Nicholas L. Syrett has just published The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities with the University of North Carolina Press. Lately, I can’t turn around without bumping into Syrett’s book–remarkable for a first book by a junior scholar: Inside Higher Ed featured an interview with him last month, he was interviewed by North Carolina Public Radio last week, and the book was recently blurbed in the Washington Post because of its discussion of a famous 1949 Dartmouth College murder, the “Letter Sweater Case,” when an Italian-American leftist and World War II vet was dragged from his bed and beaten to death by some Dekes and Tri-Kaps (members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon and Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternities. What is it with the Dekes–they always seem to be the biggest hammerheads on campus, wherever you go, don’t they?) What’s next, Syrett: C-SPAN 2: Booknotes? The View? Rub it in, why don’t'cha. Say “hi” to Whoopi for us!
The attention this book is getting is merited. Syrett’s extensive research in eastern university archives in the North and South allows him to trace the evolution of fraternities from literary societies that had serious intellectual purpose and offered students relief from the tedious rote curricula before the Civil War to exclusive clubs that were more about pleasure. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, they were always about the creation and affirmation of a shared masculinity among “brothers”–what Syrett calls “fraternal masculinity.” Always a means of asserting and defending class exclusivity, the pressures of coeducation in the later nineteenth century and the ethnic and racial integration of the early and mid-twentieth century meant that their masculine identities were increasingly built around misogyny and racism–the exclusion of all of these new “others” who were increasingly part of the experience of university life. More and more in the twentieth century, fraternities were becoming known for bouts of murderous violence like the Letter Sweater case, or shocking abuses of women. (For all of the publicly professed misogyny and homophobia, Syrett’s research reveals a long history of fraternity members dressing up like girls–even today, give a frat boy an excuse to get in drag, and before you can say “Mary, please,” there she is!)
Coeducation was fraught with tensions for fraternities: college women were disdained as equals in the classroom, but heterosexual conquest was added to the equation of what a fraternity man was supposed to be. Heterosexual performance anxieties (mixed with fears of “effeminacy”) became characteristic of the experience of fraternities in the twentieth century, and are responsible for their (justified) reputation as breeding grounds of rape and other forms of violence against women. (If you’re like me, this book will fuel your rage because of its documentation of incident after incident of spoiled middle-class and rich white men who get away with a level of criminal behavior that no other segment of American society gets away with in these decades.) The Company He Keeps is skillfully researched and written with wit and style, and is all the more impressive for the expansive sweep of time Syrett covers. It is a valuable contribution to the history of American masculinity and the history of education.
Full disclosure: Syrett is a friend of mine, since he teaches women’s history and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado, and how many of us do you think there are up ’round these parts? I’m planning a huge kegger to celebrate the book’s release, and you’re all invited!