This post originally ran this week in June of 2009. Since then I have referenced it regularly. The novel in question dramatizes what it was like for a young man of the 1950s to leave the netherworld of the West Coast for Princeton and learn the nuances of proper dress from his peers.
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I recently wrote a shortie for the blog at RL’s Rugby.com about Geoffrey Wolff’s 1990 novel “The Final Club.” This is the novel set at Princeton in the late ’50s I alluded to in the Bruce Boyer interview, which caused a reader to ask what book I was referring to. It can now be revealed, and I’ve excerpted some sartorial passages below that I think you’ll enjoy.
Wolff is the brother of Tobias Wolff, whose novel “Old School,” another campus tome set in the same era, was the subject of a previous post.
Here’s a New York Times article about their brotherhood and literary rivalry.
Though I enjoyed both books, I preferred the energy and stronger coming-of-age themes in “The Final Club,” which centers around a half-Jewish boy named Nathaniel who attends Princeton, takes in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, goes sailing and dances outdoors under the stars. Basically the life we’d all like to lead, at least for a day, if we could eliminate the bigotry and disillusion.
One of Nathaniel’s character-building trials is enduring the process of Bicker, basically Princeton’s equivalent of fraternity rush. Initially passed over for the school’s eating clubs, Nathaniel is ultimately admitted to Ivy Club (pictured above), considered the school’s most exclusive.
Now for the excerpts. Here’s Nathaniel on his train ride from Seattle to school, making a stop in St. Paul, Minnesota:
Here was Nathaniel’s first sight of a gathered tribe of boys and girls sent east to become gentlemen and ladies, bond salesmen and post-debutantes. They were being seen off by clots of tanned moms and bluff, red-faced men wearing (like their sons) pink-soled white bucks or saddle shoes, and Brooks Brothers blue button-downs, white button-downs, yellow button-downs, pink button-downs. No pockets, a roll to the front of the ample collar. Nathaniel didn’t note (then) the specifics of these shirts, but he should have: this had been his father’s button-down of choice.
Here are Nathaniel and his friends getting dressed for their first day of Bicker:
The boys were uniform in Brooks white button-downs. Tweeded up: Pownall’s jacket was an out-at-elbows herringbone, a nice fit when he got it fourth-form year, two inches ago, at six feet. Booth’s houndstooth, cut for his father on Savile Row by Huntsman during the Battle of Britain, was pinched at the waist; the boy rescued his presentation from foppery with a black knit tie and faded blue canvas Top-Sider sneakers, spattered by specks of bronze boat-bottom paint. Nathaniel was remarkably unremarkable in Harris Tweed, a paisley tie either dark green or brown (the light was bad), Bass Weejuns, which he called “penny loafers,” an expression Booth seemed relieved never before to have heard.
Nathaniel’s idyllic summer vacation:
And that was how Nathaniel came to spend the summer of 1958 playing tennis on grass, watching Columbia defend the America’s Cup, listening to jazz, dancing under tents and washing down scrambled eggs and sausage with champagne at four in the morning.
There’s always a girl. Here’s Nathaniel getting dressed for his big date:
Tonight was Nathaniel’s final shot at Diana, he reckoned, and to prepare for it he spent a good portion of his summer’s earnings on charcoal-gray tropical worsted trousers, a white crash linen jacket (whatever “crash” linen was meant to be), and a sporty blue canvas belt spruced up with sailboats and anchors. He asked one of the Griggses’ housekeepers to iron his best broadcloth shirt, and she gave him the business, laughed and asked who was the lucky lady? He waxed and buffed his Bass Weejuns. He chose a skinny bleeding madras tie (he knew what “bleeding” was, and would soon know better) …
Finally, a reunion scene many years later includes this superb encapsulation of the sudden decline in popularity of the Ivy League Look, with the year 1967 offered as the beginning of the end. Here’s Nathaniel regarding the photos of Ivy Club members over the decades that line the wall of the club:
Lining the second-floor hall were group portraits of Ivy members, and Nathaniel paused to examine them. Till 1967 the club sections were photographed indoors, in the billiard room; dress was uniform — dark suits, white shirts, Ivy ties. In 1967 a white suit was added here, an open collar there. In 1968 the insolent, smirking group moved outside, and was tricked out in zippered paramilitary kit, paratroop boots, tie-dye shirts, shoulder-length locks, and not a necktie in view.
I agree with reviewers that the focus gets lost when “The Final Club” leaves the college years in the last hundred pages to chronicle Nathaniel’s adulthood in the ’70s and ’80s. I think it would have been stronger to find a resolution to Nathaniel’s story in the process of his graduation, and skip the cursory summary of his world-weariness over the next two decades. — CC