Student Life at the University of California, Berkeley During and After World War I

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Three hundred letters by Agnes Edwards, a student at UC Berkeley, comprise this volume that covers the years 1917 to 1921. The letters, written faithfully to her parents once a week, encompass some important national themes: World War I, the Spanish influenza epidemic, and the first U.S. election in which women could vote. They reveal the crossroads that America was facing in those years, such as the horse and buggy vs. the automobile in civilian life, and horses and mules vs. airplanes and tanks in warfare. In communication, letter writing was being eroded by the telephone, and in entertainment, vaudeville was losing its audience to silent movies. Agnes lived every day at this crossroads. She was also deeply immersed in the “golden age of UC,” where there was a family spirit on campus. As evidence of this, Agnes describes the students’ frequent gatherings around the Campanile to sing “All Hail,” the university hymn. She discusses her courses, her studying until the wee hours, the scholarships she earned, and her aspirations to be elected Phi Beta Kappa. She tells of the creative stunt parties and pranks at Mrs. Allen’s boarding house and later at the Alpha Gamma Delta house, hikes and picnics in the Berkeley hills, and her partners on the dance floor. But Agnes was that rarest of all co-eds, the resident of a sorority house who was also entirely self-supporting. Most of the 300 letters contain at least one paragraph telling of her work in California Hall as secretary to the Dean of the Summer Session, Walter Morris Hart, and she frequently mentions her anxieties about the low pay. To supplement her income, she tutored a young Russian boy, worked as a T.A. in English 1X, and corrected blue books for two professors. Agnes’ eyewitness impressions of celebrities, such as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, help to make this volume of letters interesting to historians, while her observations and detailed descriptions of her experiences constitute a valuable contribution to scholarship.


“This is a tale of growing up, but not the literary tale of woe we are used to. That is, no sturm, no drang – in a phrase, no sex and violence. Our heroine, Agnes Edwards, enters our world as an eighteen-year-old freshman at Mrs. Allen’s boarding house on Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley on August 4, 1917 ... What can we learn about that almost-a-century-ago world? There is plenty to be learned about the University of California in 1920: how did the students feel about their classes? How did the faculty feel about the students, and each other? What was the Monroe Deutsch we read about so much really like? The information about the campus and the towns around it should be a gold mine for historians ...” – (from the Foreword) Professor Carroll Brentano, University of California, Berkeley

“Undergraduate life has been the subject of much historical and literary interest in the past century, but it has proved a difficult subject to grasp, slipping away into thickets of nostalgia or romanticism on the one hand; subject at the other extreme to sociological treatment impenetrable to the common reader. This work is a remarkable source for the study of undergraduate life, for the experience of university women in the early twentieth century, and for the history of California’s first state university ... Although she writes with great humility of the privileges of her student life, Agnes’ qualities of determination and ambition shine through the pages of this collection, sensitively edited by her daughter, to make this not only an indispensable historical resource but a gripping and engaging read in its own right.” – Professor Elizabeth J. Morse, Independent Scholar

“There is something so fresh and compelling about these letters, but the world they lead us into is anything but innocent or simple. Agnes worries about her soldier brother, stationed in France/ she scrimps and saves money to help her parents in southern California; she forgoes visits with her family in order to stay at Berkeley during the summers ... The editor gives us little commentary in this easily readable book. She chooses to let Agnes’ voice, infused with diligence and good spiritedness, suffice as narrative and explanation ... Agnes Edwards is the best manifestation of the ‘new woman,’ that college educated, socially aware, civic-minded and active group of women who came of age on the cusp of the twentieth century ...” – Professor Lisa Rubens, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword by Carroll Brentano
Editor’s Note
Major Characters in the Letters
Introduction – A Sense of Place and Time
1. 1917 – “A Green Little Freshie”
2. 1918 Part One – “Good News”
3. 1918 Part Two – “If this dumb Flu would stop and the War too”
4. 1919 Part One – “The campus is alive with men who have come back”
5. 1919 Part Two – “I’m getting to be a factotum in this University”
6. 1920 Part One – “Being a teacher is more fun!”
7. 1920 Part Two – “I’m so thrilled over politics”
8. 1921 Part One – “The exciting thing has happened”
9. 1921 Part Two – “Go out and get some new experiences”
1. Map of the UC Campus, March 1917
2. Headlines and Ads from “The Daily Californian”
3. Critique of “War and Peace” by Agnes Edwards

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