Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Finding Fuller

May-June 2003

I've got a crush on Hank Fuller — and who can blame me? Toby "Hank" Fuller Jr. worked his way up from the junior-varsity football team to play right end on the varsity squad. As a surprise last-minute addition to the hockey team, he scored the game-winning, sudden-death goal against Yale for the league championship. He's so loyal and honorable that he shouldered the blame when the dean of the College summoned him to University Hall to account for the cream pie one of his friends launched at curmudgeonly Professor Sparks. He has never resorted to physical violence, even when Edwards, Hank's rival from their days at Groton, used his connections at the Crimson to malign him on the newspaper's editorial page.

JHJ-fuller.football
Illustrations by Bruce Adams from the 1939 edition of Robert Smith Playfair's Fuller at Harvard

Hank is both rich and generous: he lent the captain of the football team $2,500 toward his tuition bill and he secretly covered his roommate's hospital expenses when a car accident confined him to Stillman Infirmary. He dresses well. He drives a nice car. He helped foil a pair of robbers holding up a post office. He's got a wide circle of friends that includes both the blue bloods with whom he attended Groton, and the Cambridge townies with whom he plays pick-up games of ice hockey on the Charles. He's so personable that, although he'd never met his roommate before they both arrived at Dunster B-14, the two are now inseparable. Oh, I know Hank has a few faults: he's obsessed with winning his father's approval and he sometimes worries too much about football games. He's gone on a couple of dates with a Wellesley student named Joan, but I don't think it's serious. Really, Hank's only major flaw is that he's fictional — the protagonist of Robert Smith Playfair's 1939 novel Fuller at Harvard.

When I first became enamored of Hank Fuller, I was reminded of the summer before my freshman year. I was then working on a tourist railroad in my hometown. Most of the other employees were old men. One of them, Joe, had worked in the maintenance division of Harvard's athletic department for years; another, Bud, was the son of a Harvard alumnus and had sold programs at Harvard football games as a boy. When I worked the train's snack bar, they would serenade me with "Fair Harvard" and "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard," and reminisce about the time they'd spent in Cambridge. JHJ-fuller

"Those kids would charter trains down to New Haven for the Harvard-Yale game," Joe would tell me. "Boy, they was wild. Wild? There was so much drinking, I tell you...." He'd trail off, misty-eyed.

"You should have seen the men in those stands! The crowds — ," Bud would begin, the very memory of all those Crimson fans launching him into a rendition of "Soldiers Field" wherein the "Fight! Fight! Fight!" received special emphasis.

Although I had attended only one football game during my entire high-school career, the fondness with which Joe and Bud recalled the exploits of the Crimson eleven and their manly young fan base made me long to spend autumn afternoons in the colonnaded stadium, shouting along with the crowd to the brassy strains of "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard." By the time I left home in the fall, I had almost convinced myself that I was departing for a Harvard where young men were exemplars of manly virtue and good clean fun, a Harvard from which special trains overflowing with Crimson fans snaked up and down the Eastern seaboard, a Harvard where everybody burst into impromptu choruses of "Soldiers Field" at the least provocation.JHJ-fuller.statue

The actual Harvard — where the young men aren't exemplars of anything in particular, from which only an unglamorous bus rattling with a handful of hardy Crimson supporters follows the football team to its away games, where memory lapse forces many fans to improvise all of the words that follow "Ten thousand men of Harvard" in the fight song — proved something of a disappointment. The young, fervent men whom Joe and Bud remembered were, I decided, a product of the nostalgia that can blur the memories of octogenarians.

But when I discovered Fuller at Harvard in a secondhand bookstore over winter break, I was transported again to the College in its imagined, Bud- and Joe-inspired incarnation. Hank Fuller and his friends, who are known by nicknames like "Prof," "Hoolie," and "Madman," engage in clean-cut high jinks like "getting nabbed by Colonel Apted's college police for painting saddle-backed shoes on John Harvard's statue in the Yard." At Fuller's Harvard, the administration casts a kind eye on students' antics: "'But heck,' Madman had complained to the dean, when questioned, 'nobody's worn that kind of shoes for three hundred years. John must feel embarrassed. We thought....' The dean thought differently, but let Madman get away with it, which allowed him to stay off probation and on the football team."

The dean is similarly understanding when he speaks to Hank about the pie Madman has lobbed at Professor Sparks. Although he tries to smother his chuckles in a handkerchief, it's pretty clear that the dean thinks that Professor Sparks, who "from other men who had come before him...had adopted the habit of knocking off with his cane the hat of any student he came across in Widener Library who had not uncovered his head in the hallowed presence of old books," had the pie coming.

Sports are as central to the lives of Hank Fuller and his friends as they were to the lives of the young men whom Bud and Joe remembered. Fuller's Harvard is the sort of place where Madman can say, when he and his roommate see Fuller moving into his Dunster suite, "'It's the son of old Toby Fuller — remember? The man who scored thirty points against Yale in 1911, or somewhere around then?'" and have his roommate nod in recognition of Toby Fuller's celebrity status. It is the sort of place where, during the Harvard-Yale game, which Playfair calls "the Alpha and Omega of sport," "the event which makes railroads run specials and taxi-drivers rich," the Yale stands erupt into pseudo-religious rituals:

Then, with the clock indicating less than two minutes to play, and the ball in possession of Yale, and with Joshua the magnificent back, a wordless song came from the Yale side of the field. Like the wind on open prairies it started and rose weirdly, till it resembled the same wind off a rocky coast in a sixty-mile gale. They were standing as one man, the Yale rooters, and chanting the rising and falling chant which carried a note of tragedy and inevitable defeat, of savage exultation in the certain fall of the enemy. It was the Undertaker's Song, sung always when Yale was in the lead and sure to win. Such a song had the half-civilized followers of Beowulf sung when the great hero had killed in mortal combat the monster Grendel and had been borne, himself dying, homeward on their shoulders.

It is the sort of place where Hank Fuller comes of age when he realizes "he had it now — the will to win. The desire, irresistible, to wrench victory from the opponent despite the adverse yells of grandstand quarterbacks or arena balcony strategists." JHJ-fuller

Hank's college is Harvard as I had first imagined it, and Hank Fuller himself — who, in addition to being a dedicated athlete, is also a sensitive guy given to reflections like: "Joan! He thought of her in that moment as he had always thought of her — as the one girl who had brought meaning to his life" — is the Harvard man as I had imagined him.

 

Reading Fuller at Harvard, I was reminded anew of present-day Harvard's shortcomings. None of my friends has ever defaced the John Harvard statue; nobody I know of thinks that Harvard sports are of vital importance; no Yale chant that I've ever heard bears even a passing resemblance to gale-force winds, let alone to anything found in Beowulf.

But perhaps the problem lay not with Harvard, but with my circle of friends. Humming "Soldiers Field," I decided to go on a pilgrimage to what I had come to view as the nexus of the imagined Harvard: Hank's suite, Dunster B-14. After wending my way through the Dunster basement, I emerged in B entryway and looked for B-14. B-10, B-11, B-12....

"Pardon me, I'm looking for B-14," I said to a man entering B-11. He looked at me pityingly. "Is there a B-14?" I asked. He shook his head.

I have been more disappointed in my life, but not recently. I don't know what I had expected to encounter in B-14 — a time warp? one of Fuller's descendants? the 1936 Harvard football team? — but I had certainly expected to encounter B-14. B-14, after all, was not only the name of Hank Fuller's suite, it was also the name of a football play that figured heavily in the Harvard-Army game in Fuller at Harvard, "an end sweep to the left that developed, five yards behind the line of scrimmage, over near the sideline, into a long, deep heave down the field to the right end."

Hoping that the fictional B-14 had imparted some of its glory to the actual Dunster B-entryway, I asked the man entering B-11, who turned out to be a senior psychology concentrator named Adam Grant, if his Harvard experience bore any resemblance to Hank Fuller's. Had he, for instance, ever painted saddle shoes on John Harvard or thrown a pie at a professor?

"Last year, several of my roommates and I succeeded in filling another roommate's mailbox to the brim with cheese," he said.

Well, this was the sort of prank in which Madman might engage. Remembering Hank's comely love interest, Joan, I asked Adam if he'd ever dated a Wellesley student.

"I only know four Wellesley girls: two current students and two alumnae. I haven't had romantic interests in any of them, especially not the one who happens to be my roommate's mother."

The real test of the fictional B-14's influence, of course, was whether Adam played varsity sports.

"I was a springboard diver in high school, but I don't play varsity sports here. I regularly lift weights, play Ultimate Frisbee, and Rollerblade" — none of them activities in which Fuller had engaged. I sighed. Adam continued: "I also perform magic tricks, mediate conflicts, and conduct psychology research. I also love teaching."

 

I couldn't imagine Hank Fuller performing magic tricks, mediating conflicts, or conducting psychology research. And as I walked back from Dunster, mourning the spirit of Hank Fuller, passing bulletin boards plastered with overlapping posters for dozens of student organizations, I realized I couldn't imagine Hank doing much else, either, other than squaring his chin manfully as he jogged out onto the gridiron or glided into the hockey rink. Although Fuller at Harvard was written in 1939, Hank doesn't seem aware of the Depression, or of the war in Europe — or of anything outside the narrow universe of Harvard athletics. Even Joan's main attraction for Hank is that, for a girl, she's unusually interested in sports.

JHJ-fuller.hockeyMy friends and I talk about the "Harvard bubble," and I think we've inherited some of Hank's solipsism. There is some truth to the much-circulated joke that it takes just one Harvard student to change a light-bulb, because he stands still and the world revolves around him. But looking at the collage of flyers stapled to the bulletin board, advertising a cappella performances and plays and peer counseling and guest speakers, I began to doubt that such bulletin boards lined the entryway leading to Hank's mythical Dunster suite. We may be as deeply concerned with our own pursuits as Fuller was — and most Harvard students flourish their full day-planners like badges of honor — but unlike Hank's, many of our pursuits are intended to serve other people.

Yes, Hank Fuller's Harvard is more steeped in tradition and more deeply interested in the progress of the football team than the Harvard I know, but it's also far more insular. And while I hope to be inspired by the spirit of Dunster B-14 every November, and while I'm glad Joe and Bud taught me all the words to "Soldiers Field," I'm not sure that I want to find Hank Fuller after all. I have no idea what we'd talk about.