In 1924, an obscure Brown University English instructor named Percy Marks rocketed to fame with his first novel, The Plastic Age, an expose of booze, sex, ignorance and discrimination on campus.
He got hundreds of letters about the book. According to a review by R.V. Cassill the letters applauded him ‘for tearing the veil of hypocrisy from around the depravities of college life,’ or they berated him ‘for spoiling the game by publicizing it.’
Some actually asked for more information about ‘what really happened to clean-cut boys sent to Ivy league colleges to be perfected as gentlemen.’
Though he paid a steep price for his unflattering picture of college life, Percy Marks inspired one of America’s most influential and popular humorists.
Percy Marks was born in California in 1891 to Jewish parents. He graduated from the University of California in 1912, got a master’s from Harvard in 1914 and served in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant during World War I. For a decade after the war he taught English at Dartmouth, MIT and then Brown.
The Jazz Age zeitgeist captivated Brown students, many of whom studied as little as possible between football games, fraternity parties and pep rallies.
Percy Marks didn’t think much of the emphasis on athletics and observed that half the seniors were semi-illiterate. He had little use for most professors, concluding there were ‘many specialists but few scholars, many pedants but few wise men, many wind-bags but few teachers.’
As a Jew he couldn’t help but notice anti-Semitism. “It would be absurd to say that the fraternity men never show prejudice against either the Jews or the Catholics; they show it against both,” he wrote.
Percy Marks developed a following of Jewish students at Brown, including S. J. Perelman. He encouraged their writing and helped them cope with discrimination. He also witnessed Perelman’s sophomoric hijinks firsthand.
Perelman edited the campus humor magazine, the Brown Jug. He got into trouble for a critique of Brown that pretty much mirrored Percy Marks:
“Ah, the college boys, the college boys! I daresay that if all the sub-freshman who are intending to come to Brown could see it for what it is, a fraternity-ridden and lethargic academy of middle-class “boosters,” they would change their minds about starting for Providence next fall. From the dot of 9 o’clock when we rush in to fear God for fifteen minutes every morning till Cap Cameron ‘the campus policeman` puts the last blowzy drunk to bed, the spectacle is the same …”
In 1924, the Brown Jug feted Percy Marks at a banquet in Wickford, R.I. Percy Marks arrived to find a half-empty bottle of scotch on each table and the Jug writers throwing dinner rolls at each other. Perelman yanked a tablecloth off a table, sending flatware and china flying. The boy then began to wreck the restaurant, the owner threatened to call the police and Percy Marks persuaded them to go back to campus. The Jug paid for the damages.
The Jug banquet was one of the last times Percy Marks appeared on campus. His book The Plastic Age became a publishing sensation. It described campus life at Sanford, a thinly disguised combination of Dartmouth and Brown, rampant with drinking, swearing and sex. Young women attending Sanford dances, he wrote, checked their corsets in the cloak room.
The Plastic Age was the second best-selling book of 1924 and was made into a film starring Clara Bow. It also drew harsh criticism; the Watch and Ward Society even banned The Plastic Age in Boston.
Brown dismissed Percy Marks that year, presumably because he offended its stern Baptist president.
He married, moved to New Haven and wrote several best-selling novels, none so influential as The Plastic Age. Late in life he returned to teaching at the University of Connecticut for a few years. Percy Marks died in 1956.