This past January I went on a book tour for the paperback version of my latest historical novel. The second-to-last stop, on a Friday night, was Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, where my reading was broadcast live over the regional National Public Radio outlet. When I'd finished, I sat at a table at the back of the store, signing books and chatting with some local women who had just discussed the novel in their reading group. A man who looked to be about my age stood next to them, smiling, and I tried to draw him into the conversation. He hung back, but he didn't stop grinning - not until the scales fell from my eyes.
"I had the radio on," he said. "I got in the car when I realized it was you."
Sixteen years had passed since I'd seen Tom Lewis, now an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Iowa. The two of us had completely lost track of each other. But we could both still tell you, exactly, the day we met: Sunday, September 7, 1969, when we arrived as freshmen at Brown.
Tom - like me, a literary-minded financial-aid student - had settled in two rooms down from mine on the second floor of Archibald House in the West (now Keeney) Quad, and that night we both sat in Arnold Lounge for an orientation meeting. Two upperclass proctors spoke. The first one I recall wearing madras bermuda shorts and dorky black-rimmed glasses (exactly the kind I had on), and he proceeded earnestly to recite the University's restrictions concerning alcohol, drugs, and girls in our rooms. The second proctor, an altogether more relaxed presence, followed up with some practical remarks about how we could comfortably accommodate alcohol, drugs, and girls in our rooms. I remember, during this latter presentation, watching proctor number one out of the corner of my eye and feeling a sorry solidarity with him: another fish out of the Aquarian Age's water. In case you've forgotten how fast that water was churning, consider that the twelve weeks since we'd all graduated from high school had brought the first moon landing, Chappaquiddick, the Manson murders, the Stonewall riot, and Woodstock.
The author's freshman year was marked by dueling signage, such as the strike flag slung from dormitory windows (above) and a placard wielded by an outnumbered dissenter (below).
If the scene in Arnold Lounge were the beginning of an historical novel set during my freshman year at Brown, chapter one would probably end later that first night with me lying awake in my dormitory room, too homesick to sleep, hearing this maddening little click about once every minute. I didn't realize until morning that it was my roommate's digital clock - the kind where the numbers flip like cards on a Rolodex, and the absolute dernier cri in mechanical marvels.
In some ways, I might be the ideal narrator of such a novel. I lived as a watchful nonparticipant in the tumult of that year, an even more straitjacketed Nick Carraway, if you moved him from West Egg to the West Quad. On the New Curriculum's maiden voyage, I was a sort of stowaway. The November 25, 1969, Brown Daily Herald reported that 3.1 percent of freshmen were choosing to take all their courses for grades, instead of the new S/NC option. I was among the 3.1 percent. And in the year's larger drama, the movement of Vietnam protest from the fall's moratoria to the spring's great strike, I felt similarly offstage and embattled. On October 14, I argued to my roommate: weren't the professors who were canceling tomorrow's classes breaking a contractual obligation, forcing me to cooperate in furthering a political position I didn't hold? (I thought Nixon's policy of Vietnamization was the most realistic way for us to withdraw from the war.) He countered that I should make a sacrifice for peace by not going to class. "Well, let me tell you how he spent the day `working for peace'," I later wrote to a high school friend. "He slept late - watched television - and then went to his economics class. I asked him what happened to his sacrifice? Well, he just had to go to class, he said, because [his girlfriend] is coming up Friday for Homecoming and he has to skip class to pick her up and he can't afford to miss it twice."
My high school friend recently presented me with a whole batch of these letters, and my chief reaction to reading this one after nearly thirty years was: God, how did my roommate stand me? Such a shrill little prig, without a hint of appreciation for the situation's comic aspect. Even now, I can't bear the sound of that voice, let alone the goofy handwriting and bad punctuation. No, for any novel set in 1969-70, I'd have to find another point of view, and certainly another hero.
