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An essay by George William Curtis


Title:     Hazing
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

As if a bell had rung, and the venerable dormitories and halls upon the green were pouring forth a crowd of youth loitering towards the recitation-room, the Easy Chair, like a college professor, meditating serious themes, and with a grave purpose, steps to the lecture-desk. It begins by asking the young gentlemen who have loitered into the room, and are now seated, what they think of bullying boys and hunting cats and tying kettles to a dog's tail, and seating a comrade upon tacks with the point upward. Undoubtedly they reply, with dignified nonchalance, that it is all child's play and contemptible. Undoubtedly, young gentlemen, answers the professor, and, to multiply Nathan's remark to David, You are the men!

As American youth you cherish wrathful scorn for the English boy who makes another boy his fag, and you express a sneering pity for the boy who consents to fag. You have read _Dr. Birch and His Young Friends_, and you would like to break the head of Master Hewlett, who shies his shoe at the poor shivering, craven Nightingale, and you justly remark that close observation of John Bull seems to warrant the conclusion that the nature of his bovine ancestor is still far from eliminated from his descendant. And what is the secret of your feeling? Simply that you hate bullying. Why, then, young gentlemen, do you bully?

You retort perhaps that fagging is unknown in America, and that high-spirited youth would not tolerate it. But permit the professor to tell you what is not unknown in America: a crowd of older young gentlemen surrounding one younger fellow, forcing him to do disagreeable and disgusting things, pouring cold water down his back, making a fool of him to his personal injury, he being solitary, helpless, and abused--all this is not unknown in America, young gentlemen. But it is all very different from what we have been accustomed to consider American. If we would morally define or paraphrase the word America, I think we should say fair-play. That is what it means. That is what the Brownist Puritans, the precursors of the Plymouth Pilgrims, left England to secure. They did not bring it indeed, at least in all its fulness, across the sea. Let us say, young gentlemen, that its potentiality, its possibility, rather than its actuality, stepped out of the _Mayflower_ upon Plymouth Rock. But from the moment of its landing it has been asserting itself. You need not say "Baptist" and "Quaker." I understand it and allow for it all. But fair-play has prevailed over ecclesiastical hatred and over personal slavery, and what are called the new questions--corporate power, monopoly, capital, and labor--are only new forms of the old effort to secure fair-play.

Now the petty bullying of hazing and the whole system of college tyranny is a most contemptible denial of fair-play. It is a disgrace to the American name, and when you stop in the wretched business to sneer at English fagging you merely advertise the beam in your own eyes. It is not possible, surely, that any honorable young gentleman now attending to the lecture of the professor really supposes that there is any fun or humor or joke in this form of college bullying. Turn to your _Evelina_ and see what was accounted humorous, what passed for practical joking, in Miss Burney's time, at the end of the last century. It is not difficult to imagine Dr. Johnson, who greatly delighted in _Evelina_, supposing the intentional upsetting into the ditch of the old French lady in the carriage to be a joke. For a man who unconsciously has made so much fun for others as "the great lexicographer," Dr. Johnson seems to have been curiously devoid of a sense of humor. But he was a genuine Englishman of his time, a true John Bull, and the fun of the John Bull of that time, recorded in the novels and traditions, was entirely bovine.

The bovine or brutal quality is by no means wholly worked out of the blood even yet. The taste for pugilism, or the pummelling of the human frame into a jelly by the force of fisticuffs, as a form of enjoyment or entertainment, is a relapse into barbarism. It is the instinct of the tiger still surviving in the white cat transformed into the princess. I will not call it, young gentlemen, the fond return of Melusina to the gambols of the mermaid, or Undine's momentary unconsciousness of a soul, because these are poetic and pathetic suggestions. The prize-ring is disgusting and inhuman, but at least it is a voluntary encounter of two individuals. But college bullying is unredeemed brutality. It is the extinction of Dr. Jekyll in Mr. Hyde. It is not humorous, nor manly, nor generous, nor decent. It is bald and vulgar cruelty, and no class in college should feel itself worthy of the respect of others, or respect itself, until it has searched out all offenders of this kind who disgrace it, and banished them to the remotest Coventry.

The meanest and most cowardly fellows in college may shine most in hazing. The generous and manly men despise it. There are noble and inspiring ways for working off the high spirits of youth: games which are rich in poetic tradition; athletic exercises which mould the young Apollo. To drive a young fellow upon the thin ice, through which he breaks, and by the icy submersion becomes at last a cripple, helpless with inflammatory rheumatism--surely no young man in his senses thinks this to be funny, or anything but an unspeakable outrage. Or to overwhelm with terror a comrade of sensitive temperament until his mind reels--imps of Satan might delight in such a revel, but young Americans!--never, young gentlemen, never!

The hazers in college are the men who have been bred upon dime novels and the prize-ring--in spirit, at least, if not in fact--to whom the training and instincts of the gentleman are unknown. That word is one of the most precious among English words. The man who is justly entitled to it wears a diamond of the purest lustre. Tennyson, in sweeping the whole range of tender praise for his dead friend Arthur Hallam, says that he bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman. "Without abuse"--that is the wise qualification. The name may be foully abused. I read in the morning's paper, young gentlemen, a pitiful story of a woman trying to throw herself from the bridge. You may recall one like it in Hood's "Bridge of Sighs." The report was headed: "To hide her shame." "_Her_ shame?" Why, gentlemen, at that very moment, in bright and bewildering rooms, the arms of Lothario and Lovelace were encircling your sisters' waists in the intoxicating waltz. These men go unwhipped of an epithet. They are even enticed and flattered by the mothers of the girls. But, for all that, they do not bear without abuse the name of gentleman, and Sidney and Bayard and Hallam would scorn their profanation and betrayal of the name.

The soul of the gentleman, what is it? Is it anything but kindly and thoughtful respect for others, helping the helpless, succoring the needy, befriending the friendless and forlorn, doing justice, requiring fair-play, and withstanding with every honorable means the bully of the church and caucus, of the drawing-room, the street, the college? Respect, young gentlemen, like charity, begins at home. Only the man who respects himself can be a gentleman, and no gentleman will willingly annoy, torment, or injure another.

There will be no further recitation today. The class is dismissed.

(_March_, 1888)

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George William Curtis's essay: Hazing