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.
Novels that belong to this genre may answer other questions as well, but they take as their primary concern the workings of higher education. They describe the social lives of students—the parties, the pranks, the late-night conversations. They describe contentious faculty meetings and weighty encounters between administrators and teachers. They describe romantic liaisons, on campus and off. Infrequently, they describe students and teachers engaged in the work of formal education; taken as a whole, academic novels offer remarkably few scenes in which a teacher teaches and a student learns.
No one novel describes all of these things, but any description in an academic novel—any character or scene or setting—is limited as much by its source material as by the requirements of the genre. The favorite tropes of the academic novel are easily listed. The college is located in New York or Pennsylvania or is nestled in a forest in New England. When a university appears in the novel, it is massive, impersonal, and midwestern. Administrators, especially the president, know how to shake hands, make small talk, and raise funds. Professors come in one of three guises: the daft, otherworldly scholar; the irresponsible (and often lecherous) failure; and the venal, back-stabbing careerist. Students are clean-cut upper-class men, working-class “grinds,” or unclassifiable outcasts.
The academic novel's most familiar narrative trope is that of high expectations brought low. Over and over, the genre tells us that American higher education promises much but delivers little. In this way, the academic novel constitutes a shadow history of the American university. It represents the academy's most hopeful vision of itself, and its ghostly sense of failing that vision.
The Genteel Idyll
Two centuries after the founding of the first American college (Harvard, in 1636), the first college appeared in American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne set his novel Fanshawe (1828) at the fictional Harley College, clearly modeled after Bowdoin College in Maine, from which he had recently graduated. Harley, a homely seminary tucked away in the New England woods, serves as a convenient backdrop for Hawthorne's melodramatic plot. The story has little to do with college life, but Hawthorne's sketch of Harley anticipates later portraits. The school is secluded; the students, with a few exceptions, have little interest in or aptitude for theoretical study; and they attend Harley to become slightly more polished men. Harley is a rustic version of the early idea of the American college: a genteel idyll, time away from the working world where boys grow into fine Christian men.
Fanshawe's main characters became stock types in later academic novels. Dr. Melmoth, the head of Harley, is a genial, dotty figure, a composite of the absentminded professor and the smiling, vapid dean. Fanshawe is a young scholar—a grind—whose devotion to his studies withers him and sends him to an early grave. Edward Walcott is the prototype of the college man: hale and hearty, glancingly interested in scholarship, a mild prankster, a gentleman. Ellen Langton represents the world outside the college. Walcott and Fanshawe battle for Ellen's heart. Walcott's victory suggests that he is ready to join the real world; Fanshawe's fatal loss is the consequence of single-minded intellectual pursuit.
Fanshawe was ignored by the public, and Hawthorne later disowned it. Thereafter, the American college was all but absent from American fiction until the nineteenth century drew to a close. In England, however, the British author Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), which offered an expanded and clearly defined template for American academic novels. Still green from public school, Tom Brown—a name as common as dirt—falls in with Drysdale, the ringleader of Oxford University's fast crowd—the rich, pranking, indolent boys. Soon, however, under the guidance of Hardy, a wise and patient tutor, Brown devotes himself to the practical business of living a decent, manly life. He rows hard for the Oxford crew and falls in love with a girl. He joins a feisty liberal crowd for a rowdy talk about the need to democratize the campus. Oxford is not perfect, but Tom is grateful to it and feels a preemptive nostalgia for the university. The story—wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic—is a chronicle of innocence and experience, the story of a boy's emergence into manhood.
