Book 205: Harvard’s Secret Court – William Wright

Wright, William - Harvard's Secret CourtI’ve wanted to read this since a book group I was in when I first moved to Boston read it. They read it before I joined and I thought it sounded interesting. So keeping with my theme of expanding my reading (and apparently reading a lot more nonfiction) I requested it from the local library.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. This book felt more like a really well written undergraduate research paper than a book than a published book (and they were typos too). Part of this I believe comes from the structure and subtitle of the book and the other part I think comes from the super-focused subject matter. I discuss both below, but before I get to that I do want to say that it was an interesting read and I found many of the stories compelling and the appalling way in which Harvard dealt with these students should be a black mark on their history and reputation regardless of the time period. Not only did the Secret Court expel a number of individuals they were so adamant in their beliefs that they expunged the records of some of the individuals completely removing them from Harvard University records and if any of those expelled attempted to get into another school or a job using their Harvard connection/credentials, Harvard had a policy of exposing explicitly why they were expelled and this continued into at least the 1970s.

What bothers me most is the subtitle, “The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals.” It is not only misleading, but broad sweeping and made me expect something completely different. The “purge” consisted of a very specific group, not all of which were expelled or even faced reprimand and only eight individuals were expelled/fired from a rather large student body and faculty. The author even states later in the book that there were many other groups that were underground or went underground after this incident. I mean sure the title did it’s job, it made me want to find out what happened at Harvard University in 1920, but it also was a major let down in that it was super specific to the sophomore class and one group within that class.

In addition to the subtitle I had issues with the way the book was structured. I think Wright had a good idea going but then it unraveled and a really good editor could have pieced it into a better story. There was entirely way too much jumping around and mentioning things to come. The blaring example of mentioning something to come that never did, was the idea of the ideal ‘Harvard man.’ Wright kept alluding to it but never actually went into detail explicitly about him and this just irked me. Sure he described the ideal ‘Harvard man’ here and there, but there was nothing like a direct comparison or Venn diagram of a ‘Harvard man’ and these young men. The last two things I had issues with merged together the super specificity of the book and Wright’s attempts at a broad stroke of homosexual history at the end of the work.

This book could easily have been two separate books or two volumes of one book (which Wright or his editors attempted, but it didn’t work). On one hand we have the incredibly specific focus on a few individuals and what happened to them and why it happened, both before and after 1920. And on the other hand we have the broad sweeping historicity Wright includes about homosexual persecution throughout history and an attempt to explain homophobia as an ingrained genetic trait. Including both of these was not a problem, but the tangential connection made it very hard to appreciate Wright’s attempts. The only reason he brought all of this in was in an attempt to explain why the individuals on the Secret Court behaved the way they did and why they were so vicious to the expelled individuals and it didn’t work for me. It was such a stretch and the assumptions, which he was very open about, were not able to be backed up by evidence that the book would have been better left with an open ending rather than this broad swath of classification.

Recommendations: Pass. I hope there are better works out there about this because this one just didn’t do it to me. It actually wasn’t a horrible book and the stories were all compelling, I just couldn’t get around a few of the style decisions and the strange super specific-super vague dichotomy.

Opening Line: “The first moments on wakening were the good ones.”

Closing Line: “Perhaps. But in 2005, after the research for this book was completed, all reference to the Secret Court files was mysteriously erased from the online catalogues of the Harvard University Archives.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional quote from Harvard’s Secret Court
“The young person new to gayness must first work through the arduous process of admitting to himself he is gay. Then he must struggle with the terrible risks involved with being himself, acting in accordance with the dictates of his fundamental nature. Finally, he is faced with making the giant leap into total openness, to present himself to the world as an unashamed, undepraved, unrepentant homosexual.” (271)


11 thoughts on “Book 205: Harvard’s Secret Court – William Wright”

  1. What a letdown. I saw the title and thought, “Oh! This sounds interesting–I’m going to want to read this…” and then went on to read your review. Sigh. It sounds like the book had so much potential.


    1. It really was, that title was so misleading. I mean there were still interesting bits, but I kept waiting for it to get bigger and become an all out witch hunt and not just the persecution of one group.


  2. I hate misleading titles, but I do love Harvard. Okay, I didn’t go to the school (you’ve read my blog so you already knew that) but I love the area. Have you been to the Border Cafe? The chips and queso and cheese quesadillas are fab. Oh and try a marg. Afterwards, head to Charlie’s. That’s a good spot after a night of drinking. Oopps, this has nothing to do with the book 🙂


    1. LOVE LOVE LOVE Border Cafe – one good thing that came from my Ex. They do do great margaritas there and I love their burros, I’ll have to try a quesadilla. It’s been a while, maybe I should go this weekend. Hmmmmm.


          1. I think they have a veggie meal. My vegan friends ate that once. It was the only option since they even cook their rice in pig fat. Oh man, I want to go there!


            1. If I’m going out, I’m going ALL out 😀 I’ll just pay for it later. If there was one thing I missed while living in the UK it was good Mexican/Tex-Mex. There just weren’t that many options.


              1. Growing up in California I love Mexican food. I made tacos this weekend since I need a fix. And London is fab, but no Mexican. But they do have great curry.


  3. So upsetting to be interested in a book concept but dislike the book itself. I think that it’s perfectly okay to dislike a book even if the subject matter is sensitive or interesting. For instance, A Train in Winter is on a moving, deep topic, but it just was not my favorite book, you know? I think that’s okay.


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