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A shameful episode in Harvard history

Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals
By William Wright
St. Martin's, 294 pp., illustrated, $25.95

''Harvard's Secret Court," by William Wright, tells the story of a homophobic witch hunt at Harvard in 1920 that resulted in expulsions, blighted careers, and lifelong persecutions, and eventually led to two or three suicides. It began when a Harvard sophomore, Cyril Wilcox, killed himself over an unhappy love affair with an older man. The boy's brother, a Harvard alumnus, then intercepted letters to Wilcox written by students who were also homosexual. Enraged at the existence of this subculture and at what he considered the lax standards that allowed it, the brother relayed his discoveries to the college dean and demanded action. The dean conveyed the news to President A. Lawrence Lowell, who had had some experience with the sexually anomalous since he shared a home with his sister, the flamboyant Amy.

An investigating committee was formed and quickly set to business, interrogating many students and expelling several. Two of them were readmitted the following year, although the cause of their expulsions remained in their Harvard dossiers for the rest of their lives and was readily revealed whenever asked for. At this late date, it's impossible to determine the committee's criteria for expulsion since it behaved implacably toward young men who apparently had no homosexual experience and was lenient with highly compromised and effeminate students. It's clear, however, that the five members of the committee were motivated by a virulent homophobia combined with overweening concern for Harvard's reputation.

The story is as mesmerizing as it is appalling, but the book that tells it is unfortunately rather messy. For one thing, it's full of unattributed quotations, redundancies, ambiguous referents, and lapses in diction, the latter quite odd since at his best Wright is an excellent writer. (Harvard's Administrative Board is asked to ''backstop the course that was already in progress," and the campus boasts ''financially well-endowed plantings," suggesting forsythias with trust funds.)

For another, it's sometimes inaccurate, as when Wright claims that Emerson cautioned Whitman against publishing the homoerotic poems of ''Calamus." Emerson did no such thing, for the tradition of ardent male friendship was so strong in those days that Whitman's homosexuality slipped under Emerson's radar. Emerson was instead upset about the heterosexual poems of ''Children of Adam." And if Whitman ever visited Harvard, his biographers are blissfully ignorant of the fact.

The book is also riddled with contradictions. The Harvard student riots of 1969 subsequently take place in 1967. The seven students and one instructor expelled by the court are later revised to eight students and two instructors, while the ''twenty or so boys interrogated" become ''more than thirty men" 80 pages on. The members of the secret court were ''oblivious to the benign presence of homosexuality at every level of society," but ''surely they were acquainted with the homosexual tradition of New England boarding schools."

Even more unsettling, Wright employs techniques of fiction in what is clearly a work of historical research. The second chapter is an invented conversation between two undergraduates who meet one evening on the banks of the Charles. '' 'Care to walk with me a bit?' Wolff said offhandedly and with a hint of the condescension of a senior." Wright acknowledges in his author's note that ''some liberties have been taken," but such fictional treatment undermines our trust in him as a historian, and anyway such window-dressing is unnecessary since the story can stand on its own. Then there are Wright's frequent speculations, which usually don't lead anywhere definitive: ''The true explanation was probably," ''It is more than likely," ''There may be a connection," ''It seems unavoidable that," ''It is not difficult to view" -- red herrings all. We hear of a ''highly likely homosexual" on the Harvard faculty, and of another who had a ''probable lover." A third professor gave all-male parties, and ''it is all but impossible that the Harvard powers did not hear of his island bacchanals," unless of course they didn't.

Add to all this the fact that Wright never mentions the name of the researcher who discovered the secret file in the Harvard archives and thus gave him his subject and you can surmise the kind of reader targeted here: a reader, I'd guess, of Vanity Fair, someone drawn to the sensational who reads for thrill and titillation, who isn't burdened by a fastidious concern for accuracy, and who prefers the frisson of innuendo over pedestrian fact. ''Harvard's Secret Court" is inherently fascinating, sloppy, largely well written, sometimes inaccurate, and wholly maddening. And it's all a great shame. So much time and effort come to naught, and it needn't have worked out this way, for the book could and should have been an important contribution to American cultural history. Wright has been so ill served by his editor that perhaps it's time for a new purge.

Alan Helms is professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the critic at large for In Newsweekly.

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