Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi is a multidisciplinary study of fraternal life at the University of California Berkeley. The volume scrutinizes a period of dramatic change in the social life of the United States as notions of masculinity, which have often been viewed as monolithic (12–13), shifted from Victorian to ‘Modern’ ideals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Taking a diachronic approach she charts the changing structure and landscape of the Zeta Psi fraternity from its organizational structure, to its chapter house, and its place within the university’s dynamic social and physical landscape. Wilkie uses James Barrie’s Peter Pan to provide metaphorical context for the reader. Peter Pan’s characters linger throughout the study and enrich the reader’s understanding of the social context of the Frat.
What sets Wilkie’s approach apart is her blending of differing datasets, interpretive themes, and scalar perspectives. She draws on UC Berkeley’s rich archival record, pulling from its University newspaper, The Blue and Gold, its graduation and administrative records, as well as the archaeological and standing architectural remains of the Fraternity house itself. Here she mingles the very personal accounts of life in the house, with the materials–such as beer bottles (195–199) and pledge paddles (164)–that were the props of fraternal ritual and social life on campus.
What is most profound about Wilkie’s work is that while the study’s primary argument is about the development of the 20th century’s new masculinity, she shows that during this transitional period the university social landscape was as a liminal space in which thesegender roles were often temporarily re-fashioned in rituals such as the Channing Way Derby and the Running of the Skull and Keys (230–235). As Wilkie argues, what is ironic about these liminal moments is that only those men who championed the ideals of 20th century masculinity could be ‘trusted’ to briefly reject their ‘male-ness’ in favor of a temporarily refashioned gender identity (234–235).
As she states in the opening chapter, it would have been easy for her to portray the brothers in a negative light given contemporary society’s general disapproving of fraternal life (8–10). Instead, she relays the complex social landscape of Berkeley during this period, and the way this space was a part of the changing notions of masculinity in America. By the end of the book, she not only accepts, but has also grown fond of these mens’ personalities and eccentricities (206).
This book transcends categorization, at times reading like a social history, while at others like a work of archaeological material life or a Geertzian ‘thick description’. Rather than being tied to specific interpretive categories, the reader is instead drawn into this complex and beautifully relayed world of secret rituals, festive drinking, and fraternal brotherhood.