"The Company He Keeps," a study of fraternal masculinity by Nicholas Syrett

companyhekeepsNicholas L. Syrett has just published The Company He Keeps:  A History of White College Fraternities with the University of North Carolina Press.  Lately, I can’t turn around without bumping into Syrett’s book–remarkable for a first book by a junior scholar:  Inside Higher Ed featured an interview with him last month, he was interviewed by North Carolina Public Radio last week, and the book was recently blurbed in the Washington Post because of its discussion of a famous 1949 Dartmouth College murder, the “Letter Sweater Case,” when an Italian-American leftist and World War II vet was dragged from his bed and beaten to death by some Dekes and Tri-Kaps (members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon and Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternities.  What is it with the Dekes–they always seem to be the biggest hammerheads on campus, wherever you go, don’t they?)  What’s next, Syrett:  C-SPAN 2:  Booknotes?  The View?  Rub it in, why don’t’cha.  Say “hi” to Whoopi for us!

The attention this book is getting is merited.  Syrett’s extensive research in eastern university archives in the North and South allows him to trace the evolution of fraternities from literary societies that had serious intellectual purpose and offered students relief from the tedious rote curricula before the Civil War to exclusive clubs that were more about pleasure.  Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, they were always about the creation and affirmation of a shared masculinity among “brothers”–what Syrett calls “fraternal masculinity.”  Always a means of asserting and defending class exclusivity, the pressures of coeducation in the later nineteenth century and the ethnic and racial integration of the early and mid-twentieth century meant that their masculine identities were increasingly built around misogyny and racism–the exclusion of all of these new “others” who were increasingly part of the experience of university life.  More and more in the twentieth century, fraternities were becoming known for bouts of murderous violence like the Letter Sweater case, or shocking abuses of women.  (For all of the publicly professed misogyny and homophobia, Syrett’s research reveals a long history of fraternity members dressing up like girls–even today, give a frat boy an excuse to get in drag, and before you can say “Mary, please,” there she is!) 

Fratguy, AXA, Dartmouth 1988

Fratguy, AXA, Dartmouth 1988

Coeducation was fraught with tensions for fraternities:  college women were disdained as equals in the classroom, but heterosexual conquest was added to the equation of what a fraternity man was supposed to be.  Heterosexual performance anxieties (mixed with fears of “effeminacy”) became characteristic of the experience of fraternities in the twentieth century, and are responsible for their (justified) reputation as breeding grounds of rape and other forms of violence against women.  (If you’re like me, this book will fuel your rage because of its documentation of incident after incident of spoiled middle-class and rich white men who get away with a level of criminal behavior that no other segment of American society gets away with in these decades.)  The Company He Keeps is skillfully researched and written with wit and style, and is all the more impressive for the expansive sweep of time Syrett covers.  It is a valuable contribution to the history of American masculinity and the history of education. 

Full disclosure:  Syrett is a friend of mine, since he teaches women’s history and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado, and how many of us do you think there are up ’round these parts?  I’m planning a huge kegger to celebrate the book’s release, and you’re all invited!

21 thoughts on “"The Company He Keeps," a study of fraternal masculinity by Nicholas Syrett

  1. Coincidentally, I stumbled on this book on Saturday in the “New Books” bin in the library of a big eastern U. The U. in question has been able to house its continuously expanding administrative sector over the last generation (and even your occasional nomadic academic Center) largely in ornate brick mansions confiscated from demobilized fraternities, which with numbing regularity manage to transgress suffiently to get booted off the campus. CF also in this context perhaps the motherbook of the still-unnamed subfield of the “social history of college students,” the 1987 work _Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present_, by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. And the always-timely _Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture_, by the anthropologist Michael Moffatt.


  2. I’m not sure how kosher it is to comment upon a post devoted to one’s own work but I just wanted to thank Historiann not just for the always appreciated publicity but also for the very flattering description of the book, made even more flattering by the fact that I am an admirer of Abraham in Arms, so I know she knows good book when she reads it (because she can also write it!).

