'The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi'

For people who never joined a Greek letter society, thinking about fraternities tends to evoke "Animal House," alcohol-fueled college parties, or perhaps news stories about the tragic consequences of hazing -- although those in academe, of course, may have a more varied set of associations. Laurie A.

May 28, 2010

For people who never joined a Greek letter society, thinking about fraternities tends to evoke "Animal House," alcohol-fueled college parties, or perhaps news stories about the tragic consequences of hazing -- although those in academe, of course, may have a more varied set of associations. Laurie A. Wilkie, author of the new book The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archaeology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity (University of California Press), writes, "As a college instructor and faculty member at two universities, I find that my views of Greek life continue to be ambivalent."

But her chance proximity to a campus construction project led Wilkie -- who is professor of anthropology and director of the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California at Berkeley, and whose research has largely focused on African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries -- to Zeta Psi. Specifically to the Iota chapter, founded at Berkeley in 1870 -- making it the first fraternity chapter established west of the Rockies.

In an e-mail interview with Inside Higher Ed, Wilkie discussed how Zeta Psi's story sheds light on masculinity and gender relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and what the fraternities of that time can tell us about the fraternities of today.

Q: You note in the prologue that the subject matter of The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi lies well outside the realm of your usual areas of research -- though the timeline of the project indicates that you've been working on it for quite a while. What sparked your interest in Zeta Psi, and how did the book come about?

A: The Zeta Psi project started as an “accidental archaeology.” During my first fall as a junior faculty member at Berkeley, a basement was dug for the new law school library. The Archaeological Research Facility, where my office is located, faced the construction. The backhoes hit an archaeological deposit, and a hoard of angry archaeologists descended on the site to stop them so it could be recorded. As the new historical archaeologist, I was quickly volunteered for duty! The deposit that was disturbed was a Prohibition-period dump associated with Zeta Psi fraternity. The fraternity had built and occupied our building long before it housed archaeologists. I used the materials we salvaged from the site to teach a laboratory analysis class, and during that process realized that there was great potential to study the materiality of what it was to be a young man during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was five years before I was able to get permission to direct additional excavations on the site.

Archaeologists have been interested in studying gender relations as negotiated and constructed through material culture since the late 1980s, but “gender” has become almost always synonymous with “women.” I was excited to have a site that allowed me to focus explicitly on a community of men who were in the process of transitioning from one stage of their life (childhood) to another (adulthood). I had no doubt this site deserved book-length consideration.

Q: J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" provides a rough structure for the book's organization and themes, as well as more specific analogies for its persons. How and why did you choose this unusual approach, and what makes it fitting?

A: I have to credit my daughter, Alexandra -- now 12 -- for the book’s structure. We rented the recent live action “Peter Pan” movie, and while watching it I was struck by the delicious gender tensions that drove much of the character’s relations, and wondered how much of that came from the original play. The Disney version of Peter Pan had always annoyed me, so I had never bothered to read any of the books or play. I found that our library had early published versions of the play, the book Peter and Wendy and the script for the epilogue, When Wendy Grew Up. Once I read those works, particularly James Barrie’s wonderfully descriptive stage notes, I could not escape the sense that Peter Pan summed up the tensions between men and women that characterized American society during Zeta Psi’s occupation at 2251 College Ave. But Never Land also provided a powerful metaphor for the college experience. The men of Zeta Psi left their childhood homes to come to the university -- they stayed there for four (or often more) years in a state of arrested development -- ultimately leaving to return to the world as adults. The brothers of Zeta Psi were bonded by shared experiences and adventures based from their shared living quarters. They had ongoing rivalries with other fraternities and student organizations on campus, and they faced continual threat from administrators who wanted to disband them, as well as any number of women who wanted to entrap them in marriage. Instead of convincing myself that the similarities were superficial, the more I pushed the comparisons, the more inevitable it became to my way of thinking that the story of Peter Pan was the story of Zeta Psi fraternity.

Despite my conviction about my narrative structure, I was worried about how this storytelling might be perceived by other archaeologists. Archaeologists attract, among others, a segment of the public who are interested in aliens, sasquatches and giants, I wasn’t sure the discipline would be appreciative of one of their own embracing fairies, flying children and pirates as an interpretive narrative. I had been invited to be a keynote speaker at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology Theory (CHAT) conference in Bristol, England. I decided to give my narrative structure a test run. The response to the talk, where I laid out my intention to use a piece of period literature as a means of understanding an archaeological site was, to my pleasant surprise, very well received. I was encouraged to go forward with the manuscript.

Q: The acknowledgments begin with the remark that "archaeological interpretation is 80 percent random bursts of creative wonder and 20 percent evidentiary justification" -- a statement you make in the context of explaining the book's structure. That aside, would you say the sentiment is approximately factual? Why?

A: To be honest, this statement could probably apply to most research endeavors in the social sciences. We train our students to start with a research question, and then design research methodologies that will allow them to collect data that will allow the question to be “answered.” When they succeed in doing this, we are left with solid, but probably boring, research. In my opinion, what should happen in the research process is that unanticipated questions should arise, and in sorting out how to deal with those questions, we create new knowledge or understandings of our world. But allowing those unforeseen questions to emerge, and chasing them down, requires a certain amount of creativity and luck, and even intuition. It also requires time. You noted that this project has been with me for a while. Archaeological projects usually have a long time between excavation and publication because of the nature of lab work and analysis. But I have also found that I need a certain amount of “simmer” time for things to make sense to me. Some of my best thinking happens while walking the dog, driving my daughter to school, talking with students or colleagues over coffee, or even while playing solitaire on the computer. One of the quick vanishing luxuries of academic life is thinking time. It seems that budget cuts have us all doing more and more administrative work on campus, with fewer and fewer opportunities to engage colleagues and students in intellectual chats and idle brainstorming. I don’t know that we can measure the impact of that loss on the academy, and by extension, our society.

