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The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, and: The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archaeology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity (review)
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Greek-letter fraternities have been an integral part of higher education in America since the antebellum period. During their heyday, which peaked in the 1920s, fraternities, often in collaboration with sororities, dominated social life on college campuses, elite ones in particular. Fraternity brothers epitomized coolness, excelled in athletics, masterminded pranks, monopolized elective student offices, dated the most popular "coeds," and received adulatory treatment from the media. They even dictated the behavior of college administrations, or rather, their alumni did. Alumni of fraternities formed powerful "old boy networks" which often controlled collegiate boards of trustees. Fraternal alumni also tended to be men of means, and they were known for contributing generously to their alma maters. Whenever college presidents, often fraternity men themselves, threatened to scale back on Greek life in response to especially egregious incidents of fraternal rowdiness, they risked alienating fraternal alumni and losing financial support.

Because fraternities exerted and continue to exert a great deal of influence, they are of interest to scholars. Social scientists in particular have done research on fraternities, generating quite a number of sociological treatises on the sexual behavior of fraternity brothers in modern times. Historical studies of fraternities in contrast are fairly rare, perhaps because many historians write primarily about the achievements of the great or the travails of the oppressed, and it is difficult to fit fraternities (white ones anyway) into either of those categories. Fraternities are reflective of oppression and greatness (as evidenced by their hazing of inductees and production of seventeen US presidents), but they are equally if not more reflective of class consciousness, gender politics, the advantages of networking, and changing definitions of manhood. All of these are fascinating phenomena, and they caught the attention of Laurie Wilkie and Nicholas Syrett, each of whom has recently written a compendious history of Greek life. Both of these books are excellent, and they greatly augment the historical record with regard to fraternities.

Of the two books, Syrett's is the more comprehensive. His book is a "macro history," encompassing the whole development of white American fraternities, whereas Wilkie's book is a "micro history," chronicling the story of a single (albeit exceptional) fraternity: Zeta Psi at UC-Berkeley. Should readers wish to learn about fraternities in general, they ought to tackle Syrett's book first, although they will find that he paints a highly disturbing portrait of Greek life. According to him, the story of fraternities is one of devolution. Early fraternities, which were modeled after the Masons, valued scholarship and gentlemanly behavior, but those ideals eroded over time. By the early twentieth century fraternities had become anti-intellectual, and by the late twentieth century they were exhibiting extremely crude behavior of the sort depicted in the movie "Animal House." Fraternities also maintained racist and homophobic attitudes that had become outmoded elsewhere on college campuses, and they became increasingly misogynistic in response to the women's rights movement.

Not everyone will agree with Syrett's portrayal of fraternities. They will insist that he emphasizes their negative aspects while downplaying their positive ones (camaraderie, lifelong brotherhood, the allure of secrecy, the meaningfulness of ritual, etc.). But even critics of Syrett will concede that his book is very clearly written. It also benefits from his extensive reading of secondary sources, although it is his use of archival materials that comes across as truly impressive. In advance of writing his book, Syrett plumbed the archives of well over a dozen institutions from around the country, compiling an unparalleled treasure trove of information about fraternities.

From the fruits of his research, Syrett constructs a detailed account of fraternal doings. He starts by focusing on the predecessors of American fraternities (mainly college literary societies); then he describes the country's first fraternity, Kappa Alpha, which was founded at Union College ("the mother of fraternities") in Schenectady, New York, in 1825. That Kappa Alpha was the first fraternity will be questioned by some (I myself know of a secret intercollegiate fraternity of aspiring missionaries, the Brethren, that was founded at Williams College in 1808), but Syrett makes a strong case in support of the Kappas being the first archetypal fraternity brothers. He also explains that early fraternities such...

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