? Don't I still want to
write? Sure I do. Well, what am I going to write about? What do I know
of the big things of life? I was always hunting for what was great. I'm
never hunting for it now, and unless I get something mighty quick my
father will make me go into his business. What am I going to do with my
At first I honestly tried to "pole," to find whether, after all, I
couldn't break through the hard dry crust of books and lectures down
into what I called "the real stuff." But the deeper I dug the drier it
grew. Vaguely I felt that here was crust and only crust, and that for
some reason or other it was meant that this should be so, because in the
fresh bubbling springs and the deep blazing fires whose presence I could
feel below there was something irritating to profs and disturbing to
those who paid them. These profs, I thought confusedly, had about as
much to do with life as had that little "hero of God" who had cut such a
pitiful figure when he came close to the harbor. And more pitiful still
were the "polers," the chaps who were working for high marks. They
thought of marks and little else. They thrived on crust, these fellows,
cramming themselves with words and rules, with facts, dates, theorems
and figures, in order to become professors themselves and teach the same
stuff to other "polers." There was a story of one of them who stayed in
his room and crammed all through the big football game of the season,
and at night when told we had won remarked blithely,
"Oh, that's splendid! I think I'll go out and have a pretzel!"
God, what a life, I thought to myself! None of that for me! And so I
left the "polers."
But now in my restless groping around for realities in life that would
thrill me, things that I could write about, I began trying to test
things out by talking about them with my friends. What did a fellow want
most in life—what to do, what to get and to be? What was there[Pg 55] really
in business beside the making of money? In medicine, law and the other
professions, in art, in getting married, in this idea of God and a
heaven, or in the idea I vaguely felt now filtering through the nation,
that a man owed his life to his country in time of peace as in time of
war. The harbor with rough heavy jolts had long ago started me thinking
about questions of this kind. Now I tackled them again and tried to talk
And at once I found I was "queering" myself. For these genial companions
of mine had laid a most decided taboo upon all topics of this kind. They
did so because to discuss them meant to openly think and feel, and to
think or feel intensely, about anything but athletics and other things
prescribed by the crowd, was bad form to say the least.
Bad form to talk in any such fashion of what we were going to make of
our lives. Nobody cared to warm up on the subject. Many had nothing at
all in sight and put off the whole idea as a bore. Others were already
fixed, they had positions waiting in law and business offices, in
factories, mines, mills and banks, and they took these positions as
settled and sure.
"Why?" I would argue impatiently. "How do you know it's what you want
"Oh, I guess it'll do as well as another."
"But damn it all, why not have a look? We can have a big look now, we've
got a chance to broaden out before we jump into our little jobs—to see
all the jobs and size 'em up and look at 'em as a part of the world!"
"Oh, biff." I got little or no response. The greater part of these
decent likable fellows could not warm up to anything big, they simply
hadn't it in them.
"Why in hell do you want me to get all hot?" drawled one fat sluggard of
a friend. "I'll keep alive when the time comes." And he and his kind set
the standard for all. Sometimes a chap who could warm up, who had the
real stuff in him, would "loosen up" about his life on[Pg 56] some long tramp
with me alone. But back in college his lips were sealed. It was not
exactly that he was ashamed, it was simply that with his college friends
such talk seemed utterly out of place.
"Look out, Bill," said one affectionately. "You'll queer yourself if you
The same held true of religion. An upper classman, if he felt he had to,
might safely become a leader of freshmen in the Y. M. C. A. But when one
Sunday evening I disturbed a peaceful pipe-smoking crowd by wondering
why it was that we were all so bored in chapel, there fell an
embarrassing silence—until someone growled good-humoredly, "Don't bite
off more'n you can chew." Nobody wanted to drop his religion, he simply
wanted to let it alone. I remember one Sunday in chapel, in the midst of
a long sermon, how our sarcastic old president woke us up with a start.
"I was asked," he said, "if we had any free thinkers here. 'No,' I
replied. 'We have not yet advanced that far. For it takes half as much
thinking to be a free thinker as it does to believe in God.'"
And I remember the night in our sophomore club when the news came like a
thunderclap that one of our members had been killed pole-vaulting at a
track meet in New York. It was our habit, in our new-found manliness, to
eat with our hats on, shout and sing, and speak of our food as
"tapeworm," "hemorrhage," and the like. I remember how we sat that
night, silent, not a word from the crowd—one starting to eat, then
seeing it wasn't the thing to do, and staring blankly like the rest.
They were terrible, those stares into reality. That clutching pain of
grief was real, so real it blotted everything out. Later some of us in
my room began to talk in low voices of what a good fellow he had been.
Then some chap from the Y. M. C. A. proposed timidly to lead us in
prayer. What a glare he got from all over the room! "Damn fool," I heard
someone mutter. Bad form![Pg 57]
Politics also were tabooed. Here again there were exceptions. A still
fiery son of the South could rail about niggers, rapes and lynchings and
the need for disenfranchising the blacks. It was good fun to hear him.
Moreover, a fellow who was a good speaker, and needed the money, might
stump the state for either political party, and his accounts were often
amusing. But to sit down and talk about the trusts, graft, trade unions,
strikes, or the tariff or the navy, the Philippines, "the open door," or
any other of the big questions that even then, ten years ago, were
beginning to shake the country, and that we would all be voting on soon?
No. The little Bryan club was a joke. And one day when a socialist
speaker struck town the whole college turned out in parade, waving red
sweaters and firing "bombs" and roaring a wordless Marseillaise! We
wanted no solemn problems here!
Finally, it was distinctly bad form to talk about sex. Not to tell
"smutty stories," they were welcomed by the average crowd. But to look
at it squarely, as I tried to do, and get some light upon what would be
doubtless the most vital part of our future lives—this simply wasn't
done. What did women mean to us, I asked. What did prostitutes mean at
present? What would wives mean later on? And all this talk about
mistresses and this business of free love, and easy divorces and
marriage itself—what did they all amount to? Was love really what it
was cracked up to be, or had the novelists handed us guff? When I came
out with questions like these, the chaps called "clean" looked rather
pained; the ones who weren't, distinctly bored.
For this whole intricate subject was kept in the cellars of our minds,
cellars often large but dark. Because "sex" was wholly rotten. It had
nothing to do, apparently, with the girls who came chaperoned to the
"proms," it had to do only with certain women in a little town close by.
Plenty of chaps went there at times, and now and then women from over
there would come to us on the quiet at[Pg 58] night. But one afternoon I saw a
big crowd on the front campus. It grew every moment, became a mob,
shoving and surging, shouting and jeering. I climbed some steps to look
into the center, and saw two painted terrified girls, hysterical,
sobbing, swearing and shrieking. So they were shoved, a hidden
spectacle, to the station and put on the train. Nothing like that on our
front campus! Nothing like "sex" in the front rooms of our minds. The
crowd returned chuckling. Immoral? Hell, no. Simply bad form.
"What am I going to write about?"
"Games," said the college. "Only games. Don't go adventuring down into