The Magazine

THE END OF THE ACADEMIC NOVEL

Aug 4, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 46 • By J. BOTTUM
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Richard Russo

 

Straight Man

 

Random House, 391 pp., $ 25

 

Jon Hassler

 

The Dean's List

 

Ballantine Books, 416 pp., $ 24


Two of America's most interesting novelists have recently produced books about the academic life: Richard Russo, author of the well-received working- class story Nobody's Fool, and Jon Hassler, author of the utterly charming Staggerford trilogy about a Minnesota schoolteacher's long- distance friendship with an Irish priest. In their competent and professional hands, the academic novel proves unexceptionable: funny where it can be, dramatic where it must be, clever, smooth, well constructed -- and such old, old news that even writers as capable as these two can find nothing new to say with it.


In Straight Man, Russo tells the story of William Henry Devereaux Jr. -- chairman of English at a Pennsylvania college and son of a famous literary critic -- who in the midst of various personal and professional difficulties announces on national television his desperate intention to kill a goose per day from the campus pond until his department gets its funding.


In The Dean's List, Hassler tells the story of Leland Edwards -- the hero of the earlier Rookery Blues, now the 58-year-old dean of his small school in Minnesota -- who tries desperately to shelter a visiting Robert Frost-like poet from his publishers, his fans, and the Internal Revenue Service.


The most significant thing about these books is something their authors could not possibly have intended: They reveal how utterly worn-out the academic novel has become in less than 50 years' time.


The notion of writing a novel entirely about university faculty never occurred to anyone before 1950. When it did appear, however, the idea seemed to dawn on everyone all at once, and the '50s and early '60s saw a spate of stories about academic life. For most of us today, Kingsley Amis's 1954 comedy Lucky Jim surrives as a classic in a way that C. P. Snow's 1951 drama The Masters does not, but what impressed readers at the time of their publication was how fresh the university setting of both these British novels seemed. And in America -- with the rapid publication of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin and Pale Fire, Bernard Malamud's A New Life, and, best of all, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution -- a new genre seemed to have suddenly leapt forth full-grown.


In the 1960s and early '70s, the genre died down a bit, with significant publication only of John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, an allegory that portrays life as attendance at an American college (running from enrollment to graduation, with the constant danger of flunking out along the way), and Simon Raven's dyspeptic denunciation of rebellious British students in Places Where They Sing. But the academic novel roared back in the mid- '70s with four small classics: Tom Sharpe's brutal satire Porterhouse Blue; Malcolm Bradbury's anti-Marxist farce The History Man; Alison Lurie's leftist Vietnamera fable The War Between the Tates; and David Lodge's light-hearted comedy about Englishmen in America and Americans in England, Changing Places.


In the last two decades, the flow of academic novels has turned into a torrent, written mostly by actual academics as the rise of writing programs turned most of America's writers into college professors and the mockable turns of contemporary academia persuaded most of America's college professors to try their hands at satirical novels. But the humor of the revived genre became much more bitter. With some exceptions, the academic novels of the 1980s and '90s are caustic tales of unhappy people at work in an unfulfilling and unremunerative profession. Such works as Howard Jacobson's Coming From Behind (a British recasting of the typically American tale of the Jewish academic), David Benedictus's Floating Down to Camelot, Andrew Davies's A Very Peculiar Practice, and Jane Smiley's surprise 1996 bestseller Moo, are all marvelously telling books taken by themselves. Their combined effect, however, is to deplete the satirical possibilities of scholastic political correctness and find only pointlessness in the academic life. And in the much less enjoyable books that try to satirize or illustrate postmodem critical theory by playing postmodern narrative tricks -- David Caute's The Women's Hour, Christine Brooke-Rose's Textermination, and John L'Heureux's The Handmaid of Desire -- we encounter a cumulative denunciation of the entire life of the mind.


