Remembering Denny

Calvin Trillin

Read March 2004

Calvin Trillin, not normally known for serious prose, looks back on the life of a Yale classmate, Denny Hansen. On the surface an account of Denny, the book is, like an Economist obituary, a moving examination of a much larger social milieu.

Denny is a superbly athletic student with a winning smile who charms even his Yale classmates and proceeds to a Rhodes at Oxford. At his Yale graduation, and during his term at Oxford, Denny is even featured in Life, then a key (normative) barometer of American life. Indeed, Trillin and his friends view Denny as a future president, with a lack of irony or cynicism that seems charming and very nearly naïve today. (When Trillin asks Yale students in 1970 who was most likely to become President, there is a pause before they ask, “President of what?” (p. 6) And to think any number of American presidential candidates were on campus at that very moment!) Yet Denny fails to get no closer to the White House than a professorship in a vocational arm of Johns Hopkins in Washington, and eventually takes his own life.

Trillin writes at length, as one might expect, about the pressures of peer expectations. The book also examines the strong possibility that Denny was gay, and discusses very frankly the implications of this for his generation (p. 183), liberated as some members of it might have been. (At one point, he attributes the conservatism of those who graduated in the 1950s to their frustration at having missed the permissiveness of the 1960s.) Indeed, Denny spends his academic career morphed into Roger D. Hansen, estranged from former classmates, academic colleagues, and much any other company, an academic whose last glory was published over a decade ago. Trillin seems to be telling us that no single epochal event transformed Hansen, just an inevitable, accreting slide toward an inevitable conclusion.

To me, the most compelling part of the book was its examination of the changing face of higher education (a good complement to Gatekeepers). Yale in the early 1950s was undergoing profound change. When Trillin arrived, it was still largely a recipient of the products of the Andovers; he was in the generation of public school graduates of immigrant blood who swept into the quadrangles—a change dramatically and memorably documented in the language of “white shoes”, “brown shoes” and “black shoes” (p. 32). He bluntly describes his father's plans for him, based on comically exaggerated accounts of Yale life (p. 35). (Four decades later, Erich Segal's The Class would similarly send me mixed signals.) He compares this (p. 78) with the large families of black students that tend to congregate at commencement—something that was equally dramatically manifest at Ruth Simmons's inauguration at Brown!

There's no question that the book is, in part, Trillin's attempt to assuage his own conscience about his (sort of) friend's death. The book's strength is Trillin's brutally honest autobiographical examination. A weak book on this topic might try its utmost to defend the author. Instead, Trillin investigates and then reports, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions, unflattering as they may be.