'Dartmouth Reader' an exercise in nostalgia

by Ritika Nandkeolyar | 11/23/99 6:00am

It's been fairly easy to go through three years of school and remain unaware of many Dartmouth traditions and the school's own rich history.

Sure, I could name a couple of famous alums, point out the Robert Frost statue and even explain what "heeling" meant, but I didn't realize how little I knew until I read "Miraculously Builded in Our Hearts: A Dartmouth Reader."

The book, edited by David Shribman '76 and Edward Lathem '51, contains over 70 entries including excerpts from commencement addresses, student letters and interviews with famous alumni.

The collection loosely updates 1969's "A Dartmouth Reader," edited by Francis Brown '25. Brown's book was published to celebrate the College's bicentennial celebration and contains entries that date back to Dartmouth's founding. Lathem and Shribman concentrate on this past century.

Among the entries are letters home from Clifford Orr '22 describing his freshman year and initiation into College lore -- the frantic three days of "Delta Alpha" (we'd call it hazing); his first Dartmouth "Hum," when the entire school gathered in classes in a hollow square around the Green to sing; and the Freshman photograph challenge, where the class had four days to take a class picture of 200 students, one officer and no upperclassmen.

"Today was 'Old Timers Day" for the graduating Senior class. You should have seen the outfits, torn and old-fashioned that the fellows had on and some of that they did," then-freshman Richard Campen '34 writes describing another old tradition.

Other alums recall falling in love, failing English and living in Robinson Hall.

There are also factual accounts of important historical events in the College's past century -- the building of Baker Library, the relocation of the medical center, visits by Lord Dartmouth. Interesting stories if you can get through the rather dry prose.

"Dartmouth is not a collegeit is a cult," Shribman's wife is quoted as saying early in his foreword, and "Miraculously Builded" does a noble job describing mainstream yore that creates this cult.

This book, although not officially commissioned by the College, is an official history. Shribman may be a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, but he is also a member of the College's Board of Trustees and Lathem is Dartmouth's Dean-Emeritus of Libraries and a counselor to College President James Wright.

As a result, this is a feel-good affair. And it does feel good for a while, but then the self-congratulations get old and you notice what is lacking.

For one, although there are entries that are critical of the college's culture and acts, they feel very token in nature and major controversies are entirely skipped over.

So, while there is an excerpt from "Poisoned Ivy" by Benjamin Hart '81 detailing the founding of the Dartmouth Review, there is no real explanation of the impact of that paper's infamous actions in the late 1980s.

The presentation of minority experiences is also unsatisfying. Minority students have long attended Dartmouth -- surely their voices deserve to be added to a reader on the College?

There are two pages from Wally Ford '70 on being black at Dartmouth. The brevity and narrow scope of this entry ignores the long history of African-American Dartmouth students including Ernest E. Just, the only member of the class of 1907 to graduate magna cum laude.

You could argue that this book is about Dartmouth, not about being _______ at Dartmouth (fill in ethnic group) and those stories aren't part of the mainstream experience that Lathem and Shribman are chronicling.

But the book's short-sightedness is irksome. It diminishes the reality of a student body that was, and is, within the rural constraints of New Hampshire, fairly diverse.

In the end, this book should be read. There's a wealth of information here. But this is not a complete story. It's rose-tinted nostalgia.