December 09, 2006


Here's a bit more about the historical background of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. Well, it turns out to be quite a lot more, I'm afraid -- once you start pulling at a loose thread on the internet, you can unravel a shocking quantity of historical fabric before your second cup of coffee gets cold. Anyhow, on page 156, just before the crimson=worm paragraph discussed earlier, there's a passage that allows us to date the event, more or less, and also excites a few linguistic resonances:

It was a less than intimate tête-à-tête. Alumni of both persuasions were milling everywhere in and out of the lobby, gesturing carelessly with foaming beer steins, sporting hats, spats, and ulsterettes vividly dyed in varying densities of the rival school hues. Every five minutes a page came briskly through, calling, "Mr. Rinehart! Call for Mr. Rinehart! Oh, Mr. Rinehart!"

"Popular fellow, this Rinehart," Kit remarked.

"A Harvard pleasantry from a few years back," explained Scarsdale Vibe, "which shows no sign of abating. Uttered in repetition, like this, it's exhausting enough, but chorused by a hundred male voices on a summer's evening, with Harvard Yard for an echo chamber? well . . . on the Tibetan prayer-wheel principle, repeat it enough and at some point something unspecified but miraculous will come to pass. Harvard in a nutshell, if you really want to know."

"They teach Quaternions there instead of Vector Analysis," Kit helpfully put in.

We'll come back to the Quaternions vs. Vectorists issue another time (though if you're impatient, you can read this). An article in the Harvard Alumni Magazine ("I Love My Vincent Baby", September-October 2002) explains the "Rinehart" part:

'Rinehart' is a Harvard rallying cry that goes back to the turn of the century. Its eponym was one James B.G. Rinehart '00, who was often hailed by a classmate beneath his window. On a warm June night in 1900, the classmate's cry of 'Oh, R-i-i-i-n-e-HART!' was spontaneously taken up by hundreds of inmates of the Harvard Yard, and in after years reverberations were reported from sites as far off as Cairo. In recent years, the tradition has all but died. Rinehart himself died in 1952.

But the Rinehart story turns out to be quite a bit more interesting. Over the decades, the story underwent a curious series of re-interpretations. David Winter, ("Gordon Allport and the Legend of 'Rinehart'", Journal of Personality 64(1), 1996) describes the process.

The first stage:

John Bryce Gordon Rinehart (1875-1952) was a member of the Harvard Class of 1900, having graduated from Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania 2 years earlier. He was intelligent (going on to graduate with honors) and affable, with many friends. He took most of his courses in history, government, and economics and on the side tutored other students in these subjects. He lived on the fifth floor (no elevator) of Harvard's Grays Hall. His friends and tutees, in order to save themselves an unnecessary climb up four flights of stairs, were in the habit of first calling out his name in order to see whether he was in.

On June 11, 1900, Rinehart was out of town, but left his windows open because of the heat. Some friends came by and called his name. Thinking he was in but hadn't answered because he was studying, they called again and again. (One person who claimed to have known Rinehart well between 1908 and 1923 described him as a "grind" who "often studied late at night.")' Suddenly, in imitation, students in other dormitories took up the cry, "Oh Rinehart!" The following night this same call was repeated across the campus. A tradition had been bom.

The second stage:

Within a few years of the events of June 1900, a legend developed around the "Rinehart!" cry. A 1950 survey of 74 Harvard alumni asking how the cry started (Feeney, 1950) showed that 72% of graduates from the classes of 1900 through 1909 gave some version of the true story stated above. Among graduates of the classes of 1910 and later, however, only 5% knew the truth and fully 76% replied with something along the lines of the following, which we shall call the "core legend".

The "core legend" of the second folkloric stage, from "Feeney, 1950, quoting a member of the Harvard Class of 1916":

An undergraduate of the Nineties or earlier, who roomed in the Yard and had few friends, used occasionally to stand below the windows of his empty room and call his own name, Rinehart, in hopes of adducing the attractive odor of popularity and friendship. He was probably caught at it, and the cry was taken up derisively from other windows.

A variant of the second stage -- which apparently never had much folkloric impact -- was invented by the American psychologist Gordon Allport, who entered Harvard as an undergraduate in 1915. In the fall of 1917, he

... entered a contest sponsored by the YMCA magazine North American Student for the best account of a "most highly treasured" college tradition. His essay, "Harvard's Best Tradition," won the first prize of $20 .... It was a retelling of Harvard's "Rinehart" legend.

But Allport's version was subtly altered. The Rinehart call began as jocular annoyance with a popular student; legend transformed it into derision of a lonely poseur; Allport transmuted derision into sympathetic acceptance. Here's how his prize article started:

Many years ago, in one of the venerable ivy-covered dormitories in the college yard, there lived a very lonely freshman. This freshman, like most of his kind, was full of ambition and aspiration, and had come to college to win himself a creditable place in the fraternity of Harvard men. He craved popularity, but had little talent in the art of becoming a social leader. He couldn't play football; couldn't dance; was neither good nor bad in his studies; had no pronounced vices or signal virtues which might appeal to one crowd or another. He was indeed a typical awkward youth of seventeen.

