Stranger than Fiction? Five Adams House novels

Sean M. Lynn-Jones

(Editor's note: clicking on the images below will take you to Amazon for those volumes still in print.)

Many novels have been set at Harvard. Some, such as Erich Segal’s Love Story, William Martin’s Harvard Yard, Nick McDonnell’s An Expensive Education, John Marquand’s The Late George Apley, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Tenured Professor have become bestsellers or minor classics. Others, such as Little Codfish Cabot at Harvard, have been forgotten, perhaps deservedly so. Of the numerous fictional portrayals of Harvard, at least five books have been set partly or entirely in Adams House or the Gold Coast dorms that were incorporated into Adams when the House system was born: Michael White, Descent (2010); George Weller, Not to Eat, Not For Love (1933); Lisa Pliscou, Higher Education (1989); Jane Harvard, The Student Body (1998); and Sean Desmond, Adams Fall (2000). Let’s consider these books in historical order, according to when the events portrayed in each took place.

The storyline of Descent revolves around an actual event: the mysterious death of Stewart Douglas Robinson, nephew of Theodore Roosevelt, who on February 20, 1909, fell fatally from his room in Hampden Hall (the Beaux-Arts building on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Plympton Street that now houses the Harvard Book Store). The novel’s author, Michael White (a pen name for an Adams alum), introduces Henry Appleton Wadsworth, a Harvard undergraduate and Crimson reporter living in Westmorly Court (in what is today restored as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Suite). Wadsworth, a classmate of Robinson’s at Groton, turns detective to unravel the mystery of his friend's death. In the course of his pursuit of the truth, he also enjoys the benefits of Porcellian membership, confronts his own budding sexuality, and meets historical figures such as T.S. Eliot and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Descent is the most recent Adams House novel, but its temporal setting is the earliest of the five books discussed here. Many of its events take place in the Gold Coast residences of Westmorly Court and Randolph Hall, both of which were later incorporated into Adams House. White paints a vivid picture of the Edwardian interiors, including the layered oriental rugs, gas lamps, the Morris chairs that were de rigueur in Gold Coast undergraduate rooms, and, of course, the luxurious Westmorly swimming pool, “glass roofed, decorated with white trellis and palm trees, fireplaced and sporting an abundantly mouthed river god that spouted jets of heated water into the marble-lined bath.”  It probably will come as no surprise to those who lived in Adams before the late 90s that the pool is central to the novel’s plot, serving as the scene of late-night illicit activities that prove critical in resolving the mystery of Robinson’s death. The cosseted opulent life enjoyed by Gold Coast residents goes hand-in-hand with a rigid social hierarchy and pervasive snobbery. Wadsworth lives in a privileged world of final clubs, dances in Boston’s finest hotels, and summers in Maine. He is part of the “set” of Bostonians and New Yorkers who will join the right clubs and make the right connections at Harvard. Wadsworth muses that gentlemen pursue C’s not because they are incapable of academic excellence, but because it would be unseemly and unnecessary to excel in the classroom. Students outside this exclusive group are either “digs,” social outcasts who insist on taking their studies seriously, or “everyone else": foreigners, students born west of the Hudson (who seem to Wadsworth "more foreign than the foreigners"), excessively serious athletes, and scholarship students. Wadsworth’s roommate, Sinclair (loosely based on John Reed), has socialist leanings and offers a deft counterpoint to the worldview of Wadsworth’s society circles.
The Harvard depicted in Descent is a web of secrets that the College assiduously attempts to conceal. Behind the ivy-covered walls, the aura, the mystique, and the age-old traditions, a shocking scandal lurks. In doggedly seeking the truth about Robinson’s death, Wadsworth soon uncovers far more than he bargained for. As the story darkens, Henry's tutor, Archibald Cary Coolidge – builder of Randolph Hall, professor of history, and university librarian – informs Henry: “You are merely a player in a much greater game…A mere player, with few options, none good.” Indeed!

George Weller’s Not to Eat, Not for Love, is not exclusively about Adams House. It is a much more general fictional account of Harvard life in the 1920s. Written in a modernist style with similarities to the work of James Joyce and John Dos Passos, Not to Eat, Not for Love won much praise when it was published in 1933. Arthur Schlesinger called it “the best book about undergraduate life at Harvard.” Timothy Noah of Slate magazine agreed, referring to the book as the “best novel ever set at Harvard” when he wrote about Weller’s death in 2002.

