a chapter in american folklore

Charles Bowen
November 21, 1958, Scholastic #8

Scholastic (Nov. 21, 1958)

A couple of weeks ago we had the privilege of witnessing an epic occasion in the annals of Midwestern anthropology. A nearly savage tribe, from the uncharted wilderness to the north of Chicago, agreed to hold one of its traditional ceremonials in the city at a comfortable, modern hotel, for the benefit of scientific observers like myself, many of whom have in the past set out with starry eyes and notepads in our hands (just the note pads, of course) and been forever swallowed up in the inscrutable North Shore Country.

The ritual I attended is a very important one in the life of the savages. Theirs is a thoroughly matriarchal society, from which men are carefully excluded by the Guardians, a group of elders distinguished for their wisdom and ferocity. Yet it is the ambition of every member of the tribe, once she has completed her training course and been given the token (a scroll which confers on her the A. B., or Avaricia Baccalaureo) to set out into the alien world on the other side of the wall and snare, as soon as possible, a male from another tribe, preferably one with a great deal of "bread." (This untranslatable term apparently refers to economic well-being in the savages' quaint cosmology.) The great disparity between the goal of each tribeswoman and the life she is forced to lead while in the power of the Guardians is apparent. A young woman who has been trained for four years in the Spartan virtues required by the Guardians is hardly prepared to capture a male when she has never seen one or had a chance to leam his habits. This is important, as many of the males are extremely wily, especially those who have the most "bread" and are hence most desirable.

Taking all this into consideration, the tribe ages ago instituted a gathering known as a Tea Dance. It takes its name from an archaic beverage which was anciently consumed at the gathering but now makes only a ritual appearance. To the gathering are summoned eligible males who are attracted by the bait, in spite of their traditional cunning. They are then exposed to the fledgling tribeswomen who have a chance to practice their huntsman's art before the chase begins in earnest.

I found the young women to be generally schizophrenic, torn between the demands of tribal society: i.e., that they be clean, well-scrubbed, dress alike, and love one another, and the demands of the chase which, because of subversive rumors among themselves, they take to be that they be sultry, bewitching, better dressed than their companions, and in bitter and even vicious competition with one another. Most of them, under the influence of this necessary ambivalence, swing too far toward the antitribal routine, and outdo themselves in being sultry and bewitching. Their methods are many and varied. They compete in the style of their finery, a ceremonial garment called a sack, by each trying to see that her sack holds the same merchandise in a superior manner. They also display their various accomplishments in the way of wisdom and grace by holding impromptu contests in eyebrow-arching, cliche-inflection, and the making of ritual gestures with lighted cylinders of tobacco, from which they occasionally inhale smoke and try to exhale it in as poised a manner as possible. The males, in their turn, endeavor to demonstrate their desirability by uttering loud noises and consuming various grain beverages with greater speed or stamina than their companions. The young women, as the ceremony goes on, catch the spirit of the thing and soon begin uttering cries of their own. It is a poignant and delightful experience to witness these youthful attempts at social expression; however, a little too much of it can give one quite a headache, and so I retired before the ceremonies were concluded, to witness on TV a competition in a far-off place between bears and rams.

* * *

The residents of S---- Hall (whose name I am forbidden to mention) would like me to express their thanks to the ghostly Mr. Geist for showing them so cleverly the road to salvation. Who would have thought of naming a hero "Anatopolis?" In decent shamefacedness the residents of the hall have voted to devote all future Saturday morning gatherings to lectures on moral improvement, and have formed a compulsory weekly hall meeting devoted to discussing The Really Deep Things in Life. Careful checking revealed that there actually was a lot of loose talk going on about student (there I go again) Student Government, and the offenders have been banished. They are also petitioning the rector for permission to drain the gin and vermouth out of the coin machine and replace it with sarsaparilla, but his assent is doubtful. A special vigilance committee has been formed to prevent another outbreak of Anarchy like the one Mr. Geist so kindly warned them about. Thanks again, Mr. Geist.

I would like to express my personal compliments to the young man who painted solid black chemises on all the naughty Hatful of Rain posters.

