A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 6)

Smith College

Handdrawn floor plan of an apartment
Floor plan of the apartment at 33 State St., Northampton, MA.

The morning after he arrived in Northampton, Binkley started arranging the furniture. They had taken the second floor of a house, sight unseen. Bob was pleased to find that the first floor was a shop, and that the street noise they had been warned about, while enough to disturb the music lessons of a previous tenant, was nothing at all after New York and Rome. The house (which is gone now) was an old one, and had been moved thirty or forty years before when the Forbes Library was built. The second floor had been converted to a loft and then divided into rooms. 1 It was a short walk to the college, and had a history among the faculty:

Everyone who hears of where we are to live tells me that the place has a great reputation to be maintained. A kind of a wild party reputation, it appears. “If anyone who looks like a mistress rings the door-bell,” I was told, “Tell her that Dunn isn’t home.” There seem to have been some famous Chinese parties given here. Everything is prepared for us to work any stunts that may strike our fancy. This is privileged ground.2

(What does he mean by “Chinese parties”?)

Bob set to work building bookshelves, arranging the furniture, buying firewood. He and Frances had a scheme to have a refectory table made, modelled on Gothic furniture they had seen in Rome. Frances proposed some designs — “I hope that the necessary simplicity won’t make it look like a piece of Mission furniture. Modernistic rather than that!”3 — and Bob had it built by the carpenter next door.4 (It was our dining room table for years, then my father’s desk.) Bob tried several arrangements of the furniture and of the rooms; he wrote to Frances: “When you come and move the furniture again, I will try to have things so ordered that it will be impossible for you to move anything to a place it has not been before.”5

The faculty and staff at Smith College were welcoming, and Bob was impressed by the difference between the lot of a lecturer at NYU and an Associate Professor at Smith.

How pleasant it is to be respected. I realize now that I never really was before. But it comes out in the eagerness with which people in the library offer to help get books on reserve – in every little thing. Of course the simple truth of the matter is that at N.Y.U. instructors are so many that they are just like file clerks in an insurance office. Here one has just that normal amount of respect which serves as a perpetual inspiration to do well and to keep up.6

Bob had three courses to teach: a section of introductory history, a course on Europe since 1815, and a senior seminar on the War. He continue to develop the teaching style which he had begun to think out in conversation with Frances during their drive from California to New York in 1927, with an early emphasis on method and “the spirit of historical inquiry”.7

The classes are going well; I am getting closer to the students, and find them following me, willing to respond to things I say rather quickly and well. I have also produced a new invention – a variation on the map exercise. You know what a bore the usual map exercise is – simply copy a map in crayon. I spoke to them and discussed with them the difficulties of portraying adequately the barbarian invasions in a map – a map of 5th century Europe, where there were to be considered the old fashioned “march of the barbarians”, the idea of infiltration, of spreading out of barbarian people from settlement centers in the empire, and finally the strictly territorial-political idea of the barbarian kingdom. After explaining how hard it was to contrive a map to be fair to these facts, and criticizing the three maps in our text, I told them to go and invent a good text book map. They seem to enjoy the idea.8

At the same time he continued to develop the interdisciplinary approach that would appear in Realism and Nationalism, bringing in contemporary literature and other disciplines to fill out the historical account.

My course in Europe since 1815 is turning out to be very interesting to myself, and I hope to the students; I am trying to be encyclopaedic to the extent of working in together all the philosophy, literature and art I know. So the history course catches the student’s special knowledge at this or that point, and ties it up with other things. The idea is a good one, but very difficult to work out.

The seminar course is also going well; I hope to get at least one and possible two seminar papers that are worth publishing – and more than that, to get them published. If I can get them published, the effect on the morale of this and future classes should be good.9

He was impressed with the sense of community at Smith and with his freedom of expression in the classroom:

Yesterday into my class in Europe since 1815 came a very old lady, but still vigorous. She was coming with her grandchild to sit in classes which she had seen her children sit in, and which she had sat in herself. Can you imagine it? How close they feel themselves to the place. And the next day there she was in my elementary history class, so I got her in two classes. … And today, in accordance with my plan, I was discussing Malthus. Can it be done without mentioning contraception? Certainly not. So I said what had to be said about it, and nobody revealed any sense of shock.10

There were at least three clubs, across the political spectrum (well, from left to center) and one religious. Typically, Binkley wanted to join them all:

Tomorrow I dine at one with Prof. Gray, and in the evening go to the meeting of the Sophists, at Prof. Orton’s house, to hear Bixler read a paper. The club situation is strange indeed. Orton, Bixler and myself belong to both clubs, both to the “Monday Club” which is the Center Party, and the Sophists or Archons which is the extreme left. In addition to these, there is said to be a Club which is tied up with the Episcopal Church and is facetiously called the Society for Serving the Lord with Intellectual Acumen. If Orton and Bixler can stand it, I guess I can.11

These were men’s clubs; when the Archons met at the Binkleys’ flat later in the year, Frances served an Italian dinner but did not take part in the meeting.12 Whether there were comparable organizations for the female faculty, Binkley doesn’t mention. Social life at Smith was dominated by the gender division imposed by the presence of male faculty at a women’s college. The tone of the descriptions, both Bob’s and Frances’, suggests that that the all-male clubs and their “stag parties” were regarded as a harmless indulgence which no one could begrudge to men trapped in a feminine environment.

The great object of the men in this region is to find a place where they will be safe from students. They showed me the hotel cafeteria today which is known to be a safe place, and the only safe place, in town.13

The prospect of a mixed Faculty Club did not attract the men:

[T]he men fight against the establishment of a faculty club because it would be dominated by females. Grant, of the French Department, tells how his department is split two ways – between the American and imported teachers on the one hand, and between the men and women on the other. I understand that Smith has a larger percentage of males on the faculty than any other women’s college.14

College politics were not the only area in which the conflict affected the lives of male faculty. The men faced a problem in finding ordinary facilities of various kinds on a female-dominated campus.

At the men’s meeting last night we were making arrangements to try to secure for ourselves the use of the swimming pool. The question of costume came up. Why wear any? The Warden says the girls have to wear them, because there are windows which look in upon the pool, and the townsfolk would use the same if the girls didn’t. But someone pointed out that unless the Warden climbed up and looked in the windows she would never know whether we used swimming suits or not. And all agreed.15

(Did my grandfather really skinny-dip in the Smith College pool? The documentary record is silent.)

Flyer from California Vineyards Co.

Prohibition was not strictly observed on campus, but it cramped the academic lifestyle none the less. When he was taken to call on Harry Elmer Barnes, Binkley reported, “Barnes brought out his wine, which is terrible; unless my drinking of Italian wine has ruined me, and spoiled my memory, I can make better wine than any that flows on this campus, and the sooner the better.”16 A few weeks later he got started, ordering ten gallons of grape juice from California Vineyards to make port. When he wrote to Frances he regretted the extravagance, wishing he had made his home-brew “sherry wine” instead (the recipe for which I hesitate to publish: the world has enough trouble) or a hard cider, either of which would have been much cheaper. “But I am spoiled for these home brews. After Frascati, and Lacrymae Christi! what can we do.”17

The drinking life among Smith College faculty was an open secret in town, apparently. A friend told Binkley an anecdote about Calvin Coolidge, who had retired to Northampton:

Everett Kimball, of the Government department, is an old school friend of the Great White Father. He asked him to step over to another house and drink a round of wine with the boys, but Cal said “No, Eviritt, ef I doo, one of them newspaper reporters will be coming around and asking me ‘Mr. Coolidge, is it true that you drank some wine with some Smith College professors?’”18

  1. Doc. 314: 1929-09-25.

  2. Doc. 305: 1929-09-30.

  3. Doc. 802: 1929-10-16.

  4. Doc. 813: 1929-10-21.

  5. Doc. 364: 1929-10-11.

  6. Doc. 343: 1929-10-09.

  7. Fisch, intro, p.11.

  8. Doc. 345: 1929-10-05. The development of the traditional textbook map of the barbarian invasions has been traced by Walter Goffart in a series of interesting articles: “The Map of the Barbarian Invasions: A Preliminary Report,” Nottingham Medieval Studies, 32 (1988), 49-64; “The Map of the Barbarian Invasions: A Longer Look,” in The Culture of Christendom, ed. Marc A. Meyer (1993), pp. 1-27; “Breaking the Ortelian Pattern: Historical Atlases with A New Program, 1747-1830,” Editing Early and Historical Atlases, ed. Joan Winearls (1995), pp. 49-81.

  9. Doc. 768: RCB to his parents, 1929-12-23.

  10. Doc. 355: 1929-10-19.

  11. Doc. 356: 1929-10-19.

  12. Doc. 266: FWB to her mother, 1930-06-10.

  13. Doc. 311: 1929-09-27.

  14. Doc. 347: 1929-10-07.

  15. Doc. 342: 1929-10-10.

  16. Doc. 305: 1929-09-30.

  17. Doc. 355: 1929-10-19.

  18. Doc. 305: 1929-09-30.


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