Eclectic Society (fraternity)

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The Eclectic Society building, 200 High Street, Middletown, Connecticut, built 1908. 2012 photo.

The Eclectic Society of Phi Nu Theta (ΦNΘ) was originally a college fraternity at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and was one of the oldest fraternal college organizations in the United States. The society was formally founded by Herman Merrills Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Joshua Newhall, Clark Titus Hinman, and Chester Dormund Hubbard, who met on September 13, 1838, and elected and initiated themselves on that date. (Chandler Robbins was also elected that night but was initiated a week later.) The early Wesleyan societies adopted English names, and not Greek ones; but Eclectic quickly adopted a motto, the Greek initials of which are Phi Nu Theta, and the society operated under both names.

The society has always claimed an 1837 foundation for itself, for reasons understood to the members, although no advocate of the society has contravened the fact that the founding meeting was in late 1838. Eclectic was Wesleyan's second fraternity, after the Mystical 7.

In the 1850s a Beta Chapter existed for ten years at Ohio Wesleyan University and a Gamma Chapter enjoyed a month's existence at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, but both succumbed to the perturbations accompanying the Civil War or to anti-fraternity sentiment among faculty members. There were long discussions about a chapter at Genesee College which never were fruitful. Thereafter, the only chapter was the Alpha Chapter at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Eclectic Society of Phi Nu Theta to 1970[edit]

The Eclectic Society, Phi Nu Theta, was founded in 1838, as is clear from the first meeting date of the society. However, Eclectic has always claimed an 1837 founding date, making it presumptively as old as its older competitor, the Mystical 7 society. (The Mystical 7 is known to have been in existence on July 17, 1837 when an acknowledgement on that date was received from the president of the university.)[1]

None of the original Wesleyan societies, the Mystical 7, Eclectic, Tub Philosophers, or Thecanians, had a Greek-letter name. As other Greek-letter societies came to Wesleyan, Eclectic did quickly adopt a Greek motto, and has since been equally known as Phi Nu Theta as Eclectic (with one or the other dominating different eras).

The original society may not have survived the stresses of the Civil War without the tireless dedication of William North Rice, '65, who later went on to become a Professor at the University for 51 years and also from time to time as acting President of the University. He was universally regarded as the guiding spirit of the society through the 1920s.

From about 1856 to 1865 the Eclectic Society was partners in the Alpha Eating Club with the Mystical 7.[2] After 1865, Eclectics controlled the club exclusively, and the Alpha Eating Club survived until 1975.

The alumni organization of Eclectic was incorporated by the Connecticut legislature as the Socratic Literary Society in 1870.

The first permanent house for the society was the construction of a house in 1882 on a site behind the Allbriton Center where Cross Street currently runs; this had no residential accommodations for undergraduates, and was used for meetings, dining facilities, and society offices. The society in 1906 hired Henry Bacon, formerly of the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White to design a Doric Greek revival structure at 200 High Street. The house is an exemplary design for group living. Many people see the Eclectic house as a design precursor to Bacon's later Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (They are both designed in a strong Doric style, but lack the typical pediment.) The Alpha Eating Club was housed in the lower stories of the southern wing of the house.

In 1912, at the seventy-fifth reunion of the society, Stephen Henry Olin reported in an address to the society that after a detailed analysis of the academic standing of each college fraternity chapter at every major university in America back to the 1820s, Phi Nu Theta then had the highest academic ranking of any chapter of any fraternity in the country.

Noted alumni of the old Phi Nu Theta Eclectic include Chester D. Hubbard, a founder of Eclectic, and his son, member William P. Hubbard, both prominent at the founding convention of the State of West Virginia, Frederick W. Pitkin '58, two-term Governor of Colorado from 1879, the Congressman and banker Frederick M. Davenport, Walter B. Wriston, who presided over the development of modern consumer banking and the ATM while serving as president and CEO of Citibank, now known as Citicorp, and poet Charles Olson. The list of Society alumni also includes several Wesleyan University Presidents, including Joseph Cummings '40, (former President of Genesee College, later President of Northwestern University), Cyrus David Foss '54, John W. Beach '45, William North Rice '65 (Acting), Stephen Henry Olin '66 (Acting), John Monroe Van Vleck '50 (Acting), and Edwin Deacon Etherington, '48.