The British form of the academic novel has always tended to the traditionalist complaint of a lost collegiate Eden (as in C. S. Lewis's use of Cambridge for his science-fiction fantasy That Hideous Strength), while the American form tends more to the radical charge of an old-fashioned institution undone by its corrupt ways (as in Amanda Cross's Harvard setting for her feminist mystery Death in a Tenured Position). But the most curious thing about the entire contemporary genre is that it is produced exclusively by college professors who, whether from the right or the left, attack the intellectual world with a remorselessness and irony never seen before.


To some extent, the modern academic novel simply takes tropes and stock figures from the very beginnings of Western literature and places them on the contemporary college campus. The absent-minded professor and the stuffy pedant were comic staples before the birth of Christ. There was a reason Aristophanes gave his play about Socrates and the schools of Athens the title The Clouds: The oldest known anecdote of a Greek philosopher tells of a serving maid laughing as Thales fell into the pit beneath his feet while contemplating the stars above his head.


And as for stuffy pedantry: Dionysius, Tyrant of Syracuse, sold Plato into slavery, so the legend goes, rather than listen to his lectures anymore. One reason for young Alexander's leaving Macedonia to conquer the world may have been to escape his tutor Aristotle's endless ramblings about virtue, biology, and the metaphysical interconnectedness of formal and final causes.


Later, the absent-minded professor crossbred with the Faust legend to spawn the mad scientist who in his obsession never bothers to consider the consequences of his work. The stuffy pedant ripened into the petty intellectual, with his perpetual hypocrisy of high ideas and low behavior. And at least since Plato's students trooped off to Syracuse to overthrow Dionysius' son, armed apparently only with a knowledge of advanced geometry and their teacher's Theory of the Forms, there has existed the trope of the well-educated student ill prepared by his professors for real life.


The medieval and Renaissance university had its share of satirical critics, some of whom like Erasmus in his Praise of Folly -- were academic insiders. But except in learning and firsthand experience, their lampoons are not much distinguishable from, for example, the non-academic Shakespeare's lighthearted mockery of bookish intellectuals in Love's Labours Lost.


According to the scholar Alan Nelson, there was a tradition of internal farces at the British universities from 1510 to 1639, comprising such now deservedly unremembered plays as Thomas Mudde's Comedy Satirizing the Mayor of Cambridge, Thomas Randolphe's The Drinking Academy, and the anonymous Return from Parnassus and A Christmas Messe. But they were apparently performed as part of initiation ceremonies, typically written by, for, and mostly about the students rather than their professors. By the 18th century, with such works as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Tobias Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, the university had become in fiction little more than a conventional satirical stop on the standard picaresque tour.


Even with the 19th-century flowering of the novel, the purpose of the campus and its professors remained primarily the old-fashioned one of providing a background for stories about students. In such dusty Victorian triple-deckers as Joseph Hewlett's Peter Priggins, The College Scout, John Gibson Lockhart's Reginald Dalton: A Story of English University Life, and Cuthbert Bede's Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, An Oxford Freshman, the 18th-century picaresque novel evolved naturally into the tale of a four-year stopover in the growth of a young man.


In part, the appearance of this kind of "undergraduate novel" may reflect the rise in importance of university education, rather than earlier schooling, to Victorian men's careers. Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown at Oxford, the now little-read sequel to Tom Brown's School Days, smoothly follows its hero off the playing fields of Thomas Arnold's Rugby and on to the Varsity. In America, by a similar though later progression, Owen Johnson's fine stories about boarding-school life at the Lawrenceville Academy in The Prodigious Hickey and The Tennessee Shad led easily to his college tale, Stover at Yale. The raft of rowdy undergraduate stories beginning in the 1870s produced, by the first years of the 20th century, such unjustly neglected American comedies as Charles Flandreau's Harvard Episodes and Owen Wister's Philosophy Four -- and one classic, Max Beerbohm's 1911 Zuleika Dobson, with its account of an entire Oxbridge class of English undergraduates parading down to the river to drown themselves in despair over the inaccessible beauty Of the novel's heroine.


