John Harvard's Journal
Harvard Advocate alumni take stock.
On the first warm night in May, several hundred literary New Yorkers gathered in a duplex apartment on Park Avenue. They were celebrating—not the publication of a recent book (despite the presence of authors like Louis Begley ’54 and Nell Freudenberger ’97), nor the success of their publications (though editors at The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux were in attendance)—but the unexpected persistence of the magazine that had introduced so many of them to writing: The Harvard Advocate, now 150 years old.
Excess reigned. Above the Willem de Kooning on the wall: a Jackson Pollock. Atop the piano in the sitting room: a sculpture of a piano. On a terrace overlooking Central Park, Gay Talese was telling a group of women about the sartorial indulgences of decades past. “I had 100 suits. They never seemed to fall apart.” One undergraduate was saying that she had heard that Lena Dunham would be attending. Another was apparently upset because she had met an actor from Downton Abbey and had asked him his class year. A former Advocate member was nervously confiding to a friend that, in a haze of excitement, she had complained to Zadie Smith about an allergic reaction to shoes bought at Urban Outfitters. (Journalistic ethics require me to identify that young woman as myself.) Other partygoers grumbled about the lack of snacks. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed the cluster of grapes on a silver grape-shaped platter with a silver grape cutter, or a small bowl of candies one can only describe as “European.”
How different it was from the Advocate’s small, white, clapboard house, with a door that never quite shut, a toilet always about to clog, drafty little rooms with stray papers and misplaced sweaters. When the magazine moved in 1957 from its offices on Bow Street to the two-story building at 21 South Street where it remains, the opening celebration featured a live stallion, with cardboard wings, tied to a large dictionary. (The Advocate’s seal features Pegasus.) Former editor Donald Hall ’51 read a poem. Former editor T.S. Eliot ’10, A.M. ’11, Litt.D. ’47, sent his regards in a telegram.
But almost immediately after its opening the building seems to have lapsed into a state of charming disrepair, in part because it is so consistently used. At any moment you may find students analyzing poetry, finishing up papers, and or engaging in a host of other activities, many of which I cannot mention here. “I so remember the smell of the stale, gin-soaked carpet….The locked offices were the settings for many romantic dramas,” says Alexandra Jacobs ’94, a features writer and editor at The New York Times. “It was the place you could go and talk about DeLillo,” says novelist Benjamin Kunkel ’96.
Photograph by Daderot
The Sanctum, the large open second-floor room with the names of past editors inscribed in gold lettering on the walls, frequently hosts readings by professional writers. In the 1980s and 1990s, Seamus Heaney (not yet a Nobel laureate or Litt.D. ’98) would visit occasionally. It was “one thing to study [his poetry] in English 10a, another to be hearing it in that room,” says Anne Fulenwider ’94, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire.
Several times a week, members of the different editorial boards gather to discuss submissions. “We had to develop a vocabulary for what makes stories good,” recalls Lev Grossman ’91, staff writer at Time and a novelist. “That ended up becoming one-half of my career as a book critic.”
Then there are the parties that have left the floor permanently sticky and alumni still reminiscing in a tone of embarrassed excitement years later. A 1956 Harvard Crimson report recalls the glory days of Advocate events: “At parties for T.S. Eliot, of course, decorum has always prevailed, the atmosphere being more sentimental than sensual. But there was an entirely different air about the Elizabeth Taylor party. And the Dylan Thomas party was notable for the number of people who were thrown downstairs.” More recent gatherings have perhaps been less illustrious. “There was an S&M party and someone brought handcuffs and was handcuffing people to people they didn’t like very much,” offers New Yorker writer Elif Batuman ’99.
A list of writers who published their early work in the Advocate reads like a condensed introduction to American literature of the twentieth century: poets John Ashbery ’49, Litt.D. ’01, Adrienne Rich ’51, Litt.D. ’90, Frank O’Hara ’50, Kenneth Koch ’48, Frederick Seidel ’57, translator Robert Fitzgerald ’33, composer Leonard Bernstein ’39, D.Mus. ’90, novelists Sallie Bingham ’58 and Francine Prose ’68, journalist James Agee ’32, and editor James Atlas ’71.
Even Advocate rejections have their own distinction. Robert Lowell ’39 was forced to nail down a carpet in the Sanctum when trying out for the magazine’s literary board as an undergraduate, only to be told that he wasn’t talented enough to join. Years later, he conceded in a Paris Review interview, “I wasn’t a very good writer then, perhaps I should have been turned down,” though he also complained that the editor who rejected him was “out of touch.”
The Advocate was founded in 1866. Its predecessor, the Collegian, lasted only a few months before being shut down by the school for attacking mandatory chapel attendance. The editors were told that they would be expelled if they published a new issue. Instead, a student named F.P. Stearns started a new magazine. “[I] cared little whether I was suspended or not,” he wrote. He gave it two mottos: Dulce est periculum (“Danger is sweet”), and Veritas nihil veretur (“Truth fears nothing”).
The British critic Frank Kermode once wrote that a position on the Advocate “confers on its holder a good chance of national eminence.” This is evidently overblown. Yet members of the magazine often end up on the right side of literary history. As an undergraduate, James Laughlin ’36, later the founder of New Directions, published a racy story by Henry Miller called “Glittering Pie.” The Cambridge police confiscated issues, and the price of a copy went from 35 cents to a dollar on the black market. The assistant district attorney complained that the Advocate was “the product of youths who have made up for a deficiency in experience…by too close a study of subjects which were never prescribed by Harvard.” His colleagues, Laughlin later wrote, were bought off with tickets to the Harvard-Yale game. James Agee, president of the Advocate in 1932, published a satire of Time, parodying the tone of that magazine as it applied to historical events. (Elektra, he wrote, was Aeschylus’s “latest nerve-shatterer,” a play “well worth a trip to the new State Theater.”) The parody so impressed Henry Luce that he hired the young man out of college to begin his journalism career at Fortune.
Other undergraduate work did not obviously herald new talent. Wallace Stevens, president of the magazine in 1901, used the pages of the Advocate to comment on the minutiae of Harvard life. “The present cheer, with its first three breath-consuming ‘Harvards’ followed by nine enthusiastic ‘rahs,’ generally brings up with a gasp on the last ‘Harvard,’” he wrote. “It has to be coaxed; we need a cheer that would be irresistible.” Years later, he begged Donald Hall to give him final say on the selection of his student writing included in an Advocate anniversary anthology: “Some of one’s early things give one the creeps.” For decades, editors of the Advocate have debated whether Eliot’s early poetry published in the magazine was really all that good. In 1986, editor James Atlas (now on the board of the magazine) wrote that those poems he’d found in the back issues “had the vaguely derivative feel of undergraduate verse—derivative of what, I couldn’t have said.” This past year finally brought a clear stamp of professional approval: one of Eliot’s Advocate poems was published in The New York Review of Books.
Unlike the Crimson, which puts out a daily paper and whose editors are quickly hired by national newspapers, or the Lampoon, with its strong network of West Coast television writers, the Advocate has always occupied a rare amateur space at a school that rewards professionalism. “Lampoon editors usually went to Time, ours to oblivion,” wrote former member Norman Mailer ’43. True, young members of the Advocate are very aware of the tradition that precedes them—as with many things Harvard, the introductory comp meeting involves a long list of names of famous alums. But the attraction of the magazine also comes from the fact that it allows for a kind of experimentation that often isn’t given a place of its own, whether on campus or beyond. The Advocate was “really about hanging around and talking about things,” says Susan Morrison ’82, articles editor at The New Yorker and a board member of the Advocate. “It wasn’t something that you did to get a job afterwards.”
The Advocate is primarily devoted to poems and fiction and other attempts at artistic inquiry, yet student members do make sure that the publication comes out four times a year, despite the vagaries of undergraduate life and the magazine’s seemingly constant money problems. “It’s kind of an organizational miracle the way people were delegated to do things like tutor [other students through the comp process] and make decisions,” says Jacobs.
Hindsight may, of course, give student work a polish it actually lacked. My friend the writer and translator Jessica Sequeira ’11 recently forwarded to me responses to the many query letters she sent as a features-board editor seeking contributions from established writers. “Dear Jessica, Do you mean November 19 2010? That is eleven days from now. It takes me months to think of things. All the best, Colm [Toibin].”
Yet Mark Greif ’97 found professional implications in the characteristic impracticality of fellow Advocate members. “The fact of having other people around you who are preparing for that particular life, with all of its ups and downs and sacrifices and glories, even while at other parts of Harvard people were really oriented to money or public life—it was really important in giving me the idea that you could go do it,” he said.
Greif is one of the ones who did “do it”—about 10 years out of college, he founded the literary magazine N+1 along with several other Advocate graduates. (N+1 is the closest we have to the Advocate in the outside world, says New Yorker writer and Advocate board member D.T. Max ’83.) N+1 editor Ben Kunkel had read his inspiring stories at the Advocate “to a rapt audience,” says Greif. Fellow editor Keith Gessen ’97 was among those who heard Kunkel read, though he was not a member of the magazine. “Arriving and finding the Advocate to be incredibly pretentious was just one of the disappointments that I experienced [at Harvard],” he says now. (He did later publish a story in the magazine as an upperclassman, an imitation of Pale Fire, “which I’m sure if a freshman read it, it would have sounded very pretentious.”) N+1 also found one of its first writers in the pages of the undergraduate magazine. “Keith said, ‘Wasn’t there that tall Turkish girl who wrote something amazing?’” Kunkel remembers. That is how Batuman started contributing.
The Advocate honored N+1, as well as Louis Begley and John Ashbery, at the anniversary party. Alums described how the Advocate had appeared in unexpected ways after they left college. For years, as Greif had recalled earlier, students comping the fiction board had to read “They Ride Us,” a story written “by a mythical figure, Caleb Crain, which just seemed like a pseudonym.” When he moved to New York later on, Greif said, “I went to a party at The Nation, where there was a bespectacled person sitting on a banquette. Someone said, ‘Have you met Caleb?’ ” I said ‘Not Caleb Crain! Author of “They Ride Us!” ’ ” (“For a while I worried that I had peaked early and that that [story] was going to be my most famous work,” says Crain ’89, author of the critically acclaimed novel Necessary Errors.)
In a corner, a young man was talking about undergraduate exorbitance. There’s a reason, he was saying, that the event planner of the Advocate is called the “Dionysus.” “Every party reached new heights of debauchery.” Yet the 150th celebration ended almost calmly, until in their orderly departure, too many guests crowded into the elevator and broke it. Stragglers left through the back exit.