Online Additions

An American College for Women (Full Text)

Manzoni, Nievo, Fogazzaro, Verga and D’Annunzio, the names of these five Italian novelists kept running through my mind as the train sped along the white banks of the frozen Hudson. I was supposed to talk about these five novelists to the young ladies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Thinking again about these authors in America, far from Italy, where they are living presences not just in the culture but also in the life of the country, had a curious effect on me. I felt they were frozen and, despite their lively particularity, had been turned into mere names, dates, news, information.

So I discovered for the first time that singular phenomenon which is the transplanting of European culture to America where it becomes a kind of eclectic anatomy of dessicated, lifeless bodies. Thus Aeschylus and Voltaire, Marlowe and Metastasio, Gongora and Anaxogoras and so many other stars that have shone brightly in the firmament of European culture for thousands of years here become the subject of cold, if conscientious, erudition. I had already noticed this phenomenon when I spent some time with students at Columbia University in New York—all of them full of good will, especially the girls, but incapable of transforming dead knowledge into deep, decisive experience. Americans can fairly and truly be called the heirs of Europe but they are the kind of heirs who when they take possession of a palace full of paintings, books, statues and other precious things turns the palace into a museum and go on living in their little houses.

For Americans, European culture undoubtedly constitutes a luxury and nothing more. Aside from their cold, simple intelligence, they lack the proper tools for understanding it other than a colorless Protestant moralism which anti-Humanist and anti-historic par excellence. But how could it be otherwise? Life in America takes places on a wholly different plane than it does in Europe. America does not continue Europe, so much as it tends to take possession of it and replace it. Of necessity it knows nothing about Europe except the results which are like so many butterflies pinned, detached and motionless, under glass.

Such were my thoughts as the train swerved car after car on its tracks as it followed the winding course of the Hudson. It was a beautiful, extremely cold day. The sun filled the smoky air of my compartment with intense radiant light. Over a totally white Hudson there rose a winter sky of that pale shivering blue color which seemed to retain the bright white dusting of a snowstorm. We passed the concrete fortress of Sing Sing, then left the Hudson and after a few stops arrived in Poughkeepsie.

There was not quite half an hour until my lecture. I jumped into a taxi and took off up a very steep street between rows of small wooden houses with snow-covered roofs. The snow was high on both sides of the road. I was shaking because of the cold and the bumps from the frozen ruts in the road. I kept going over my lecture on Manzoni and the other four. We arrived at certain red walls like those of a castle then, and then, passing through a large gate, entered an enormous space with flower beds and trees, and surrounded on all sides by uniform, severe buildings—the enclosure of the school was known as its “campus.”

The snow sparkled like jewels between those flower beds.* Under the snow-laden fir trees, which were dripping in the sun, young women students hurried by, dressed in every possible color, casually, wearing leggings but no hats. Many wore short fur coats and even ski pants. A couple of these youthful smiling lasses welcomed me and led me through many large rooms into an attractive parlor on the ground floor of one of the College’s buildings. Everything lay ready in this room. A lively fire was burning in the fireplace. On the desk an envelope with my name on it stood propped against a glistening crystal inkwell; inside there were a lot of five dollar bills, my stipend for the lecture.

I took off my hat and overcoat, put the money in my pocket, and immediately joined the girls where they were waiting implacably for me in the corridor. As I followed them, I had time to admire the elegance and comfort of the college: beautiful antique furniture everywhere, carpets, mirrors, well-made pictures; everywhere the aristocratic slightly cold style of the Anglo-Saxon eighteenth century, George Washington and Queen Anne. Finally we came to a door behind which could be heard the buzz of female voices which ceased, however, the moment I entered the room.

I expected a class room, but found instead a vast comfortable parlor, with groups of armchairs, curtains on the windows and green wall paper. About a hundred of these same girls I had just glimpsed a moment before on the campus crowded into the parlor. In the midst of the chatter they held steaming cups of tea. Trays covered with sandwiches were being passed around. I seemed to be at a reception. I took a cup myself and, forgetting about my lecture, began observing the girls, all of whom were attractive, to tell the truth, with that fresh, innocent, slightly conventional look common to American women at almost every age. While observing them, all of a sudden, to my surprise, I saw them stop talking, one by one, and arrange themselves on the armchairs, the arms of the armchairs, even on the floor, crossing their legs Oriental fashion. I thought someone was about to take picture.* It never occurred to me that my lecture was supposed to take place in that very parlor between one cup of tea and another. But the department chair, a large authoritarian bespectacled woman, now touched me lightly on the arm, indicating an enormous, truly presidential arm chair* which stood empty in the middle of the parlor. Having understood, I set down my cup (which I had not finished sipping) and went over and sank into that armchair. Suddenly, there was deep silence.

