High Above College Green, Close to the Stars

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After five years in exile, the Philomathean Society — the oldest continuous collegiate literary society in the nation — has returned to its historic quarters on the top floor of College Hall. What now?

By Caren Lissner | Illustration by Courtney Granner

Sidebar | One Night at Philo …


They dress in black. They smoke cigars. They organize “vespertils” and debate existentialism on Friday nights. Depending on who you ask (provided you ask someone who’s heard of it at all), the Philomathean Society is either one of Penn’s most prestigious organizations, or its most pretentious. But the fact that the 184-year-old literary society is sometimes stereotyped as a circle of socially-awkward elitists is not its biggest concern right now. The group, which has always had a unique relationship with alumni, is looking to them to restore some of the traditions that have been lost since 1993, when it was forced out of its 120-year-old quarters on the fourth floor of College Hall as part of the building’s ongoing renovation. Last summer, the society began moving back into the halls from the three classrooms on the second floor of College Hall where it had been temporarily housed.
   On a campus where it is as easy to spot scaffolding creeping up the walls as ivy, members of groups and departments displaced by construction have all, at times, wondered if they’d ever return to their old haunts. “Philo” had more at stake than most. The nation’s oldest continuous collegiate literary society, its constitutional mission — defined when 13 members of the senior class founded it in 1813 — is to “promote the learning of its members and increase the academic prestige of the university.” Its motto, Sic itur ad astra, means This is the way to the stars. For close to two centuries, Philo has carried out its mission by hosting readings, speeches, art shows, plays and debates, as well as events of a more humorous nature. It has always filled gaps in campus intellectual life, having founded The Daily Pennsylvanian in 1885 and Punch Bowl in 1899; helped launch the American Civilization department in 1960, and hosted a nationally-broadcast debate with Princeton’s literary society in 1984.
   Philo’s signature event is its biweekly meeting, held every other Friday night and lasting up to eight hours (see box). At these gatherings, members report on events completed and planned, listen to literary presentations, and engage in short debates before a gavel-wielding, robed moderator and in strict accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order. Well, not exactly strict. Just before the meeting’s mandatory three-minute reading of the society constitution, Philos will make wacky amendments — for example, that it be read in Esperanto, while the librarian is pummeled with paper airplanes, with two members commentating as Beavis and Butt-head, punctuated at the end by a Porky Pig-style, “That’s all, folks.” During the treasurer’s report, he or she is goaded to sing a song whose lyrics are simply, “Pay, pay, pay your dues.” When someone makes a crack that is beyond the pale of political correctness, members chant, “That’s not funny, that degrades women, that’s heterosexist, that’s a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy.” And at the end of the meeting, members are fined for frivolous offenses — in prime number amounts up to 97 cents (That would be 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, and 89, for anyone who’s counting).
   The meetings are a challenge of wits, savvy, and sometimes just plain silliness. It is this atmosphere that has kept a handful of Philadelphia-area alumni coming back as often as every two weeks, years after their graduation. And alumni are not considered Philo graduates, but “senior members,” encouraged to pace the halls anytime. (Students are known as “junior members.”) This designation means one never really leaves and is always warmly welcomed back.
   But Philo today is at a crossroads. Many new student groups have formed since 1813 that run activities similar to some of those in Philo, so the society’s role in present university life has come into question — though, to an extent, this is a tradition, too. Attempting to define Philo has been a common avocation of members for years, alumni say.
   But any soul-searching in the last five years had to be put on hold while the group vacated its fourth-floor quarters, as making sure Philo did not fall apart took priority over figuring out what it was. The relocation robbed Philo of access to its historic library, meeting room, and office, which contains a dark wooden dais, wood pews, artwork, books, archives, and piano. During this time, membership dropped. Traditions were forgotten. Art shows fell by the wayside. With the return to the halls accomplished, Philo’s “identity quest” has resumed as well, says the current moderator, Jen Marzullo, EAS’98. “Before, not being in the halls was something to focus on. When something went wrong, we would be convinced not being in the halls was the real problem. We weren’t finding real answers. Everything was, ‘It’ll probably be fixed when we get back into the halls.'”

