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Owen Wister’s Philosophy 4: A Story of Harvard University

owen wister [1]4,625 words

Owen Wister
Philosophy 4: A Story of Harvard University [2]
New York: Macmillan, 1903

Kindle annotated edition by Daniel P. B. Smith, with original illustrations, 2012. Online web version here [3].

“When you call me that, smile.” — Owen Wister, The Virginian 

“I can scare the stupid out of you but the lazy runs deep.” — The Wisdom of Paris Geller

If you had asked me, before I read James Neill’s The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies [4],[1] what “The Virginian” was, I would have identified a somewhat faded old TV western series [5].

Filmed in color, The Virginian became television’s first 90-minute western series. Immensely successful, it ran for nine seasons — television’s third longest-running western.

Looks like there was a TV movie later on.

What I didn’t know is that it was not only based on a novel, but a pretty significant one too: The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister (1860–1938), which apparently was filmed several times but more importantly, it was, again according to Wikipedia [6], “[T]he first true western written, aside from short stories and pulp dime novels. It paved the way for many more westerns by famous authors such as Zane Grey [7], Louis L’Amour [8], and several others.”

According to Neill, The Virginian documents the sexually free lifestyle of the American cowboy, which Wister discovered when visiting the West for his health. Already in 1885 he was writing (to his mother!) that “this life has a psychological effect on you” and that cowboys were “[A] queer episode in the history of the country” and “without any moral sense whatsoever.”[2]

Neill calls it “an all-male world, away from women, where male bonds frame the emotional lives of the heroes” — in short, our beloved Wild Boys. Most (all?) readers miss this, Neill observes, because, in line with the custom of the times, and most healthy societies, Wister is quite — entirely — reticent about actual physical relations.[3]

Wister himself was eminently an Easterner, and Philosophy 4, written a year after the success of The Virginian as part of a publisher’s idea for a series of “little novels by favorite authors,” gives him a chance to go back to an Eastern equivalent to the cowboy world; it represents his retelling an anecdote supposedly first retailed to him in his undergraduate days at, yes, Harvard.

The tale basically involves two undergraduates, Billy and Bertie, and their attempts to cram for a final exam in, of course, Philosophy 4 (i.e., second semester sophomore year).[4] Being rich and indolent, they have hired a poorer but brighter sophomore, one Oscar Maironi, whose parents had not “owned town and country houses in New York” but “came over in the steerage.” Unable to face another all-day session with Oscar they decide to give him the slip and head out to the countryside, planning to settle a bet by finding a legendary tavern. Hilarity ensues, and the boys learn enough about philosophy in practice to ace the exam, beating even Oscar’s score.

It’s a slight tale, but a pleasant way to soak for a bit in real Old America and although you can find it free online I recommend the kindle, which for only a buck more adds original illustrations as well as Mr. Smith’s somewhat obsessive annotations, speculative reconstructions and photos. Smith is smart as a whip, and on his webpage asks two questions that locate the additional interest this tale should have for Counter-Currents readers:

Kudos for that Virginian insight, ten years before Neill! The Old America (Dylan and Harry Smith’s “old weird America”’) was indeed a land of cowboys without “moral sense,” naked wrasslin’, and a powerful suspicion of people whose folks came over in steerage, whether or not they had a townhouse.

Smith notes that we see Harvard at the end of its transformation from a state university (yes!) to a massively endowed finishing school for the elite — that is, the WASP elite. At this point foreigners are beginning to muscle their way in — poorer Whites on scholarships, and outright infidels. Is Maironi not merely Italian but a Jew? Seems clear: “Oscar could lay his hand upon his studious heart and await the Day of Judgment like — I had nearly said a Christian!”

Then there’s this bit that Smith and I both throw our hands up at: WTF? Asked to leave his notes for the boys to look over in the morning:

Oscar’s hand almost moved to cover and hold his precious property, for this instinct was the deepest in him. But it did not so move, because his intelligence controlled his instinct nearly, though not quite, always. His shiny little eyes, however, became furtive and antagonistic — something the boys did not at first make out.

OK, acquisitive instinct, cleverly dissembled, shiny little eyes, check. “My precious” indeed. But then this follows:

“I do not ever leave my notes with anybody. Mr.Woodridge asked for my History 3 notes, and Mr. Bailey wanted my notes for Fine Arts 1, and I could not let them have them. If Mr. Woodridge was to hear –”

 “But what in the dickens are you afraid of?”

 “Well, gentlemen, I would rather not. You would take good care, I know, but there are sometimes things which happen that we cannot help. One time a fire –”

 At this racial suggestion both boys made the room joyous with mirth.

Not wanting to share his notes might be construed as Judaic (he’s being paid $5 an hour to tutor them, so why let them have a freebie?) but why is the fire excuse — pretty sound, I’d say, in those rickety old Harvard buildings — somehow “racial’? Does it make him sound like he’s lived in tenement firetraps? Again, look who’s talking. But the finale brings us back on point:

Oscar stood uneasily contemplating them. He would never be able to understand them, not as long as he lived, nor they him.

There’s the note, the Judaic as psychological outsider, able — perhaps uniquely qualified — to memorize and compile 300 page sets of notes on Western Philosophy, but able to really understand it — or any other part of our culture.

This is the message of the tale as a whole; the rowdy boys, precisely by giving Oscar the slip — he passive-aggressively comes back each hour on the hour, leaving a note each time — and carousing all night, acquire an insight into philosophical problems such as “the duality of the self” (remember, this is the high tide of academic Hegelianism) that outshines the little fact-grubber.

And Billy’s suggestions concerning the inherency of time and space in the mind the Professor had also found very striking and independent, particularly his reasoning based upon the well-known distortions of time and space which hashish and other drugs produce in us. This was the sort of thing which the Professor had wanted from his students: free comment and discussions, the spirit of the course, rather than any strict adherence to the letter. He had constructed his questions to elicit as much individual discussion as possible and had been somewhat disappointed in his hopes.

One has to wonder if the Professor is William James, with that bit about wanting his students to make free comments about hashish. Oscar the tutor is not happy, and the Judaic whine about “fairness” begins:

“There is some mistake,” said Oscar to them when they told him; and he hastened to the Professor with his tale. “There is no mistake,” said the Professor. Oscar smiled with increased deference. “But,” he urged, “I assure you, sir, those young men knew absolutely nothing. I was their tutor, and they knew nothing at all. I taught them all their information myself.” “In that case,” replied the Professor, not pleased with Oscar’s tale-bearing, “you must have given them more than you could spare. Good morning.”

Oscar never understood.

The denouement shows us how things have changed:

But he graduated considerably higher than Bertie and Billy, who were not able to discover many other courses so favorable to “orriginal rresearch” as was Philosophy 4. That is twenty years ago. To-day Bertie is treasurer of the New Amsterdam Trust Company, in Wall Street; Billy is superintendent of passenger traffic of the New York and Chicago Air Line. Oscar is successful too. He has acquired a lot of information. His smile is unchanged. He has published a careful work entitled The Minor Poets of Cinquecento, and he writes book reviews for the Evening Post.

What little we learn of Oscar’s life off campus shows us that he is using his fact grubbing to insinuate himself into the salons of various blue-haired society types; he we see the Judaic plan of attack, gradually taking over our cultural institutions. Why, there was a time when Columbia University didn’t think Lionel Trilling was fit to teach the humanities without the danger of corrupting the youth!

Today, of course, Oscar’s scions would be running the business enterprises, as well as what remains of scholarship and magazines. Billy and Bertie? Likely performing exquisite cultural duties on the board of some nonprofit organization or some other socially irrelevant enterprise.

There must be a whole genre of such college idylls, which I confess is unfamiliar to me as such, but definitely something I’d like to explore. For now, several works from my own random lifetime reading suggest themselves.

Right in the first sentence, the pink shirts worn by the two boys brings to mind Phineas’s pink shirt in A Separate Peace; arousing comment in the ’40s, today it would no doubt lead to either a beat-down or an unwanted invitation to the LGBT formal. [5]

The pink shirts are worn with tennis flannels, and that certainly helps conjure up the similar ramble [9] taken by Charles and Sebastian in Chapter One of Brideshead Revisted.

Thus, our boys the next day:

One hour later they met. Shaving and a cold bath and summer flannels, not only clean but beautiful, invested them with the radiant innocence of flowers.

And in Waugh,

Sebastian entered—dove-grey flannel, white crepe-de-chine, a Charvet tie, my tie as it happened, a pattern of postage stamps.

And they’re off on their little adventure:

In their field among the soft new grass sat Bertie and Billy some ten yards apart, each with his back against an apple tree.

A similar pose is taken in by Charles and Sebastian, although they bring the strawberries with, rather than consume them the night before (after Oscar leaves).

[Billy and Bertie] reached Harvard Square. Not your Harvard Square, gentle reader, that place populous with careless youths and careful maidens and reticent persons with books, but one of sleeping windows and clear, cool air and few sounds; a Harvard Square of emptiness and conspicuous sparrows and milk wagons and early street-car conductors in long coats going to their breakfast; and over all this the sweetness of the arching elms.”

Recalls a later excursion by Charles of a Sunday in Oxford:

I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast as I often did on Sundays at a tea-shop opposite Balliol. The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of night. The tea-shop was hushed as a library, a few solitary men in bedroom slippers from Balliol and Trinity looked up as I entered, then turned back to their Sunday newspapers. I ate my scrambled eggs and bitter marmalade with the zest which in youth follows a restless night. I lit a cigarette and sat on, while one by one the Balliol and Trinity men paid their bills and shuffled away, slip-slop, across the street to their colleges. It was nearly eleven when I left, and during my walk I heard the change-ringing cease and, all over the town, give place to the single chime which warned the city that service was about to start. None but churchgoers seemed abroad that morning; undergraduates and graduates and wives and tradespeople, walking with that unmistakable English church-going pace which eschewed equally both haste and idle sauntering; holding, bound in black lamb-skin and white celluloid, the liturgics of half a dozen conflicting sects; on their way to St Barnabas, St Columba, St Aloysius, St Mary’s, Pusey House, Blackfriars, and heaven knows where besides; to restored Norman and revived Gothic, to travesties of, Venice and Athens; all in the summer sunshine going to the temples of their race. Four proud infidels alone proclaimed their dissent, four Indians from the gates of Balliol, in freshly-laundered white flannels and neatly pressed blazers with snow-white turbans on their, heads, and in their plump, brown hands bright cushions, a picnic basket and the Plays Unpleasant of Bernard Shaw, making for the river.

Even in the ’20s, but four infidels! But I guess all the Judaics are “Anglicans.”

It’s interesting that Waugh, writing in WWII England, doesn’t try to really hide what the boys are up to, although he does sugar-coat it with lots of high-falutin’ verbiage and quasi-theology.

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Waugh, in short, cloaks Charles and Sebastian in some kind of Edenic childhood[6] while offloading all the “degeneracy” and “corruption” onto the serpentine Anthony Blanche.

Wister, on the other hand, simply gives us an equally “innocent” scene — the “boys bathing” loved by the fin de siècle types, along with some Laurentian wrestling — without the elbow in the ribs[7] — “it’s really innocent, you know” — in his blunt, Old West way:

“I’m going in,” said Bertie, suddenly, as Billy was crediting himself with a fifty-cent gain. “What’s your score?”

“Two seventy-five, counting your break on Parmenides. It’ll be cold.”

“No, it won’t. Well, I’m only a quarter behind you.” And Bertie puffed off his shoes. Soon he splashed into the stream where the bend made a hole of some depth.

“Cold?” inquired Billy on the bank. Bertie closed his eyes dreamily. “Delicious,” said he, and sank luxuriously beneath the surface with slow strokes.

Billy had his clothes off in a moment, and, taking the plunge, screamed loudly “You liar!” he yelled, as he came up. And he made for Bertie.

Delight rendered Bertie weak and helpless; he was caught and ducked; and after some vigorous wrestling both came out of the icy water.

“Now we’ve got no towels, you fool,” said Billy.

“Use your notes,” said Bertie, and he rolled in the grass. Then they chased each other round the apple trees, and the black gelding watched them by the wall, its ears well forward.

Editor Smith wonders about why they took horses, and spends not a little time on “equestrian newsgroups” online (sounds pretty dirty to me!) to find out speed and mileage figures. I’d say the reason is obvious: to have a horse along to set the Old West atmos’ in Old Jamaica Plain.[8]

On our other topic, “anti-Semitism,” Waugh is much friendlier with the Jewish boy, again Anthony Blanche, although he still may be repulsive to any normal person. The academic grind here is Mr. Samgrass, whose toadying with Lady Marchmain’s set recalls Maironi’s cultivation of literary ladies; he’s not particularly Jewish but his trip with Sebastian to the Levant is at least equivocal. The real outsider is Rex Mottram — a Canadian! — whose social climbing — we last see him in Parliament, on his way to the Cabinet, and an appeaser! — and dull fact-grubbing without understanding context and tradition (his Catholic conversion classes are a comic highlight) make him and the Flyte family mutually incomprehensible, like Oscar and the WASP elite. Charles, after a gruesome “gourmet” dinner with the nouveau riche Rex:

“[Rex] lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We both were happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog’s barking miles away on a still night.”

Julia later describes Rex to Charles as

“[Not] a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole.”

The British decline was accelerated by the war:

“If you ask me, sir, it’s all on account of the war. It couldn’t have happened but for that.” For this was 1923 and for Lunt, as for thousands of others, things could never be the same as they had been in 1914. . . . “It all came in with the men back from the war. They were too old and they didn’t know and they wouldn’t learn. That’s the truth.”

The Second World War brought in another load of louts, later known as the Angry Young Men, who demanded culture and all the goodies but with none of that toffee-nosed class business that seemed designed to keep them out. Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is the Ur-Text here, [9] although Amis concern with culture was authentic enough to eventually distance him from the tearers- and dumbers-down in the schools. [10]

In America, by the ’90s, things were pretty well shot. Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan shows us the class-anxious interaction of scholarship boy Tom with the prep-school elite of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, including a lugubrious type that meditates on the decline of the UHB or “urban haute bourgeoise.” Tom gives a wonderful epitome of the triumph of the implicitly Judaic Scholarship Boy over mere WASP culture:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.

Metropolitan also starred a Stillman regular, Chris Eigeman, who turned up in the 2000s on The Gilmore Girls, whose self-parodying exploration of the over-privileged Connecticut elite has been my subject on several occasions.[11]

On GG the Billy and Bertie role seems obviously to be Madeline and Louise, but in fact they are airheads focused on fashion and dating. No doubt this is exactly how the Judaic nerd views his Aryan rivals. Indeed, many a fan has wondered how, no matter how rich their parents are, these two arrived at and graduated from a supposedly exclusive prep school. We might imagine that, as in Wister’s tale, there are tutored with a great deal of sighing and eye-rolling by their best friend, who just happens to be the smartest, most driven, most repellent girl in the school (until of course our supposed heroine, Rory Gilmore, arrives), the blonde Judaic Paris Geller.

The rivalry of Paris and Rory — which falls under the category of “vitriolic best buds [10]“ — shows how uncomfortable Hollywood is with our current elite’s need to have stereotypically smart but abrasive Judaics cast as attractive characters. Rory should, like Billy or Bert, be easy-going and casually smart in a non-Asperger’s way, showing up Paris at every turn, but the producers have, in their Judaic way, imagined her as impossibly, ridiculously bookish (how else be schmart?), and given her a mother who is so relentlessly “nontraditional” — though, with typical SPWL hypocrisy, insistent that she attend both a private school (the expense of which drives her to an uneasy agreement with her estranged parents, which sets the series plot in motion) — as to make the family, like Demian’s, essentially the token Judaics of their small town. Although five generations of Gellers have attended Harvard, plot contrivances result in both winding up at Yale.

Paris-gilmore-girls-180084_281_400 [11]So the confused result is that instead of Wister’s pairing, Paris and Rory are essentially not really so much friends but Doppelgängers, so much so that Liza Weil was originally cast as Rory, and when the role was given to Alexis Bledel, the producers created the Paris role for her, which required her to dye her hair blonde to distinguish her from the blue-eyed brunette Rory. Along with the hair, she shares with Tory (Rory?) Spelling a strong jawline and a proneness to a pop-eyed stare, but seems to be able to bring it off better. [12]

And such is the magic of TV, or the charm of Ms. Weil, that Paris quickly became my favorite character, rather than the loathsome mother and daughter Gilmore, though perhaps tied with Edward Herrmann’s definitive WASP pater familias.[13]

Finally, lest the reader complain that all I talk about are old books and movies and TV shows, and to get around to that title you may have wondered about, let’s get right up to date: is this not the saga of the Winklevoss Twins? As Matt Parrott describes it:

The basic idea of Facebook, creating a simple and exclusive alternative to MySpace, isn’t Jewish. But the project was hijacked when the gullible Winklevoss twins entrusted Mark Zuckerberg and his accomplice, Eduardo Saverin, to help execute the project. (See also Kevin MacDonald’s review [12].) The movie adaptation of this true story is a fevered Jewish revenge fantasy against their hapless arch-enemies, the reviled WASP “insiders.” Both the book, by Ben Mezrich, and the screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin, wallow in defeating the earnest brothers, heaping these two iconic American Christians with humiliation after humiliation.[14]

Mezrich expounds:

Like Zuckerberg and Saverin, he attended Harvard, where he was a self-confessed “geeky kid,” and acknowledges that as a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who had not come from “a long line of people who had gone to Harvard,” there were opportunities that were not open to him. “There are these groups where there is this old world aristocracy going on,” he says. “People like me — and Mark — couldn’t really be a part of that.”

The Social Network is essentially Philosophy 4, re-written by the victors, and greatly expanded to include all the sadistic fantasies of “retribution” Oscar and his kind have nursed over the centuries. Even that old fool of a Professor is re-vamped; as Kevin MacDonald notes in his review, “Did anyone else note the scene in which the Winkelvii appeal to Larry Summers, then president of Harvard to intervene in the matter, and Summers refuses?”

Only the WinkleTwins could be so dense as to imagine a tribesman like Summers would “play fair.”

So, in answer to Smith’s pertinent questions, Wister is “a bit” of an “anti-Semite” as the term is understood today, and yes, he did expect his readers to share his views.[15]

After all, this was America — before the flood! And as Thomas Gossett blandly asserts, “No American writers have done more to publicize race theories and to glorify the Anglo-Saxons than have Frank Norris, Jack London, and Owen Wister.”[16]

To which he smugly adds “None of these authors is a major figure in American literature . . .” for which opinion I don’t give a hoot, but I’m more interested in his concession that “. . . all of them . . . wrote books which sold a great many copies.”

So do your part, and buy an Owen Wister book today!


1. You can read my subsequent review-essay here, for only $0.99 (cheap!): A Review of James Neill’s “The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies.” [13]

2. David McCullough, Mornings On Horseback (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), 320; quoted from The Cowboy Composite: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of American Cowboy Romanticism. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History by John M. Kearns, online here [14].

3. See “The Sex Life of Cowboys” in Neill, op. cit., especially pp 419-21 on Wister.

4. Academics might amuse themselves by glancing over the questions, which Wister provides, and asking themselves if a sophomore today, or even a graduate student, could answer more than a few of them.

5. Those with proper upbringing would know, of course, that pink is one of the go-to-hell colors favored by those with too much money to care about fashion; see The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach (1980) — note the author’s name — and note that its sad little follow-up, True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World by Birnbach and one “Chip” Kidd (2010) demonstrates the social decline we are discussing by, among other things, nominating Barak Obama to its updated Prep Pantheon, having converted Prep, like the United States, from a cultural heritage to a proposition anyone can buy into — literally.

6. The late Victorians were suckers for the nursery; those who bemoan adults today reading Harry Potter and Twilight should reflect on this [15]: Kenneth Grahames’ The Golden Age, “a collection of sketches of the lives of five orphaned late-Victorian children, was said to be the favorite bedtime reading of Kaiser Wilhelm II on his royal yacht. President Roosevelt tried to persuade the author to visit the White House.” That’s Teddy Roosevelt, Wister’s Western buddy-boy.

7. Richie: “Please, I’ve only got so many ribs, Noel Coward.” Rik Mayall, Bottom, Episode 1 “Smells.”

8. The Granada TV version gives us a view of their backsides in a later scene, although since the frontsides are presumably facing Sebastian’s little sister Cordelia, I’m not sure why this was thought to be an improvement.

9. Although often classed with them, Colin Wilson was a self-educated working class bloke who had no chip on his shoulder about it. Amis once threatened to throw him off a rooftop. See The Angry Years: A Literary Chronicle [16] by Colin Wilson [17] (2007).

10. See his “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” in What became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions [18] by Kingsley Amis [19] (1971). Amis eventually became such a pillar of the Establishment that he was able to diagnose both factors of the social decline we’re observing, here [20]: “I’ve finally worked out why I don’t like Americans … Because everyone there is either a Jew or a hick.”

11. See “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall Street” here [21] and in my collection The Homo and the Negro; and “From Groundhog Day to Gilmore Girls” here [22].

12. The show is so ethnically confused that Rory eventually winds up dating a scion of the supposedly upper class – get this — Huntzbergers, who all have obvious arriviste names like Logan and Mitchum, and even deign to look down upon the Gilmores, who arrived on the Mayflower!

13. I was very happy to take the Which Gilmore Girls Character Are You Test and get Paris, although I confess I did cheat; I mean, come on, “Are you fluent in Mandarin and Portuguese?”

14. “How Jewish is The Social Networkhere [23].

15. He’s also the author of Lady Baltimore, which in addition to being reprinted in the Southern Classics Series [24], provoked this know-nothing review on Amazon:

Wister shows much sympathy for the plight of the upper echelon white Southerners who felt they lost a complete way of life after the Civil War. This is where Wister’s lousy viewpoint comes in: it’s really hard to stomach all the ballyhooing over Southern honor and Romanticism. Only Wister’s talent as a writer allows him to get away with it.

So you know this will be next on my reading list!

16. Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America by (1962), pp. 198–99.