Thornton Wilder's Yale

In a previously unpublished essay, the great playwright takes a critical look at his alma mater.

This article is adapted from Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings, edited by J. D. McClatchy ’74PhD. It will be published in February by The Library of America.

Beinecke Library

Beinecke Library

Thornton Wilder ’20, in his senior class portrait. Late in life he wrote, "We began the day with obligatory prayer and we ended it with tankards of substandard prohibition beer in our hands." View full image

It was widely believed, in my time, that Yale College was attended solely by clear-eyed, clean-cut, high-minded, upright, downright, forthright Christian young men; and—give a little, take a little—this was true. Our contemporaries at Harvard College held that we were none too bright, that we were obsessed by athletic victories, and that we were notably deficient in polish. My father and certain friends of his who had graduated at New Haven about 30 years before us somehow managed to believe that Yale was simultaneously the finest university in the world, a hotbed of worldliness, and a den of iniquity. He sent my brother and myself first to Oberlin College for two years in order to armor us against the temptations that beset Yale men.

There’s an element of truth in legend. We began the day with obligatory prayer and we ended it with tankards of substandard prohibition beer in our hands. Clangorous bells awoke us at seven; at eight we attended chapel where undergraduate proctors kept a strict account of the empty seats. We hurried about all day, from The French Revolution to Biology I, from Psychology or The History of Philosophy to Elizabethan Literature, The Age of Johnson, and Tennyson and Browning. We had good teachers. We strove variously to edit publications, to captain teams, to get elected to fraternities and societies, to sing in the Glee Club or the Whiffenpoofs, to act in the Dramat under Monty Woolley, to be popular, to be famous, to be “a big man at Yale.” Girls, girls descended on New Haven by the hundreds for the proms, hops, and tea-dances. Letters of an assumed composure were written and the answers to them feverishly awaited. As far as I knew there were no nervous breakdowns among us—such as are so frequently reported today in the larger universities—and very few outsiders.

I came very near to being an outsider—and a quite cheerful contented one. I have never had any competitive drive or any closely focused ambition. I had no faint desire to join a fraternity but somehow my brother and Harry Luce [’20] and Robert Maynard Hutchins [’21] (my future boss at the University of Chicago) “shoe-horned” me into Alpha Delta Phi. My grades were perilously low, but Dean Jones was an old friend of my father and I graduated. I derived as much stimulation from the courses I flunked as from those I passed. I rejoiced in Chemistry I under Professor Holmes at Oberlin; I’ve drawn on Professor Lull’s Geology I all my life. I attended few athletic contests, partly because I had much better things to do with my strictly limited pocket-money. I have long suspected—but not at the time—that we [Wilder and his brother, Amos ’17, ’24BD, ’33PhD] were “scholarship” students, subsidized from funds accumulated in my father’s senior society for descendants of its members.

The herd instinct plays a large part in men’s minds; it was largely left out of mine. The fraternities and senior societies were attended on one night of the week. A dinner was served, for there was no shortage of servants in those days. After dinner the brothers adjourned to the windowless “chapter rooms” where initiations and rituals and solemnizing hocus-pocus took place. There was a degree of prestige in belonging to them; there was an equal satisfaction in keeping others out or in feeling superior to those who may not have wanted to get in. (There is a considerable element of fear in the herd instinct.) In the fraternities and in the drinking clubs at the end of the day we were convivial,—that is, everyone strove to be witty. But here also the herd instinct imposed its laws and limitations. Sharp malice was frowned upon; any spirit of revolt was bad form: “Yale was all right.”

Ten years later Robert Maynard Hutchins, then Dean of the Yale Law School, was to accept the call to the presidency of the University of Chicago and there to institute reforms that have influenced the structure and procedures of higher education in America ever since. He derived his insights from living under the conditions I have described; all he had to do was to turn them upside down. He said that Yale College combined the less attractive aspects of a kindergarten and of Sing Sing; I think it was he who said that it was dedicated to “the flattery of arrested adolescence.” We dimly felt this: obligatory chapel, required classroom attendance, weekly examinations, week-end restrictions; we rather liked it. It mitigated some responsibility on our part. Whatever unrest we expressed was limited to persiflage.

But the most sensitive effect of herd authority was evident in the area of sex.

In this realm we were shielded to an extent unbelievable today. In [the course on] Chaucer we were told that certain of the Tales were not required reading; “questions on them will not be asked in the weekly or term-end examinations.” In Shakespeare and Marlowe many salient passages were passed over without clarification; we were given to understand that they were interpolations by tasteless hacks.

But it was not necessary for the college to be so nervous about our purity. The herd instinct took care of that also. A high moral tone was prescribed by the students themselves. In the center of the campus stood a solid edifice called Dwight Hall. It was a center of elevating “discussion groups,” prayer meetings, and social service programs. The members of the most sought after (that is, most exclusive) senior society were all drawn from the leaders of Dwight Hall. They were ponderous, humorless, unctuous—but they were the “big men,” the biggest in college. They pretty well ran Yale, and in their free time they coached basketball teams in the city slums, they appointed one of their number to rebuke—in high brotherly fashion—any student from a good background who had fallen short of the behavior expected of a “man at New Haven.” They leaned down from Olympus to say a friendly word to the outsiders. Dwight Hall ruled that there was a considerable area of a young man’s life which was to be discussed seldom and then only in terms of evasive solemnity.

Now, to be sure, there were little enclaves of sin in academic New Haven. Such matters were discussed, solemnly, solemnly, in lowered voice among one’s closer friends. It was said … a florid redheaded woman in a local tobacconist’s shop, almost old enough to be our mother, was shared by some fellows in Sheffield Scientific School (but scientists tend to be godless) … right up in their rooms … Certain daughters of esteemed faculty members were reputed to be “fast” … after a tea-dance under a billiard table … images to set a fellow’s head swimming.

Young men tend to be either rebels or very conformist. To us—living in a forcibly delayed maturity—sex is fascinating, of course, but also discomfiting and a little frightening. But that is what it had been to most of the citizens in the United States for over a century.

Striking evidence of this unhappy condition was afforded by our behavior in the motion-picture theaters. As all who lived in college towns in those days will remember a visit to the evening showings of the “flickers” was a nightmare. It was the custom of the undergraduates to greet any tender passage with whistles, howls, and stampings; a kiss evoked ear-splitting pandemonium. Two years later when I was teaching near Princeton University and was able occasionally to go to the theater on Nassau Street, the din was even more violent and continuous since the audience in that village consisted almost entirely of students. The students attended the pictures primarily to make the noise,—that is to say, to find a vent for their confusion and humiliation and anguish. They even started their noise early in the film—to the accompaniment of street scenes, desert vistas, ships at sea—because they knew that their torment lay ahead. The sharp point of those demonstrations was that they believed that they were giving evidence of their superiority to childish representations of romance, they were offering testimony of what they called their “sophistication.”

That is what the Puritan dispensation had bequeathed to us.  


The comment period has expired.