The Magazine


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