THE BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE AND OTHER LIES
The Class of '56 revisited
Every year in late October, the University of Toronto Alumni Association stages a Homecoming Day, timed to coincide with the Queen’s-Toronto football game (Gaels vs. Blues in the stadium) and presumably meant to arouse in the university’s graduates just the right combination of nostalgia and generosity, so that next time the Varsity Telethon rings seeking funds for the Living Endowment the alumni will respond with hearty cheques.
When I was an undergraduate at Toronto in the Fifties, the day was regarded with small disdain. (Stay off the front campus on Saturday; there’s going to be a float parade and a lot of boozy old grads in argyle socks and brown fedoras.) And in 14 of the 15 autumns since (my God, I can’t believe them) when I’ve been a heedless graduate, I’ve tended to look at the Homecoming notice for five seconds when it arrived in the mail with something close to amusement. (I wonder if anybody goes?) But this October past, my graduating year — the Class of 5T6 — was being specially honored and it seemed right somehow to set off for Homecoming in the crazy-eyed expectation that the day might turn out to be Significant.
I had the notion fixed in my mind that with any luck I might be able to get some kind of picture of my generation, the generation of the Fifties, the one that’s supposed to have grown up cool and is now in its middle thirties, holding fast to minor positions of power, climbing hopefully to major ones, warily approaching Middle Age.
And it was. Though the picture was drawn less out of the day’s events — the campus walking tour, the float parade, the chicken-at-high-table lunch, the football game, the Reunion Year reception (paid bar, dry sherry, one dollar, sipped in front of the Great Hall fire) and a dance I never even got to -— than out of the memories, dead dreams and pale reflections those odd events evoked.
The girl (class of 7T2) who con-
ducted our campus tour, firmly reciting facts about the new medical building and the new library and the new coeducational facilities at the University College residence, may have seen in me and the classmate walking with me two garrulous 36-year-olds talking about heroin addiction in the high schools, protests against the Amchitka blast and the lopsided results of the Ontario election. What I saw was the two of us the way we’d been 17 years before in the autumn of our junior year when we moved across that same campus in university blazers, cashmere sweaters with detachable white Peter Pan collars, baggy skirts and ItalianBoy haircuts (cut by Italian boys in shops on Bloor Street for $1.50 and meant to make you look like Gina Lollobrigida if you harbored hopes of appearing sensuous or like Audrey Hepburn if you didn’t) talking about the theme of mutability in Spenser’s Faerie Queene\ who had given whom an engagement ring on Thanksgiving weekend; and the forthcoming trip of the International Relationship Club to the United Nations in New York.
The whole day was like that. Inhabited by ghosts. Before it was over, the Fifties began to glow in my mind as though they’d been filmed by David Lean, and I found myself looking back on the period the way certain English novelists look back on 1913, as a dreamily innocent era before reality struck.
While it lasted, it was thought to be a bad decade to belong to and the people who grew up during it usually have been defined as a generation solely in negative terms: too young for the Second World War, too old for the alternate culture.
But what was good about the Fifties, as somebody behind me said hoarsely during the Homecoming football game, was that you “knew where you’d been and where you were going.” And probably nobody knew any better than the university students of the time. Canada was in the middle
of the biggest boom and the smuggest decade in its history, and a university degree was supposed to be god-given assurance of a secure future.
When I first climbed the front steps of Victoria College to enroll in the honor course in English Language and Literature and read the motto engraved on the red brick archway, “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” I believed it. And so, I’ll wager now, did most of the other 270-odd high-school graduates who signed up at the same time for that and the other arts and science courses leading to the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Victoria was one of the four federated arts colleges that the University of Toronto sheltered then and I like to think that it was provincial in the very best sense, that is, it reflected the peccadillos and strengths of the country that produced it.
Its first president was Egerton Ryerson and it numbers among its graduates a prime minister (Lester Pearson), a poet of the first rank (E. J. Pratt), and one of the seminal literary critics of the 20th century (Northrop Frye). But in my time it was primarily known as a college for the careful, productive, conscientious English-Canadian middle class. Through its uncommonly ugly doors passed thousands of future high-school teachers, civil servants, librarians, lawyers, United Church ministers, missionaries, CUSO volunteers, YMCA organizers and an endless parade of dutiful girls, destined to become good wives, better mothers and active members of University Women’s clubs in cities with populations over 100,000.
