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Ichabod’s Progress

Long before Michael Doonesbury, there was Ichabod Academicus.

When Ichabod arrived at Yale in 1849 or 1850, there was no campus newspaper, and the sole periodical was a literary magazine that did not cover campus events. The country’s first comic strip would not appear for another half century. No American cartoon books had yet been published. But three creative Yale graduates combined their talents to produce an innovation in American humor: The College Experience of Ichabod Academicus. About a dozen copies are known to survive, including four at Yale.


A giant wooden spoon was bestowed on the most popular junior.

The writers, identified in the book only by their initials, were Hugh Florien Peters '49 and Garrick Mallery '50. The illustrator was Hugh’s father, William T. Peters '25. In 53 pages, they took Ichabod—“a rustic youth, with no ideas beyond his father’s cornfield and the Greek Reader”—through the tumults and triumphs of his college years.

“Of course he is at first an unmitigatedly verdant Freshman,” explains the preface. “Then as is too often the case, ridicule and false pride make him something worse; he confounds gentlemanly gaiety with dissipation, mounts a rowdy hat, and becomes a blood-hard Soph. He sprees, is caught, rusticates, returns next year, mingles with femines, and is consequently degraded into the spooney Junior—a repulse in love, and a few more months, work wonders—he emerges from the chrysalis state, and blooms in Senior dignity, which continues till graduation.”

The story depicts Yale scenes, people, and culture, including football on the New Haven Green and arcane college traditions such as the secret societies and the giant wooden spoon—the size of a shovel—that was bestowed on the most popular junior. There is also a drawing of Ichabod taking the oral entrance examination, in which the examiner is clearly Yale president Theodore Dwight Woolsey.

The authors themselves were very much part of Yale and New Haven culture. Garrick Mallery was a popular student who was elected permanent chair of his class reunions. William T. Peters, a New Haven physician and government official, founded a drugstore that was long known as “Apothecaries' Hall.” His wife, Etha Town, was a daughter of Ithiel Town, the nationally prominent New Haven architect. Their son Hugh grew up in the great Ithiel Town mansion on Hillhouse Avenue. (The home, donated to Yale in 1887, was demolished in 1957 to make way for the construction of Dunham Laboratory.)


Despite its Yale roots, Ichabod Academicus was reaching for an audience beyond Connecticut.

Hugh died of tuberculosis at 28, after brief careers in the law and with the U.S. Coast Survey. Mallery practiced law until the Civil War, when he volunteered and became captain of the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. After the war he stayed in the army, eventually becoming commander of Fort Rice in the Dakota Territory. There he became interested in Native American sign language and mythology. When the Bureau of Ethnology was organized in 1879, Mallery was appointed its first ethnologist.

Despite its Yale roots, Ichabod Academicus was reaching for an audience beyond Connecticut. Drawings of buildings at Princeton, Union, and Harvard, as well as at Yale, appear on the cover. The name Ichabod was certainly inspired by Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane. (Irving wrote that Crane was “a native of Connecticut; a State which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodsmen and country schoolmasters.”) And the authors credited George Cruikshank, a popular and prolific British illustrator, with inspiring their lettering.

Their aim, the authors wrote, was “to portray the more characteristic scenes of that peculiar [collegiate] existence. In this we strive to please both Collegian and Graduate—the one by picturing the present pastimes, the other by freshening the treasured tints of memory.” And the work does achieve a certain timelessness. With the exception of 1960s politics, the college worlds of both Ichabod and Michael Doonesbury focused on grades, good times, and girls.  the end


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