1926…Over that pied and milling campus the sunshine is almost tangible. The Sheiks wear Fair Isle sweaters of gaudy intricacy, checked plus fours with tassled socks, or gray flannels so bell-bottomed that they completely vover the saddle-strapped shoes. Most of the sheiks are hatless, and their hair, parted in the middle, is lacquered with Slikum or Staycomb to a mirrorlike stiffness. The shebas have close-cropped, shingled hair. Beneath their sweaters ofr sheath dresses there is only the vaguest convexity of breast. Their knobby knees are topped by frilled garters, and fringed skirts, and fringed skirts sway above the knees.
They sit with legs apart, displaying the V-shaped pattern of their lace panties with provocative unconcern. A freshman walks by with a beanie branded with the numerals 1930. The date is, of course, part of the absurdity. For every sheik and sheba knows that 1930 will never come, that there will never be anything but here and now: this timeless moment throbbing to the beat of “The Varsity Drag.” It is warm, mindless, immediate. It is the Plastic Age of Percy Mark’s forgotten novel, of the quintessence of a thousand campus paper cut-ups, of College Humor with its “College bred- a four lear loaf!” It is the world of John Held Jr.
That nature imitates art is one of those paradoxes Oscar Wilde confected to startle the dinner tables in the 1890′s. Since then it has been repeated so often that it has become a truism. Yet, a truism, for all its acquired banality, may be none the less true, and art does have a way of nudging nature. In any age there is first the amorphous urge toward a pattern, a malaise seeking an outlet. And always the artist seems to embody the age of the spirit of the time, whether it is Mr. Pope in his grotto at Twickenham or Mr. Eliot listening to the melancholy notes of St. Mary Woolnoth.
A generation before Held, Charles Dana Gibson sat at his drawing board, and at the command of his pen Gibson Girls appeared like daisies on the American scene- haughty yet chastely alluring, an aureole of hair beneath their flowered pancake hats, and with floor length skirts and leg o’- mutton sleeves. There was a Gibson man as well, an earlier eternal graduate, who wore his varsity sweater inside out so that only the Y stitching showed, smoked a pipe, and was accompanied by a bulldog on a leash. He returned the Gibson girl’s glance ardently, from afar- and he came to actuality in the person of Richard Harding Davis.
Gibson outlived his creation, even as Held was to outlive his. In the era when the sheiks and the shebas Charlestoned and black-bottomed their way through the pages of the old Life magazine, Gibson continued to produce his fine-drawn society sketches for the same magazine. But his genteel figures, though the women shortened their skirts and bobbed their hair, appeared as pathetic revenants in the dazzle of the Heldian campus world.
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