Essays Fiction Issue

Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse

What campus novels can teach us

Could Americans in the 1820s have valued education over religion? And a sentimental education over an academic one? Hawthorne did. His hero is a sickly swain, so precociously bent on achieving intellectual stardom that he envisions the epitaph on his early grave to read The ashes of a hard student and a good scholar. Fanshawe seems an unlikely candidate for the hand of the ethereal Ellen Langton, whose virtues are “impossible” to enumerate “in prose.” In the end, Ellen marries Fanshawe’s rival, Edward Walcott, a man of “polished society,” with the advantage of two names and a “considerable command of money.” Yet Ellen’s indescribable attractions are powerful enough to cause the studious Fanshawe to ask himself, in defeat, “Where was the happiness of superior knowledge?” The question was one Hawthorne would take up again in The Scarlet Letter more than twenty years later, when he was ready to detail the virtues of an earthier heroine.

Jonathan Kozol, roughly in the spirit of Hawthorne, seems to have forsaken a campus novel he started writing soon after graduating from Harvard—The Fume of Poppies (1958). You won’t see the book pictured on the Jonathan Kozol homepage. You won’t find it listed in the front matter of any of Kozol’s books published since 1968, when his second, Death at an Early Age, an exposé of the abusive treatment of black students in the Boston public schools, won a National Book Award. But, as with Hawthorne’s Fanshawe, you will find in the novel itself strong evidence of a firebrand writer in the making. Kozol’s hero doesn’t have even one name, but he “hate[s] those blond blue-eyed rich boys” who overpopulate the fictional Brooks House at Harvard, and he goes AWOL from college to shack up with a girlfriend in Spain.

Novels told from a college student’s perspective—Love Story, or even Tom Perrotta’s sweet-tempered Joe College—rarely have staying power. Or, to put the matter more gently, we tend to outgrow them. F. Scott Fitzgerald managed to write an enduring classic, This Side of Paradise, but how many of us today would turn to his Princeton novel before The Great Gatsby? Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, the rare student novel published by an author over thirty, is likely to outlast most, and not just because of Wolfe’s seniority. Despite his trademark surfeit of contemporary journalistic detail, Wolfe has made a medieval allegory of his heroine’s quest for sexual autonomy: we know from the moment Charlotte Simmons sets foot on campus in her white Keds that she will take a stand for chastity—or at least a modern-day version of it—against the forces of corruption rampant at fictional Dupont University.

The best of these student tales, however, is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt’s subject is not sex but death, which comes as a shock in a novel about nineteen-year-olds—and is the key to the book’s continuing fascination. Tartt took ten years and many drafts to complete the novel; she’d gotten the necessary distance from her story by the time she was done telling it.

In The Secret History, a handful of students at Hampden College (recognizably Bennington!) fall under the spell of a charismatic classics professor, Julian Morrow—“ageless, watchful, sly as a child”—given to delivering contrarian pronouncements like “[P]sychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate.” Gradually Morrow weans his young adherents away from their everyday lives and into a netherworld where the idea of working themselves up into a “Dionysiac frenzy” takes hold. The narrator, Richard Papen, is not on hand for the orgy, but he hears about it later from a friend. “These are fundamentally sex rituals, aren’t they?” he asks. “Of course,” he is told bluntly, though he then hears, in grisly detail, about the sacrificial murder of a Vermont woodsman. In The Secret History, the macabre and the madcap collide. The excuses that Tartt’s rich and jaded but nonetheless credulous characters come up with for their savage antics still make me laugh. “It’s not as if teams of expert coroners are crawling all over upstate Vermont,” one student explains about his decision to flee the scene of the crime. “It’s a primitive place. People die violent natural deaths all the time.”

I can’t honestly say whether I’d have liked this book so much if I hadn’t attended Bennington, where even a bizarre case such as this one has the ring of truth. During my sophomore year—my last full one on campus—a handful of students in my dorm were said to be practicing witchcraft; word got around of the supposed coven’s aim to disrupt the budding romance of another student and a wealthy young man who sometimes flew his own plane to Maine for fresh lobsters on the weekend. Near the end of the term, the girl’s lover lost his bearings in a fog and crashed into a mountain. Yes—people die violent deaths all the time in Vermont.

Many campus novels are romans à clef, and in Faculty Towers Elaine Showalter insists that she has at least twice served as the model for a fictional college professor—“once a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, dumpy, judgmental frump.” But novels about faculty—Professorromane, Showalter calls them, borrowing the term from a 1980 dissertation by Richard G. Caram—often have charm that transcends the real-life figures that apparently inspired them. I don’t care whether David Lodge’s Morris Zapp is based on the jet- setting culture critic Stanley Fish, or whether Philip Roth’s E. I. Lonoff is really Bernard Malamud, or Saul Bellow’s Abe Ravelstein is Allan Bloom. I just like the books.

After so many years of reading about them, fictional college professors have come to seem like family to me. I’m not, like Showalter, a member of their ranks, but I do retain a college student’s fascination with what goes on behind the scenes, not unlike the curiosity children feel about what their parents may be doing when they’re not around. These books also explore sex—usually adulterous sex—and driving intellectual ambition, as in our American “ur-narrative,” Fanshawe. But books about professors are novels of middle age, and their consolations are those of midlife: redemption and reconciliation. The college student has grown up to be a professor, and life, though not lacking in complexity, can be good after all.

I realize I’m betraying a preference, here, for the comic over the satiric, a partiality for David Lodge over Philip Roth, Richard Russo over Saul Bellow. In an article about campus novels written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the poet and essayist Jay Parini says of Roth and Bellow: “I might call both of these venerable authors sexist. But I won’t. Let’s just say that they cannot create female characters who are not bitchy, shallow, lustful, jealous, stupid, or subservient.” Russo, and other writers of a slightly younger generation—seem to get women. The heroines of Lodge’s series of faculty novels—Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work, and Thinks—are all women I can identify with. They live and breathe, think and talk, even lecture and publish, without inviting such comments as that of Roth’s septuagenarian professor Coleman Silk about a thirty-four-year-old “ignitable woman,” a campus janitorial worker who has rejuvenated him by turning “sex into a vice again”: “In bed is the only place where Faunia is in any way shrewd.” The larger issue, however, is the difference between jaundiced skepticism and plucky idealism, between irony and pastoral—a subject I could say a lot more about if I’d taken the “Irony and Pastoral” course offered at Bennington when I was there in the mid-1970s. That class was taught by a cultish professor of eighteenth-century poetry who could have been the model for Tartt’s Julian Morrow. I stayed away.

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Megan Marshall is the author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, which won the 2006 Francis Parkman Prize and the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.

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