Catholics, Jews, ethnics and the rich went elsewhere to be educated so just about everybody at Victoria in those days was Protestant, white, liberal and, of necessity, parsimonious. And since the Fifties was the last era when these qualities were seen as virtues, Victoria may have been the ideal bleacher seat from which to view the decade. / continued on page 56
CLASS OF ’56 from page 32
It was an apolitical time. When a boy from Sudbury studying philosophy organized an after-dark demonstration to burn Senator Joe McCarthy in effigy, only a handful of carousers turned out, and when the editor of the college magazine, Acta Victoriana, tried to find an avowed Communist to review a biography of Dr. Norman Bethune all he could turn up was a political science student who diffidently called himself “a pale pink socialist.” The idea of student participation in university government never occurred to anybody and the administration was regarded with bored respect. Probably the outstanding political event of the period was a visit to the Student Union made by George Drew who was then the national Conservative leader. He was led into the cafeteria by pipers to general applause, gave a speech in which he outlined the basic tenets of his party (loyalty to the Crown and a belief in the free enterprise system were the two I remember) and then went off to sing songs around the piano of a fraternity house without any of the students putting up much of an argument. (Those closet rebels who did oppose him — and I was timorously among them — just sat on their folding chairs and muttered, Oh, Lord, over and over as he talked. We used Oh Lord! in much the same way as the students of the Sixties used Oh Wow! although the really daring were given to writing merde in the margins of their lecture notes. I didn’t hear the Anglo-Saxon expletives voiced until I went to work as a magazine researcher at the age of 21.)
Sex was a subject of limitless fascination, limited experimentation and constant frustration, since the majority of the girls were hoping to get married and the majority of the boys were hoping to get laid. Hopeful contacts were made at stag dances, sometimes called Howdy Hops, where the boys lined up against one wall to watch the girls lined up against the other. Those who paired off went on to greater excesses: parties called formais where the girls wore strapless dresses with nylon tulle skirts and corsages scotch-taped to their wrists and boys wore navy blazers with striped ties, and they moved limply as couples around the dance floor, plastered against each other as though they’d been blown together in a storm and were afraid to let go. (Four or five years later, at some kind of gloomy gala in Ottawa, I was dancing in the same style with the Austrian Ambassador and realized to my chagrin and his entertainment that I was giving him entirely the wrong idea.)
Explicit information about sex (how to, where to, but mostly whether to) was exchanged anxiously between friends, and girls who disappeared during “Ladies’ hours” into the men’s residences came out with all kinds of advice. But none of the men we met, not even the medical students and young lawyers at Osgoode Hall that some of the girls moved on to, measured up to Brando or James Dean, whom we watched longingly on spring afternoons in nearby movie houses when we ought to have been in the main library researching essays on fertility symbols in The Waste Land. By third year, we realized that none of our experiences were anything like the plays we were going to (Camino Real, No Exit) or the novels we were reading (Ulysses, Tropic Of Cancer, Studs Lonigan, The Loved And The Lost, and a first book by Frederic Mortimer called Asphalt And Desire which was about an undergraduate at Columbia who was concerned about being “a miserable virgin,” a feeling we understood). We decided that we’d have to wait to really experience life
On Homecoming Day I remembered a line from William Blake: They became what they beheld. Did we?
(ƒ.<?., what was documented to be going on everywhere in America by Dr. Kinsey in his Reports On Human Sexual Behavior which we found in the sociology section of the library stacks and read avidly while standing bolt upright between shelves). In the meantime there were other pleasures, coffee drinking in the day time, beer in the KCR, a beverage room at the Park Plaza Hotel that for reasons I don’t remember seemed incredibly glamorous, jazz (Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland) with rye and ginger ale at downtown cocktail lounges, and incessant talkfests that featured the kind of fervid exchange of ideas in which only the young and leisured can indulge.
All these preoccupations belonged to the realm of what the academic staff amusedly called “the college’s ancillary social life,” and serious students were supposed to regard them as unimportant. What was important was “the course.” The subject we were studying. English literature. Undergraduates in other disciplines were conscientious, even engrossed. But we were obsessive; everything else we studied — philosophy, French litera-
ture, history — was regarded in terms of whatever bearing it had on the English literature of its period.
Our obsession was due in large part to the fact that the head of the English department at Vic was Northrop Frye. When I first went to college, he was on a sabbatical at Princeton and the Frye-dolators among the older students seemed to me to be ridiculous. Then he came into a classroom one September afternoon wearing an academic gown that was rusty with age, stood behind the lecturer’s podium, looked out at us through his rimless glasses and began to talk about John Milton in a voice devoid of passion. By the time he’d finished speaking, 50 minutes later, almost everybody in the room was in the grip of an intellectual excitement of a kind we had never known, and that night I wrote in a Commonplace Book I was pretentiously keeping, “I think my head is coming off.”