    And to respond to Indyanna, I think Moffatt’s book is great. Horowitz’s is more problematic, as she does not actually base her research on any unpublished primary sources, at least not for the nineteenth century. Her analysis, to my mind, is much more astute about the twentieth century than the nineteenth. She tends to assume that the whole nineteenth century can be represented by a handful of published sources from the post-Civil War years, whereas my research (in the archives) demonstrates that there were significant differences in college cultures that she does not acknowledge. That said, her book covers an enormous period and is quite fun to read.


  3. But, if truth be told, what’s banned as fraternities reemerges as eating clubs, chapters hosted by other colleges but accept “commuters”, ad-hoc gangs, political orgs that function as fraternities, etc.

    They never go away as testosterone and class anxiety never go away.


  4. I’ll grant that some people’s desire for exclusivity may well lead to forms of organizing that resemble fraternities in all but name, but it does not follow that the men in those organizations are governed by testosterone in a biologically deterministic way that mandates that they mistreat women, queers, and people of color. Even fraternities have not always done so. Further, the sanction, approval, and support given by colleges and universities not only allows fraternities to get away with their misbehavior but leads others on campus to believe that it is acceptable. So colleges and universities, even if they cannot control all that their students do (as cgeye clearly points out), can draw a line in the sand about what they, as institutions, believe is appropriate behavior for their students.


  5. Syrett certainly hit the nail on the head wrt impromptu drag races. For an ostensibly homophobic institution we never, ever, passed up an opputunity for a dress up party. Not that there was anything wrong with that, I’m just saying….

    As far as DKE is concerned, they are universally regarded as hammerheads, even among recovering miscreants such as myself. As my younger brother (no stranger to debauchery) once sarcastically commented about the secret DKE fraternity on the Colby campus “Oh yeah, they’re the heavy hitters, real deep thinkers”

    Now I would not say that Norovirus and multiple tap sucks offer equivalent culpability, but it has been a long time since I have had to insert my head into a trash can in public. Comment, Boot, and Rally !!!!! SPRING BREAK SEATTLE !!!!!


  6. Some years ago Greeks at the very Greek campus where I used to work invited me to be on a panel about race and ethnicity. Although I know very little about fraternities/sororities, I ventured that they were suffering from a legacy of segregation — the rise of black frats/sororities as counterparts to societies that did not allow blacks. Anecdotally, I once heard of someone pledging a fraternity who had to prove he was not of black descent. AT this panel, it was the students from black fraternities who rose to the defense of ongoing de facto segregation — and I didn’t blame them for wanting to be part of such a group on a campus that was 90 percent white.

    I bring this up because Historiann, you note the white class privilege of these groups — but I am wondering if Syrett deals at all with black fraternities.


  7. Rad–the subtitle of Syrett’s book is “A History of White Fraternities.” He considered doing all fraternities, but realized early on that black fraternities were really a whole topic unto themselves that he couldn’t cover adequately in one book (esp. a first book). He wanted to signal very specifically the limits of his topic in the title, rather than to suggest that the book was about all fraternities.


  8. I do actually discuss the origins of black fraternities, however, as their origins are pretty firmly planted in the discrimination that black students (and Jews and Catholics and Asian Americans) suffered at primarily white schools. That said, Historiann is right: because their traditions are different and because I do think they are actually different in practice now (though with some similarities around ideals of masculinity) I don’t devote lots of attention to them.


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  13. Stumbled accross this website when looking for a picture of John Belushi. You clearly need to be further educated on fraternities and I would assume general movie knowledge as your “Fratguy, AXA, Dartmouth 1988” is John Belushi from the parody on fraternity life in the 80s.

    I am guessing you are upset because a fraternity turned you down and would not allow you a chance at membership, clearly they made the right decision. Just because you could not hack it does not mean you need to take a shot at all Greek organizations.


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