Essays Fiction Issue

Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse

What campus novels can teach us

Still, I know enough to say that the ace of academic pastorals is Richard Russo’s Straight Man. In calling this book comic I don’t mean to suggest that it’s slight. Russo’s account of a week in the life of burned-out English prof William Henry Devereaux Jr., at West Central Pennsylvania U., gives a surprise answer to the question first raised by Hawthorne’s lovesick Fanshawe. Indeed “superior knowledge” can bring happiness—if only we would use our overstuffed brains to teach ourselves how to keep on loving our (sometimes tedious) work and our pleasantly worn-out spouses, to forgive our small-minded colleagues and our bitter rivals. This may be a more profound message than the darker lessons of a tale of shattered hubris like Coleman Silk’s in The Human Stain or Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, a delicious send-up of a sexual-harassment case in which the disgraced professor Ted Swenson is left jobless and pondering, finally, “how much he will never know.”

Sometimes, though, wicked satires like these can serve as correctives in the academic, if not the personal, realm. Philip Roth started in on this campaign in 1961 with Letting Go, set at the University of Iowa, where his philandering grad-student hero Gabe Wallach is at least as concerned with academic discourse as with adulterous intercourse. “Teaching is a noble profession with a noble history, and it may simply be that we are living through a slack time,” Gabe muses after a particularly acrimonious faculty meeting. (A slack time that has lasted a full forty years, evidently, for Roth’s complaints about the caliber of intellectual dispute in the academy are much the same in The Human Stain.) The ensuing account of a squabble over whether a student’s paper should have received an A-minus or a D, whether it should be judged on literary or purely stylistic merits, should be required reading in any pedagogy class for English professors—although, sadly, few such courses seem to be offered to graduate students in the universities I know about.

Some novels about college professors leave behind the dichotomies altogether and achieve the sublime—or the tragic. To be fair, these books mostly leave the campus behind as well. I’m thinking of several works of short fiction by Andre Dubus. In the novella We Don’t Live Here Anymore, the two friends whose marriages are in serious trouble are both English professors at a small-town college. But Dubus hints at this detail only after two dozen pages, letting on that Jack Linhart’s best friend, Hank, is the kind of professor who will “look around and blink and screw the first thing that walks into his office.” What’s important here is that, as Jack observes, “I am surrounded by painful marriages that no one understands”; that Jack is in love with his wife, Terry, and his best friend’s wife, Edith; and that for a brief revelatory moment at the start of the tale, Jack imagines, “I will love them both.”

Dubus makes even a finger-pointing feminist like me feel for Jack and share his wish that he might “juggle my beloveds and save us all.” The message of any of these campus novels, maybe all novels, is that love is salvation, and in this story Jack has the most love to give and the greatest need to give it. But nothing saves any of the grown-ups. Jack is left hoping that his tangled love will work its way into the hearts of his two small children, whom he will take sledding in the final scene, after shoveling snow from the driveway “while they dressed warmly for the cold morning.” All mornings are cold, Dubus seems to be saying, even if sledding is in the plans, and the best we can do is dress warmly for them.

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is one campus novel I haven’t read—and probably never will. That’s too bad, because pretty much everyone agrees with Elaine Showalter that it is the “real origin of the genre.” Lucky Jim was one of my husband’s favorite books when I met him, and, quite unfairly, I judged this book by its title, which reminded me of the boyishness of so many of my husband’s classmates from the anglophile New England prep school they had attended. A little of this went a long way. But Showalter pegs the book as being about “moving on,” and I have to agree that some of the best academic novels are ones that bridge the collegiate and the “real” worlds.

Although I’m fond of them, I wouldn’t include in this group my short stack of where-are-they-now novels: Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Rona Jaffe’s Class Reunion, Alice Adams’s Superior Women, and David Lodge’s Souls and Bodies. Instead, I would reach back to the turn of the last century, for another foundational work: E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, the progenitor of moving-on novels. No colleges appear in this book, although the young George Emerson, a “nice creature” who may have “brains” and might be a Socialist, could have studied for a few terms at Harvard before turning up in Florence with his widowed father. Yet Forster’s characters—the American Emersons; the English Lucy Honeychurch, with whom George falls in love; and Lucy’s chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett—are all self-educating types, as eager to find “the tombstone that is praised in Ruskin” as to ascertain the meaning of life. Although George and Lucy’s fumbling courtship is the action on which the plot ostensibly turns—resolved only after the senior Mr. Emerson intervenes to instruct Lucy on the importance of the “tenderness, and the comradeship, and the poetry, and the things that really matter, and for which you marry”—the true romance here is the reader’s with the world of this novel, a place where the most important question to ask about your new neighbors is, “Are these people great readers?” Who wouldn’t fall in love with the notion that education goes on beyond the walls of the university, that the life of the mind can carry over into life itself? I did.

And so, apparently, did Zadie Smith, who has described her third novel, On Beauty, set at the fictional Wellington College, as an “hommage” to Forster. Smith’s insistence on the French spelling of the word is a sign of the intercontinental sensibility of her book, and of the way that, despite its primary setting at a university modeled on Harvard, the book takes us to many places—including, as in the Dubus and Forster novels, back to the primary connection of parent and child, the first teaching relationship in anyone’s life. Here is Professor Howard Belsey’s version of Jack Linhart’s “dress warmly,” a summary of all the advice he’s ever given to his daughter Zora, now a student at Wellington: “[D]on’t walk in front of cars take care and be good and don’t hurt or be hurt and don’t live in a way that makes you feel dead and don’t betray anybody or yourself and take care of what matters and please don’t and please remember and make sure.

Don’t live in a way that makes you feel dead. Take care of what matters. Isn’t this why we all went to college—to find out what makes us feel alive, what matters? But these lessons can’t be mastered in just four years. That’s why campus novelists keep on writing.

Books and Authors I Was Sorry to Leave Out of This Discussion:

Saul Bellow: Ravelstein

Anne Bernays: Professor Romeo

Willa Cather: Lucy Gayheart, The Professor’s House

Michael Chabon: Wonder Boys

Geoff Dyer: Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence

Marilyn French: The Women’s Room

Rebecca Goldstein: The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light

Randall Jarrell: Pictures From an Institution

Jonathan Lethem: The Fortress of Solitude

Elinor Lipman: My Latest Grievance

Bernard Malamud: A New Life, Dubin’s Lives

Mary McCarthy: The Groves of Academe, Birds of America

Philip Roth: The Professor of Desire, The Ghost Writer

Jane Smiley: Moo

Meg Wolitzer: The Wife

Presented by

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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