Dr. Sheldon’s Photographs: An Elegy

Benjamin Goluboff

“That the photos had no value as pornography is a tribute to their resolutely scientific nature.” —George Hersey, art historian

They shredded the photos from Yale in 1995—
more than a hundred pounds of them, the Times reported,
prints and negatives, while a University official
looked on.

“We are delighted that the privacy of the individuals in those
photographs will be forever protected,” said a Yale spokesman…

They had come to rest, the photos,
after a confused course,
in boxes neatly indexed and acid-free,
at the Smithsonian’s
National Anthropological Archives,
until the university’s conscience
caught up with them.

We picture them sitting in the archival dark,
sealed and unseen: all those kids,
their secret turned front, back, and sides
to Sheldon’s camera.
Bellies, backs, and bushes:
penises shrunken from waiting,
stripped in the cold gymnasium,
for the shutter to blink.

It wasn’t just Yale, we learn.
When Sheldon was in vogue,
the practice was common through
the Ivy League and Seven Sisters
schools. Incoming freshmen were
told that the photos were an
assessment for good posture.

“All other psychologists are merely psychological,
and talk as though the mind were unrelated
to its muscles, intestines, and bones.
Sheldon considers human beings as they really are
—psycho-physical wholes.
The gut of a round fat man, like G.K. Chesterton,
may be as much as forty feet long.
The gut of a thin man, like myself,
may be as little as eighteen feet long
and weigh less than half. . . .
It would obviously be miraculous if this
physical difference were not correlated with a mental difference.
And yet these asinine psychiatrists and sociologists
continue to talk of minds and characters
as though they existed in a vacuum.”
—Aldous Huxley to Grace Hubble 1944

A numismatist when he wore his other hat,
an authority on the American penny in all its many forms,
Sheldon had a theory of body types—
Endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph—
and developed an algorithm of somatotypology.
All the mad array of humankind was reducible
to a three-digit code in a twenty-one cell matrix.
Physique spells character and character is fate.
The photographs of college kids
(so many pennies in an album)
were his compendium and data.

“Case 76, a 3-3-5, seems on the
face of things to be a normal,
well-adapted, pleasant young man.
He is rather sociophobic, spends
much of his time alone in the
woods and fields, and is an expert
amateur naturalist. He seems singularly
immature and socially undeveloped for his age.
One is surprised to discover that he carries
internally a very disturbing sexuality,
the chief outlet of which has been
through vivid autoerotic phantasy.
Like most persons of his somatotype
and of the neighboring ectomorphic
somatotypes, he shows a relative
genital hypertrophy (relative to
his total physical mass) and an
overendowment of sexuality.
He does not seem to have found
himself in an adult sense,
although his academic record is good.”
—W.H. Sheldon, The Varieties of Temperament: A Psychology of Constitutional Differences 1942

Until the sixties when
he was unseated by Skinner’s Behaviorism,
Sheldon rode the ruling paradigm like a warhorse.
In snowy labcoat he was the rescuing knight
for a profession sobering up from the long debauch
with Freud and Jung, and craving now
a respectable empiricism.

It’s a question that baffles the current powers that
be at Ivy League schools. The response of Gary Fryer,
Yale’s spokesman, is representative:
“We searched, but there’s nobody around
now who was involved with the decision.”

“Why weren’t we more appalled at the time?”
asked Judith Martin (Miss Manners,Wellesley ’59).
Dick Cavett (Yale ’58) said he “never heard
of a single case of anyone at any school
saying they flatly refused to participate
in this loony, outrageous, forced violation
of individual privacy.” Why?

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.
It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world
that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”
Susan Sontag, On Photography 1977

Those mid-century campuses were a foreign country.
This was before the sixties tore down the parietals,
and before the children came to confound
the elders in the temple on quite so routine a basis.
There was a tang of crisis in the air, too.
Sputnik rode the heavens not long after Sheldon
appeared on the cover of Life, and the Korean war
ground slow and exceeding small. But still …

“The extreme willingness of adults to
go to almost any lengths on the command
of an authority constitutes the chief
finding of the study and the fact most
urgently demanding explanation.”
—Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience” 1974

The better angels of our nature notwithstanding,
we mourn for the photos shredded and burned.
They haunt us in our garret, follow us in the dark,
assert themselves when our mind would be elsewhere.
George Bush and Brandon Tartikoff in the altogether.
Hillary Rodham as nature made her.
Diane Sawyer seen as Actaeon saw the other Diane.
The young naked (O Muses defend us!) Meryl Streep.

What loves, what youth, what lineaments perished,
when Sheldon’s photos burned!

Benjamin Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College. Aside from a modest list of scholarly publications, he has placed imaginative work in Anobium, Dead Flowers, Cabinet, Ascent, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere.