Salinger's work a time capsule


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com:

A few publications have noted that Jan. 1 was J.D. Salinger’s birthday. While I thought that his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, with its cynical and bitter adolescent prep-school protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was and is overrated, there’s no doubt that Mr. Salinger had an engaging voice. (Still, as Holden kept calling people “phonies,’’ he started to sound pretty phony himself.) What I still find most charming about Salinger’s work is his evocation of the mostly young and mostly upper-middle class people of imperial New York of the ‘40s and ‘50s – a time capsule.

Salinger became one of America’s most famous recluses after his move to the small town of Cornish, N.H., in 1953. His neighbors helped protect him by misleading reporters and fans about the location of his house. The students at nearby Dartmouth College did, too. People in the college library told me that he’d go into the college library to check something – seeking a reference to something that happened in the ‘40s? Nobody bothered him.

Jay Parini, a young English professor in the mid ’70s, wrote:

“He came often to read books or magazines in the Baker Library at Dartmouth, and several times I saw him reading by himself at a table, often late at night, in the basement of that library. Once he brushed passed me in the hallway outside my office, a lean and lonely figure. Everyone knew he did not want to be disturbed, and I would never have dared to say a word. I can still see him, a man of late middle age, hunched over a magazine at night, looking strangely out of place.’’

To read an essay by Parini about Salinger, please hit this link.


Baker Library, at Dartmouth College.

Baker Library, at Dartmouth College.

When I was in a small Dartmouth seminar on East Asian history with his then wife, Claire Douglas, no one ever mentioned her husband.

So for a recluse per se, the Upper Connecticut Valley seemed a good place to be. Whether it was good for his writing is another matter. He published nothing after 1965.

Salinger had a terrific sensitivity to how young people felt and spoke decades ago; he connected with, and wrote about best, children and teens. But of course just about all of them are dead, and their language in his writing sounds ever more dated, even to people like me who used to hear it all the time.

William Morgan: Touring the treasures of a cold campus

Spring in northern New England is a sometime thing. It does not usually come until May, if at all, and it doesn’t stay very long. (There's a bit of Yankee humor: "Spring around here is short. Last year, we played baseball that afternoon''.) A recent visit to Maine reminded me that we were still very much in what  the late Noel Perrin, my favorite Dartmouth professor, called one of New England's six seasons: "Unlocking''. Except for a few brave daffodils, there were no flowers to be seen and few leaves on the trees.



Waiting for spring: House neat Wiscasset, Maine.

My wife and I walked around Bowdoin College during this period of grayness. Where, we wondered, were the crowds of prospective Polar Bears touring the campus on their spring break? Our own son had seen the Brunswick school in the flush of summer. Would an introduction in November or March have chilled his ardor for Bowdoin? What about students from Virginia or California showing up expecting Maine to look as it appears in online college promotional material?



Main Green at Bowdoin College, looking north.

Yet, we found something strangely appealing about Bowdoin at this time of year–a kind of astringency, a stark honesty defined by barebones trees. There was a sense of what it means to live in Maine year round, or to have attended Bowdoin, say, back in the 1820s, along with Longfellow and Hawthorne, when Brunswick was far away and pretty isolated from the world.



View of the green from Massachusetts Hall (1802),Bowdoin's oldest building.

Minus the leafed-out of shrubbery and flowering trees, it is a lot easier to appreciate the astounding collection of notable 19th Century and early 20th Century architecture that forms the center of the Bowdoin campus.


Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead & White, was the most famous American architect to build at Bowdoin. The Walker Art Museum (1894) is a perfect Renaissance revival jewel. The Western canon of painters, sculptors  and architects whose names are carved on the façade might now be seen as a group of dead white men, but it was a typical homage found on Beaux-Arts civic buildings



Richard Upjohn was another giant of American architecture, best known for his Gothic revival churches, such as Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York. Upjohn, however, employed his beloved English Gothic only for Episcopalians. So the Bowdoin Chapel, 1844-55, was built in a severe German Romanesque for the Maine Congregationalists–a commanding if stern house of worship.



The tall and narrow chapel, with its large murals and painted ceiling, is an unexpected change from the starkness of unadorned white interiors of the typical New England meetinghouse.



