walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Company He Keeps_, Nicholas Syrett (kindle)

Published by University of North Carolina Press

I bought this very recently, possibly based on an Amazon recommendation but it's also possible I was fishing around for a history of fraternities specifically.

I went to a large state university (University of Washington, class of 1991). Greek Life was something that involved a couple of off-campus blocks that people avoided on weekends because you just never knew what was going to come flying off one of the houses and into the street. There was also the incident involving sheep:


that led to the Theta Xi chapter to go away and not come back for several years. That article is actually mostly about a DKE pledge death during Hell Week.

I was a Jehovah's Witness while I attended the UW (yes, improbable, and no, this was not during a time period in which it was OK for JWs to go to college) and getting a degree in Computer Science. To the extent I had an opinion of Greeks it was that they were drunken idiots who treated women badly -- but I didn't have much of an opinion about them because I was a commuter student and not involved in college social life at all. (<-- This is an understatement. I barely participated in study groups because I wasn't supposed to have any social connection to students at all.)

A few years ago (maybe 2005-6), I read a book about sororities, which did very little to change my opinions of Greeks (drunken idiots, etc.), altho it was a little amazing to read that and realize just how crowded those houses seemed to be. But the book was sort of a journalist-view of contemporary women with no real sense of history.

Syrett's subtitle: A History of White College Fraternities. He means it. Only very occasionally are Jewish, Catholic, Black Fraternities or Sororities of any form mentioned, and only to the degree that they are interacting with White Fraternities. He starts well before the Civil War (1820sish), calling that the "antebellum" period. The Civil War period is handled as sort of a special case, then there's the 1920s, the financial crises of the 1930s, World War 2, then postwar recovery and expansion and how that worked with the GI bill, gays, rating-and-dating, and finally, the aggressive enactment of violent heterosexuality (don't think "date rape" here; think "gang rape of mentally ill outpatient picked up at the bus stop", because that's more what he's talking about), which is what prompted Syrett to pick this topic in the first place.

I was a little startled to read that fraternity gang-bangs were showing up as early as the 1920-30s, at least if you're prepared to read _My Son Is an Excellent Driver_ by William Inge as autobiographical and this author is.

Syrett does a decent job of documenting the evolution of "college man" as epitomized by a fraternity brother, from the early nineteenth century to today. Starting with the I'm-not-going-into-the-ministry students and their literary societies, through the I'm-going-into-business students and their athletic prowess, and then sliding downhill as they responded negatively to the increasing presence in their WASP schools of women and people of color. He does a good job as well of describing the social and economic mechanisms by which alumni influenced the choices available to contemporary chapters.

I was not tremendously impressed by the way he chose to analyze many of the passages he included. I felt like he was attributing things to college life as a whole that the evidence he presented showed to be disproportionately the result of fraternity actions. I also felt that many of the passages showed that certain national fraternities led the way pretty consistently, and that not all nationals, much less all locals, followed along, and to the extent they did, they felt that their choices were constrained by what the leaders were doing. I can sort of see where he was going with this: these are voluntary organizations that require some effort and sacrifice to join, and they heavily emphasize conformity. Distinguishing between one and another may well be quite pointless.

Syrett's book did not necessarily change my mind about fraternities (drunken idiots who treat women badly still strikes me as about right), and it did adjust the framework I had for understanding sororities from that other book (title escapes me at the moment; may add it later ETA: _Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities_, Alexandra Robbins). The description of the evolution of stance towards women is particularly good (refuse to have anything to do with college women; then refuse to have anything to do with women at one's own college; then refuse to have anything to do with women at one's own college who are not themselves Greeks. Also, the evolution from rating-and-dating to however one might summarize what Greeks do now).

While Syrett talks about gays and fraternities (including early incidents at Dartmouth and on through publication), I can't help but feel that we won't have a good perspective on what exactly young men are getting out of fraternities as long as young, conservative men feel so compelled to be closeted, sometimes even to themselves. The rationales given by closeted men for participating in gang-bangs (and gang-rapes, to the extent that those are different) make me awful suspicious of the stated orientation of everyone involved in these organizations. And I don't see young, conservative men hanging out in same-sex, er, groups treating women better until someone addresses the underlying issue. Once upon a time, men in college didn't have access to women, and when, in the 1950s, they had access to same-class women at school, they were marrying super young. When that changed -- when the age of first marriage moved up and up and up -- a "correct" relationships (isn't that what conformists want to know?) to women for "heterosexual" men living with other men became impossibly ambiguous.

A bunch of fraternities, when confronted with exactly this issue in the 1970s, did something sensible: they became co-ed (some, but not all, lost their national as a result). Judging by how long it is taking churches to adjust to a lot of differences in the way we live our lives, I would not be optimistic about fraternities as a group behaving better any time soon.

What I _am_ optimistic about is the possibility of prosecuting criminal behavior engaged in by fraternities -- or at least returning the groups to their unofficial/sub-rosa status that they enjoyed in the early days of their existence.

ETA: It looks like in the years since I read _Pledged_, Ms. Robbins has become sort of a one-woman genre on the subject of sororities, fraternities, college life, etc., with a focus on elite institutions, cliques, and how that works and doesn't work for people. I'm not sure what I think of this, other than that I'm in no hurry to read more of her books. If anyone is a fan, and thinks they are worth reading, I'd be interested in hearing details.

ETAYA: A superficial search of Amazon turns up a subgenre devoted to exposing the secrets of Yale's Skull & Bones (which Robbins contributed an entry to). However, my efforts to find books _specifically_ about sororities that might be somewhat like Syrett's about fraternities was a total failure. There are other books about fraternities and sororities, including several specifically about black/African-American fraternities and sororities. There is Robbins' oeuvre (which isn't precisely what I'm looking for, anyway, and to the degree is i is, I already read _Pledged_.). It's a puzzler.

ETA Still More:

I'm going to post something about googling Greek crap because I feel like what I have read so far in book form has not really captured the story currently developing.

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