As the American academic novel began to develop, it relied for support, by accident or design, on the tropes established in Tom Brown. In Helen Dawes Brown's Two College Girls (1886), a pair of Vassar roommates temper each other's rough edges and come to maturity. Edna, from rural New England, is a prim version of Tom Brown, and Rosamund, from Chicago, is a lightened version of Drysdale; together they overcome their prejudices and prepare themselves for healthy, fulsome womanhood outside Vassar's gates. In Charles Macomb Flandrau's Harvard Episodes (1897), a series of sketches offers the genre's signal characters and themes: the shy public school student intimidated by rich cosmopolitans and their pose of casual indifference, the frank discussion of the aims of the college experience and the conclusion that the college has fallen short, and the clear social hierarchy and the effort to subvert it. In Owen Wister's Philosophy Four (1903), two indolent Harvard sophomores, Bertie and Billy, exploit their hard-working tutor, Oscar Maironi, as they prepare for an exam. Bertie and Billy are Drysdale's cousins; Maironi is an ethnic Hardy. After Harvard the two boys find success in the business world, while Maironi lives a dull, grinding life at the fringes of the literary world.
The most successful academic novel, popularly if not critically, is Owen Johnson's Stover at Yale (1912). With the exception of a few particulars, Johnson's novel turns out to be a fully realized plagiarism of Tom Brown. Dink Stover, a bluff, clean-cut fellow, arrives at Yale with more clout than Brown; he was a football star at his prep school, Lawrenceville. But Dink's years at Yale run parallel to Brown's at Oxford. Dink falls in with the society crowd but later rejects it; joins a feisty liberal crowd for a debate on the need to democratize Yale's campus; is transfixed by an older student's tales of the nobility of hard work; devotes himself to the practice of living a decent, manly life; excels at football; and falls in love with his friend's sister. Yale does not fully realize its democratic promise, but, as is Tom Brown, Stover is filled with gratitude and a kind of preemptive nostalgia for the college. The keynotes of Stover at Yale sound throughout the academic novel's history. The notes are plaintive (is this all there is?), hopeful (we can make it better), bitter (good-bye to all that), and sweet (wasn't it grand?).
The Yale described in Stover at Yale is more than a genteel idyll. In Johnson's novel, the college undertakes a social experiment in which all the standard student types—college men, grinds, and outcasts—meet on equal footing before they assume their roles in the real world. To Stover, this is a great American experiment. When he finds that it has gone awry—the mix hasn't taken and the social hierarchy is still intact—he uses his considerable power to set it right. Although the novel glamorizes the genteel tradition, it hopes for something new, something that is chaotic and democratic and fine.
Stover at Yale became a guidebook for aspiring college students—an audience that grew after the turn of the century. American higher education had by this time entered the age of the university; it had arranged itself into formal disciplines, each with a trained faculty; and some colleges had grown into universities, offering specialized study in specific fields leading to a doctorate. Stover, published in 1912, stood nearly at the midpoint of the American college's maturation process. In 1870, America counted roughly 500 institutions of higher education; by 1930 the number had nearly trebled, to 1,400. During the same period, the number of students in college exploded, from 52,000 to more than 1,100,000. This was the chaotic democratic mass that Stover saw on the horizon in 1912. By the time Stover's influence faded, the university was an institution, and college life—the fashions, athletic contests, slang, rituals, pranks, and romances of college students—was a fixture in the American imagination.
Amory Blaine, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), studies Stover like a textbook before he heads to Princeton University. But Blaine himself is a desiccated version of Stover: cynical, ironic, narcissistic. He chooses Princeton because he has heard that it is run like a country club. He fancies himself the hero of a vaguely drawn philosophical drama; he adopts and discards poses and styles, mocking them and himself as he does so. He smokes, he lounges, he writes bad poetry. He is indifferent to the world war that interrupts his college years. Stover wouldn't have understood him in the least.
Yet Stover and Blaine share a kinship. Blaine, like Stover, is frustrated by his college's social system, which is roughly divided between “Philistines” and grinds. Blaine, like Stover, feels that his college has failed him, and comes to maturity despite his formal education rather than because of it. What splits the two, in the end, is the war. Fitzgerald wrote the first draft of his novel partly at Princeton, where he had quit his studies, and partly at an army training camp, where he waited for the war to come. Blaine—like Fitzgerald himself—is the fevered creation of this hopeless moment. His indifference to the war is another ironic pose; he is disillusioned not simply with higher education but with humankind. His specific protest against the genteel notion of higher education gains force as the war spends itself. What good are ideals—what good is character, or manhood, or morality—in the face of such savagery? Even so, Blaine feels the familiar pang of nostalgia for his college years, though he is certain that Princeton itself did not provide an education. He is nostalgic for the freedom, the leisure, the irresponsibility of his time at college.