Many buildings on Wesleyan University's campus are named after prominent Eclectic members, such as Crowell Concert Hall, Olin Memorial Library (Stephen Henry Olin, '65 and his father), Hall and Atwater Labs, the Zilkha Gallery (Ezra Khedouri Zilka, '46 and his wife), and the Van Vleck Observatory, (Astronomy Professor John Monroe Van Vleck).

A history of the society has recently been published by the Wesleyan University Press, called A History of The Eclectic Society of Phi Nu Theta, 1837–1970. The author, William B.B. Moody, is a member and an alumnus of the class of 1959.

One society or two?[edit]

In 1970, the undergraduates broke ranks with their alumni, the primary issue at the time being one of recreational drug use. There is a serious and ongoing question as to whether the current organization is a continuation of the old or not. See 1991 Argus letters After a wrenching crisis at the annual meeting of alumni in 1970, the alumni severed ties with the undergraduate institution and dissolved the Socratic Literary Society alumni organization, at the same time, the undergraduates abandoned the initiation ceremony and the constitution, women were elected to membership, the name "Phi Nu Theta" was abandoned as sounding too much like a Greek-letter fraternity. At the same time, the alumni closed the Alpha Dining Club, the permanent staff (housekeeper and chef) were let go, and the house was sold to the university. For some, the new organization was entirely different, and any connection to the older organization was utterly severed; for others, the new organization continues the principles and community position of the old. In recent years, the students living in Eclectic have attempted to rebuild connections to the older alumni with events during Homecoming and Family Weekend and Commencement & Reunion Weekend.

Because of the prestige of the older organization, the prominent position played by the current organization in student life, and other factors, the Wesleyan University administration has never fully pushed the issue of whether the old Eclectic and the new Eclectic were two organizations or one, and for 40 years the house has continued on in this state of ambiguity.

Eclectic Society since 1970[edit]

The current society has operated without a constitution for extended periods, and has adopted a Quaker-style consensus decision-making system. The consensus system was formalized under a set of by-laws authored by member Paul Menair in the mid-1980s.

Alumni of the newer Eclectic include Le1f, Chris Wink, co-founder of Blue Man Group; Amanda Palmer, songwriter and singer of The Dresden Dolls; Ben Goldwasser, Will Berman and Andrew VanWyngarden of the neo-psychedelic band MGMT; Jem Cohen, an independent film maker who has worked with R.E.M. and Fugazi, Willie Garson, character actor in many movies and TV shows such as Sex and the City and White Collar (TV series), Himanshu Suri of the rap group Das Racist, Simon O'Connor of the band Stylophone and Amazing Baby, Keenan Mitchell and Fareed Sajan of the band Bottle Up and Go, and Indiana Reay Neidell, the Grammy-winning Swedish rockstar.[3]

The script for the film PCU was written by Wesleyan students Adam Leff and Zak Penn, (not members but regulars at the house), and is derived from life and characters in that house at the time. The early scenes at the house in PCU refer to the older, formerly prestigious organization.

On January 19, 2010, Eric Conger's play, The Eclectic Society premiered at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. The play centers on a fraternity at an unnamed New England college in the early 1960s, as they collide with race, class, and gender issues, while a new world prepares to unfold under the JFK administration

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Mystical Seven: Wesleyan University 1837 - 1937; Carl F. Price; privately printed; Middletown, Conn. 1937.
  2. ^ Alumni Record of Wesleyan University, Annals, Frank W. Nicholson, ed., 1883 edition, pg. xcviii
  3. ^ Grammis 2008.

External links[edit]