I’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)