By Adera Causey
Often we equate rapid cultural change with major social sweeps that affect everyone. But Carolyn Cooke reminds us that while national change, particularly in the latter decades of the 20th century, may have come quickly, individual changes within American subcultures operated at a different pace. This can be seen most profoundly in the lost-in-time subculture of an elite prep school swimming upstream against the tides of the "Daughters of the Revolution."
The water metaphor here is deliberate as the catalyst for the story is the drowning death of Heck Hellman, a struggling medical student who was not so long ago a prep school scholarship student. Still trying to fit in with his more affluent peers, he goes out on a perilous boating trip offering up the only life jacket to a privileged friend, a decision he would not live to regret.
His death, a perhaps overdrawn metaphor for the abyss between the haves and have-nots also becomes the awakening myth for the narrator, his young daughter EV who serves as the precocious but never precious all-seeing eye, observing the slow-paced changes of her father's alma mater.
The prep school in question is the Goode School, imaged on the crusty New England model. The school's long-time headmaster is named Goddard, aptly encouraging others to call him "God," not so subtly self aggrandizing his institutional legacy. Prideful of his perceived progressivism in allowing a quota base of students of color, he turns a blind eye to the needs of the students once they matriculate, making no moves to bridge the cultural and socioeconomic divide that exist at the school. He justifies this inattention with an insistence that tradition evidences success and that classical rather than socially relevant curricula is the essence of all true learning.
Further, he touts his race record as a way to rail against the next wave of pressure being set upon him, a movement to make the long time single sex school into a coeducational one. He loses the fight ultimately due to an administrative error when a student with a gender neutral name is accidentally admitted, bringing with her a defiant will that demands notice.
EV has a privileged observation perch for these debates as she and her mother live with God for a brief time, providing this silent mournful child with an under-the-table listening station and a veritable obsession with the headmaster that will last her throughout her life. While her fascination often allows her a mental escape into this privileged arena, her physical world dives her headlong into the cultural fray as she moves from public schools to Smith College, on to her first job as a minimum-wage-earning sales clerk living in substandard New York City housing while experimenting with brightly colored hair and dalliances with an array of characters.
Yet despite being in the epicenter of cultural cool, EV seems never able to embody it, floating above it all as the observer, never the full participant. At times she timidly tests the waters of cultural change but somehow never fully accepts baptismal immersion. She in many ways serves as the stand in for the armchair reader, reminding us of the countless many destined to observe change without fully embracing it.
EV's staffage-like role forces us to the sidelines of the action, making much of this book seem distant and nearly dreamlike without taking on the passion of the dreamer. Cook's frequent mentions of major cultural milestones taking place concurrent to the book's action play like a background buzz of change, awkwardly placed amidst the slow-paced actions of the characters that are spread before us in a series of life vignettes. Ultimately we are left wondering about our own spot as observers, not only to this book but to cultural change in general, feeling a loss of activity and no path to truly dive into the oceans of change that should be roiling within the Daughters of the Revolution.
Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.