The class reunion – the gathering of a given year of graduates at their high school or college – is a Big American Event, and the biggest, most elaborate class reunion is the ‘Harvard 25th’, celebrating the quarter-century from each Harvard class’s year of graduation. When the first of a light snow of Harvard missives arrived a year ago in October, reminding me that the 25th-year reunion of my Harvard Class of 1961 would be the following June, my reactions were mixed. My four years in Cambridge, Mass. had been among my best, but somehow I had grown away from the place, transferring my affections to the smaller, cosier American colleges where I had taught. To keep up with the friends I treasured from my undergraduate years did not require a five-day jamboree. And yet I believed that I ought to go, that I would be missing and evading something if I did not.
While dimly puzzling about this, I received a phone call from Tony Lanyi, one-time Harvard room-mate, now a Washington economist, and a close friend. He had called to persuade me to go, if that was needed. He said he had just been back to a class reunion at his high school in Oberlin, Ohio. Working-class and college graduate, it had been quite a mix, though he guessed that those who felt least successful, either in their jobs or in their personal lives, had tended not to come. Still, going back had been enormously worth it for him: ‘one comes to terms with one’s past.’ How very American, I thought: the quest for roots; self-measurement against the promise of the past; the reunion as a personal and collective stock-taking. A painful business. Meanwhile, however, Tony was persuading me. As a student of American culture, who had had a particular college experience in the United States, how could I possibly not attend this event? Very well, then, I would go and make a little study of it – one Britisher meeting up with his élite classmates of 25 years ago and going with them through the packed menu of dinners, parties, outings and shows, panel sessions, exhibitions, sight-singing with the ’61 Glee Club, rowing on the Charles ... all culminating in ‘Commencement’, the graduation ceremonies for the Class of 1986.
We were, to be sure, an interesting class, the first one to graduate in the Kennedy years, a transitional period between Eisenhower conservatism and the anti-Vietnam War militancy that traumatised Harvard and other universities in the late Sixties. In the 1960 Election a majority of us supported Kennedy and his call for a more active, adept government both at home and abroad. In one way or another we were influenced by the liberal academic culture that spread across America’s leading campuses after World War Two: but we were a diverse bunch, producing a best-selling right-wing author (George Gilder), a leading radical economist (Tom Weisskopf) and the creator of Jaws (Peter Benchley). About a quarter of us had come to Harvard from one of ten famous boarding schools of the northeast, but about a half had attended public high schools across the country. With its massive endowments supporting extensive scholarships, Harvard had made itself geographically the most national of American universities while retaining its powerful links with old Boston families.
Harvard reunions were of special interest to me because of the Class Reports, published for every class at mostly five-year intervals just before each reunion takes place. The Report carries an entry for every known member: a concise ‘c.v.’, followed in most cases by an autobiographical statement. With the exception of Yale’s similar productions, the Harvard Class Reports are a unique documentary expression of an American male élite, saying to each other what they want to say about themselves and their outlook. Starting with the Class of 1963’s tenth anniversary, the Harvard Class Reports were amalgamated with those of its sister college, Radcliffe, following the full integration of the two student bodies: but our Class’s Reports remained male and separate.