'Days at Dartmouth': Beauty in the Mundane

by Kaijing Janice Chen | 11/8/17 2:25am

Nestled in the stacks of Baker-Berry Library in the company of grand ideas and long, winding histories of Dartmouth College is a book that is in many ways unremarkable, save for the ways it illuminates the quotidian beauty of life as a student here. “Days at Dartmouth,” a collection of letters written by Americo Secondo DeMasi ’35, records his ramblings on the mundane — grades, upcoming exams, fencing practice. DeMasi passed away in the winter of his junior year on Feb. 25, 1934 when a furnace gas leak in Theta Chi filled the house with lethal carbon monoxide fumes, killing him and eight others in their sleep. After his death, DeMasi’s high school teacher Clara Gill compiled the letters he wrote to her, his parents and his girlfriend, Peggy, into the memorial housed on our library shelves. The result is an epistolary memoir that articulates the commonalities of the Dartmouth experience despite the differences that mark the span between our time and his.

DeMasi stepped onto the platform at the White River Junction train station at noon on Sep. 12, 1931 after traveling through the night from his home in Little Neck, New York. Brimming with the excitement of starting college, DeMasi tells his parents of the new friends he met on the train — eight fellow members of the Class of 1935 — who collectively coin the nickname he will use for the rest of his life: Hop. Like most that lie on the weathered pages of this book, this first letter records an experience relatable to many of us and to those who came before him.

To his parents, he wrote, “As things now stand, I’m the happiest boy in the world. But with this happiness there is also a faint shadow of sadness. The thought of being away from you for such a long time keeps darting through my mind ... But you must realize that this is the first real experience I’ve had in being away from home, and I’m not the hardhearted villain I thought I was.”

DeMasi moves into room four in Fayerweather Hall and falls into step with the rhythms of Dartmouth life. Many of his letters end abruptly with a dash off to a Latin class or Glee Club rehearsal, the hallmark hustle-bustle of college life emerging in the tails of these recollections to his loved ones. Arguably, life as a student is incomplete without the regular bemoaning of humdrum classes and too-low grades.

He wrote, “Miss Gill, how simply grand college would be if we didn’t have to take those final examinations! How marvelous life would seem if we weren’t tortured by the fear of making a C grade instead of a B or an A!”

What might be a conversation today in the KAF line is captured in print forever between the yellow covers of this book. But while many of DeMasi’s letters detail aspects at Dartmouth life we would not think worth memorializing, here and there emerge magnificent moments that are ever more accentuated by the mundanity of the surrounding text. In one letter written on Jan. 20, 1932, DeMasi recounts a walk through College Park with his friend after studying for an Evolution exam all night.

“Everything was covered with glittering snow,” the letter reads. “Nothing around us but the skies, the stars, the moon and the woods — God’s Paradise. Gosh, Dad, this half hour has done more for me than any Evolution course will ever do. It was sublime. I felt alive.”

DeMasi’s writing of miniscule moments on campus like these injects a vitality into Dartmouth’s living history. During our four years here, this place becomes momentarily ours, appropriated as the site of our delights and sorrows. As we walk across the green to our next class, gripe about daily quandaries on the porch of Collis or sit down for a coffee with somebody from class, it is easy to forget that the spaces in which we find comfort have been home to generations of Dartmouth students before us.

In the fall of 1931, the bells of Baker Tower had only been ringing for three short years, this seemingly permanent part of our landscape newer to campus in DeMasi’s time than Berry Library is to us. Five days after arriving at Dartmouth, DeMasi is sitting in Baker Library writing another letter to his parents. This letter, written 86 years ago in the brooding silence of the Tower Room, is a reminder of the repeated memories we share across history, memories at once unique to us and entirely universal at the same time.

“I am in Baker Library with Bill who is studying French across the table from me,” he wrote. “Inside, everything is dark and quiet. Outside, there is a terrific thunder storm raging. It surely puts you into the old college atmosphere at night.”

As much as many things have remained just about the same at Dartmouth since the 1930s — Baker Library, pestilent exams, the Green — there are moments in DeMasi’s letters that are perhaps entirely foreign to students at Dartmouth today. Vanished Dartmouth traditions like “Wet-Down” and “Sing-Out” pepper the pages of the memoir, and letters describing big weekends remind us that it was only 40-odd years ago that women were welcomed to Dartmouth as students.

Despite the absence of women at Dartmouth, the presence of women is still felt in the letter’s recipients, and especially in the letters to his girlfriend Peggy. His letters to her, every one signed, “Always loving you, Hop,” are bursts of raw energy in the memoir, zealous outpourings of love and anguish of not being by her side. In one letter, he tells her of his absentmindedness during a fencing session, all because he received a letter from her five minutes before practice:

“Of course, DeMasi was late and Colonel Dietrich was quite peeved. Following a hail of commands — ‘En garde!’ ‘Lunge!’ ‘Repeated lunge!’ ‘Seconde parry!’ ‘Quinta!’ ‘Terza!’ etc., etc. ‘DeMasi, you’re the laziest %?@% I’ve ever seen. Why don’t you get down to business?’ How could I with Peggy’s letter in my pocket, half-read? I couldn’t. And I didn’t.”

In another letter, he tells her how he came home from orchestra practice to find his friends Jim and Bill taking photos. They offer to take one of him in a “studying pose,” but he instead takes this moment to grandiosely reiterate his feelings for her.

He wrote, “I dashed into my room for your picture and had my picture taken looking at you. Wasn’t that an idea? There I sat gazing steadily at you for ten whole minutes. It was divine. The trouble was that the fellows razzed me about the tears in my eyes after the ten minutes were up. If the picture is half way decent, I’ll send it to you.”

Grand declarations like these are accented by the prosaic happenings of other letters, but it is the last letter in the book, a haunting juxtaposition between the banal and the beautiful that succeeds in capturing the extraordinary ordinary. In the first half of the letter, DeMasi nitpicks at his grades and resigns from the mission of making it into Phi Beta Kappa. Moving away from his grades, DeMasi embarks on a declaration of love for Peggy that is splendid in its simplicity, and marked by the tragic knowledge that he did not live for long after he wrote it.

“It seems that lately my whole romantic expression has been reduced to ‘I love her,’” he wrote. “But even that may achieve lofty heights in expression when its fullest, deepest, sincerest sense is appreciated. So then, to the devil with the whole Romantic school, and may my love for you increase as the years go by.”