Each novelist requires circumstance — a situation to describe, from which a conflict arises — and the ivy-covered college hall or dormitory room provides such context readily. It would take research and, thereafter, expertise to write about a Fortune 500 company or those who built the Cabot Trail; why not invoke old campus adventures instead? That hoary advice to the young author "write about what you know" results in volume after volume about school: All writers have been students, and nowadays a sizable number are teachers, so it seems nearly unavoidable that we write about the golden groves we knew.
It's easy to dismiss "Tom Brown's School Days" or "Stover at Yale," or to make fun — as Tom Wolfe did more recently in "I Am Charlotte Simmons" — of a fictionalized Duke University. But there's a sizable shelf of books about bookishness — some of them first-rate — which take education as their subject and explore the idea of learning as initiation rite. As with any other category (the Southern novel, the Jewish novel, the on-the-road novel) there are excellent and execrable texts. It's a question not so much of genre as of how well it's done.
In the largest sense, this has been going on since the Socratic dialogues or "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise." Both of them report on an encounter (platonic and/or physical) between the teacher and taught. Virgil led Dante to that point in "The Divine Comedy" where he could relinquish his role as guide; Paolo and Francesca closed their books and "that day read no more." The bildungsroman has always offered a protagonist who comes into increased awareness of selfhood at tale's end; the campus novel in this sense is simply an arena within which to chart growth.
It focuses on institutions, but there have been wandering minstrels and tutors and scholars aplenty who conduct their study outside of campus walls. A figure such as the Rev. Casaubon in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" or Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" represents the intellectual as pompous stickler and petty tyrant. In Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" he's a drunken boor and bore. "The Art of Fielding," by Chad Harbach, and "The Marriage Plot," by Jeffrey Eugenides, describe school with a kind of benign condescension. Slightly older novels such as Alison Lurie's "The War Between the Tates" or Randall Jarrell's "Pictures from an Institution" are more avowedly satiric, and books like Jane Smiley's "Moo" or James Hynes' "The Lecturer's Tale" are powered intermittently by rage. Vladimir Nabokov's "Pnin" makes fun of a college community; David Lodge's "Changing Places" sends up academic faddishness; Francine Prose's "Blue Angel" eradicates the boundaries between the class and bedroom.
More often than not there's a comic aspect to the campus novel. I myself wrote such a story, "Old Scores" (a book based on the love affair of Abelard and Heloise), and it was hard to do so without tongue in cheek. The life of the mind and the life of the body — as every student knows — get easily conflated and, at times, confused.
I want to cite, at slightly greater length, three examples of the genre that were published in the 1960s and seem to me wholly successful: Bernard Malamud's "A New Life," John Williams' "Stoner" and John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy." A half century has passed, but these books retain their relevance. All three in their separate ways stake out terrain that can properly be described as that of the college campus: Malamud's parable of the displaced S. Levin at play in the fields of Corvallis, Oregon; Williams' noble evocation of a teacher devoted to standards who is shunted aside by bureaucracy; and Barth's hilarious extravaganza of a futurist university.They cover it, chapter and verse. But the quiddities of place and time are only situational. What matters to Levin and Stoner and Giles has more to do with the human condition than with promotion or tenure. What these protagonists are up against (in very different tonal terms) is the issue of how best to conduct oneself: which rules to accept, which to break. Other authors might well use a whaling ship or battleground to frame their tales; here it's the academy instead.
As suggested above, there are bad books as well that deal with the circumstance of education. The professoriate makes an easy target; so does the undergraduate. Often a writer gets tempted to make intellectual molehills into mountains; lord knows it's easy enough to overstate the cultural significance of freshman year. The risk is that of stereotype and even caricature: the absent-minded professor, the scheming administrator, the idealistic and then disillusioned student — stock figures from English 101. But the college campus is no more and no less fertile a place to situate a story than is, say, a boxing ring or tenement or cattle barn.
The proof is in the telling, not the thing told.
Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan. His most recent books are "Sherbrookes" "Lastingness: The Art of Old Age."
Printers Row Book of the Month
The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
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