Though the state of the society never became truly precarious during this period “in the wilderness,” it could have, if history is an indication. The group had first moved into its halls in 1877, when the University built them to lure the group from Ninth and Chestnut streets to West Philadelphia, to which the rest of the University had moved five years earlier. In 1927, a campus-wide shortage of classroom space forced Philo to relocate to Houston Hall. Membership and activities declined, and things only got worse during World War II when the Navy kicked the group out to use Houston Hall for training. Hilary Putnam, C’48 — later chair of Harvard’s philosophy department — held the society together by organizing meetings at members’ homes. Charles Fine Ludwig, C’53, L’56, eventually took over the preservation role, doing his best to keep the few remaining members involved and activities running. It wasn’t until 1969 that Philo returned to the halls and was revived from its near-death state.
   Ludwig, now a partner in a Philadelphia insurance firm, was also among several alumni — including Eugene Bolt, C’88, Peter Baker, C’90, Jonathan Goldstein, C’93, and Scott Batten, EAS’94 — who helped ensure that, this time around, the group would return to the halls as soon as possible. With that accomplished, the role of the alumni will revert to what it was before the exile, perhaps even including the three-hour tours of the halls Ludwig routinely gave “baby Philos” shortly after their induction. “We need alums to prod us and go, ‘Hey, back in the day, we used to do this,'” Marzullo says.
   One important respect in which returning to the halls will aid in this effort to reclaim the past is through the artifacts decorating them. For instance, a replica of the Rosetta stone, the 2,200-year-old Egyptian inscribed slab found by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 that led to breakthroughs in deciphering hieroglyphics, hangs on the west wall of the meeting room — a reminder that it was three undergraduate members of Philo who in 1858 completed and published the first English translation of the stone. Members digging through Philo’s extensive archives will find numerous posters of debates and theatrical events, a popular activity as Philo entered the 20th century. One theatrical production in 1915 involved building a full-scale 1,000-seat reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Hamilton Walk. And evidence of Penn’s connection to American history sits on a library shelf in the form of two fake pistols. They evoke memories of a heated pre-Civil War Philo debate in which the moderator placed a pair of revolvers on the podium to keep things fair and announced, “Gentlemen, tonight we debate slavery.”
   One senior member related the tale and went on to discuss why it is an important part of Philo lore. “Philo always meant one thing to me first and foremost: continuity with Penn’s history,” says Robert Shepard, C/G’83, a California literary agent. The Society is one of those relatively few Penn institutions that’s been around for most of the University’s existence. So, besides meeting truly creative peers and thinking great thoughts long into the night, we get a sense of what Penn was like 100 or 150 years ago.”
   Minutes of such debates may even provide insight into the oratorical beginnings of today’s politicians, as Philo has spawned 26 state senators, seven U.S. Representatives, three U.S. Senators, and three attorneys general. “Philo does boast one of the richest heritages on campus,” says Ian Gadd, who became archivist in 1993 while at Penn as a British exchange student. “Its records date back to 1813, and for most of the 19th century at least, Philo was the dominant society on campus, embracing about 50 percent of the college students in mid-century. The fact that Philo has retained the integrity of its own archives has helped provide an important sense of historical continuity.” The ease of access to the archives and artifacts will help Philo regain the sense of history that its junior and senior members alike hold so dear. The sturdy dais, pews, library full of books, carpeted halls, wooden mailboxes, and paintings, add to a dual sense of order and creativity.
   But just being in the halls themselves — having a place to call their own, whether decorated or not — may be the most important impact of the group’s return. The halls are a place to which Philo’s moderator and his or her cabinet have keys, a homey enclave to visit at all hours of the day or night. And hey, back in the day, members would crawl out onto the roof and hug their knees, letting the breeze toss their hair, musing on life’s mysteries and staring up at the light emanating from the moon — or at least from the electric sign on top of the PECO building.

“The halls tell every member and every newcomer that this is an unusual place, a bookish place, a creative place,” says Shepard. “They’re the first place I visit when I return to campus. Whenever Philo has been exiled from the halls, it’s usually meant that intellectual life suffered on campus. And frankly, at a time when intellectual life seems to be at a premium, Philo can have a tremendous impact. So those halls are an important legacy and they have an ongoing impact behind their walls.”
   Alumni who stopped by the restored halls in November for Homecoming felt the same way, saying they were glad to be back and wanted to make sure everything was returned to the way it used to be.
   “Is the flag out?!” barked Stephen Marmon, C’71/WG’81. “As the former chairman of the flag committee, I insist you find it!”
   Others reminded the younger members of songs they’d sung and of artwork they wanted to see hung up. But the fact that not everything was back in its place wasn’t the only lingering negative legacy of the exile that needed to be fixed — a noticeable change at Homecoming was the low attendance. Present Philo membership is at 30, down from 46 before the exile. And selectivity has suffered as well. Application to Philo involves a creative submission, an interview, and a five-minute presentation. Members deliberate in a closed room for an entire Sunday over whom to admit, hashing out the positives and negatives of each applicant, and those rejected can try again. But, while in years past more than a third of applicants were rejected, Marzullo says almost everyone who completes the process these days is accepted.
  The hope is that the attraction of the halls will inspire more people to take an interest. At the same time, the group’s new goal — to define itself better — is also expected to aid in luring members. Because while Philo’s members may lack a clear sense of the group, the campus has even less of a clue. Students surveyed randomly on Locust Walk one morning last fall gave largely negative definitions of the society, including “It’s this hypocritical fraternity that’s, like, against fraternities” and “They’re academic elitists who get together and chat and have cigars.” One thing that should help get the word out in the future is the group’s website.
   So what is Philo’s present and future role? The group is still hosting debates, still bringing annual speakers, still publishing. In 1996, they released a 318-page hardcover volume of poetry as an ode to retiring English Professor and friend-of-Philo Daniel Hoffman. They held, the night before Halloween 1997, a “Poe Vespertil” honoring and mourning Edgar Allan Poe. They are presently planning debates with literary societies at other Ivies.
   How this fits in with the other groups on campus will have to be determined. “Connaissance is better funded for bringing speakers,” says former moderator Jonathan Goldstein, C’93. “The performing arts groups are putting on better plays, there are other journals on campus. What do we do best and what is our purpose in this environment? That’s the central question for Philo over the next few years.”
   But many alumni say that the most important thing Philo can continue to do is simply remind students of the importance of extracurricular learning. “As we enter the next century,” says Rob Hutter, EAS’85, a corporate lawyer in upstate New York, “I see that truly literate people are drifting from a minority to a microscopic minority. I know people who have never read a book since graduation day. Philo is, to me, ultimately about books.”
   A good number of students and alumni say that for those on campus, Philo presents a viable — and perhaps one of the only — social alternatives to fraternity parties, particularly Friday nights; a place to crack a book on weekends and not get sneered at. Whatever new roles Philo adopts as it approaches its bicentennial, it will continue to give both its students and alumni — and even Penn alumni who never joined as students, but are welcome to consider “special membership” — the assurance that they always will have a place to visit any time they want to feel creativity and learning going on all around them.
   “Why did Philo become the focal point of my Penn experience?” asks former moderator John Leibovitz, C’95. “Philo is a complex organization, and one of its great pastimes is debating what it is and what it should be. After a class of Philos graduated who had never witnessed a meeting in the real halls, I think it is time that Philo recover its sense of place on campus: high above College Green, close to the stars.”

Caren Lissner, C’93, joined the Philomathean Society in her senior year and now lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. She has been published in The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.