I began to speak in my normal voice, then realized that it was too low, and began to shout, a little surprised at myself, and not at all sure I could fill an hour with my discourses. What I was missing above all was the ardor of a cause to defend. But after the first sentences I remembered an article by Giovanni Papini on Italian literature which had appeared in the first issue of the new defunct journal Pegasus. The article argued that Italy could never produce a novel. I summarily decided to consider this as grossly unfair. So the whole lecture was to be a vibrant demonstration of the injustice of that article. I pulled it off. I quoted some sentences from Papini, then, starting with the Promessi Sposi, began to demonstrate the obvious, undeniable existence of the Italian novel.

The good girls who were listening to me seemed to know Manzoni and D’Annunzio especially. They had read the former and heard about the latter, but the other three were unknown to them. I had the proof of this ignorance when after I had stopped speaking, they questioned me about points that had remained murky for them. One wanted to know who was the author of the novel entitled Ippolito Nievo. Another wanted to know why Manzoni had written only one novel. A third stood up and declared that she had read D’Annunzio’s Il piacere and found it immoral.

The lecture was over. I was about to leave when the inevitable bespectacled department chair made me a little sign and quite ceremoniously introduced me to a blond girl, “Signorina Agnes,” who had a favor to ask of me. I thought she wanted me to clarify some point, so I hastened to ask her if some part of the lecture was still unclear. Miss Agnes, a shapely blond of clearly Germanic origin, answered, while fidgeting and blushing, that it had nothing to do with the lecture. The favor she had to ask me was quite different, but she feared that I would turn her down. I insisted. More blushing, more confusion. Finally this is what I was at last able to ascertain. Just once during one’s four years at school a gala ball took place at the College. It was an extremely important event called the Promenade or even the Prom. To this ball, which followed certain set norms, each girl invited one of her suitors or boy friends, who was literally at the service of his lady whom he was not to leave for a single instant and to whom he had to present a “corsage,” i.e. a floral decoration for the shoulder. Now it happened that Signorina Agnes’s boyfriend was sick, to the grave disappointment of the girl who had lived that whole year waiting for that dance. Did I wish to take the place of the absent suitor? This question was framed with anxiety. The young lady was attractive. I accepted.

So here I was transformed from a professor into a “cavaliere servente.” No sooner had I accepted than the shy, anxious expression vanished from Agnes’s face. After hastily introducing me to her girl friends and teachers, she took me by the arm with a possessive gesture, then dragged me out of the house. She told me that we were going to her room which was in one of the many buildings that made up the college. As we walked along, she explained that at the dance I would have to dance with sixteen of her friends and spend the intermissions with her. She in her turn would have to dance sixteen dances with sixteen suitors of her friends. She handed me a charming booklet in which she had written the names of the sixteen girls. I asked her jokingly if it was really necessary to dance with all sixteen, adding (as a compliment) that I would have preferred to dance with her. She replied very seriously that this was against the rules. Thus I encountered once again the formality which is as deeply felt in the United States as in England.

In the meantime we reached the house she lived in, where she introduced me to the superintendent, and then dragged me to her room. A small room, with few books, and many clothes hung almost everywhere. She offered me a cigarette and then in a manner partly shy and partly authoritarian she showed me some family photographs: her father with his pipe between his teeth, a large solid sort of rich industrialist, her brother on a shaggy polo pony, her two little sisters. It must have been one of the best families which means a nice house in the city, a villa in Florida, three or four automobiles, a motor boat, horses, dogs, and the like.

While she spoke, I looked at her. She was a genuinely beautiful young girl, in full flower, with a slightly sly expression and certain slow awkward gestures which made her seem like a teddy bear. She opened a closet and showed me a blue silk evening dress, the one she would wear for the dance, asking if I liked it. She was singularly intimate even in these slightly distant and awkward relations. She then advised me to phone a florist to order the “corsage,” the floral decoration, allowing me to understand that gardenias were her favorite flowers. I went to make the call. When I returned I found two other girls to whom I was introduced with a certain pride not lacking in hauteur. Here is my knight, it seemed she wanted to say, a professor of literature, a European. The girls were in high spirits and giddy at the idea of the dance. They began to joke among themselves. Suddenly one of them ran into the hall, the other followed and the two of them fell down together, sliding on the shiny waxed floor. Then they came back, quite serious and sat down at a little table for a hand of bridge which lasted until supper-time.