Although not as famous as either Upjohn or McKim, Boston architect Henry Vaughan was a major designer of churches and colleges. Like Upjohn, he championed English Gothic. Here, Searles Science Hall of 1894 is an early example of a Jacobean-inspired collegiate building in America.



Echoes of Oxford and Cambridge, where Vaughan worked before emigrating to America, inform his Hubbard Library (1903). Soon, the lawn would be home to Frisbee games.


Above the entrance to Hubbard Library is this flowing banner carved with the admonition: Here Seek Converse With The Wise Of All Ages. Would such a motto be welcome in today's politically correct academy?


William Morgan is a longtime architectural historian and essayist. His books include Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire and A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England















Robert Whitcomb: Unfair to ban fraternities

The controversy over alleged sexual assaults and their cover-ups at the University of Virginia has refueled the seemingly endless war over the role of fraternities at colleges and universities. Many colleges, of course, have fraternities, though sometimes they go by other names, such as Harvard’s Final Clubs and Princeton’s Eating Clubs.

Are things worse these days, with students more out of control? Or is there more extensive and intensive reporting of outrages? Or both? How does behavior in dorms compare with that in fraternity houses?

The news media and the public love stories about bad behavior at colleges, with “Animal House,” the over-the-top movie filmed at the University of Oregon and inspired by the purported hijinks at Alpha Delta Phi at Dartmouth in the early ’60s, the sort of aesthetic quintessence of this. That many of these stories turn out to be apocryphal tends to be forgotten as the news media and the citizenry move on to the next sensation.

In any case, trying to ban college fraternities is unfair and unwise. Smaller independent social units not controlled by a large bureaucracy serve as environments in which to develop supportive relationships. And most fraternities are safe organizations in which many people develop lifelong friendships. The few bad ones skew the numbers.

As Will Kamin, president of Chi Psi at Amherst College, told The New York Times, “For a lot of these guys, this [his fraternity] is the only place where they can talk openly about their lives and form strong bonds,” and he told CNN that membership “has taught guys about what it means to be a man and a good man at that.”

I confess to having been in a fraternity and, while I’m not a particularly outgoing person, found it to be an edifying experience, surrounded by young people who were, all in all, gentlemen. The majority have gone on to have productive and highly civilized lives. They were pretty nice people back then.

Many fraternities also perform civic good works such as raising money for charities (including for the colleges themselves). Dorm living is too amorphous to elicit much of such commitment. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, the variety of social and civic organizations in America is one of our great strengths.

Why punish all fraternities for the actions of a few of their members?

There is also the little matter of freedom of association, which a diverse democracy must protect. I suppose that colleges have the right to ban their students from membership in certain groups as a condition of being registered students, but at the risk of undermining the “diversity’’ that leaders of higher education always assert that they favor. (Of course, diversity in colleges doesn’t always include diversity of opinion.)

Individual fraternities vary about as widely as humans do. As with any organization, it depends on who is in them, particularly their leaders. And the prevention of bad behavior depends on the willingness of college administrations as well as fraternity and sorority leaders to report possible offenses to the police and cooperate with outside authorities in criminal cases. But all too often, crimes by students at colleges are treated as “internal matters.”

Indeed, over recent decades, many college and university administrations have acted to shield students from outside law enforcement. What college administrations should have been doing is to immediately call the police (not the campus cops) if they think that a crime has been committed. Such a stance will, over time, make students much less likely to commit them. Perpetrators must be made to realize that they will be punished.

Any institution with large numbers of young people is particularly susceptible to excessive drinking and sexual assault. The Nov. 30 New York Times article, “In the Company of Men: Why is it so hard to prosecute sexual assaults in the military?” detailed the very serious problems of inadequate reporting and prosecution of sexual assaults in the U.S. military. Some of the cases sound similar to recent fraternity incidents. As in other institutions where these problems persist, vigilant reporting and tough prosecution are essential to achieve long-term improvement.

College administrations and faculty should, of course, lecture students on the perils of heavy drinking, sexual assault and so on. Most students, after all, are late adolescents and are presumably in college to learn about how to be responsible adults, and not just from academic courses. But shielding criminal students from the police goes too far. A crime is a crime, whether in the military, in a dorm, in an on-or-off-campus fraternity or anywhere else.

