Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse

What campus novels can teach us

Everyone needs escape reading, and for me it’s always been campus novels. Maybe that’s because as an undergraduate I attended the two colleges about which more academic fiction has been written than any others—Bennington and Harvard. Thinly veiled Benningtons appear in a small shelf of novels by its celebrity alums, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem. And as for Harvard—well, the books are legion, perhaps because life at Harvard so often seems to mimic a campus novel.

When I arrived at Bennington, as a seventeen-year-old freshman from southern California, I’d never set eyes on the place. I’d never seen snow fall, or a maple leaf turn red—but I’d read about those things, just as I’d read, in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, about an “absolutely Bennington or Sarah Lawrence type,” a girl on her way to New Haven for a Yale football game who “looked like she’d spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress.” I got to southern Vermont in 1971, a full decade after the publication of Franny and Zooey, and I wore my own black leotard under blue denim overalls. I didn’t dance or paint or sculpt in my scuffed work boots, but the college had given me more financial aid than any other school (probably because the tuition was higher as well), and I’d said yes.

In some ways I fit the stereotype, as the admissions committee must have divined when it offered me the money. At the time I was a serious musician, and I spent most of my days in the subterranean practice rooms of Jennings, an immense stone mansion that housed the music department. Jennings was rumored to have been the inspiration for Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, and few students felt comfortable practicing there late at night. Jackson had been a faculty wife at Bennington in the 1940s and ’50s, and when I read the book I wondered how much her distress at the role had figured in “The Lottery” and Hill House—in which an anthropologist gathers material for his “definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances” by conducting experiments in the occult on young female volunteers. At least Jackson got some great writing out of her suppressed rage. As a babysitter for the children of Bennington’s mostly male professoriat, I’d known other wives to simply turn silent, or take off for New York City, leaving a bewildered husband behind in one of the attic apartments in Jennings, grading the papers of those girls in leotards.

As a transfer student at Harvard, I seemed once again to have walked right into (or out of) a popular novel. Everyone finds something to identify with in Erich Segal’s Love Story—how else to explain the astronomical sales? But I actually was, like Jenny Cavilleri, a harpsichord-playing ’Cliffie on full scholarship who fell in love with and eventually married the preppy scion of an old New England family. (I’d been playing the Fifth Brandenberg, Jenny’s signature concerto, since high school!) When I was turned down for the same postgraduate fellowship to study in Paris that Jenny had won (I, too, had never seen that city “in my whole goddamn life”), I took some comfort in the possibility that this rejection had saved me from contracting leukemia and dying a tragic early death. Instead it was my marriage that ended—after nearly thirty years—as Jenny and Oliver Barrett’s might have too, if Jenny had survived.

Not long ago, as part of a downsizing effort, I gathered up forty or so campus novels from bookshelves around the house, many of them acid-burned paperbacks left from the summer I worked in a used bookstore in Harvard Square when I was between colleges. I stacked them in small piles on the floor of my office, attempting to sort them into themes, trends, anything at all that might justify serious study—or even just keeping them around.

In a recent study of the genre, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, the Princeton literary critic Elaine Showalter divided her own collection into decades and tracked the protagonists’ growth in political awareness from the “Ivory Tower” fifties to the present. My books hardly seemed amenable to that kind of treatment, aside from a handful of novels by Alison Lurie: Love and Friendship, The War Between the Tates, Foreign Affairs, Truth and Consequences—unfailingly brilliant satires of faculty life that have appeared at the rate of about one per decade since 1962, and could themselves provide the material for such an investigation.

My collection included mystery novels by Dorothy Sayers, Jane Langton, and Amanda Cross (a.k.a. the late Columbia professor Carolyn Heilbrun), set on college campuses or with college professors as detectives. I had some soft porn, one book for each of my colleges: Robert H. Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment, a 1966 utopian fantasy riffing on the futuristic notion of co-ed dorms, and Stephen H. Yafa’s Three in the Attic, from 1967, in which a rainbow coalition of Bennington types hold a Williams man hostage after they discover he’s been three-timing them, then plot to kill him with too much sex. I even had some nonfiction in my stash: Gail Thain Parker’s 1979 diatribe, The Writing on the Wall: Inside Higher Education in America, an indictment of political correctness written long before the phrase was coined. Parker, who became the youngest college president in America when she took the top job at Bennington in 1972, was really letting fly at the ultra-liberal school that had let her go in 1976, after she’d issued an agenda for eviscerating reforms called “Future Directions”—and, according to the campus rumor mill, had an extramarital affair with an American Civilization professor.

Walking among the piles, where Randall Jarrell, Erich Segal, and Philip Roth mingled unsteadily with Mary McCarthy, Marilyn French, and Jane Smiley, I decided that campus novels were really of only two sorts: books about students, and books about professors—the “lifers,” to use Showalter’s term.

Novels about college students remind us of what we loved about being in college—and why we’re glad we left it behind. They are also overwhelmingly about sex—either, as in The Harrad Experiment and Three in the Attic, improbably euphoric fantasies, or, more often, fumbling and sophomoric confessionals. Many are written by authors just barely out of college, clever enough to write something publishable but not yet old enough to have gained perspective on the sexual initiations or romantic failures they feel compelled to broadcast to the world. That’s why at least two major American authors have written campus novels that they later regretted.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was so embarrassed by the silly love tale he anonymously spun in his 1828 first novel, Fanshawe, set on a campus modeled after the Bowdoin College he had attended only a few years before, that he begged his family and friends to dispose of their copies shortly after the book was in print. He heaved a sigh of relief three years later when a warehouse fire destroyed any copies that had gone unsold—and that was most of them. Yet Fanshawe is worth reading if only because it is, by my reckoning, the first American campus novel, and quite possibly the first on either side of the Atlantic. Showalter awards her “first” to Trollope’s 1857 Barchester Towers, while conceding that this “ur-narrative of academic politics” is really “about the bickering of provincial Anglican clergy.”

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.

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