The University Theatre is to be complimented, however, for not scissoring more lines than were necessary from their recent production. We can appreciate their courage when we contemplate the recent production of Oedipus Rex at St. Sophia's Academy for the Ugly. After a great deal of deliberation, it was decided that the play was not fit entertainment for young ladies the way it stood, so the ending had to be changed. Just as Oedipus is about to blind himself, the old shepherd reveals that he is actually Laius in disguise, and wasn't really killed at all, but was just playing 'possum, because he wanted to retire and get out of the rat race. Then a messenger arrives with the news that Oedipus' marriage to Jocasta was invalid, because the priest at Delphi hadn't been properly licensed at the time the ceremony was performed. Although the result is some distance removed from Sophocles, my correspondent, Miss Delight Repski, informs me that it made for good clean fun all 'round.

Students in Badin Hall last week found that they were able to read Escape by the light of the sunset. Sensing something unusual, they rushed to their windows and discovered a large crater in the ground next to the library. It has been a source of speculation all over the campus ever since, but nobody can remember what used to be there. Pity.


Commentary

I was honoring John's Words of Power in the final paragraph. The crater that marked the disappearance of something no one could remember was located on the site of Howard Hall, and its sudden appearance coincided with the publication of John's "awful truth" (from his previous column).

The "Tea Dance" took place at a hotel in Chicago, and was put on by one of the several Catholic women's colleges that flourished in Chicagoland at that time; I think it was probably Mundelein. I admit that I don't find the condescending tone of this essay as impressive now as I did at the time. (As a senior who had spent 21 entire years on this planet, I would have been mortally wounded had anyone uttered the word sophomoric in connection with my work, but one's perspective changes with time.) That year, women were wearing dresses that were relatively narrow at the hem but between there and the neck were fairly loose, with no attempt to define the waist. These were called "sack dresses," and that's the source of my reference to this "ceremonial garment."

The paragraph addressed to "Mr. Geist" refers to a satirical piece called "The Trial," published in the Scholastic of November 7, 1958. The author, using the pseudonym "A. Geist," wrote in defense of the values of the Student Establishment (i.e., the student government, the Blue Circle Honor Society - not a body of academic high achievers, though no doubt many of them were, but a self-selected group of campus movers and shakers - and various aspiring campus politicians who thought irreverence was a synonym for blasphemy). He described the gin-soaked residents of a thinly disguised Sorin Hall putting one of their number on trial and banishing him for the crime of studying on the morning of a football Saturday. The values of the crypto-Sorinites were said (more than once in the piece) to be "rabble-rousing and celebrating," and there was reference to "pouring libations to the god, Anarchy."

I suppose that the football-Saturday shenanigans that took place on the porch in front of Sorin Hall may have deserved some criticism. There may have been a little too much mindless hilarity, and there was plenty of drinking, though, being strictly forbidden on campus, it had to be done covertly. Still, it was a long way from Animal House. One Saturday the porch had been decorated to look like the stage of a stern-wheeler showboat, and a sign appeared on the floor above it proclaiming "Sorin Showboat Celebrates and Celebrates and Celebrates . . . ." The sign stayed up for a few weeks, I think. I remember being at least mildly embarrassed by it, feeling that it didn't really represent me, or at least for all of me.

But the satirist seemed to be offended rather less by our hedonism than by our "anarchy" and "rabble-rousing," and with these - insofar as they embodied a healthy lack of respect for student government and its devotees - I was in sympathy. I had been told that my needling about their insistence on capitalizing Student Government in the many solemn essays they wrote about it in the Scholastic had annoyed some student leaders. This may have been an example of the "anarchy" that got the author so upset.

The incident of the Hatful of Rain posters is perfectly factual. The company that rented the play to the drama group had supplied posters with the title of the play and some art work, on which the group could have its own name, place, and dates printed. The art work included a woman who was deemed by the authorities to be insufficiently covered, so an art student was drafted to shroud her torso in proper fashion. Over and over again, until all the offending posters were decent.

Of course, I made up the story about the bowdlerized performance of Oedipus Rex. I guess I should explain that "St. Sophia's Academy for the Ugly" was thrown in to tease my then girlfriend at Smith, to whom I always mailed a copy of my column. Her college was founded by one Sophia Smith in the 19th century, and the name turned up in various contexts around its campus; for instance, the college newspaper or literary magazine or yearbook (I forget which) was called the Sophian. In one reference, I located St. Sophia's in "Comstock, Mass." This was another in-joke, as her residence at Smith was Comstock Hall. (Did someone say sophomoric?)

Incidentally, the "turkey dinner" for the Thanksgiving issue was drawn by Joe McDonnell, the art student who told Andy Connelly the Jean Charlot story.