This Side of Paradise shows a certain stylistic daring that is unusual in the genre—though some of that daring is better described as incoherence. Fitzgerald rushed to finish the novel and was seemingly indiscriminate in choosing and arranging its material; the novel feels at once slapdash and innovative. In general, the academic novel of the 1920s and 1930s showed little awareness of the experimentation with form and style that was being applied to literature at the time. George Anthony Weller's Not to Eat, Not for Love (1933) makes a modest attempt to toy with experimental techniques, but the genre is implacably realistic. The pretense of the academic novel is that it offers access to the actual college experience; its primary interest is documentation, not stylistic innovation.
This Side of Paradise is notable for two other reasons. First, it signaled a greater permissiveness in describing the younger generation's behavior. In Fitzgerald's novel, the drinking is more reckless (one character dies in a drunken car crash), the petting more serious (the novel's world-weary lovemaking scenes scandalized older readers), and the disillusionment deep and thoroughgoing (Stover and his ilk are essentially optimists). Second, though Blaine is as uninterested in his formal studies as Stover, he does gain enlightenment from extracurricular reading—novels and poems recommended to him by a fellow poet. If Stover at Yale describes the main character's moral and social awakening, This Side of Paradise describes the main character's intellectual and artistic awakening.
A handful of academic novels were published every year in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, most taking their cues from Stover or This Side of Paradise. Percy Marks's The Plastic Age (1924) mimics Fitzgerald's often savage cynicism. Several of Thomas Wolfe's novels, including Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Of Time and the River (1935), and The Web and the Rock (1939), deal glancingly with college life and offer scenes that are by turns stylishly colored, intellectually rich, and deeply bitter—a concerted attempt to do what Fitzgerald had done halfheartedly. William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf (1945) is a sensitive recasting of Stover; timid Lymie Peters comes to maturity by stepping out of the shadow of his Stover-like hero, Spud Latham.
Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925) occupies its own quiet corner. Cather is concerned more with the house than with the professor; nevertheless, there are glimpses of a midwestern state university that suffers from a flood of new students and the development of a practical curriculum. The genteel idyll has ended. College is a business; it develops practical skills, not moral character. In Cather's novel, and the majority of academic novels to follow, the nostalgia of former students for their glowing college years is replaced by the sour protest of teachers who find themselves trapped in a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
A Terminal Irony
American higher education continued to expand after World War II; by 1960, three and a half million students were enrolled in the country's colleges and universities. The American academic novel grew as well. The decades from the 1950s through the 1980s saw a steady increase of titles in the genre—an increase that does not imply increased respect. In these novels the academy is portrayed as a farce. This is not the farce of student pranks and drunken larks; it is the farce of administrative hypocrisy and petty squabbles among faculty over teaching methods or ideologies. The authors of these novels are not former students—they are professional writers who have made their livings as teachers in the academy. Their novels are as plainly autobiographical as the genre's earliest novels, but their approach toward their subject is markedly different.
Two of the genre's defining texts, published within two years of each other, establish the tenor of many of the works to follow. Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952) and Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954) are pitiless satires of academic life. McCarthy had taught recently at Bard, Jarrell at Kenyon, and both at Sarah Lawrence. If the colleges described in their novels are not exact replicas of these campuses, they are close enough to suggest that the authors were writing from experience. In both novels the colleges themselves take starring roles; individual characters are rendered as caricatures, and, in Jarrell's novel especially, the plot is immaterial. The point of the novels is to expose the flaws of American higher education—to mock its pretensions and lay bare its hypocrisies.
