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.
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.
“Self-help literature” was created in America, and its origin can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin. In 18th-century American society, where Puritan ethics held sway, Franklin was a rare sort of person, one who did not believe that personal ambition was a sin. Through his writings, in the form of Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732–1757) and The Way to Wealth (1757), Franklin demonstrated the know-how needed for worldly success, and he used himself as an example of the effectiveness of this knowledge. According to Franklin’s philosophy of success, anyone can achieve social success, regardless of their social position, if they only have the will to educate themselves. This was the beginning of the American dream of success, and themes appearing here for the first time became the basic themes of many self-help books that appeared later.
Franklin’s writings were composed in America during the latter half of the 18th century, a period when independence from England increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Similarly, the first self-help book to appear in Japan was published at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, after the end of the Edo period. At this time, the traditional feudal class system was abandoned, and it became possible to succeed in life using one’s own resourcefulness and efforts. This book Gakumon no Susume (An Encouragement of Learning, 1872–1876) was written by the well-known author and educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835–1901). This book holds that to create a modern state it is necessary for its people to first free themselves of apathy and laziness and become independent through practical study. The work was published in seventeen volumes, and 3.4 million copies were sold under this title. Its foundation was the declaration that “All men are created equal.” It is clear that the inspiration for this writing was the American Declaration of Independence. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Franklin’s ideas had the greatest impact on Fukuzawa, and through his self-help book, the Japanese people came into indirect contact with Franklin’s philosophy of success. Additionally, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771–1790) was widely read throughout the Meiji period. Thus, it is apparent that Franklin’s ideas about self-help had a great impact on Japan around the end of the 19th century.
However, British author Samuel Smiles’s book Self-Help (1859) had an even greater influence on Japan as it underwent modernization. This book, which was also popular in America, sold more than a million copies in the forty-year period after it was translated into Japanese in 1871 by the philosopher of the European Enlightenment Masanao Nakamura (1832–1891). Moreover, this book was used as an ethics textbook in elementary schools from 1872 until 1880, so it played a particularly large role in planting the spirit of self-improvement in the Japanese youth of the time.
The influence of Confucianism was a large part of the context in which these English and American self-help books were accepted in Japan during and after the Meiji period. Confucianism came to Japan from China at the beginning of the 6th century, and by the Edo period, in the 17th century, the religious aspects of Confucianism had faded. It had become a system of education in ethics that emphasized the five virtues of “compassion to others,” “not being caught up in greed,” “being courteous,” “striving to learn,” and “being sincere.” Learning these virtues became a condition for success in life, particularly for the warrior class. We notice that these five virtues are very similar to Franklin’s thirteen virtues; hence, it is easy to understand that familiarity with Confucianism made it easier for the Japanese to accept American and English self-help books. In other words, western European ideas about self-help were not completely novel values to the Japanese; these ideas were compatible with the Confucian ethical values that the Japanese held. Therefore, they were widely accepted very quickly.
Later, after the beginning of the 20th century, Japan would greedily adopt self-help ideas from America. For example, the mind-cure techniques of Christian Science were introduced to Japan during the 1910s. “Reiki,” which is a Japan-specific practice related to mind cure, was developed soon after. Yoga was also introduced to Japan around the same time through the writings of William Walker Atkinson (aka Yogi Ramacharaka). The Japanese religionist Masaharu Taniguchi (1893–1985) created his own religious group, known as Seicho no Ie (The House of Growth), in the 1930s. This group resonated with the religious movement known as New Thought, which gained popularity in the United States at the end of the 19th century, and Seicho no Ie is currently the world’s largest New Thought group, with more than seventy thousand believers in Japan.
The 1950s through the 1980s saw the popularity of American self-help books fall in Japan, partly because of World War II. At the beginning of the 1990s, the bubble economy in Japan burst; the “life-long employment system” and the “seniority wage system” that had supported Japan up to that point started to collapse. Thus, hiring fell, and an American-style competitive society was introduced in Japan in the form of models such as the “ability-based wage system.” In a similar fashion, there was a demand for knowledge of how to survive in this new competitive society. This led to a sudden resurgence in the popularity of American self-help books. For this reason, it is currently difficult to find books by major American self-help authors, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prentice Mulford, Orison Swett Marden, Wallace D. Wattles, Charles F. Haanel, Ralph Waldo Trine, Dorothea Brande, Joseph Murphy, Norman Vincent Peale, Neville Goddard, Earl Nightingale, Spencer Johnson, Robert Kiyosaki, and Tony Robbins that have not been translated into Japanese. In particular, Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) has been very popular in recent years, and there are even primary schools that use this book as class material. Moreover, because comic culture is highly developed in Japan, there are many American self-help books that have been made into comic books. Of course, Stephen Covey’s book has been made into a comic book, but there are several other authors whose books have a comic-book version in addition to the translation. Such works include Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), and works by the psychologist Alfred Adler and the management consultant Peter Ferdinand Drucker. These works are widely known as self-help books. Self-help literature has taken hold as a literary genre that has maintained a firmly rooted popularity in Japan, much like it has in America. It is frequently read by middle-class, white-collar, middle-aged men.
However, there has been a backlash against the incredibly numerous self-help books that have been put on the market: since 2010, in Japan, stronger criticisms of self-help books have begun to be made. According to these criticisms, the harmfulness of these books comes from the fact that all of the failures in a person’s life are attributed to the personal responsibility of the individual. For example, these critics say, these books state that people who belong to lower social classes are stuck in such positions because they have not been positive enough.
However, at present, these critical voices are being drowned out by the huge waves of numerous new self-help books being published in rapid succession. There is no reason to doubt that self-help books will continue to thrive in America and Japan, as long as the tradition of the “American dream of success” is alive in America and the virtues of the “desire for self-improvement” and “hard work” are part of the Japanese national character.