Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East is a wry first-person narrative that examines the impact on an innocent Iowan of attending Smith College, an elite woman’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Toth scrutinizes the difficulties and doubts, largely unexamined at the time, that she faced as a scholarship student in highly competitive Lawrence House, where she lived while attending Smith from 1957 to 1961. An unsophisticated young woman from Ames, Iowa, a small town in a rural setting not far from Des Moines, she longed to see and experience the East that she had read about in American literature. Instead, the awe that she felt at the wealth and confidence of the Easterners she met was tempered by her own isolation and claustrophobia.

The introductory section of the book, “Ivy Days,” is written from Toth’s viewpoint twenty-five years later as a divorced single parent and a college professor herself. This strategy, also used in Toth’s earlier memoir Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood (1981), sets the pattern for the chapters that follow: Each is preceded by a brief italicized vignette featuring Toth’s experiences and opinions long after college.

“Out East,” the first chapter, depicts the process of cracking the unfamiliar codes of clothing styles and the Honor System, speculating about the wild students who attended parties in New York, and enduring nude pictures to determine posture flaws. Her homesickness for her mother, widowed...

(The entire section is 606 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ivy Days continued the account of Susan Allen Toth’s life begun in Blooming and resumed in a collection of essays on middle age, How to Prepare for Your High-School Reunion (1988). It solidified Toth’s reputation as an amusing, insightful essayist. Ivy Days has influenced women’s studies by helping to extend the range of subject matters, tones, genres, and degrees of accessibility considered appropriate to women’s writing. By demonstrating that one rather unremarkable woman’s experience and character have compelling interest, Ivy Days has encouraged other women to value their own everyday experiences and to write more personally themselves.

Toth’s honest, personal tone has fostered a powerful sense of connection between herself and her readers, many of whom think of her as a close friend, just as Toth herself once thought of Clarissa and Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747-1748) as her friends. Some readers believe that Toth tells their own stories as no one else could (though others question whether anyone could have been quite as innocent as she claims to have been). Interest in Ivy Days is not limited to people who moved from the Midwest to the East or who attended Ivy League colleges in the 1950’s. Toth’s description of the stresses of forging a social life and grappling with questions about career choices and marriage have a much wider appeal. Toth’s book encourages a reassessment of the costs of intense academic competition, but it also invites generous forgiveness of women’s own past selves.

Although the genre of memoir has often been considered minor, even inconsequential, the achievement of Ivy Days has helped to legitimize memoir and to validate a woman’s life as deserving scrutiny. It helps to fill a gap in literature much devoted to men coming of age but not providing enough honest accounts of women doing so. The accessibility of Toth’s straightforward prose style is a welcome antidote to the prolixity, jargon, and doctrinaire quality of some personal narratives. Toth is genuine and candid, giving the impression that she has little need to fictionalize her past experiences or lie to protect herself. Her warmth, wit, quiet tone, and clarity make Ivy Days a useful model for other women writers.

Ivy Days

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East is a sequel to Susan Allen Toth’s warmly received memoir, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood (1981). That book, which evoked the world of “Sue Allen from Ames, Iowa,” was praised both for its rendering of the American Midwest in the 1950’s and for its look at mothers and daughters and girlhood friends in the decade before the feminist movement.

Sue Allen left Ames in 1957 to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Ivy Days recalls the experiences of a small-town girl at an Ivy League school as seen through the eyes of an older-but-wiser Toth—now an English professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the divorced mother of a teenage daughter. Readers will find that Ivy Days, like Blooming, is well written and a pleasure to read. Those who attended college during these years will enjoy Toth’s lively descriptions of student life, and readers of any age will appreciate her amusing and often poignant struggles to grow, to understand, and to be accepted. The book is given added depth and richness by the framing evidence that Toth employed so effectively in Blooming: Preceding each section of Ivy Days is an italicized passage written from Toth’s present-day vantage point. These passages yield insights acquired with maturity and show how her college experiences resonate in her present life. By turns analytical, philosophical, sympathetic, and gently mocking, these additional layers of thought lend a realistic and satisfying complexity to the reader’s perception of Toth’s life.

Instead of a chronological account of her four years at Smith, Toth divides her recollections into thematic groupings: “Out East,” “Learning to Live with Women,” “Intellectual Butterfly,” “In the Swim,” “Summa,” and “Up, Up and Away.” The first chapter, “Out East,” describes the Iowa girl’s fascination with the sophisticated East Coast. Before she left for Smith, Sue Allen’s impressions of New England had been formed by the Currier and Ives calendars a local insurance company had given her mother, by her admiration for women poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Amy Lowell, and by photos of poised, smiling Ivy League coeds that she found in Mademoiselle magazine.

Sue’s preparations for college centered on her wardrobe and revealed her naïve attempts to “fit in.” The pictures in Mademoiselle showed clothes and activities outside her experience. Eastern girls apparently played field hockey and lacrosse, went to mixers and fraternity dances, and attended cocktail parties. In anticipation of this new life-style, Sue stretched her meager budget to buy one all-purpose cocktail dress; four years later, as she packed for the last time, she would place the black dress, unworn, on the pile of clothing to be donated to charity. Clothing was a language that eluded Sue’s grasp for much of her stay at Smith; a limited budget and a lack of self-assurance conspired to make her feel different from the others. Her attempts to imitate the studied grubbiness of the Eastern girls usually fell short of the mark. Once, as she slouched up to the stage at honors chapel in a grimy trenchcoat, worn sneakers, and no socks, her triumph at being dressed just right outweighed her elation at receiving a prize.

Living “Out East” precipitated an attack of culture shock in an Iowa girl accustomed to a small-town setting and a down-to-earth life-style. Sue felt almost claustrophobic in her small dormitory room on the beautifully manicured Smith campus with its lack of wide open spaces. New England’s aura of money, sophistication, and historic significance fed her feelings of alienation. Ill at ease with her classmates, she defensively dismissed many of them as “typical Smithies”—shallow, prep-school snobs. Years later, she would get to know one of these “Smithies” better and discover how superficial her label had been.

Too proud to acknowledge her adjustment problems, Sue wrote determinedly cheerful letters home to her mother, all the while counting the days until Christmas vacation. Finally, her inner distress produced physical symptoms, and she became ill. The housemother, Mrs. Stevens, took her temperature and pronounced her able to attend classes, but a casual inquiry about Sue’s mother suddenly produced a flood of tears, leading Mrs. Stevens to suspect that her illness might be emotional. Mrs. Stevens sent her to the student counselor, Miss Poynton, but after two awkward conversations, Sue and Miss Poynton agreed that no further visits were necessary. For the remainder of her four years at Smith, Sue was embarrassed whenever Miss Poynton greeted her on campus; she was afraid that her friends would realize why they knew each other.

The Christmas-holiday vacation brought a long-awaited reunion with Sue’s mother and with high school friends but also a growing awareness that she had reached a parting of the ways. When she returned to Smith, Sue was surprised to realize that she was happy to be back, that Smith was where she now felt that she belonged.

“Learning to Live with Women” describes life in Sue’s residence, Lawrence House, and the ups and downs of living under stressful and crowded conditions. Dormitory life fostered an intimacy she had never experienced outside her family. Such close association had its negative side—squabbles over the washing machine, jealousy over boyfriends, resentment toward those who ignored house rules or avoided their turn at communal chores—but it also provided emotional and academic support, insights into human behavior, and friendships that were likely to last a lifetime.

Adjusting to a living situation so unlike one’s own home required an emphasis on personal comfort and private rituals. What made Sue’s room her own was a pink-and-gray wool quilt, handmade by her aunt. Its coziness reminded her of home and family and saw her through occasional bouts of insomnia or depression. She looked forward to “sticky buns” on Fridays and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays: Food supplied not only emotional but also physical nourishment. Leisurely Sunday breakfasts in someone’s room, or tea with friends during evening study breaks, helped forge and strengthen bonds between Sue and her housemates.

One of the most important people in Sue’s life at Smith was her friend Sophie. After their freshman year, Sue and Sophie teamed up for their remaining three years. Living so closely together, they shared each other’s triumphs and disappointments; the support and consolation they offered each other were based on unqualified mutual affection and admiration that transcended their many differences.

Roommates who knew each other intimately...

(The entire section is 2796 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Benstock, Shari, ed. The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. This collection of essays provides theoretical frameworks for interpreting Ivy Days. Its first section presents six essays on theories of autobiography, and the final six essays examine various forms of women’s autobiographical writings across three centuries.

Booklist. LXXX, May 15, 1984, p. 1279.

Culley, Margo, ed. American Women’s Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. This collection...

(The entire section is 406 words.)