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.

Writing for Rolling Stone? Make up your own factoids

  More and more it appears that  the most  outrageous stories in the troubled Andrew Lohse's story "Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy''  (about Dartmouth College) were  fabricated. It was published in Rolling Stone because that magazine wanted another sensationalist story (like its recent UVA rape story) and ignored all traditional journalistic  rules of fact-checking, talking to all sides of the story, seeking corroboration, etc., etc.

In Rolling Stone, writers just make up  stuff with impunity.

It's increasingly difficult to believe anything in that mag.

William Morgan: The Quaker Coast

  Photos (below) and commentary by WILLIAM MORGAN

It has been almost a decade since I published a book of photographs on the Cape Cod cottage. Since, then, I have been looking for another suitable topic.

My (more successful) photographer friends tell me no one is underwriting black and white photos taken with film. And my favorite publisher nixed the idea for a photographic study of what I call the Quaker Coast (the towns of Dartmouth and Westport in Massachusetts, and Little Compton, just over the border in Rhode Island), declaring  that there would be no market for such a book.

Yet there is something special – and not yet ruined – about those three towns. Fishing and agriculture still survive, if not actually thrive, there. And the mostly unspoiled landscape and the prevalence of a plain vernacular architecture, mostly wrapped in cedar shingles.

In lieu of the fantasy book, I offer the readers of New England Diary three images from the book proposal.


quaker2 quaker1



Addendum: Much of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket were also Quaker. I went to a few family memorial services in the Quaker meeting house in West Falmouth, on the Cape.

Many whalers were of Quaker background -- but that didn't make them gentle at all. Rather, many were tough and rapacious.  Many became very successful capitalists whose investments spanned the world.

-- Robert Whitcomb




Wind-dried wood

  I read an article the other day in  The Providence Journal about a cotton-textile mill in West Warwick, R.I., called the Lippitt Mill.  The charming old building is made out of wood.

There are wood structures in New England going back to the 17th Century. In few places in the world can such wooden structures last that long because of rot and insects. But New England's wind and cold winters preserve the wood, of which we still have a big supply. Another reason not to complain too much about our challenging climate.



The president of my college alma mater (Dartmouth) has given a fine speech about the need to stop the very small --- but all too loud -- members of that community who engage in bad, fraternity-idiot behavior. Because of stories going back to the '20s and '30s and the rise of Winter Carnival then,  and later, the very funny if misleading ''Animal House'' stories allegedly based in part on hijinks in the Alpha Delta Phi House at Dartmouth, the college has developed a reputation for outrageous behavior by a few undergraduates.

The new president of Dartmouth, Philip Hanlon, was himself a member of A.D., before going on to Cal Tech for his doctorate and later serving as provost of the University of Michigan. So were  my father and grandfather, two soft-spoken gentlemen who I never saw drunk. ( I'm a lifelong expert on  alcoholism from the other side of my family.)

But writing as a member of a fairly demure fraternity myself back in the '60s,  and watching closely what happens at other "elite colleges,'' I can say that Dartmouth gets a unfair share of the blame for bad behavior committed by a tiny percentage of male students.

Unfortunately, every institution has branding assets and  deficits. Dartmouth long ago was branded as rowdy, even as, say, students at the University of Chicago  (where an undergraduate recently died of alcohol poisoning) were branded as neurotic and hyper-intellectual.

It takes a lot of time and lot of money to change an image, however misleading it may be. Being a student at Dartmouth mostly means doing a lot of academic work (with no pre-exam reading periods in which to catch up unlike at most of its peer institutions) forced by its intense trimester system. But that's not nearly as good material for the news media as beer-pong tournaments.

Perhaps the college needs  a Don Draper type from Madison Avenue to rebrand the place for the new international academic mass market.


Third person rural


While driving through the Vermont hills a few weeks ago, I thought about two artists much associated with New England’s rural parts — Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost — and the relationship between their lucrative rural public personas and private lives. No surprise that there was quite a gap! For one thing, they were born outside New England — Frost in San Francisco and Rockwell in New York City — and grew up in cities. More importantly, their public images were, and are, at considerable variance from their personal lives.

