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It would be difficult to imagine a more intriguing topic for a book: in 1920, Harvardís esteemed president, A. Lawrence Lowell, put into action an inquisitorial secret court to ferret out, expel, castigate, and humiliate homosexual students. The result of this judicial burlesque was a score of ruined lives and several suicides. It would also be difficult to imagine a worse book on this topic than William Wrightís Harvardís Secret Court: The Savage 1920s Purge of Campus Homosexuals. Given the clumsiness of Wrightís organization, the laxness of his writing, the lurid excess of his rhetoric, and the paucity of his historical analysis, itís amazing that Harvardís Secret Court has any narrative drive at all. But this story is so compelling that the book is a page turner.
Wright relies on the cinematic techniques of cross-cutting and flashback. Harvardís Secret Court begins in 1945 with a nameless, mentally disturbed 56-year-old man brooding on his past as heís incarcerated in Taunton State Hospital, then quickly switches to the 1920 suicide of 21-year-old Harvard sophomore Cyril Wilcox in his Fall River family home. Wilcox had just come out to his older brother Lester; he was also having academic difficulties. Two letters addressed to Cyril from Harvard friends in his gay circle arrive at his home after his death and are read by Lester, who brings them to the attention of Chester Greenough, Acting Dean of the College, arguing that his brotherís suicide is the result of Harvardís allowing an underground culture of decadence and sexual perversion to thrive within its hallowed walls.
As the Secret Court (its official title) is convened and begins to summon students, thereís the usual witch-hunt drama of heated denials, emotional confessions, and naming names and then the inevitable guilty verdicts. This should be the heart and soul of Harvardís Secret Court ó Wright had access to Court minutes, notes, and correspondence from Harvardís archives ó but his inability to formulate a cohesive, clear narrative is apt to sabotage your reading pleasure. Still, the book has a cast of colorful characters, most of whom he paints in extravagant but entertaining colors. Ernest Roberts, a self-styled æsthete who at the center of Harvardís gay life frequently gave parties that featured men in drag and heterosexual sailors on the make. Ken Day, an excellent scholar and athlete who was, according to a friend, "being sucked foolish by anyone and everyone he can lay hold of." Keith Smerage, who while claiming to be heterosexual was nonetheless guilelessly forthcoming to the Court about his numerous sexual encounters with men.
Wrightís historical and psychological analysis is mostly banal: he argues that Harvard wanted to combat its reputation as the least masculine of the Ivy Leagues and that President Lowellís intense homophobia was a direct result of his public humiliation over having an openly lesbian sister, the mannish, cigar-smoking poet Amy Lowell. But when he allows these men ó in their letters and their quoted Court testimony ó to speak for themselves, weíre afforded a moving glimpse into their lives.
Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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