My Friend the Jew

"The system had been operating all around me from the day I came to college, and I had never seen it. I was a non-Jewish freshman pledged to a Jewish fraternity."

'But why didn't somebody tell me?' I asked. 'That is what I can't understand. It seems to me that you or A. B. or somebody might have told me.'

Like Lucy a few hours earlier, Lemmy found my ignorance hard to believe. He said, patiently enough, that everybody knew these things; that the difference between Jews and Gentiles was as obvious as that between men and women, and that it would never occur to anybody to state it. He further corroborated everything Lucy had told me about the opprobrium, the ridicule, the complicated varieties of discrimination and prejudice, to which any Gentile who belonged to a Jewish fraternity must submit throughout four years in college. He had known all this when he was pledged, said he; and he had still taken the pledge because (in his humility) he supposed the 'bid' to join a fraternity to be a rare thing, and a Jewish fraternity to be better than none. He agreed that no house could be pleasanter than ours, no friends more satisfactory; but he was convinced that remaining in the fraternity meant accepting a kind of permanent ostracism from the life of the Gentile part of the undergraduate corps.

We agreed, in a high state of hysterical agitation, to do 'something.' But that something could not be long delayed. The informal initiation into the fraternity would take place in an hour; and the following day we were to take the solemn oaths of the formal initiation, far more binding than those of matrimony. We were still in turmoil when the solemn knock on our door summoned us to the ordeal.

I went into the initiation in a state of nerves which might have made the simplest trial difficult for me; but fortunately it worked just the other way. No matter what the brothers might have done, I doubt if I should have cried out or betrayed a shred of my mortal terror. The only thing I can remember saying is a sudden and involuntary 'What's that?' when the brand of the fraternity's initial letter was put on my arm and I felt the searing of the flesh. That brand still remains, faint but quite clear, to remind me of the fantastic episode of which it was a part.

My initiation was short and easy; in five minutes it was all over and I heard A. B.'s kindly voice saying, 'All right, you can go back to your room.' Trembling with relief, I raced down the corridor to my own place and got into my clothes. Lemmy was already there, dressing. The house was perfectly quiet with our door closed, but occasionally the loud laughter of the upper-classmen came through from the continuing initiation. Lemmy sat on the edge of the bed and looked very glum.

'We can pack a bag,' he said, 'and go to Aurora after everybody is asleep. We'll have to jump out the window—that is, if you've made up your mind. You've got to make up your mind. If you want to do it, I'll stick to you.’

Breathlessly, like conspirators, we agreed on a plan. We both felt that it would be impossible to face the assembled brethren, headed by A. B., and tell them our decision. They could easily overwhelm us with arguments; and to-morrow, after the formal oaths of allegiance, it would be too late. So, at some time after midnight, with all the precautions and terrors of an elopement, we dropped a bag out the window and jumped after it. From the narrow garden side of the house it was a quick scramble to the street, to a taxicab, to the train. We arrived in the middle of the night at the house of Lemmy's astonished parents in Aurora and remained there for the next two days. It was Lemmy, of course, who wrote to the fraternity to explain what we had done.

On the following afternoon, A. B. arrived to talk to us. I remember very vividly that painful interview, in which all the arguments were brought forth in their unrelieved ugliness. Lemmy and A. B. did most of the talking. I sat in a corner, miserable and silent. In the end A. B. said that, since our decision was not to be changed, he would accept it, and that it would make no difference to either of us on the Daily Maroon. In a state of suicidal gloom, all three of us then returned on the afternoon train to Chicago and the University.

A. B. seemed to me, and still seems to me, the most admirable person I knew in Chicago. He could not have been more than twenty, but he was invested, in my eyes at least, with the wisdom of the ages. He had apparently founded great hopes for the fraternity on both of us, and our desertion was a blow to him. He had a sense of justice; he could see that there was something to be said on our side, and, having accepted the monstrous situation, he made the best of it. During the rest of the year, when all the other brothers in the bond cut us dead in the street, A. B. seemed to be very little changed. And in the spring, when the freshmen were weeded out for the next step in the Daily Maroon's hierarchy, it was A. B. who made me Night Editor for the following year. There may have been other fraternity men with enough maturity of mind to rise above the system, but I never knew one. A. B. was unique in my generation.

The next three months were, for Lemmy and me, a taste of thoroughgoing ostracism from the normal 'campus.' We were, for the winter term, 'barbs' -that is, 'barbarians,' since 'all who are not Greeks are barbarians.' But we were in far worse position than other 'barbs,' because they, for the most part, cared little or nothing about the ordinary undergraduates, led their own lives, and had their own friends. We had none.


It is a curious fact, which may or may not prove anything, that almost every man or woman of my generation at the University who has since made any impression at all on the world was a 'barb.' Some of them, like John Gunther, were barbarians from choice and on principle; others, like Glenway Wescott and Elizabeth Madox Roberts, were so sharply different from the ordinary undergraduates that the fraternities and clubs would have been afraid of them. Glenway Wescott frightened most of his classmates by his waving yellow hair and his floating black cape and his weirdly literary manner of speech. Elizabeth Roberts, austere and diligent, serious with a terrifying concentration, never showed the slightest interest in the frivolities of the ordinary undergraduates. These and other 'queer ones' came to be almost my only acquaintances in the University during that term of ostracism from the gayeties of the campus; they were (God save us all!) the 'Poetry Club.'

The Poetry Club had been formed early in the winter of my freshman year by Robert Morss Lovett and other professorial advocates of an intellectual life for undergraduates. It had started as a prize competition for student poetry. I had sent in two bits of verse, neither of them much good, and had thereafter concealed my temerity from everybody, even from A. B. The prize was awarded to a senior whose name I forget, a medical student; but it was explained in the Daily Maroon that this had required two ballots, since on the first it was found that three undergraduates had tied for first place. The three were the aforesaid medical student, Glenway Wescott, and myself. The medical student got the twenty-five dollars and we got the Poetry Club.

There were only six members of the Poetry Club when it was founded, I believe. It has since amused me to reflect that all of the six afterward earned their livings in one way or the other by their imaginations. Two of them became successful novelists, Elizabeth Roberts and Glenway Wescott; one, Yvor Winters (he used to be Arthur Winters), is one of the Santa Fe poets; one is the editor of a paper which gives racing tips in New York; one is a doctor; one—myself—a tramp journalist.

We used to meet solemnly in little padded drawing-rooms in Ida Noyes Hall and discuss the productions of our colleagues. I never liked my own verse well enough to read it aloud, but I remember that Glenway always had a sheaf of immortal poetry somewhere about him, which he was ready to read out at the drop of a hat. His poetry was exceedingly 'modern,' without rhyme or metre or capital letters or punctuation, and very often (to my untutored ear) without sense, either. But I was conscious enough of my shortcomings to realize that this was probably my fault, not his; and I sat through many a long reading of which I could make neither head nor tail. Glenway's voice and accent were extraordinary, such a mixture of Oxford English and Chicago preciosity as made me wonder where on earth he came from. It was almost impossible to believe the truth, that he had leaped into the University straight from the wilds of a Wisconsin farm.

The solemnity of these gatherings at the Poetry Club would have stunned T. S. Eliot himself. It was sometimes extremely difficult for me to keep from snickering, particularly when the young poets were carried away by the excitement of reading their own productions. More than once Jeans, the president, had to reprove me for undue levity in comment. I still think the whole thing was funny, but not perhaps so uproariously funny as it seemed to me at sixteen. The whole fraternity-and-campus-collegiate side of me crinkled with hostile and unreasoning laughter at the sight of Glenway declaiming his impassioned verses, his yellow mane thrown back and his childish face uplifted. His subsequent development into a sincere and sensitive artist would have seemed incredible to me then, if anybody had been so rash as to predict it.

The barbarians, the grinds, and the highbrows undoubtedly learned a great deal more in the University than I did. Scornful of the whole 'campus life' which preoccupied the rest of us, they grew into intellectual maturity more rapidly than their fellows, and I am certain that their interest in general ideas was aroused long before most of us knew what an idea was. They knew nothing of fraternities or clubs, went to no 'parties,' ignored the existence of football. It might have been a good thing if I had remained one of them. But I was afflicted by a dichotomy which has never left me: I could not avoid trying to make the best of two worlds. The term of ostracism to which Lemmy and I had been submitted by inter-fraternity rules came to an end in the spring, and I soon forgot all about the Poetry Club in the excitement of readmission to the other, the average, world of the undergraduates.

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