Norman Rockwell has been much in the news again lately because of the new book “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” by Deborah Solomon. In it, she not only discusses Rockwell’s genius as an illustrator, but also a private life that was often quite tormented. (Like, I would guess, most lives.)

Ms. Solomon discusses Rockwell’s depression and anxiety. And she speculates (to the dismay of the artist’s family) that his life may have been complicated by homoerotic longings that may (or may not?) have expressed themselves in his many pictures of winsome, Tom Sawyer-like boys and handsome square-jawed men. He also had three troubled marriages and was a hypochondriac — and to the pleasure of his millions of fans, a workaholic.

Stockbridge, Mass., the Berkshires town whose scenes provided many of the ideas behind Rockwell’s famous illustrations, is also the site of the Austen Riggs Center, the mental hospital whose staff has treated many celebrities. Ms. Solomon says that Rockwell and his second wife, Mary Barstow, an alcoholic, moved there from Arlington, Vt., so that Mrs. Rockwell could be treated for depression. Rockwell himself used Austen Riggs’s services.

And yet the pictures that Norman Rockwell painted of the town are mostly upbeat — evoking a small-town communitarian paradise. “I paint life the way I want it to be,” he famously said.

Then there was the mating of modernist and 19th century poetry that is the great work of Robert Frost. Frost, like Rockwell, was a city boy whom the public came to primarily associate with rural New England themes, but innocent and Arcadian his poems are not. Many evoke a chilly or even malevolent universe. (My favorite is “Design.”) Far more Ethan Frome than Currier & Ives.

But as his fame spread in the English-speaking world (he first became well-known in England, where he lived in 1912-15), that he looked like Hollywood’s idea of a Yankee farmer, and his folksy genial manner (for public consumption, anyway) tended to overcome in the public mind the darkness of his poems. He could have been a character in a Rockwell painting. This was in part intentional: Being seen as a charming cracker-barrel philosopher/poet brought in the lecture and poet-in-residence fees. He became the most famous poet in America.

Thus we have the curious transformation of the deeply intellectual Frost (whose characters were mostly ordinary country people, whose speech patterns and emotions he was deeply familiar with) into an icon of popular culture.

Consider the revision in Norman Rockwell’s reputation from “merely” a “fine popular illustrator” to being seen as a kind of great artist, with aesthetic links to other masters going back to the Renaissance. It takes a long time for society to figure out what it really thinks of its artists and politicians.


Memoirs have been one of the comparatively strong parts of the book business in recent years. With aging Baby Boomers, expect a lot more. A few recent ones:

‘’Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House,” by Denis O’Neill, is a mildly fictionalized account of the 1969-1970 academic year at Dartmouth College. O’Neill is a journalist, screenwriter and musician. On Dec. 1, 1969, the Selective Service System held the first lottery since World War II for the draft, bringing great anxiety to some and relief to others, and “The Sixties,” as we know them, reached their crazy crescendo. (You could say that “The Sixties” as a cultural phenomenon didn’t really end until, say, 1972.)

Then there’s Rhode Island investment mogul Tom DePetrillo’s book about the downs (including personal bankrupty) but bigger ups of his career. He was one of 11 children and a school dropout before he made a fortune as an investor. The book provides chatty and colorful advice and observations on business, public policy, politics and life in general.

Finally there’s Ralph Barlow’s “Beneficent Church in Providence: A Church Engaged with an Emerging New World,” the Rev. Mr. Barlow’s memoir of running the church from 1964 to 1997, during which this downtown Congregational institution’s experience included many of the recent social upheavals of American society.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb4@cox.net), a biweekly contributor, is a Providence-based writer and editor. He blogs at newenglanddiary.com.

The keg, a joint and hoping for a high number

Read  about Denis O'Neill's memoir about being at college (Dartmouth)  in 1969 when the last lottery for the military draft was held. Animal House meets geopolitics meets the hippies meets Scott Fitzgerald meets the State Police. The book  is called Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House. My number was 361. My friend Steve Perry's was seven. He was killed a few weeks after arriving in uniform in the Republic of Vietnam.