Allison Hantschel's Century

Yes, I did receive my copy of Allison Hantschel's It Doesn't End with Us, her new book on the history of The Daily Cardinal, University of Washington's Wisconson's [thanks jon in comments!] 100+ year-old student newspaper. Having finished it now, I have to say it didn't meet my expectations. That's a good thing.

If you haven't read it yet—and honestly, I don't know why you wouldn't at least have it on your list—you may have some pre-conceived notions of how a book like this would read. There would be lots of inside information on the University of Wisconsin, it would be filled with stories vaguely familiar to the newspaper staff, fleshed out in ways that would be interesting to Cardinal staffers. It would, in short, be niched out enough that casual passersby would not miss much by ignoring it.

Books are never that simple, though, and even the most obscure tales may have meaningful surprises within. I would argue, though, that Allison's book is not obscure in any way, intentionally or otherwise. It wears its "I-am-significant-beyond-the-particulars-I-describe" heart on its sleeve.

Right off the bat, implications trump events of the story. Beginning at the beginning, we learn of William Wesley Young, the college student who came to the University of Wisconsin from the east coast in the late 19th century to found The Daily Cardinal in 1892. Enter Big Theme #1: Buck the system, just make it happen no matter what. Young establishes the Cardinal as a completely independent student operation, setting the tone for its history by refusing to go to the University for money (a rarity, we learn, for college papers then and now). And therein is Big Theme 2: Be a maverick, go independent.

The paper gets its start, then, right around the turn of the 20th century, and this book reveals much about the American college student experience over the last hundred or so years. And there's another Big Idea at play: The significance of all this goes far beyond the confines of the Cardinal office; there's always a larger historical context for these events.

A pivotal and particularly engaging story in the Cardinal's history is that of Dick Davis, the would-be editor-in-chief. Davis is of a type in the paper's history: He is an intellectual with a strong moral sense. In a way, his inability to engage the trivial (throughout this book, the Trivial is played primarily by The Sports Pages, though there are other manifestations, such as the campus fraternities) is his undoing. There is a coup of sorts the minute Davis is seated as editor. Allison tells the story dramatically (she always does), and as you learn of Davis' pain and anger over the situation—and as you feel his ultimate frustration—another undercurrent of the story surfaces: In current parlance, we call it the red state/blue state divide. In other circumstances we might think of it as a classic struggle of brain vs. brawn, or (for Joyce fans) Shem and Shawn. In the end, Davis, the intellectual, loses his position to a more fraternity-friendly Roger LeGrand.

As the Cardinal's century moves forward from there, we see these themes come back again and again, each time with a bit different twist to them due to the larger context of shifts in the American landscape. Particularly during the Vietnam War, the Cardinal struggles mightily as it tries to adjust its moral/intellectual self to the demands of times (and, like every other American institution, it comes up short; read the book for details). World wars and imperial wars are fought, technology advances and changes everything, the middle class expands and college enrollments go up, and through it all we hear the dramatic tales of how this plays out for The Daily Cardinal as the paper itself struggles to stay afloat, changing with the times.

In the end, It Doesn't End with Us is a sweeping story of what it has meant to be a college student in America for all these years, and a reminder that surviving those years means not taking the system for granted, going it alone, keeping the bigger picture in mind, and confronting impulses of the body and impulses of the intellect, if never quite resolving any of this.

And did I mention that Allison's writing style is a real kick in the pants? It is.


just jon said...

Just to be clear, The Daily Cardinal is the daily paper at "You Double-U" (University of Wisconsin, Madison) not "You Dub" (University of Washington).


(Daily Cardinal Photo Editor, 1997ish)

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see how Allison rewrites the history of the Cardinal to vindicate her hubby who got run out on a rail from the newspaper when he worked there.