The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities

The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities

The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities

The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities


Here is the first book to recount the full history of white college fraternities in America. Nicholas Syrett traces these organizations from their days in antebellum all-male schools to the sprawling modern-day college campus, paying special attention to how fraternity brothers have defined masculinity over the course of their 180-year history.

Based on extensive research at twelve different schools and analyzing at least twenty national fraternities, The Company He Keeps explores the formation of what Syrett calls "fraternal masculinity." He describes how men have gained prestige and respect, especially from other men, by being masculine. Many factors- such as class, religiosity, race, sexuality, athleticism, intelligence, and recklessness- have contributed to particular versions of fraternal masculinity at different times. Whatever the criteria, Syrett demonstrates the ways that fraternity brothers' masculinity has had consequences for other students on campus as well, not just through exclusion from the organizations themselves but often from college life more broadly. He argues that fraternity men have often proved their masculinity by using their classmates as foils.

Syrett also investigates the culture of sexual exploitation that had made its home in college fraternities by the early twentieth century. He offers explanations for the origins of this phenomenon and why it persists. He also recounts the hidden history of gay men who have made their home in college fraternities since the early twentieth century.

Readers will find in The Company He Keeps not only an engaging history of white college fraternities, but also an insightful account of the evolution of a much more widespread culture of youthful and sexually aggressive masculinity.


I first became interested in college fraternities because I was disturbed by news reports throughout the 1980s and 1990s about fraternities being involved in sexual assaults upon women and occasionally in group acts of racial bigotry and homophobia. I was curious about the origin of such behavior and wondered why it tended to occur at fraternity events. While it is certainly true that not all college fraternities have a history of such involvement, and that college sports teams also were the focus of some of those reports, it is equally true that most college organizations—and many clubs not affiliated with colleges—have no such history at all. Why is it that a number of college fraternities have, in fact, been involved in these widely condemned activities, but other groups have not? And what does this have to do with gender, with men “acting like” men? Is it just an instance of “boys will be boys,” as the refrain goes, or could it be more complicated than that?

The pages that follow are my answers to these questions. In contrast to the logic of “boys will be boys”—a logic that insists that young men's actions are somehow beyond their control and removed from the social and cultural circumstances in which they are enacted—this book demonstrates that fraternity men's behavior is a product of various historical phenomena that are specific to time and place. Fraternity men have not always acted as some of them do now. The version of masculinity that they espouse in the twenty-first century is not the same as that which they promoted and enacted in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when fraternities were founded on college campuses. This book is in part the story of where today's behavior—today's masculinity—has come from. In telling that story, it is a rejection of the biological determinism of “boys will be boys.”

I have chosen the title The Company He Keeps for a number of reasons. Throughout their history, as readers of this book will see, fraternity men have been fixated on this phrase. They have believed that a man was known by the company he kept; it was (and is) for this reason that they have been so careful about whom they allow to join their brotherhood. They also have believed that a man's character was shaped by the company he kept. I agree with them on both counts, but my take on the advantages and disadvantages of these propositions is somewhat different from theirs. They saw . . .

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