As I sit here, a few months before my twenty-fifth reunion, my desk covered with old letters and Xeroxes from the BDH, I do see a theme emerging for any novelist inclined to work this material, a theme that links to something a professor suggested in a poetry course my sophomore year. She said the most forceful literature always arises from inner tension, be it that between the Transcendental and the Calvinist in Emily Dickinson, or the rakish and the spiritual in John Donne. In a whole community, not just one poet's head, it is the cultural contradictions that give a story life. College Hill was full of them that year.
Everywhere on campus one found solderings of the aborning and the obsolete, like the modern glass doors stuck into the Romanesque arch of Wilson Hall. The class of '73 was Brown's first to have a racial demographic remotely like the country's, and from week one we did a painfully good job of segregating ourselves ("Blacks, Whites Separated for Talk of Black Experience," announced the Herald). My intense yearlong course on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French history could not have seemed more sealed off from the "real world," but it ended with slender, severe Professor William Church addressing the question of whether conditions for revolution existed in the present-day United States to the extent that they had in 1789. He thought not.
Just as the moratorium and Homecoming weekend competed for my roommate's attention, new customs vied for supremacy with old folkways - with limited success. One didn't have to take any science or math or anything else one didn't want to, but most professors still called us "Mister" and "Miss." Dr. Roswell Johnson, the sexually-hip health-services director who became infamous for dispensing the Pill to Pembrokers, was also the epitome of WASP tweediness. Which leads me to believe I would probably be better off with a heroine than a hero for this novel, because the last wave of Pembrokers found themselves suspended in an even wider array of transitions than their Brown brethren. The first coed dormitory had come into existence, but the BDH headline announcing it read, "Pink Curtains Flutter in Wriston Quad." University Hall might have been ringed with demonstrators from time to time, but parietals remained in effect until the end of the academic year.
Present-day consciousness is generally fatal to historical fiction. It would be tempting, in this novel set during 1969-70, to take a mention of the just-graduated and already legendary Ira Magaziner '69, co-architect of the New Curriculum, and nudge it forward into his later, gray-haired authorship of the failed Clinton health plan. Or to conjure up the glamorous future of fin-de-siècle Brown - the high-gloss, coveted campus one now sees in Vanity Fair - during a scene reflecting its more humble times. ("Who rejected you?" a classmate once asked, striking up a laundry-room conversation. "Harvard or Yale?") But one has to let the era-to-era correspondences, and contrasts, come naturally to the reader's mind.
On my most recent visit to Providence, I walked past the window of my old room in Archibald House and saw the lit square of a computer screen. I wondered if the student sitting in front of it, not far from where my mechanical typewriter used to rest, was e-mailing a friend across campus. (Surely no one lines up at the handful of pay phones with which we used to make do.)
Acting President and Professor of Economics Merton P. Stoltz conferred with students during the early days of the May anti-war strike.
I found myself remembering the night I played an early computer game with a couple of friends in one of the science labs. This pre-Space Invaders competition in-volved flipping toggle switches on and off as fast as one could; with all the moving parts, it was a lot closer to our fathers' pinball machines than anything that came after.
My first year at Brown is exactly as far from 1997-98 as it was from the Pearl Harbor year of 1941-42. In certain respects, both psychic and technological, 1969-70 may have been closer to that earlier era. The campus I remember walking around at nighttime, three decades ago, was dark to the point of spookiness, or at least romance. It didn't take much imagination to slip back into the Providence of H.P. Lovecraft when you made your way down Benefit Street or even past the Van Wickle Gates. Today the University is altogether brighter with ornamental and security lights, and it's hard, when you're there, to lose yourself.
If its sense and meaning remain elusive, the texture of my freshman year - the details through which any book succeeds or fails in re-creating a period - can be summoned in an instant, so much of it having been printed on my still-adolescent tabula rasa: the orange "bug juice" we drank in the Ratty; the music and clothing shops on a still-unfranchised Thayer Street; the greasy food from the trucks at the corner of Brown and George ("Papa, give me a hamburger grinder, and hold the dirt" - the voice of my friend Jay, I'm sure); the scratchy sound of the timer lights in the B-level stacks of the Rock, where I fell in love with Keats and worked far harder than was good for me.
A few of the Big Scenes are obvious. The draft lottery, in which most freshman males had a stake, was broadcast over WBRU, provoking shouts of ecstasy and despair throughout the West Quad as the numbers were drawn. We generally ignored the lunar landings, but the 95 percent solar eclipse on March 7, greeted from the courtyard with loud music and more awe than we were willing to admit, is available for the novelist's symbolic manipulation. Spring Weekend, with James Taylor, whose sweet songs were never off the turntables, would be the interlude, the idyll, two weeks before the convulsion.
The student strike, the obvious climax for this novel, caused me a kind of double anguish. I still remember the moment and place I heard about the shootings at Kent State. I was walking with my friend John Maguire. We'd just finished dinner, and it was still light out. A security guard, Lieutenant Walsh, told us the news when we crossed Benevolent Street. That night the College bell summoned students to the Green for a vote on whether to suspend academic activities for the rest of the year. When we got there, candles were shining in each of University Hall's windows - a tribute to the four students who'd been killed, we freshmen thought, until we learned that the candles were there, as they are every spring, to commemorate George Washington's visit to the University.
Once again, as the vote was taken, I was in a minority, if not so spectacularly as with the grading option. A total of 1,895 students voted to strike; 884 (more than memory would have guessed) voted not to. The real source of my misery lay in the fact that I no longer believed in the government's policy either, certainly not in its "incursion" into Cambodia. I felt estranged from every side. On the morning of May 5th, awakening to the sound of a bullhorn on the street - "BROWN UNIVERSITY ON STRIKE!" - I pulled the pillow over my head. I think this would be the week I hung up on my gentle but still pro-Nixon father from one of those pay phones in the West Quad.
I stayed in my room or at the library, writing a long paper on Romantic poetry that I didn't really need to turn in. Everywhere else, at least for a while, the war protests thrived. A schedule of "Strike Activities" for Thursday, May 7, 1970, listed twenty-six separate events, four of them at 9:30 a.m.
- Providence leafletting - need cars and drivers - room 200, Sayles
- Canvassing begins - Sayles
- Guerrilla Theatre Meeting - Sayles - participants will go out into community at 10:00 am
- Big Mother [coffee house] - meeting for home town activities directed toward liberal uncommitted businessmen.
As the last item shows, "bringing the war home," a familiar phrase from the era, would soon have to mean, at least for a while, one's actual home. Summer put an end to this academic year as to any other, the dispersal of everyone, as always, so sudden and strange - very much, in fact, like shutting a book.
A character in one of my novels, an old man named Horace Sinclair, divides the world into two kinds of people: those who, "when they pass a house, wonder who lives there, and those who, when they pass it, wonder who used to live there." The historical novelist will, in part, choose distant subjects as a relief from his own life, but of course he's always present somewhere in the book, and I recognize this passage as coming not from Colonel Sinclair, but from myself. For whatever reasons, I get on with the present much better once it's become the past.
A few months ago, when I went back to the John Hay Library, the University archivist brought me that strike schedule, along with hundreds of other stencils run off by the "People's Print Shop" in Sayles Hall. They're now preserved in two brown portfolios tied up with laces - just like the oldest books I'd revered in the B-level stacks of the Rock. When I untied them, my feelings toward those papers, as dead and not-dead as my eighteen-year-old self, were more tender than anything else. I remember the year that produced them as painful, but as the one that set me on my way, however circuitously, to what I wanted to be doing. The manuscripts of my own novels are now also in the Hay, a sort of advance final resting place, a peaceful eventuality I never considered when I walked the brick sidewalks of Prospect Street that year - lonely, afraid, and constantly excited.