Ever wonder what the University was like in the Roaring ’20s? The novel Boojum! is set in a whiskey-soaked Prohibition-era Charlottesville where waggish poets wend their way through University parties, fraternities, dances and secret societies. Originally published in 1928, the book was the debut of Charles Wertenbaker (Col ’23), who went on to a career as a novelist and journalist.
The Charlottesville landscape of the novel is pleasingly familiar. The modern reader will recognize trains traveling on “the overhead bridge and then the bridge under the road” and dances held at “the gymnasium sitting like a huge bullfrog on the bank of a muddy pool” (as Memorial Gym did in the early part of the century).
The attitudes of the characters reflect the era, but are, in part, recognizable in the college experience of any decade. In the middle of the story, the protagonist, Breckenridge, sums up his situation:
He was going to try the open road that he had read so much about; he was going to taste life at the bottom of the glass where it was strongest and most intoxicating … He had caroused with Cavaliers and listened to their ribald songs and their brave and careless laughter … he had played at love, and found only bitterness.
After the publication of Boojum!, Wertenbaker wrote several more novels and became the foreign editor for Time. He landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and wrote an hour-by-hour account that became a book called Invasion, illustrated by Robert Capa’s legendary combat photographs. During the liberation of Europe, Wertenbaker reported from Paris, where he became friends with Ernest Hemingway and Irwin Shaw.
As a writer of semi-autobiographical novels, Wertenbaker’s death was aptly narrated. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer and, in 1955, died with the assistance of his wife, Lael Wertenbaker, who wrote about the ordeal in a memoir, Death of Man. The book was adapted into a Broadway play in which the character of Charles Wertenbaker was played by Henry Fonda.
Boojum!, which has been out of print for 80 years, was recently republished by Hypocrite Press.