Q: Fraternities today, of course, have many vocal supporters and many equally vocal detractors -- just as they did in the era you studied. What were some of the chief arguments against fraternities at that time, and how do they compare to criticisms of modern fraternities?

A: One of the common late 19th century criticisms against fraternities at Cal was that they were anti-democratic. The fraternity men were seen as acting together as a political group and subverting student elections and governance. There is some evidence to support this contention at Berkeley, but just as much evidence to suggest that these men came to dominate particular activities on campus simply because they wanted to spend as much time together with their brothers as possible. Nationally, hazing was a concern in the late nineteenth century, with several notable hazing deaths occurring on the east coast. Similarly, the effect of fraternity life on academic achievement was debated by administrators. Still, universities were supportive of fraternities because they provided much needed student housing on campuses. At Berkeley, a committee was set up to encourage the creation of fraternity and sorority-like groups to create student housing.

Many of the critiques of fraternities in the past would be recognizable to us today -- too much drinking, too little studying, too much involvement in socializing, too much emphasis on pranks and hazing, and an emphasis on economic exclusivity. By the mid-20th century, the inherent racism of fraternity charters was recognized, and there is the first widespread evidence of predatory behavior towards women.

On the positive side, university administrators saw the household management aspects of fraternity life and the emphasis on social niceties within the houses as promoting the development of more responsible men who were better prepared to take on the tasks of adulthood. Fraternity alumni helped place graduating members into careers, and fraternity men were among the most supportive of their alma maters.

Q: Regarding the study of fraternal organizations broadly, you write, "we must take a diachronic, or across-time, perspective to these institutions if we are to understand them." In what ways did this project shape or change your own understanding of and feelings about such organizations as they exist today?

A: The thing I hadn’t realized before doing this project is how concerned a number of national organizations are about revitalizing their chapters. The Zeta Psi chapter at Cal was seen as having drifted from some of the key values of brotherhood, and the project was seen by members of the national organization of reminding members what fraternity life was intended to be -- a place where young men developed into contributing and productive members of society under the tutelage and companionship of a family of brothers. My research demonstrated to me that fraternity chapters can change their values and persona very quickly -- it is the nature of the membership; any brother is only there for a limited number of years.

A shift in recruitment can change the entire face of a fraternity very quickly. There has never been a list of essential characteristics that makes one a "Zeta Psi brother." As such, these are organizations that are very representative of the values and norms of the broader community in which they are situated. If there are things happening in a fraternity setting that we find disturbing, then we should turn our attention as well to the society that has nurtured these values and behaviors in these young men. I would not describe myself as particularly pro or against fraternities. I know young men who have greatly benefited from membership in their organizations, and others who probably did not need the social distractions. I think it unlikely that these organizations will disappear from campus life; however, there have been attempts to abolish them for over 150 years.

Q: "Social historians," you write, "...have defined the period of the late 19th and early 20th century as a time when expectations of manhood underwent profound shifts." What was the import of these shifts for groups like Zeta Psi -- and what can the study of Zeta Psi (and other fraternities) tell us about the shifts themselves?

A: In 1875, the men of Zeta Psi were involved in the most important of manly pursuits -- they were part of choral groups; dominated the rhetorical societies; played in string quartets and dominated student government and student publications. They were photographed gathered around the house piano, sitting with arms entwined around one another, and engaged in beer toasting ceremonies using matching stoneware steins. In 1920, Zeta Psi’s brothers were at the center of masculine pursuits on campus: they held positions on the rugby, football, baseball and crew teams, and managed to gain membership to many of the dozens of "honor societies" that commanded status on campus. They were photographed touching one another minimally, drinking from kegs in the Berkeley hills, and dressed as flappers in parodies of the women’s rights movement. The men of the 1870s scorned the co-eds who attended Berkeley, choosing to marry the non-university-educated sisters of their fraternity brothers, and had the reputation of being woman-haters on campus. The brothers of the 1920s were seen as young men obsessed with romance, and regularly dated and married women they attended college with.

To be a middle- to upper-class man in the last quarter of the 19th century was to have conquered the arts of the parlor, to battle with one’s wits and prose, and to stay politely away from the sphere of the women’s world. By the 20th century, women of the middle and upper classes had unapologetically invaded traditionally male spaces -- like the university classroom -- and men responded by developing their natural advantages in the realm of the physical. Men fought with their bodies, on battlefields and athletic fields. And they sought the social company of women while struggling with the insecurities of meeting women as intellectual equals.

The men and women who attended the University of California from the late 19th to early 20th centuries were in the process of creating the universities that we live in and work in today. Their struggles, of how to shift from a homosocial to a heterosocial university, are still with us today as we continue to contemplate how to create gender equality for students, staff, faculty and administration on contemporary campuses. This was not a narrative I had expected to find in this research, but became a very personally important part of the storyline for me. The story of Zeta Psi could not be told without considering the women of Never Land, and therefore, this study of masculinity truly became a story of shifting gender relations.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top