The importance of British university faculty found some recognition in the Anglican "Oxford Movement" novels from J. A. Froude's The Nemesis of Faith to Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere (perhaps the bestselling novel of the Victorian age). But the closest 19th-century equivalent to the modern academic tale may be less the open campuses of the undergraduate novel than the confined cathedral closes of bishops, deans, and archdeacons in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, and the claustrophobic world of London's intellectual journalists in George Gissing's New Grub Street -- each the site of actual grown-ups fighting in very tight spaces for very small rewards.


For the most part, mystery writers were the first -- even before Amis, Snow, and the rest of the 1950s authors -- to notice the uses to which the narrow college settings and welldefined faculty formalities could be put: Dorothy Sayers published her one college mystery, Gaudy Night, in 1936; and J. I. M. Stewart, author of over 20 campus mysteries, produced under the pseudonym " Michael Innes" his archetypal Death at the President's Lodging in 1936.


Though the faculty murder mystery remains a recognizable publishing category, little real distinction between it and the mainstream academic novel now remains. With the increased respectability of mystery writing, and especially with the increased brutality of the academic novel after its revival in the mid-1970s, the various subgenres have all blurred together, and even such comic British redbrick-university tales as Tom Sharpe's Wilt can now include murders, while such mysteries as the British traditionalist Jocelyn Davey's Murder in Paradise and the American feminist Susan Kenney's Graves in Academe contain what is at least intended as serious social criticism.


It's difficult to say quite why the modern academic novel -- essentially, the story of squabbling college teachers -- emerged so suddenly from this stew of schoolboy stories, undergraduate novels, murder mysteries, ancient legends of pedants and bookworms, chronicles of cathedral closes, and tales of journalistic struggles. It may derive from little more than the growing presence of faculty women and the aging in fiction of legitimate sexual desire that no longer requires love stories to be about 19-year-olds.


Or it may originate simply in the 20th-century rise of a middleclass professoriate to perform that most middle-class of activities, the writing of novels. Certainly it owes a great deal to the growth of the universities after World War II and the increase in both faculty and graduates as interested audiences. It may even have something to do with the acceptance of fiction and critical theory as proper subjects for university scholarship and the consequent development of the novel that refers back to the study of other novels. (Though it's hard now to remember, there was a time when fiction was thought by serious scholars to be as inappropriate a subject for a college curriculum as, say, movies and television programs were until recently.)


Perhaps the most important cause of the academic novel, however, is the appearance of writers in professional writing programs. It was for a reason that McCarthy, Nabokov, and Jarrell began to write their scholastic stories at the same time that they began making semester-long star appearances on college campuses. In the case of Richard Russo's Straight Man and Jon Hassler's The Dean's List, the result is entirely destructive: a pair of engaging novelists-turned-writingprofessors who have used up their old stock of experiences and observations and now have nothing left to write about but their own collegiate lives.


The ancient gibes at intellectuals have at least this much truth in them: It is dangerous to leave anything entirely in the hands of academics. In 1713, J. B. Mencken wrote The Charlatanry of the Learned, a pair of commencement addresses at Leipzig that let the graduating students in on faculty humor, cataloging the funny stories professors tell about themselves.


As his descendant H. L. Mencken pointed out when he prepared a new edition in the 1930s, the little book became an instance of its own joke as generation after generation of scholars overwhelmed the text with scholia, squeezing into footnotes all their own favorite anecdotes and quips.


But the hundreds of college professors busily writing since the 1950s have at last played out that mine of academic waggery. And as they became more and more outrageous in their search for something new to say, they brought the entire academic project into disrepute -- scholarship denounced by scholars as trivial, the life of the mind rejected by intellectuals as meaningless, the university faculty proclaimed by the faculty themselves to be hateful.


And so we have come to the end of the academic novel in English. All its plots have grown stale, all its jokes have gone fiat, and all its possible narrative devices have been exhausted in the 400 academic burlesques, melodramas, and murder mysteries published in the last five years -- in the nearly 2,000 published since 1950. The time has come to shut it down.




Contributing editor J. Bottum, our fiction critic, is associate editor of First Things.