Many an afternoon he sat by the window listening to his classmates call their favorites to come and join a happy crowd bound for a Saturday hike to Fresh Pond or for a theater party in town. Eagerly he waited, hoping that some one would call: "Rinehart, O, Rinehart, do you want to go?" He often rehearsed his response to this coveted invitation, visualizing carefully his entree into the society of his classmates. But the call never came.

One day, out of sheer desperation and loneliness, he went down in front of the dormitory and, just to see how it would sound, called his own name vigorously, "Rinehart, O, Rinehart, come on down!" How glorious it sounded! If only. . . .

The rest of the story is not hard to imagine. One of the boy's observant classmates—there were a few such—witnessed this scene, and associating with it the remembrance of certain timid advances and wistful looks, divined the secret.

The sympathies of the crowd were easily aroused by the story, and special effort was made to fraternize with the lonely boy. Ever after it was the custom upon passing his window to call to him to come and join in all excursions.

As time passed , the Rinehard legend accumulated additional layers of event and invention:

Over the years, several incidents attributing almost magical efficacy to the "Rinehart!" cry accumulated around the core legend. Morrison (1936), for example, repeated the following story:

A Harvard graduate, pestered by touts in the courtyard of Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, called "Oh, Rhinehart!" [sic] and was presently answered in the same kind from four or five windows, whose occupants then helped him to disperse the beggars.

Kahn (1969) added the story of "a Harvard man in Africa who was about to be kidnapped by some Arabs, screamed 'Rinehart!' and was rescued because there happened to be another Harvard man nearby in the French Foreign Legion".

The "Rinehart!" cry also penetrated American popular culture, John Barrymore mentioned it in the 1939 movie. The Great Man Votes, and the song "Harvard Blues," written by Harvard graduate George Frazer and recorded by Count Basie, includes the line, "Rinehart, Rinehart, I am a most indifferent guy . . ."

In Harvard Blues, it's hard to tell whether Rinehart is intended to be the protagonist or the referent of a ritual vocative:

I wear Brooks clothes and white shoes all the time
I wear Brooks clothes and white shoes all the time
Get three "Cs," a "D" and think checks from home sublime

I don't keep no dogs or women in my room
I don't keep no dogs or women in my room
But I'll love my Vincent Baby, until the day of doom

Rinehart, Rinehart, I'm a most indiff'rent guy
Rinehart, Rinehart, I'm a most indiff'rent guy
But I love my Vincent Baby, and that's no Harvard lie

Institute and Porky are my clubs
Institute and Porky are my clubs
And I think that girls at Radcliffe all are dubs

Went to Groton and got a big broad A
Went to Groton and got a big broad A
Now at Harvard and follow an indiff'rent way

Do my drinking down in the cool Ritz Bar
Do my drinking down in the cool Ritz Bar
Dad is Racquet and Chilton is my ma.

("Vincent", by the way, is here a reference to an exclusive women's club, not to an antique brand of motorcycle. Such clubs -- Institute, Porky = Porcellian, Racquet and Chilton are other references in the song -- were central to the anthropology of the American upper classes in the 1930s. And the "big broad A" is a reference the class-tinged trap-bath split, with a punning echo of the earlier line about "three Cs and a D".)

Here's the story of how Count Basie came to record this song in 1941, according to the Harvard magazine article -- he was charmed by the second stage of the Rinehart legend:

In his 1984 biography of Frazier, Another Man's Poison, Charles Fountain reports that in 1941 Frazier regaled his friend Basie with a sadsack version of the legend: "Rinehart was a friendless young Harvard who tried to present the illusion that he was in truth a popular sort by standing under his dormitory window and hailing himself," wrote Fountain. "Every other November, on the eve or the morning of the Harvard-Yale game, part of the atmosphere in the lobby of the Taft Hotel in New Haven was the faithful and incessant paging of Mr. Rinehart—'Call for Mr. Rinehart! Call for Mr. Rinehart!'— with never a Mr. Rinehart to answer."

All this amused Basie, and Frazier was emboldened to write his lyric. Basie and arranger Tab Smith wrote a tune for it. John Hammond, a Columbia Records impresario, recorded the blues, perhaps as a favor to Frazier. The song was popular and became a regular part of the shows Basie gave on college campuses. It enjoyed some critical acclaim, the New York Times's jazz critic calling it one of the "greatest of all blues lyrics." That went too far, Hammond told Fountain years later. "It wasn't very good."

The last stage of the Rinehart legend: oblivion. According to David Winter's article:

The custom seems to have died out after World War II and especially after the campus turmoil of the 1960s. (An informal poll of recent Harvard graduates by the present author turned up no one who had heard of either the cry or the legend.)

In the fictional world of Against the Day, I'm not sure whether the original Rinehart event is supposed to have taken place in 1900, as it did in reality -- in which case Vibe's phrase "a Harvard pleasantry from a few years back" would put the conversation in 1903 or so; or in the 1890s, as it did in some versions of the stage 2 legend -- in which case, the conversation might have taken place much closer to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, where the book begins.

[Ironically, Allport later suggested (Gordon Allport and Leo Postman, "An Analysis of Rumor", Public Opinion Quarterly, 10(4) 501-517, 1946) a "basic law of rumor" according to which the strength of a rumor is proportional to the importance of the topic multiplied by the ambiguity of the evidence: R ≈ i x a.]

that Posted by Mark Liberman at December 9, 2006 12:02 PM