The novels are set at progressive colleges. We learn that progressive education is an oxymoron, that what passes for education at these schools is a kind of high-minded recess. Both are arranged around writers who teach or teachers who write; and we learn that the study of literature is subject to personal whim and political fancy, such that no literature is actually studied. We also learn that college presidents are at once vacuous and scheming; that professors are doddering eccentrics or small-minded guardians of meager intellectual turf; that the sciences are at odds with the humanities; and that no one in his or her right mind—no one, that is, outside the academy—would care about any of this.
Some of this criticism is frivolous, some vicious, and some, very rarely, sympathetic—but all of it goes to suggest that college achieves the opposite of its aims. This simple irony—people who are supposed to be thoughtful and broad-minded are in fact petty and parochial—echoes the plaintive and bitter tones found in Stover. Is this all there is? If so, good-bye to all that. Here, though, there is no hope, no sweetness, no nostalgia. The irony is terminal.
A flood of academic novels followed, many of them taking McCarthy's and Jarrell's works as models, some fashioning a slightly different model. May Sarton's Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) and several of Alison Lurie's novels, beginning with Love and Friendship (1962), take a special interest in the personal relationships of faculty and their lovers and friends. In Sarton's novel, a brilliant and politically engaged Harvard English professor named Edward Cavan commits suicide. In chapters that adopt the point of view of his friends and colleagues, we learn that Cavan was unable to reconcile his professional and political lives. Sarton suggests that academia is walled off from the real world, and the attempt to break through the wall can be fatal. Love and Friendship chronicles an affair between a faculty wife and a music teacher at a small college in rural New England. The novel offers several comic scenes and is fashioned in part as a comedy of manners, but its characters are treated with some seriousness.
Vladimir Nabokov, who, like Lurie, taught for a time at Cornell University, produced two novels that could be classified as academic novels if they were not, like most of Nabokov's work, unclassifiable. Pnin (1957) stays closest to the form. Timofey Pnin arrives from overseas to teach Russian at a small college that seems much like Cornell. His American colleagues mock his eccentric habits and his arcane scholarship; their niggling callousness forces the reader to feel sympathy for Pnin and disdain for academia. We are relieved when, at the end of the year, Pnin leaves the college. Pale Fire (1962) is a burlesque of literary scholarship. It purports to be the critical edition of an epic poem by John Francis Shade, with a foreword and commentary by Shade's neighbor and colleague Charles Kinbote. Kinbote's gloss on the text is smothering; the critic has superceded the author.
Novels by Joseph Heller—Something Happened (1974) and Good as Gold (1979)—and John Barth, such as The End of the Road (1958) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966), subject the academy to withering scrutiny. Barth's work employs considerable formal experimentation—a rarity in the genre. Novels by Philip Roth, including The Breast (1972), My Life as a Man (1974), and The Professor of Desire (1977), and Saul Bellow, including Herzog (1964) and The Dean's December (1982), use the university as a backdrop but are not primarily concerned with academic life. Roth and Bellow are creatures of the academy, and it is an enduring presence in their work. Joyce Carol Oates, too, has spent her professional life in academia and makes frequent use of the university in her fiction, for example, Unholy Loves (1979), Solstice (1985), and Marya, a Life (1986). In her work, the ironies of the academy are deep and cruel.
Fools and Failures
Academic novels since the beginning of the 1990s are direct descendants of The Groves of Academe and Pictures from an Institution. They are, with few exceptions, written by men and women who teach English (especially creative writing) in colleges or universities. Their main characters are typically members of the department of English, which is riven by political gamesmanship and skirmishing over arcane theories. They tend to be self-consciously literary; they allude to works of literature and draw much of their humor from punning or wordplay. Their characters tend toward stereotype, and their plots toward slapstick. Their academy is a collection of fools, failures, and freaks.
There is, for example, Jane Smiley's Moo (1995), an episodic tale in which one of the primary characters is a hog named Earl Butz. In a former slaughterhouse at the center of Moo U., a large midwestern university (Smiley taught at Iowa State), Butz gorges himself at his trough—a symbol of the university's appetite for funds. In Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997), set at a failing branch of a state university in Pennsylvania, the cast includes an overweight, overperfumed poet who has not fulfilled the promise of her youth; a loutish, irresolute fiction writer who also has not fulfilled the promise of his youth; and the English department's most recent hire, a professor of literature who claims that literature is bogus and requires his students to turn in their assignments on video. Francine Prose's Blue Angel (2000) tells the story of a drifting, washed-up professor of creative writing (who has not fulfilled the promise of his youth) in a small New England college. The professor becomes involved with the only student in his fiction workshop who shows a genuine interest in literature. She happens to be the campus freak—pierced and tattooed and sullen.