Modern readers may have trouble following the action of Not to Eat, Not for Love, because today’s Harvard bears little resemblance to the Harvard of the 1920s. Adamsians, however, will find accounts of familiar places. Among these is Apthorp House (today the Masters’ residence), which in the 1920s  was an undergraduate dorm. Structured as the answer to an exam question, “Discuss the influence of a single building in Harvard University on the social life of members of the University during a period you have studied,” the chapter on Apthorp explains that “the old house had an infinite amount of living in it.”  Weller describes how at one time,  windows had been broken by snowballs “scattering hundred year old putty on the broad oak beams of the carpetless floor and launching a cold sword of February air across the room into the blackened mouth of the fireplace.”  Students played football in the halls and “every Tuesday night in spring and autumn they held a water fight that streaked into overwashed weariness the majestic white treads of the ancient staircase.” When  the house was later renovated, showers were installed, individual locks were placed on each room’s door, and an editor of the Law Review became a proctor. The chapter also includes the comments of the instructor who graded the fictional exam: “Why no mention of General Burgoyne’s confinement in Apthorp House? ...Your answer is undocumented, padded, and incomplete.”

Weller reveals that “the men in Apthorp used to unlock a basement window of the Squash Courts during the day and go swimming at night in the pool under Apthorp House.” That pool, which was actually in the basement of the former athletic building behind Apthorp, closed long ago, but Weller’s account suggests that the tradition of surreptitious late-night swimming was not confined to Westmorly. In another chapter, Weller briefly alludes to one of the legends associated with it: “Two men stand on the edge of the Westmorly pool rubbing themselves dry. ‘Pretty lucky to be able to swim in your dormitory,’ says the visitor, watching the green waves grow calm. ‘I know,’ answers the host. ‘There’s a story about Ann Pennington and this pool, but no one seems to tell it the same way.’” (Pennington, a famous showgirl/actress of the early 20th century, reportedly swam nude in Westmorly.)

After publishing Not to Eat, Not for Love, Weller became a war correspondent and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943. He was present when Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942 and was one of the first Westerners to enter Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city. He wrote books on each set of events, although his account of the devastation in Nagasaki was censored and was not published until 2006. After World War II, he returned to Harvard as a Nieman fellow and reestablished his connection to Adams House, playing center on the House intramural football team.

In Higher Education, Lisa Pliscou tells the story of ten days in the spring of the senior year of Miranda Walker, member of the Adams House class of 1982. Miranda parties at the Advocate and the Spee Club, juggles the men in her life, worries that she may be pregnant, has sessions with her therapist at the University Health Services, works as a desk attendant in the philosophy library, and borrows her roommate’s underwear. Although she seems to be a strong student, Higher Education barely touches on Miranda’s courses or academic interests as an English concentrator. If she studies, she hides it well. She prefers “to breeze into exams, serenely whip [her] way through a bluebook or two, and leave forty-five minutes early.”

The plot unfolds almost entirely in the form of dialogue and Miranda’s first-person narrative. There is abundant witty repartee and sarcasm as Miranda and her classmates strive to be hip: “What brings you into this den of sin anyway? Waiting for Godot or something?” Readers may find some of the dialogue—and Miranda herself—annoying. Miranda’s classmates and friends certainly do, and, among other things, they call her “a manipulative, neurotic bitch.” Miranda’s therapist reads her poetry for insights into her psyche and finds that, “There’s a morbid theatricality here which is pretty striking.” Miranda thus falls far short of being a sympathetic character.

Miranda rarely seems to be enjoying herself. At one point she even says, “Do you really believe that this is my idea of fun?” When the Reverend Peter Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals, declared at the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Adams House that he was sure that Adamsians were (sinfully) having much more fun than the rest of Harvard, he apparently didn’t have Miranda and her classmates in mind.

By the end of the interlude depicted in Higher Education, things seem to be looking up for Miranda. She gets a job offer from First Boston and the starting salary increases every time she tells her friends. A thick envelope arrives from Columbia and she learns that she has been accepted into graduate school. Miranda and her roommate are on better terms. The book ends on a hopeful note as Miranda resolves to move forward “one step at a time,” but where she is going remains unclear.

Higher Education evokes the Adams House of the early 1980s with descriptions of the House and its residents that will ring true to students of that era. Miranda observes that “the Adams House dining hall embodies an intricate and ever-changing social matrix in which different areas and even specific tables manifest varying degrees of prestige and chic” and she walks to her chosen table “taking care to avoid all unnecessary and potentially fatal eye contact en route.” The dining hall is guarded by an ever-vigilant checker who accosts and evicts interhouse diners who dare to eat at Adams. For flamboyant Adamsians, the dining hall is the place to see and be seen. Miranda admires the attire of Robbie and Adolfo: “handsome red frocks—new Kamalis, if I’m not mistaken. Their earrings, necklaces, stockings, and pumps are all charmingly coordinated in varying shades of red.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given the (in)famous natatorium’s central role in other Adams House novels, Higher Education sets none of its action in the Adams House swimming pool. The book does, however, tantalize readers with an allusion to an incident at the Indoor Athletic Building (IAB—now the Malkin Athletic Center) pool in which “somebody on the swim team got tangled up with the inflatable shark and almost drowned.”

In Adams House and beyond, Higher Education offers reminders of Harvard life in the 1980s. Students drink at the Ha’Penny Pub, the Oxford Ale House, and other long-forgotten establishments. A “Stop Apartheid Now” banner hangs in front of the Crimson. Students run to the occasional “Eurofag Quaaludes-and-Cointreau party.” With its descriptions of such activities and a population of students with different genders, races, ethnicities, national origins, and sexual orientations, Higher Education reminds us how much Adams House and Harvard in the 1980s differed from the Harvard depicted in Descent and Not to Eat, Not to Love.

The Student Body, by Jane Harvard (a pen name adopted by four Harvard graduates), is also set in the Harvard of the 1980s. The plot revolves around Toni Isaacs, an Adams House junior and Crimson reporter, who suspects that some Harvard students may be working as prostitutes and starts to investigate. She uncovers a complicated web of intrigue involving a ring of Harvard prostitutes, a university committee charged with increasing the value of Harvard’s investment portfolio, a biotechnology start-up firm that is a prime candidate for investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, and Harvard faculty engaged in various illegal and immoral activities. Along the way, Toni pretends to be a prostitute, gets hauled before the Ad Board, and spends some time in a cell at the Cambridge police station. She and her classmates also have lots of great sex, which the book describes in explicit detail.

As in Descent, the Harvard depicted in The Student Body has lots of scandals and secrets that it strives to conceal. Toni uncovers plenty of damning evidence of how Harvard’s faculty and high officials have been led astray by their ambitions, sexual appetites, and desires to further enrich Harvard. She faces a choice between revealing the truth and protecting the University. Ultimately, she does exactly what one would expect of a student at a college that has “Veritas” as its motto.

Although the plot of The Student Body unfolds in locations ranging from a working-class neighborhood in Revere to a mental institution in the Berkshires, much of the action takes place in Adams House. The book offers rich—and slightly stereotypical—descriptions of Adams House and its residents in the 1980s. The authors gratifyingly acknowledge that Adams is “one of Harvard’s most desired dorms.” The “Adams House uniform” consists of “entirely black clothes.” Two students are held up as exemplars of Adams House. Nguyen Van Minh is a beautiful bisexual refugee from Vietnam: “Even among the hipper-than-thou residents of Adams House, Van was a standout, as famous for his wit and good nature as for his perfect cheekbones.” Aimee Milvain, with her “asymmetrical blond hair” and “a pierced eyebrow,” is “a mainstay of the Adams House in crowd and Van’s biggest follower.” For Toni, “Aimee was quintessential Adams House—shallow, trendy, and self-dramatizing. In addition, she had a nasty tongue. She did, however, consider Toni a friend, and she could be amusing on occasion.” Toni joins her friends at her “usual table in the smoking section of the dining hall.”

The Adams House swimming pool has a central place in The Student Body. With a hint of envy that will convince readers that the book’s authors did not in fact live in Adams House [They lived in Lowell, poor things! Ed.], The Student Body declares: “Adams was the only house to have its own private swimming pool. House residents knew they had a good thing going; they jealously guarded their aquatic sanctum, with its lovely wooden details and cavelike intimacy.” Outsiders are aware of “rumors that get started every year” about “wild orgies in that swimming pool.” These rumors are confirmed when Toni’s roommate peers through the door to the pool late one night and observes Nguyen Van Minh, various other students, and “the aristocratic British music tutor” with “limbs interwoven, as if caught in an early morning game of Twister.” (If you just have to flip to those pages first, it’s 145–147).  Later, Toni makes a more chilling late-night discovery in the pool: the nude body of a fellow student, floating face down. In a case of art imitating—indeed, anticipating—life, the pool is then drained and closed.

The Adams House tunnels also feature in The Student Body: “all kinds of hangout spaces, created by artistically inclined students who seemed to have a lot of time on their hands.” Late one night, Toni is pursued into this “subterranean maze” and a lengthy chase ensues. She passes “titillating graffiti,” as well as “empty weight rooms” and “psychedelic murals” before she reaches a dead end and is cornered. (The description of the tunnels is not entirely accurate, in that Toni runs by squash courts and eventually finds a tunnel that leads toward the central kitchen and other dining halls, but the authors are entitled to a little poetic license.)

One of the many villains in The Student Body is the master of Adams House, Sterling Kwok, who bears little resemblance to Professor Robert Kiely, the actual master of Adams House in the 1980s. Kwok is noted for “his affected mannerisms, his Anglophilic persona, and above all his readiness to uphold the status quo.” Originally from Hong Kong, Kwok has risen to become dean of students and master of Adams House, but “the illustrious Dean Kwok” is now jaded and disillusioned after his recent divorce, covered in great detail by the Crimson . For Kwok, “Once the world had seemed full of possibilities. But that had been nearly twenty years ago.”
Sean Desmond’s Adams Fall depicts the disastrous fall semester of an Adams House senior. The unnamed protagonist of the book begins the narrative by remembering that “the year began strangely” and that “by senior year I saw nothing but the tedious steps toward a burnt-out career or frustrated life playing Frisbee with other graduate students inside a self-preserving bubble called the academy.” Things rapidly get worse. He grows tired of his long-time girlfriend and starts cheating on her. He neglects his academic work and finds himself on probation. His application for a Marshall scholarship fails miserably. After he submits an unsatisfactory outline and sample chapter, his thesis adviser informs him that he must abandon his thesis and give up hope of graduating with honors. His comment, “Something about senior year was leaving a bitter taste” turns out to be a huge understatement. As Thanksgiving approaches, he recognizes that “Disaster seemed imminent” and descends into madness and illusion.

The protagonist is unnerved by multiple strange events. He finds that someone has added red dye to the washer with his clothes in it in the Adams House laundry room. Crucial pages of notes are ripped out of his thesis notebook. The clothes hanging in his closet are thrown to the floor and a funny smell lingers there. Most important, he begins to believe that someone is watching him. Eventually, on the roof of B-entry, he meets a stranger wearing a jacket and tie—a young man who claims that he once lived in Adams House but finds that “it’s not as fun as it once was.” Among other things, the young stranger tells the protagonist, “The only reason for your paranoia is your paranoia.”

The protagonist of Adams Fall lives in B-entry, which itself almost plays the role of a character. Its dark hallways and stairwell provide an appropriate  backdrop to the protagonist’s accelerating mental collapse. The protagonist describes the building as a “stone monster” whose hallways have “a severe Gothic quality.” He complains that “the starkness of the hallways and landings left me cold and uncomfortable” and that “B-entry had its certain quiet gloom and the shadows were pitched in corners as if it were midnight.”  He asks another student, “Is B-entry haunted?” and she replies, “I know it is. It feels damned…The pipes make these weird noises. And sometimes there’s this smell in the hallway and closets.” As the protagonist spirals downward and the hissing of the steam rises in his ears, he admits that “the whole entryway gave me a nervous feeling” and that “the whole place made me feel claustrophobic.”

Once again, the Adams House swimming pool is the setting for a horrifying event. Although the protagonist does not venture into the pool, he discovers that it was the scene of yet another (fictitious) scandalous late-night aquatic tragedy. He reads old newspapers and visits a retired Harvard security guard to discover that three Harvard seniors died there on a Halloween night in 1956. Two were found with their wrists slashed, apparently victims of a dual suicide. The third may have drowned later, possibly while trying to save the other two. All were naked. The retired security guard had found the deaths suspicious, but he concedes that he never figured out exactly what happened. He tells the protagonist that police officers on the scene “started calling [the dead students] the three fairies or the three Ophelias.”

Adams Fall also locates some of its action in the Adams House tunnels, which it describes as so “dim” and “poorly lit” that “passing people in them made [the protagonist] bristle.” The protagonist ventures outward to wander through the steam tunnels under Harvard Yard and beyond. These tunnels provide a suitably creepy setting for some of the protagonist’s most horrific experiences (or hallucinations). By Fall’s dramatic end, however, a staid and overbearing university again asserts its rights: “The College covered up the affair with the convenience of Thanksgiving break. None of the papers got wind of it, and the families, my own especially, grieved quietly.”

These five novels of Adams House tell part of the story of Harvard’s evolution from an elitist all-male preserve to a coed, multi-ethnic, meritocracy. They offer a mixed and sometimes unflattering composite portrait of the House and its Gold Coast buildings over the past century. Adamsians have more fun than the residents of other Houses, except when they are too busy being tragically hip or lapsing into psychosis. The swimming pool can be a pleasure dome or a den of iniquity. (Is there a difference?) The master might genially preside over tea or engage in venal plots to enrich Harvard and advance his career. All five books should entertain former residents of Adams House, regardless of when they graduated.

Will there be more Adams Novels? It seems likely. In The Student Body one of the characters says, “why not turn your writing talents to Adams House? There are a thousand stories in the naked city, and most of them are right here in your own backyard.”