The academic novel answers two questions: What happens on a college campus? and What is college for? To answer the first question, the academic novel takes the form of high-spirited realism or mean-spirited satire. Its source material is the actual condition of living and working on a college campus at a certain time in a certain era. It wears the fashions of the day and is easily dated. The answer to the second question follows the answer to the first. The purpose of a college education varies from era to era, sometimes from year to year. In the academic novel, the college—the institution and the idea of college—is always in crisis. The purpose of college is shown to be warped, compromised, or ill-defined.
Edward Halsey Foster
Henry Adams's paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were, respectively, the second and sixth presidents of the United States. His father, Charles Francis Adams, was among the distinguished diplomats of his time, serving as American ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War. Henry Adams himself, however, did little public service. He published several books, was a distinguished editor and college professor, and spent most of his life at the center of Washington's social world, living in an elegant mansion almost as close to the White House as he could get without actually living in it. To the general public, however, he was far better known for his name than for who he was.
For James Agee, night was the most enchanting and blessed part of the day, and he often wrote about its hushed, starry beauty and the wonder of being awake when nearly everyone else was under the strange and necessary spell of sleep. Agee also loved movies, another form of magic that takes place in the dark, and both of these passions are manifest in the opening pages of his best-known work, the posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Death in the Family (1957). Although Agee completed few books over the course of his somewhat frenetic, all-too-brief writing life—one volume of poetry, two works of fiction, and the provocative prose lyric Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)—he wrote scores of ardent, impeccable, and far-reaching movie reviews and ultimately left behind a highly concentrated yet remarkably innovative and profoundly influential oeuvre.
Arnold E. Sabatelli
Conrad Potter Aiken (1889–1973) epitomized the well-educated intellectual, scholar, and writer. Like his contemporary, friend, and fellow Harvard University graduate T. S. Eliot, he was one of the most admired and respected writers of his time. Given that he was so prolific in several genres (poetry, essays, critical analysis, fiction) and so popular during his life, it is surprising that he is not as well known today as he was in his time.
Victoria D. Sullivan
When Edward Albee broke upon the American theater scene in 1960 with The Zoo Story, he was immediately recognized as a brilliant and exciting young voice. Critics, magazine editors, and the public all welcomed this handsome, somewhat morose young man into the world of serious art. In fact he was the first recognized American absurdist, tapping into the post–World War II European tradition of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet. A loud chorus of critical praise met his early works, including The Sandbox (1960) and The American Dream (1961), in addition to The Zoo Story (1959). When Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, his fame was sealed. But that was also, in some rather American sense, the beginning of the end. It was, certainly, the end of the uncritical adulation.
Angela M. Garcia
Long recognized only for her children's books, Louisa May Alcott also wrote adult novels, Civil War hospital sketches, and at least fifty pieces of much-publicized “sensation” fiction, but her most popular legacy remains that curiously modern portrait of family life, Little Women (1868). Although the author mocked herself as providing mere “moral pap for the young,” her audience in America, and later worldwide, responded enthusiastically to its edifying and entertaining truths. Readers have remained absorbed by and even enamored with Alcott's story; by the end of the twentieth century, several million copies had been sold in dozens of translations, and film and television adaptations continue to be produced.
Horatio Alger wrote approximately one hundred novels, as well as biographies of public figures, short stories, and poetry. Alger emerged from the same New England cultural milieu that produced major authors and intellectuals from Jonathan Edwards to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William and Henry James, but he came to exemplify the mass-produced popular fiction that such writers generally abhorred. In a related irony, Alger's stories of a virtuous boy or young man ascending into the middle class were widely accepted early in his career as appropriate for children, but by the end of his career many critics lumped them together with more sensationalistic and ambiguously moral books. Alger's reputation—along with the dominant interpretation of his fiction—took yet more turns after his death, as his books went through at least two different twentieth-century revivals. Any understanding of Alger should encompass not only his actual life and works but also the various meanings that “the Horatio Alger story” has accrued.
The Algonquin Round Table refers to a place, a group, a sensibility, and an era. The place was indeed a round table, near the center and toward the back of the Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel, on West 44th Street in Manhattan, in New York City. The group was a rotating cast of writers, critics, actors, and hangers-on, most in their twenties and thirties, who for a decade or more met at the table for lunch, sometimes every day. The group's sensibility was witty, urbane, and sophisticated, but also depressive and parochial. The era was the twenties, the decade when America became the center of the world and New York City became the center of America.
Nelson Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham on 28 March 1909 in Detroit, Michigan, but was raised in Chicago. He died days after his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his fiction out of print and largely forgotten, in Sag Harbor, New York, on 9 May 1981. Profound shifts in American political and literary culture shaped the trajectory of Algren's life and literary career. He was radicalized by the Great Depression and set out, like Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Walt Whitman before him, to depict America from the point of view of the outsider. His subjects were the disinherited of Texas jail cells; the wanderers of the New Orleans waterfront; and the petty thieves, strong-arm boys, hookers, and cops of Chicago's Polish-American ghetto. Like the modernist writers he admired, Algren wrote and rewrote and rewrote again, trying to create truth and beauty out of the language of shuttered barrooms and backroom card games, police lineups, and Chicago Avenue streetcars. Uniquely among American novelists, Algren melds the political eye of naturalism with the written craft of modernism and the vernacular voice of realism.
Julia Alvarez, born in New York City on 27 March 1950, lived in the Dominican Republic until 1960, when her family sought political refuge in the United States. The shock of being transplanted from a tropical paradise amidst an extended and well-respected family to Queens, New York, where she and her family—mother, father, and three sisters—were viewed as outsiders, informs much of her writing. Often her work is autobiographical, but even when not, her characters are caught between worlds: cultural, lingual, economic, national, political, and familial. Equally essential to her work is the experience of what it means to be a writer. The author of eleven books, Alvarez has proved herself a talented and flexible writer and has won many prizes and awards, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Josephine Miles/PEN award. She was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Alvarez lives in Vermont and the Dominican Republic, where she visits relatives and tends the shade-grown coffee farm she started with her husband, Bill Eichner, a cookbook author and ophthalmologist.