Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What's my Delta Tau Chi name? (aka Animal House in the Old South...but with scholarship!)

"Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son..." - Dean Vernon Wormer - Faber College

One of the challenges of being a Civil War "enthusiast" is that, well...there's a lot about which to be "enthused" because the subject crosses so many areas of interest.

In doing background research for my most recent book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010), I did some background reading on the history of other colleges in the Civil War and it has become an abiding interest.

One of my favorite books during that research was Willis Rudy's The Campus and a Nation in Crisis: From the American Revolution to Vietnam (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996).

I've also posted on a few other colleges that are taking advantage of the Civil War Sesquicentennial to commemorate their contributions during the Civil War:

Hobart College (Geneva, NY) (here)
University of Pennsylvania (here)

Of course there are many more...if you are aware of other good websites describing the experiences of institutions of higher education during the Civil War, let me know, and I'll happily post about them here!

Adding to that body of knowledge is a terrific new (April 2011) softcover (unillustrated) re-issue of a 2004 hardcover (illustrated) by Robert F. Pace, Ph.D.:

I want to thank the kind folks at the Louisiana State University Press for sending me a review copy!

I recently finished the book and I can give it an unabashed A+!

From the publisher's website:

A powerful confluence of youthful energies and entrenched codes of honor enlivens Robert F. Pace's look at the world of male student college life in the antebellum South. Through extensive research into records, letters, and diaries of students and faculty from more than twenty institutions, Pace creates a vivid portrait of adolescent rebelliousness struggling with the ethic to cultivate a public face of industry, respect, and honesty. These future leaders confronted authority figures, made friends, studied, courted, frolicked, drank, gambled, cheated, and dueled–all within the established traditions of their southern culture.

For the sons of southern gentry, college life presented a variety of challenges, including engaging with northern professors and adjusting to living away from home and family. The young men extended the usual view of higher education as a bridge between childhood and adulthood, innovatively creating their own world of honor that prepared them for living in the larger southern society. Failure to obtain a good education was a grievous breach of honor for them, and Pace skillfully weaves together stories of student antics, trials, and triumphs within the broader male ethos of the Old South. When the Civil War erupted, many students left campus to become soldiers, defend their families, and preserve a way of life. By war's end, the code of honor had waned, changing the culture of southern colleges and universities forever.

Halls of Honor represents a significant update of E. Merton Coulter's 1928 classic work, College Life in the Old South, which focused on the University of Georgia. Pace's lively study will widen the discussion of antebellum southern college life for decades to come.

There is a LOT to recommend this book to readers:

1) It's relatively short (117 pages of main text; 27 pages of Notes/Bibliography; index) and that's a good thing! As one of my favorite historians and writers, Jason Emerson, has declared: "the publication of short books and monographs has lessened extensively in recent years...the page count of a work should have no impact on its overall historical, literary, or pedagogical value." Indeed! Dr. Pace packs a lot of information into this short book and yet is supported by an impressive amount of scholarship. (You can learn more about Mr. Emerson in another post, here).

2) Dr. Pace mined nearly a hundred collections of letters, papers, and diaries at several institutions...readers will be impressed - and perhaps surprised - at how much extant primary material there is representing first-hand accounts of antebellum college life in the South...graduates of the following institutions will be especially gratified at how much attention they get in the book, among more than twenty colleges that are mentioned throughout: University of North Carolina, University of Virginia, University of Alabama, and Hampden-Sidney College.

3) In the first chapter, Dr. Pace discusses academic life at the institutions, including faculty, curriculum, cheating, and commencement. This included the choice of whether or not to even attend college: it wasn't necessary for most professions, but Dr. Pace argues that for Southern adolescents and families it was a matter of honor...this honor and distinction also applied to what college the young man attended, so that attending a "second-rate" school could bring shame on a family. One of the more interesting discussions in the book is on it turns out, it was more important to cheat and pass and graduate, than to skip cheating but fail.

4) In the second chapter, the author describes campus life, including accommodations, noise, clothing, fire, pests, heating, illness, and dining. One of the most interesting discussions in this chapter was a description of the institution of slavery on college campuses in the antebellum South, including the use of servants as part of tuition as well as brutality against the slaves.

5) In the third chapter - easily the most entertaining - Dr. Pace describes "Sowing Oats and Growing Up" including amusements, entertainment and relationships. Dr. Pace describes the prevalence of drinking alcohol among the young men - or "getting tight" as it was called back in the day. Social fraternities - especially literary societies - were also very popular and intense rivalries grew amongst competing societies on several campuses. The most interesting part of this chapter was Dr. Pace's description of the pursuit and courting of females by male college students in the Old South.

6) In the fourth chapter, Dr. Pace discusses "Honor and Violence" including rules, pranks, riots, guns, and duels. Dr. Pace describes how college administrators struggled with student conduct, some of it whimsical and some of it deadly, either purposefully or accidentally.

7) In the fifth and final chapter, Dr. Pace discusses "College Life and the Civil War." This includes secessionist and (most interesting!) Unionist sentiment among students and faculty, on-campus militia units, enlistments among the student body, financial challenges faced by the colleges during the war and - finally - how the war changed Southern college life forever. 8) The MOST IMPRESSIVE aspect of this book is the extensive use of first-hand accounts of students throughout, based on his use of period letters and diaries. If I have any criticisms, they are few:

A) Some academic works can be flawed in that an sometimes artificial "meme" is forced on the this case, Dr. Pace sometimes spends words in "forcing" a theme of a Southern "Code of Honor" to describe the students' behaviors and expectations. Rarely did the students' own words bear this out, though.

B) Somewhat related: I've done enough reading of college life in the North during this same era to wonder whether Dr. Pace was successfully able to describe a distinctly Southern "way" of college life as there are just so many similarities. These are minor quibbles, however, and they do not detract from this EXCELLENT book!

Thank You, LSU PRESS!

No comments: