I’m not sure what’s most remarkable about Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here: the book itself or the fact that it was published by the Princeton University Press. Purportedly the “twenty-five year record of ‘the finest aggregation of men that ever spent four years together at Old Nostalgia'” as penned by the class secretary, “Tubby” Rankin, The Gang’s All Here manages to trash just about every ritual and myth of American college life in the first half of the 20th century.
Smith (Princeton, 1917), a classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, provides sketches of 60-some alumni from the 1917 class of Nostalgia University, a proud bastion of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Male that could easily stand in for Harvard, Yale, or even Princeton itself. Virtually everyone in the book is Republican and Episcopalian. Only two Jews appear. Of one, Rankin/Smith notes, “Morrie left college after fraternity elections freshman year and has not been heard from since.” The other eventually becomes a noted surgeon and trustee of the university: “With his keen mind he must hard known from the first day he was in college that there was a line, invisible but as clearly defined as the equator, between Jew and gentile. Unlike Morrie Posner, however, he never showed resentment.”
As a work of art, The Gang’s All Here is handicapped by the narrow bounds of its subjects and Smith’s immaturity as a stylist, but it nonetheless manages to impress on multiple levels. First, Rankin/Smith experiments with a wide variety of forms to cover his cast: first, second, and third-person narratives; several comic short stories; a pompous letter written by the subject himself; even the transcript of the divorce proceedings of an over-ardent Nostalgia fan and his fed-up wife. Second, for all the successful bankers, brokers, and CEOs in the class, there are also lunks, lushes, lounge lizards, and flat-out losers. One man marries a lady wrestler; another quits Wall Street and makes a new start as the proud owner of a gas station; a third quietly thanks “that man” Roosevelt for the W.P.A. job that restored his dignity. And Rankin is not reluctant to peel back the veneer of respectability to note that Jim Denison didn’t did in a sailing accident back in 1937, but took his life in despair at his wife’s affair with that “heel” Bud Coleman.
The most admired member of the class–at least in Rankin’s eyes–is Adelbert l’Hommedieu X. Hormone, or Bert for short. Kicked out of school after three months, he lives out his classmates’ secret dreams: shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion, crewing a Dutch freighter around the Great Horn, running a bar in Java, and settling down in married bliss with a native pearl diver in Tahiti. He sends his regrets at missing the 25th annual reunion in a 1,000-word collect telegram, citing the demands of his new trained-shark business.
Published in 1941, The Gang’s All Here portrays a way of life that was already becoming a thing of the past. Even then, one alumni notes sadly, the administrators of old Nostalgia were expecting prospective athletic stars to pass a rudimentary entrance exam rather than accepting them as the “blessings” they were. An advertising executive in New York, Smith was well-qualified to take on his subject, having penned the 1917 class notes in the Princeton Alumni Weekly since 1927. While not the master his classmate Fitzgerald was, he deserves a special footnote in histories of Princeton for having pulled off something much more substantial and imaginative than a simple satire of his own kind.