There is some fun, some titillating trivia, a lot of repetition, and a surprising lack of wisdom in the 46 essays divided between these two books. Though no doubt plenty of old grads will weep at the slightest evocation of "Fair Harvard" or "Bright College Years," alumni of less favored institutions can take hope. In fact, these collections of reminiscences about life at the Big Two of American universities demonstrate that going to a great school, or becoming great oneself after graduation, does not guarantee that one's college years will be of general interest later.
"Our Harvard" is a collection of 22 reminiscences by Harvard graduates from the class of 1917 to the class of 1981. "My Harvard, My Yale" is a collection of 24 essays from equal numbers of Harvard and Yale grads about their undergraduate careers. It spans about the same era as "Our Harvard" and although many more of its contributors are professional writers, it is the less satisfying collection.
But neither collection is very satisfying; and, indeed, neither is particularly interesting in either of the ways presumably intended, that is, as personal chronicle or as social history. Perhaps "Our Harvard" is somewhat effective as social history because it has twice as many essays about the 20th century. "Our Harvard" also benefits from several essays that are simply better written, including those by E. J. Kahn Jr., Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Anton Myrer and Michael Barone.
"Our Harvard" is largely filled with personal reminiscence, however, and those pieces read as though addressed specifically to Harvard contemporaries. The essays are rambling, unfocused and filled with reference to specific people and places, many of them long gone. Only a few of the writers effectively communicate a sense of the spirit of Harvard at the time they attended.
All the contributors to "Our Harvard" are white, upper or upper-middle class men. There's one essay from a gay, a member of the class of 1965, and that man's conflict with the Harvard establishment makes his anonymous essay one of the book's most telling. There are a few essays by Jews from Harvard's quiet anti-Semitic period, but the anti-Semitism was minor and had largely to do with clubs and extracurricular activities. Women are mentioned in "Our Harvard" only as subjects of desire and discussion; surprisingly, in the most sexist and offensive manner in an essay by the most recent graduate, John Adler, class of 1981.
Robert Coles and Myrer write the most interesting essays, Coles focusing on how he questioned his own values while in college and Myrer describing in familiarly novelistic terms the period at Harvard just before Dec. 7, 1941. Several essays are disappointing, given the stature and talent of their authors, including those by John H. Finley Jr., Robert S. Fitzgerald, and Schlesinger. All three became scholars, and none managed to give any real sense of why or how, nor did any of the three (all historians of a kind) do an exciting job of describing his era at Harvard.
While "My Harvard, My Yale" suffers from many of the same problems as "Our Harvard," it has two attractive features. First, it contains five essays by women, four who went to Radcliffe, one who went to Yale. The women's point of view, especially as applied to Harvard, lends the same sort of perspective and depth the essay from the Harvard gay does: the women have the advantage of being both inside and outside the institutions of which they were a part. "My Harvard, My Yale" also has an essay by physicist Herald Furth, who gives an intriguing picture of what it was like to be involved in theoretical physics in the 1950s.
Particularly for someone who attended neither Harvard nor Yale, the contrast between this book's two collections of essays will seem insignificant. Even to one steeped in the schools' differences, what they show most strikingly is how similar the schools and their students are.
Michael Arlen, television critic for The New Yorker, gives a marvelous sketch of Harvard in the early '60s, and Robert Coles' essay in this collection is as interesting, if less carefully written, as his essay in "Our Harvard." (Coles is the only one who wrote for both collections).
Neither book can have much interest for those with no affiliation to Harvard or Yale. And even for alumnae, the books will have more appeal for browsing and skimming than for reading. For despite the relative fame and universal success of the contributors, their mastications of their undergraduate years are almost completely unreflective. No one's success is foreshadowed.