Remembering Denny is the story of Roger “Denny” Hansen, a 1957 Yale graduate and Johns Hopkins professor whose life ended in suicide in 1991. Secondarily it is a chronicle of the noted nonfiction writer Calvin Trillin’s attempt at reconstructing and understanding the incidents that led to the suicide. Trillin, a classmate and close friend of Hansen at Yale, was shocked to learn of the suicide from such an impersonal source as The New York Times. As Trillin discovered in his quest to locate the essential cause of Hansen’s death, he found that his friend’s career, which had begun with incredible promise in the late 1950’s, had become complicated by a number of the major social issues of the past three decades. Along with these career problems were a number of personal and physical difficulties that in many ways mirrored the political crises of Hansen’s lifetime. Trillin’s analysis of the life and death of Denny Hansen presents the reader with a perceptive look at contemporary American society, far beyond the usual biographical evaluation of an individual life.
Trillin first became aware of a split in Hansen’s life during a memorial service held in honor of the Johns Hopkins professor. At the service, Trillin discovered that Hansen preferred to be known as Roger in his postcollegiate years and that many other changes had occurred since their last meeting. Hansen’s post at Johns Hopkins was as an endowed chair in the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. The Washington people knew him as an occasionally disagreeable colleague whose specialty, North-South relations, had lost its trendiness during the hard-core Cold War decade of the 1980’s. In direct contrast to the recollections of that grim decade were the memories of the “Denny” people who attended the service, Trillin included, who knew Hansen from his days as a Yale golden boy. The distinction between the “Denny” perspective and the “Roger” perspective becomes the fulcrum that Trillin uses to pull Hansen’s life, and American society, into two distinct strands.
Trillin and his Yale friends form the core of the “Denny” group, all middle-aged white males who enjoyed the advantages of graduating from a prestigious Ivy League institution in the late 1950’s. This group consists mainly of Yale people who were from public school backgrounds. Among their attributes were the strongly held feelings that their careers at Yale (and afterward) were based solely on their merit, not, as was the case with most Yale graduates, on wealth and connection. Trillin, the son of Russian-Jewish parents, notes that he and Hansen were a distinct minority at Yale; where private school students outnumbered public school students by 61 to 39 percent. Trillin recalls that the differences between the groups went as far as their footwear: The Eastern boarding school types were known for their white shoes and became known as “White Shoe,” or “Shoe” for short. Denny and Trillin were definitely of the “Brown Shoe” crowd, active in academics and student life but not “Shoe” because of class or religious reasons. Trillin’s attitude toward the “Shoe” crowd is revealed when he recalls an epithet, common at Princeton University in the 1950’s, used in reference to upper-class snobs: “tweedy shitballs.”
Hansen’s career at Yale, Trillin remembers, was legendary in its own time. Trillin aptly recalls the 1912 grade-B novel by Owen Johnson titled Stover at Yale. (Trillin’s father’s reading of the novel led to Trillin’s being sent to Yale.) In Stover at Yale, the captain of the football team is a student who has come from a poor background. Hansen perfectly fit and exceeded this image of the student who came from nothing. He received the top award offered to the junior class, was a varsity swimmer on an athletics team that was then one of the best in the nation, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a Rhodes Scholarship. The final event, and the one that most amazed the “Roger” people, is the fact that Hansen’s graduation was covered by Le magazine and photographed by Alfred Eisenstadt. This final send-off, Trillin and his friends believed, would guarantee Hansen’s eventual place in American history.
Yet it is not only college life that is influenced by the upper class, Hansen discovered after his graduation from Yale. The rest of American society, and especially American government, are controlled by Shoe values. Here Trillin offers his most insightful analysis of the connection between public and private life, between the personal and...
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