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The Hoot Heard ’Round the World
“Should the entire system of colleges and universities as we now know them, with their principles of formal authority and segregation of the young, not be entirely abolished?” wrote Sinclair Lewis '07, Nobel laureate and social critic, in 1931. The venue for this critique was one of the more radical student publications Yale ever produced: the Harkness Hoot.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Yale had entered a period of critical ferment over social and educational issues. Even the staid Yale Literary Magazine joined in. Its April 1930 editorial critiqued the college man for “fribbling away his days amid chaff, and in the end achieving only a kind of jangled emptiness.”
But Lit. editors William Harlan Hale '31 and Selden Rodman '31 wanted stronger stuff. They founded and funded the Hoot in 1930. In their premiere issue that October, the editors pledged “to arouse a healthy skepticism regarding many institutions now taken for granted.” Over its four-year run, the Hoot variously outraged and inspired Yale alumni and cut a wide swath in the public debate.
One of the Hoot’s first targets was Yale’s neo-Gothic building program. The Sterling Memorial Library and the law and graduate schools were all under construction in November, when Hale published an article called “Art vs. Yale University, Challenging Yale’s Girder-Gothic and Its Builders.”
“A survey of the university’s new buildings gives the observer a pang of disappointment,” wrote Hale. Praising the modern architectural style of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Behrens, and Frank Lloyd Wright, he called Yale’s new structures “a stale copy of the Gothic of the Thirteenth Century.” Hale declared himself “struck with amazement at the blank failure of the present builders. Yale has misled its admirer; it has deceived its benefactors; indeed … it has forgotten art, and become obsessed with archaeology.”
The critique earned applause from The Nation and was reprinted in American Architect and The Arts. Frank Lloyd Wright himself sent a telegram: “Kindly send collect ten copies Hoot. Want to plant them at the University of Wisconsin.” In a follow-up letter, Wright saluted Hale’s “spiritual insight and moral force.” Even architect Ralph Adams Cram, a distinguished proponent of Gothic style, wrote to Hale, “I like your destructive criticism, and the illustrations you use to enforce this are rather devastating.” (Cram called Hale’s publication the Harkness Howl.)
The Hoot published creative writing as well, including poetry by Maynard Mack '32, '36PhD, later a Sterling Professor of English. But what put the publication on the map was its criticism. A high point was the April-May 1931 double issue, in which Hale published another scathing article, called “The Madness at New Haven: An Analysis of Educational Diseases Observed at Yale and Other Institutions.”
Hale wrote that “the Queen of New Haven” had undertaken a number of reforms, the residential college system in particular. His task as critic was to determine “whether these changes and expansions are worth while” and to “distinguish between academic development, which is planned to bring about future scholarship, and academic waste, which is planned to bring about future endowments.”
The reforms, Hale declared, hadn’t done the job. “Until the university makes itself the place of the most serious endeavor, and the greatest singleness of purpose, it will achieve no integrity. And until it realizes that its function is to fit a few men—objectively and philosophically—for the task of being leaders, it will not have assumed its proper position.”
Dwight Macdonald '28, future editor of Partisan Review, wrote to Hale: “You’re absolutely right—and damned acute in your criticism. The … only way to run a college is to say 'To hell with the goddam socialites, athletes, frat boys, and the other 80 percent of the present undergraduate body!' … I hope [your article] gets under the skin of the pompous pedants who are in the saddle at Yale.”
An editorial in The Nation, headlined “Revolt at Yale,” commented: “Harvard has a reputation for indulging at times in rather frank self-criticism, but the extremest outbursts ever heard at Cambridge seem feeble and timid in comparison with the drastic excoriation of Yale methods and Yale men which has been administered by the Harkness Hoot. ”
When Hale and Rodman graduated, they sold the Hoot for $1,900 to the next year’s editors, Richard S. Childs '32 and Richard M. Bissell Jr. '32. Eugene V. Rostow '33, who later became a Yale Law School professor and Lyndon Johnson’s undersecretary of state, was a Hoot editor in 1932–33. Rostow, in his widely quoted article, “The Jew’s Position,” in the November 1931 issue, stated: “Universities are glad to welcome sanctimoniously a Harold J. Laski, a Sapir, a Frankfurter, or a Winternitz, but the cursus honorum of promotion and development is strictly sterilized against Hebrew contamination. … There is not one Jew on the faculty of Yale college, and only a few, of great repute, scattered through the Scientific, Graduate, and Professional Schools.”
The Hoot survived until 1934. As for Hale and Rodman, both had illustrious careers. Rodman, who joined Alfred M. Bingham '27, '30LLB, to found the progressive journal Common Sense, eventually wrote more than 40 books. Hale was an editor of Vanity Fair, Fortune, and the New Republic.
Yale historian George W. Pierson '26 devoted a chapter to the Hoot in his book Yale: The University College, 1921–1937. He concluded: “The Hoot hooted four years and fell silent. To dismiss it as merely another passing publication would be to underestimate the ideas it so trenchantly voiced and their power with the young men who grew up and began teaching between the two wars. Never afterward would this transition generation feel so sure of the Yale system, or of Yale’s place in the world.”
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