S I D E B A R

One Night at Philo

IT WAS OCTOBER 17, 1997. Four robed officials entered the candlelit meeting room: The moderator, who runs the meetings; the first and second censors, who deal with membership issues and dole out fines at the end of meetings; and the scriba, who takes the minutes. Two officials, wearing masks for Halloween, growled menacingly. The members pretended not to notice.
   Scriba J.K. Barret, C’98, called the roll. Members responded with phrases including “Four score and seven years ago,” “They’re magically delicious,” and “I can’t believe it’s not butter!”
   Then, it was time for cabinet members’ reports and committee reports. (There are 26 committees ranging from the Lecture Series Committee to the Poetry and Fiction Committee to the Very Very Very Very Very Funny Joke Committee.) Moderator Jen Marzullo, EAS’98, discussed upcoming events involving other schools’ literary societies. Second Censor James Renfro, EAS’00, went to the podium to announce that there would be a “Poe vespertil” — an evening memorial to Edgar Allen Poe — the night before Halloween. Treasurer Dan Martineau, EAS’98, informed the group that he needed their $50 dues. “Sing it!” someone shouted. Martineau followed a suggestion to sing “Pay, pay, pay your dues” to the tune of “Row, row, row your boat.”
   Librarian Diane Toner, C’98, said that books needed to be shelved. Jason Miller, C’98, reported on an upcoming “Keats & Beats” poetry event. Scott Aronow, W’98, said his “play committee” would play around afterward.
   For the “stump debate” committee, Miller pulled out an actual tree stump and announced that that night’s one-minute debate would be, “If you had a bottle of Colt 45 to relax with someone, would Cookie Monster or Grover be a better monster to max and relax with?” Someone asked, “Is that just the bottle?” Miller ignored this and drafted two young women to speak for 30 seconds each atop the stump.
   The first woman proclaimed, in a Valley Girl accent, that cookies go great with beer. But her opponent said Grover was “cooler” because he could become “Super Grover.” The debate concluded with a mercy-wrestling match, and the audience declared Cookie Monster the winner.
   Next, various members read communications, or letters to the society. Emannuel Morales, C’82, had sent a postcard saying he was glad the group had returned to the halls. “Class of ’82?” asked senior member John Larson, C’97. “Jesus. He was still around when I was here.”
   During a recess, members talked, drank wine, and played chess.
   The meeting resumed, and First Censor Caith Kushner, W’99, prepared to read the society’s constitution. As is customary, members made silly amendments. One person said that Kushner should read it “in Mandarin, with a Southern accent.” Someone else was ordered to recite The Canterbury Tales at the same time. Renfro said the members should have to “Play a children’s game holding hands” during the reading, but no one understood this. “No, forget it,” Barret said. “You suck,” someone else said.
   Someone made a motion that Renfro scream, “I can’t believe it’s not butter,” during the reading. Someone else made an amendment that the prospective members spit spitballs at Kushner during it. “That is so accepted,” Barret said.
    Someone else said that when Renfro screamed, “I can’t believe it’s not butter,” he should do it “in orgasmic tones.” Barret rejected that amendment, saying, “I think that was implied.”
   As Kushner read the bylaws, Renfro screamed, “I can’t believe, oh God, not, not butter!!!”
   Afterward, a string of hopeful members or “prospectives” gave five-minute presentations. Topics included Gothic literature, the 1994 conflict in Rwanda, El Greco, and Veganism.
   Next, Ami Joseph, C’98, gave a literary exercise on conceptions of God. After he finished, a member critiqued it.
   Finally, it was time for the censors to mete out fines for various offenses. Scott Aronow was fined 19 cents for “talking.” During the Committee of Appeals, Aronow yammered that he didn’t understand his fine. “Shut up,” Renfro mumbled, exasperated. Aronow then asked permission to appeal “non-verbally.” He gesticulated frantically, but didn’t appear to be making headway.
   “We take cash,” Barret said dryly.

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