The following is the prepared text of the faculty address “Palimpsests” delivered by Laurie A. Finke, professor of women’s and gender studies, at Kenyon’s Founders’ Day Convocation on Oct. 13, 2022. Access a recording of the ceremony.
Good morning. I’d like to thank Acting President Bowman for inviting me to address you today. I consider it a real honor — one for which I’m grateful, and not a little daunted.
The Founders’ Day ceremony is a ritual, an unassuming little ritual and perhaps difficult to love. In comparison to the pomp and circumstance of other Kenyon rituals, like Commencement, or celebrations of achievements, like Honors Day, it may seem insignificant, hardly worth giving up a Common Hour. So what’s it all about? Rituals are performative acts, which means that they “do” rather than “mean.” What then does Founders’ Day do? With the Matriculation Oath at the center of the ritual, it presumably creates new members of the community. The Matriculation Oath dates back to 1841, when students new to Kenyon matriculated — that is, were fully accepted as students — after a probationary period of 20 weeks, at which time they could sign the Matriculation Book. The Rite of Matriculation was linked to Founders’ Day 40 years later in 1881. Like all rituals, Founders’ Day involves fancy dress, symbolic objects, music, oaths and speeches. To be felicitous, that is, to do what it needs to do, the right persons must repeat the right actions and right words, in the right place, at the right time. By linking the Rite of Matriculation to a celebration of founders, the ritual connects new Kenyon students, through great distances of both time and space, to all those who came before. It may even make it seem as if students at Kenyon in 2022 are the same as students in 1825 or 1841.
Founders’ Day does not, however, mark a singular act of founding, as if that act — or any act — were sufficient to create an institution of higher learning. Founding is an ongoing process of recreation and change. As a ritual, Founders’ Day does not describe a founding; rather, it attests to the continual making and remaking of the College. Although rituals claim timelessness, they are always changing. Founders’ Day has altered over the 30 years I have been here. President Oden added a tree planting ceremony in the 1990s; a bit later he created the Philander Chase Medal to honor faculty members for 25 years of service, and, in 2009, Georgia Nugent added the award to Founders’ Day. President Oden asked the audience to stand, but not sing along with the Chambers Singers, at the performance of “Kokosing Farewell.” President Nugent reinstated the practice of inviting the audience to sing along. In 2014 and 2015, the Middle Path Medal and Faculty Advisor Award were added to the ceremony. For most of the 30 years I have been here, Founders’ Day has been held at the end of October, near the Episcopalian holiday of All Saints’ Day. And if this one ritual has seen such change, the College has seen much more radical change over its 200-year history, beginning with the obvious fact that most of us present here today would not have been admitted to the college in 1841, 1881 or even as late as 1966.
What would the experience of Kenyon have been like for the white Christian men who matriculated in the 1840s, when the student body numbered around 55? To explore this question, I turn to the title of my remarks, to the palimpsest. The term “palimpsest” designates a writing surface on which an original text has been partially erased, and then overwritten by another text. A palimpsest creates a multi-layered record, preserving a ghost of the original text, just legible through the newer text. In an 1845 essay on the topic, Thomas De Quincey invested the palimpsest with a metaphorical value that extended beyond its status as a manuscript phenomenon.
Kenyon’s campus, which dates back to the 1830s, abounds in palimpsests that reveal traces of its past, despite a program of new building that has altered the campus dramatically over just the last 20 years. I draw your attention to two rooms that might be read as palimpsests. By now most of you have had to find your way in Ascension Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. You may have discovered how difficult it is to go from, say, room 201 to room 226, or 303 to 325, without passing through the building’s two large center rooms, Philomathesian Hall, a lecture hall at the center of the second floor, and Nu Pi Kappa, a reading room at the center of the third. You might even know that for about a century these two rooms housed Kenyon’s two literary societies: Philomathesian and Nu Pi Kappa.
As I write this, I am sitting in the Nu Pi Kappa reading room, having climbed the 71 stairs to reach it (the upper floors are accessible only to the able bodied since the building has no elevator). I gaze at its high ceilings, wood paneling, stained-glass window, corbels, gothic arched doorways, ceiling buttresses, chandeliers, long study tables, plush chairs and faded carpets, details mirrored below in Philomathesian. Both rooms feature the collegiate Gothic style popular at American colleges in the 19th-century, a style that was supposed to be, in the words of one architect, “a constant inspiration to those who dwell within their walls or pass through their ‘quads’ or their vaulted archways.” But what activities did these societies pursue in these rooms? Why did these societies exercise exclusive rights over these posh spaces?