Frye was the most impersonal of men, he rarely made any comment irrelevant to his subject and yet he imbued us with a set of attitudes that were remembered long after we’d forgotten what he had to say about the Areopagitica. There were other important scholars at Victoria, Kathleen Coburn, Laure Riese, Millar MacLure, David Knight and Jay Macpherson among them, and we roamed the university campus to hear professors who lectured elsewhere, Bertie Wilkinson, Edmund Carpenter, Marshall McLuhan, Frank Underhill, Marcus Long, Donald Creighton. But none of them had anything like the impact on our consciousness that Frye had and I can hear his voice still, quoting The Book of Job, elucidating John Stuart Mill, explaining Ezra Pound.
I was standing around in the Student Union Music Room early on Homecoming Day in October, listening in amazement to three graduates singing selections from Ruddigore, when I remembered a line from William Blake that Frye used once in a lecture: They became what they beheld. Did we? I kept wondering for the rest of the day as I talked to and peered discreetly at (hey, she looks exactly the same except for the lines around her eyes) my confreres.
A kind of pattern could be knitted together out of the answers to the “Whatever happened to?” questions we spent the day asking each other. (“Whatever happened to that girl from Hamilton, Jean what’s-her-name, who was studying French and was supposed to go on to the Sorbonne?” “Oh yeah, she married a guy from her hometown who’d gone to Queen’s and last time I heard they were living in continued on page 58
CLASS OF ’56 continued Waterloo and her husband was teaching at the university. She told me that he’d had a good job in Montreal at Domtar or somewhere. Then he woke her up one morning and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got something important to tell you’ and she thought, ‘Oh Lord, he’s going to leave me with all these little children.’ But it turned out that he couldn’t hack the corporate life and was going back to graduate school.”)
The pattern became clearer still when the class secretary lent me a bundle of questionnaires that Vic 5T6 had filled out in response to a mailing asking for personal news for an alumni bulletin. The list showed that of the 278 people who’d been in the class, 220 were living in Ontario (more than half of these in Toronto), eight in Quebec, 11 in the West, five in the Maritimes and 21 in the U.S.A., on streets with names like Country Club Drive, Mimosa Lane and Spring Garden Road.
Thirteen were abroad, in Spain, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Nigeria, England and France, working for the government, the church and IBM. No one was in jail and no one was famous. (“Whatever happened to that guy who used to smuggle girls into his room in Middle House for overnights and was going to write the Canadian novel?” “Last time I heard, he was editing news at the CBC.”) One man was a political commentator on television, another was director of a bilingualism bureau in Ottawa, another, who’d been a Rhodes scholar, was back at the college teaching and a fourth was working on the American space program in Houston. Most of the girls were married, about a fifth of these also had jobs and the rest were concerned with worthy projects (the symphony, the public library board, the Indian-Eskimo Association, the Opera Guild) and, as one of them wrote in a small defensive hand, “with being the mother of four and all that that implies.” Nobody mentioned di-
vorce, psychotherapy, women’s rights, amphetamines, economic nationalism, or the terrors that loom in the afternoon. But then there wasn’t much room on the form.
I don’t know what anybody else got out of Homecoming. I ended it feeling cold and curiously young, which was either the result of all that remembering or of seeing at one of the reunion functions a lady who’d graduated in 1911. Just before I left the campus to catch a plane to go to Ottawa, I was standing with a friend on the walkway outside Hart House when a group of students came by in a blur of streaming capes and laughter, sounding like we’d sounded in 1954 but looking infinitely better. (Any group of 19-year-old girls in long hair and eye gleamer looks better than any group of 19-year-old girls in short curls and thick lipstick, and as for any boy in a Polish revolutionary’s moustache vis-à-vis any boy in a brushcut, you just can’t compare.)
My friend looked after them as they passed and then asked intently, “Do you ever wish you were one of them?” I said, sure, quickly, but I kept thinking about that answer all the way to the airport in a taxi in the dark, and by the end of the ride I’d changed it to “well, not really.”
For a lot of good — if debatable — reasons: radicalism has demanded that the university be relevant, critical and involved, and its splendor as an isolated community of scholars is gone forever now; students are harried by overcrowding, by professors who can’t remember their faces because they sit in classrooms with 500 others, by fears that they won’t get jobs, etc., etc. And for one other good — but not debatable — reason;
If you become what you’ve beheld, you can’t be part of what you don’t know. Their time is different from our time. What we beheld was very special in its way and what we are we’re still becoming. ■