When the game was over, I went back to my room. On the table was a wrapped box which, when opened, revealed the famous “corsage”: five gardenias decorated with red and yellow ribbons.

I dressed quickly and went down into the lobby where I found Agnes in her blue silk dress. I fastened the gardenias to her shoulder and then in line with the other couples we passed in review the entire teaching body. The young lady introduced me, a handshake and on to the next one. Keeping our columns with the solemnity of a wedding ceremony, we entered a dining room full of small candle-lit tables agleam with crystal. There were easily two or three hundred of us. In that fantastic shadow full of flickering reflections from the candles, the faces of the girls all expressed the ingenuous joy of the festivities. The food was poor, there was a lot to drink. As soon as dinner was over we left the house and crossed the snowy night-time campus in little groups toward the building where the theater was, in whose hall the dance was to take place.

The lobby and corridors of the theater were teeming already with the girls and their suitors with the all the* brilliant disorder proper to intermission at a play. But at a signal they lined up, couple behind couple, and in two opposed lines, turning left and right down the halls, they entered the hall. On the stage was a famous New York orchestra which, as soon as the two first couples appeared, struck up a kind of solemn march. Slowly the two columns advance towards the back of the hall while the music played and up above in the amphitheater, the younger students, who were excluded from the dance, rhythmically clapped their hands. The two columns, having reached the back of the hall, came back towards the proscenium where they doubled up, beginning the march again forming a phalanx of not two but four couples. This procedure was repeated several times, and always with the same solemn and prestigious slowness until, once the hall was filled with many lines containing exactly thirty two persons each, everybody stopped, the music ceased, and suddenly there came a white magnesium glow flash: the photograph to send the newspapers. The photographer’s gesture from the proscenium indicating that the picture had been taken, was the signal for the dance to begin. The orchestra struck up a dance and the whole hall/ballroom began to spin. Up in the mezzanine the excluded girls leaned down to look enviously.

With the same formalism of a court ball with which it had begun, the evening moved steadily forward to its end. Sixteen times I danced with sixteen different girls. I could not decline dancing with any girl I did not like, nor could I dance with Agnes, as I wanted to. During the intermissions she introduced me to the next young lady I was scheduled to dance with. As I danced, I thought that this same formalism, which is to be found in many other aspects of American life, is typical of a society that is, at bottom, aristocratic. This was the most important Society event of those four years of study, the event for which the girls prepared throughout their entire adolescence, and it was an enormous effort full of etiquette and rules. So much for Europe so unjustly accused of ceremoniousness and rigid formality!

It happened that once the ball was over I suddenly found myself with Agnes in the back seat of a car. In front sat the young man and his lady and the car sped along at break-next speed through a snowy forest between two interminable walls of tall gloomy fir trees. The snow caused the car to skid, throwing us up against the girls and providing us an excuse to embrace them. We were racing towards a “cabaret” where, it seemed, drink was to be had. We sped along for a while, took a wrong turn, and finally by a back road ended up at a kind of fake wooden cabin buried under the snow and the dripping boughs of fir trees. Dogs barked, the girls with their plunging necklines got out of the car into the snow. We sent into a deserted hall populated with automatic machines which for a penny sing, play music, push out chocolate bars and mint drops. Sleepily leaning on the bar, we did a lot of drinking, looking at the empty room which had many hunting trophies on the wall, deer heads and other horned animals. All that alcohol taken cold went straight to the heads of the two girls. They hiked up their voluminous dresses above their knees, like chorus girls dancing in New York. But on our way back I realized that even the young man who was driving had drunk too much. For suddenly the car went off the road and got stuck in the snow between the trees. Eventually, after several futile attempts, we were forced to abandon the car. Walking through the forest, we made it back to the red walls of the College around dawn.

[Gazzetta del Popolo, December 3, 1936]

Alberto Moravia, Viaggi, articoli 1930-1990, edited with an introduction by Enzo Siciliano and an afterword by Tonino Tornitore. Milano: Bompiani, 1993