By the time of Kenyon’s founding, most colleges and universities divided their students between two student-run literary societies. To understand the function of these societies, you have to understand the regimentation of college life in the early 19th century. Students rose daily at 5 or 6 a.m. for morning prayers. Everyone in a class took the same courses together. The curriculum consisted of drills in Latin, Greek and mathematics, with a cursory view of science and some moral philosophy as the senior capstone. One scholar of the period writes, “By no educational criteria derived from any time, place, or philosophy, can the early 19th-century American college curriculum as actually taught be made to look attractive. The students disliked the curriculum and pursued their studies only grudgingly.” As a Kenyon student, future President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote to his sister, “Algebra, chemistry, and Paley’s Natural Theology all dry, and with the exception of Algebra I am not anxious to excel in them.” Licit pastimes were limited to hunting, fishing and debating. Only during the late afternoon and early evening did students have time to exercise, study, visit and attend meetings of literary societies, the only student organizations on campus. Students might be expected to be in their rooms by 9 p.m. and have their lights out by 10 p.m., following attendance at evening prayers.
The literary societies, founded and run by students, supplied both educational and social experiences that the curriculum and facilities of the College could not offer. Literary societies founded and maintained their own libraries, supplementing the meager and outdated volumes in the college library, which anyway opened for only an hour or so per week. By 1840 the Philomathesians owned 1,750 books, while Nu Pi Kappa boasted 1,500. Besides providing their members with recent books in a wide variety of subjects, literary societies provided educational experiences lacking in classrooms. In their weekly meetings, students wrote compositions, gave speeches, debated the questions of the day and presided over discussions. They awarded prizes for these activities. On several occasions, the two societies gave public exhibitions in oratory and forensics (debate) both jointly and individually, and participated in the Commencement ceremonies by giving orations. In 1909, in “Student Life and Customs,” Henry Sheldon wrote, “The early debating society was one of the great interests of the student world; its meetings were eagerly anticipated, and its exercises considered to be of much greater importance than the regular recitations” (132-33).
Kenyon’s two literary societies were founded amid sectarian tensions that would in the 1860s erupt into Civil War, a war that saw Kenyon students fighting on both sides of the conflict. The Philomathesian Society was founded in 1827 in Worthington, Ohio, before the college moved to Gambier. Seventeen students were enrolled. The society’s Constitution of 1833 stated that the object of the society “shall be intellectual with moral improvement for the attainment of which, the exercises of its members shall consist of Orations, Compositions, Forensicks and extemporaneous discussions.”
But by 1832 tensions in the society were intolerable. A history of Philomathesian notes that “sectional differences sprang up and increased to such an extent as to become extremely unpleasant. The number of students from northern and southern States was nearly equal, and a continual struggle for predominance was maintained.” “A History of Nu Pi Kappa” confirms the conflict: “In consequence of the misjudged and censurable conduct of certain members of the Philomathesian Society, a party spirit was excited, dividing the Society into Northern and Southern, making it advisable, and almost necessary, for individual improvement, and well-being of the whole, that a separation should take place. It was therefore mutually resolved that parties should separate.” Thirteen men formed the new society, eight from Maryland, four from Virginia and one from Connecticut. The members agreed to “elect members hereafter only from the slave-holding states, this resolution being understood to include all those born in the Southern States,” but stipulating “that it should only hold its force so long as circumstances render it necessary.” The two societies cast lots for the name, which “the Northern Party” won. The Southern party chose the Greek letters Nu Pi Kappa, which stands for “The understanding is the Rudder of the Heart.” “The object of this society,” they declared, “shall be intellectual improvement for the attainment of which the exercises of its members shall consist of such literary performances as may be prescribed in the by-laws.” All assets were divided equally between the two societies.
Generally, relations between the two societies were cordial, but in 1836-37 there seems to have been at least a threat of violence: “members upon both sides carried arms ready for attack or defense; but there is no record of the spilling of blood,” College historian George Franklin Smythe writes. Although the two societies had joined together for a public exhibition in 1834, in 1839, when the Philomathesians invited Nu Pi Kappa to participate in a “public contest,” the society declined. In their carefully worded letter one can read the signs of the political divisions between northerners and southerners. They point to “the peculiar relation in which the two societies of this College stand to each other, arising from circumstances of an arbitrary and conventional character.” They objected “that neither mutual good feeling between the two Societies, nor … their literary interests, will be promoted by the contest proposed. Because it must appear obvious from the peculiar circumstances above alluded to, how naturally the ‘contest’ proposed would lead to contests of another character, and destroy the mutual good feeling and kindly intercourse that now does and should always exist between members of the same institution.”
Only a year later, circumstances rendered it necessary for the societies to realign once again. Nu Pi Kappa was facing extinction resulting from the declining number of men from the south; its numbers fell from 27 in 1832 to only eight in 1840. To shore up Nu Pi Kappa, the two societies agreed that “all students entering the College the following autumn were to be requested to join Nu Pi Kappa. Beginning with the class entering in 1841, students were divided in equal numbers between the two societies.” In addition, 10 members of Philomathesian volunteered to go over to Nu Pi Kappa for a year. After that, the two societies were no longer divided by geographic or sectarian conflict.
Both societies adopted the rituals of the fraternal organizations, like Freemasonry, to which their fathers undoubtedly belonged, and perhaps even some of them. They held initiations, required oaths of secrecy; after initiations, they were awarded badges or keys; they learned the mottos and the meaning of Greek letters standing for vague and uplifting ideals. They elected officers, wrote constitutions and by-laws, and lots and lots of minutes detailing the literary activities of the groups. In a typical meeting, “Two members shall be appointed … to read compositions, two to read a Forensick, two to deliver Orations and four to investigate and discuss a question.” Questions included such topics as “Are secret societies beneficial?”, “Was Mary Queen of Scots justifiably beheaded?” and “Should military chieftains be eligible to offices of civic power.” At least in their later years, the societies provided space in which college men could get together for conviviality, to eat, drink and smoke. The minutes of a September 1859 meeting of Philomathesian remark that, after its meeting, “The Society then adjourned to the hotel to partake of the annual Philo Supper. After all had indulged their appetites to the fullest extent with the many delicacies so bountifully prepared, numerous appropriate toasts were posed and eloquently responded to by the members both active and graduate.” A 1916 Collegian article describes a “smoker” hosted by Nu Pi Kappa, “where cigars, cigarettes and coffee were served.”
By the 1850s, literary societies everywhere faced obsolescence. Colleges were expanding; as their numbers grew, dividing the students into two societies became unwieldy. The curriculum grew as well, giving students more freedom to choose courses based on their own interests. New electives included most of the skills that had before only been available through literary societies. Literary societies faced serious competition from new social groups on campus, most significantly from fraternities and competitive sports, which arrived together at Kenyon in the 1850s. The nature of collegiate masculinity was beginning to shift. Erudition, eloquence and political savvy no longer defined the dominant masculinity on campus. It had been replaced by athletic prowess and membership in the most exclusive fraternities. While literary societies were dying out at most colleges, however, Philomathesian and Nu Pi Kappa would survive for nearly another century, albeit in changing formats. Most immediately they introduced “colloquies” into their exhibitions, theatrical performances with costumed actors delivering witty dialogue.
During their heyday, Kenyon’s societies never occupied the Ascension rooms that today bear their names. The building did not open until 1860. Because the literary societies contributed to the Ascension building fund, they were granted rooms in the building and permission to finish off their rooms anyway they liked. Each spent two or three thousand dollars on decor, with the understanding that the society was to have the exclusive use of its hall. In 1875 the College tried to claim the right to hold certain exercises in these halls, but the societies successfully denied the claim.
The most palimpsestuous object in these two rooms has to be the large stained-glass window in Nu Pi Kappa. It consists of two panels, one headed with the Greek letters Nu Pi Kappa and the date of its founding, 1832, and one with the letters Phi Sigma, dated 1869 (perhaps the date of the window’s installation?). Beneath are lists of initials. Little information remains about the commissioning, constructing and installing of this window. A framed index in the archive provides a key to the initials; its legend reads, ‘By a resolution of the society, the initials of the following named gentlemen were placed upon this window as a memorial of their enthusiasm in securing its insertion and zeal in promoting the interests of Nu Pi Kappa.” Further ghost writing can be found in a 1945 letter to then President Gordon Chalmers from Philena H. Taylor, secretary for many years to Kenyon’s previous president William Pierce. She includes scattered observations about the memorialized individuals’ families, as for instance, “Percy Proctor, ’72 A.B., was an older member of the Cincinnati Proctors of the Proctor and Gamble company.”
At one time Nu Pi Kappa spent considerable funds to memorialize these men in an ornate window. To us, more than 150 years later, the window’s initials provide only traces of names we wouldn’t recognize and likely wouldn’t care about. But that is not just okay, it is just fine. Let us allow them to rest in peace and anonymity. The materiality of the memorial remains, a palimpsest that we can pass by or wonder about. Isn’t memorialization queer? The Founders’ Day ritual is a ritual of palimpsests, a pause in our day-to-day busyness to investigate some of them, to forge a connection to the past, to be sure, but also to mark the past’s strangeness and the strangeness of this ghostly writing, sufficient, to paraphrase De Quincey, “to leave the field for new foundings, and yet not sufficient to make the traces of the past unrecoverable for us.”