A similar list might include Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (1995), whose main character is yet another aimless teacher of creative writing. Grady Tripp is a fat marijuana addict who wrote an acclaimed novel when he was younger, but has not fulfilled the promise of his youth. Another could be James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale (2001), which chronicles the freakish, even supernatural, activities of an English department at a midwestern university that includes professors who write about the lesbian phallus, show pornographic films to their students, and nurture a costume fetish.
These novels tell us that college faculties comprise people who cannot function in the real world. A sense of failure hangs over them; their ambitions, their ideas, their lives seem meager and mean. The college itself appears in one of two familiar guises: the massive university, overseen by a soulless bureaucracy and run like a corporation, or the secluded rural idyll, hapless and inconsequential. Students, when they appear, are dull-witted and earnest; for the most part, they are invisible. In the contemporary academic novel, the professors take center stage.
There are a few exceptions. Tom Perrotta's Joe College (2000) and Elwood Reid's If I Don't Six (1998) are cast in the mold of Stover at Yale; they describe the awakening and maturing of the young soul. In Joe College, a Yale junior named Danny tries to reconcile his college life (parties, a job at the dining hall, a modest interest in classwork, a potential romance with a brainy classmate) with his life at home (friends from high school who have lost their way, a job driving his father's food truck, a suddenly serious romance with a former high school classmate who is now a secretary). If I Don't Six chronicles Elwood Riley's first year as a football recruit at the University of Michigan. Riley is an intellectual—he carries around a copy of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations—and his term culminates in Stover-like disillusionment when he realizes that the football team is not a pure meritocracy.
There are, as well, novels by esteemed writers who return to the academy as a setting. Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (2000) and Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) do not strictly conform to the genre. Ravelstein functions as a character sketch and a protest novel, in which the character is an academic and the protest is, in part, against academia—but its heart is elsewhere. The Human Stain hinges on a professor's remark that is wrongly interpreted as politically incorrect—but again, the scope of the novel is panoramic, not bound by genre.
A Shadow History
As an object of critical attention, the academic novel is seen as a diversion; it lies outside the province of serious literature. This vision is strikingly similar to the popular image of the academy itself. The Puritans prized education and founded Harvard; and though a Puritan faith in the value of education hovers over American culture like a guilty conscience, the country's id and ego are obsessed with material wealth, physical labor, and obvious utility. From its inception the American academy has had to justify its existence in terms of practical value: What can a college education do? The lamentation of the parent of the twenty-first century undergraduate (“My tuition bills are paying for this?”) is an echo of thousands of such complaints leveled at American higher education over the past three and a half centuries. The country wrings its hands over the fate of its education system, and every upstanding middle-class parent will affirm the necessity of attending college. But in the popular imagination the college experience is a diversion from the hard labor of making money. The real world begins after college.
The genre is treated as the poor cousin of a handful of more distinguished genres: the comic novel, the social novel, the bildungsroman (novel of spiritual awakening), and the Kunstlerroman (novel of artistic awakening). Although the academic novel is distinguished by certain repeated themes and characters and episodes, it is most clearly marked by its setting: An academic novel takes place primarily on a college campus. This limited scope might play to an author's strengths, yet the academic novel inevitably suffers from its confinement. The academic novels most likely to last are those that escape the campus or take up concerns beyond the academy—works that cannot, in other words, properly be considered academic novels.
The three novels that serve as the genre's standard-bearers are minor works. Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution and Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe are neither actively read nor much loved outside a cultish circle of current and former professors. Owen Johnson's Stover at Yale is familiar only to students of the genre and old-time Yale alumni. The critical attention paid to these works, and to the genre itself, is slight. There is only one comprehensive survey of the genre—The College Novel in America (1962) by John O. Lyons. It is out of print, outdated, and so dyspeptic as to discourage future critics from attempting a fresh survey.
We can point to a list of great writers who have worked within the genre: Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Cather, Nabokov, Oates, Bellow, and Roth. But our list must be heavily qualified. Hawthorne's Fanshawe is academic only in its setting; it is, in any case, a clumsy first novel. Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise is more fully an academic novel, but it is many other things as well and reads less as a coherent academic novel than a pastiche of several different novels, plays, and poems. The Professor's House is one of Cather's minor works, and its central concerns lie far beyond the walls of the academy. Nabokov's Pnin is minor as well; his Pale Fire is sui generis. Oates's academic novels are mostly forgotten, as are some of Roth's and Bellow's. Herzog and The Human Stain may last, but they escape the genre.
What of the handful of most recent writers who have achieved critical success and embraced the genre? Jane Smiley, Michael Chabon, and Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (in 1992, 2001, and 2002, respectively) for works that were not academic novels. Russo and Chabon wrote their academic novels before writing the novel that won the Pulitzer, and Smiley's novel followed her prize-winner. Their academic novels appear to us as warm-ups or cool-downs—exercises before or after the main event. The writers are cutting loose, larking about; the result is (sometimes) an entertainment, but not a lasting work of literature.
We might say that real literature begins after genre. Yet some genres—the detective novel comes to mind—have produced works of lasting importance. Not so the academic novel. But if the genre's literary value is insignificant, its sociological and historical value is substantial.
What Went Wrong?
The history of the academic novel, broadly drawn, is the history of the American university. The academic novel begins as a series of sketches, becomes a full-blown genre, then hardens into an institution. The American academy begins as a series of sketches (Harvard, Yale, and a handful of others, scattered and remote), becomes a full-blown part of American culture (the development of the university, the formation of disciplines and professional degrees), and hardens into an institution. Attending an institution of higher education is now the rule, not the exception, in American life. The academic novel, like its subject, has grown from a novelty into a profession.
The history we find in the academic novel is, perhaps not surprisingly, incomplete. It is largely the history of the Ivy League and the big state schools—and within those schools, it is the history of relatively privileged Caucasian boys and men, most of whom, as the novel reaches its maturity, are shown to be fools or failures. It is, in other words, the history of the decline of an American aristocracy—the class of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. The genre tells us little about the fortunes of other classes and other populations. Since the 1950s, for example, the number of Americans attending junior or community colleges has shot from a few hundred thousand to more than ten million. Yet this college experience—this radically different idea of college—is invisible in American fiction.
Beneath every fictional college lurks a single ideal college—the college of Stover, even of Fanshawe: a cloistered verdant quad where boys grow into men. When the academic novel is realistic, it describes colleges that want to embody this image. (Their tragedy is that they cannot.) When the novel is satirical, it mocks colleges (or, frequently, universities) for pretending to want that vision at all. Most academic novels present their colleges and universities as proof of their failure. They are lost; they cannot reclaim that ideal vision. What went wrong? The academic novel does not know. It offers a critique, not a remedy.
Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York, 1963. Indispensable survey of America's tormented relationship to intellectual work.Find this resource:
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Chicago, 1987. Persuasive historical analysis of student culture in American higher education.Find this resource:
Lyons, John O. The College Novel in America. Carbondale, Ill., 1962. The only comprehensive (but now outdated) study of the genre.Find this resource:
Marchalonis, Shirley. College Girls: A Century in Fiction. New Brunswick, N.J., 1995. A helpful corrective to Lyons's male-focused work.Find this resource:
Proctor, Mortimer R. The English University Novel. Berkeley, Calif. 1957 (reprint New York, 1977). A brisk treatment of the subject that neatly foreshadows the American academic novel.Find this resource:
Veysey, Laurence. The Emergence of the American University. Chicago, 1965. An authoritative history and the real-life guide to the settings of academic novels.Find this resource: