While rooting through a recycling bin for magazines, the editor of this booklet, Jesse Reklaw, stumbled upon a stack of old, yellowed confidential Ph.D. applicant files for the biology department at an Ivy League university from 1965 to 1975. Stapled to nearly each application was a photograph of the prospective student, and the confidential recommendation letters and forms written by the applicants’ former professors and employers—never intended to be seen by anyone but the university reviews committee. How funny that, these many years later, a decade’s worth of such largely unflattering, bizarre, and judgmental commentary of these anonymous students has become available for anyone to see.
Originally self-published as a zine from 1998 to 2005 by Reklaw himself, Applicant is now available on a much larger-scale, in a professionally published format. What was once a funny zine is now a funny book. Upon first opening it with no idea what it was about, I read the introduction and flipped through the book as fast as I could to read the excerpted ascertainments of each pictured student. Some of the text that Reklaw chose to use is curt and direct: “stubborn” it says below a photo of an awkwardly grinning female; “lacks focus” below the photo of a young man in a suit and tie, with side-swept hair and a mustache. A photo of a balding man in horn-rimmed glasses states “singularly devoted to the sponges.” Other humorous aspects are, of course, the self-conscious and awkward appearance of these nameless folks, and the out-of-date fashions and hairstyles that you’ll see only on VH1 reruns of “American Bandstand” or parading down Bedford Avenue in tidal waves of irony.
Beneath the humor, though, lies the true quality of Applicant as a gem of a sociological study and an impossibly rare time capsule of the images and attitudes of a past generation. “Weakness:” it states in accompaniment to a photo of a white woman with long brown hair, “she is a female and an attractive, modest one so is bound to marry.” Another similar caption reads “Domestic responsibilites may intervene,” while an afro’d black woman’s caption states that “her performance was excellent amid a class of almost all white students indicating that she has overcome any environmental handicaps.” “His faults will be those of his generation,” in regards to an unsmiling man with long dark hair and a dark beard. “He may not have the staying power of those who used to believe in the system.” On the contrary, the unhappy looking man whose photo graces the cover of the book: “No brooding malaise or bitter rebellion in this young man.”
Upon flipping through this book several times, I began to brood myself. Though laugh-out-loud funny at times, there is something pitiable about the people pictured — surely many of them went on to long, productive, lucrative careers, but to read these frank and simple summations of people every bit as complex as you or me is disturbing. It’s disturbing to think that this is the same grinder that I and anyone else who has ever attended school or gotten a job has been put through. It’s the same unspoken judgment we pass on other human beings in social settings, or in our private thoughts, simply put to paper without fear of reprisal or exposure. The attitudes toward women, non-whites, and anyone even potentially involved in a counterculture movement seems distant, antiquated — but this sets one to thinking further: has our society changed that much? Have opinions and attitudes morphed and evolved, or have we simply buried living, breathing prejudice beneath the guise of acceptance and equality? And what the fuck is up with those haircuts anyway? You will read this book and laugh, and think, and marvel that such a simple concept can affect such bipolar feelings.