The Magazine

Civilization and Its Malcontents

Or, why are academics so unhappy?

May 9, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The feminism in Faculty Towers is generally no more than a tic, which the book's author by now probably cannot really control, and after a while one gets used to it, without missing it when it fails to show up. The only place Showalter's feminism seriously gets in the way, in my view, is in her judgments of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (a forgettable--and now quite properly forgotten--novel that she rates too highly) and Randall Jarrell's wickedly amusing Pictures from an Institution (which she attempts, intemperately, to squash). The two misjudgments happen to be nicely connected: the most menacing character in Jarrell's novel, Gertrude Johnson, is based on Mary McCarthy, who may well be one of Showalter's personal heroines, of whom Jarrell has one of his characters remark: "She may be a mediocre novelist but you've got to admit that she's a wonderful liar." Sounds right to me.

Being with the show has doubtless clouded Showalter's judgment of Pictures from an Institution, which contains, among several withering criticisms of university life, a marvelously prophetic description of the kind of perfectly characterless man who will eventually--that is to say, now, in our day--rise to the presidencies of universities all over the country. Cozening, smarmy, confidently boring, an appeaser of all and offender of none, "idiot savants of success" (Jarrell's perfect phrase), not really quite human but, like President Dwight Robbins of the novel's Benton College, men (and some women) with a gift for "seeming human"--in short, the kind of person the faculty of Harvard is currently hoping to turn the detoxed Lawrence Summers into if they can't succeed in firing him straightaway for his basic mistake in thinking that they actually believe in free speech.

C.P. Snow's The Masters, is a novel about the intramural political alignments involved in finding the right man to replace the dying master of a Cambridge college. In this novel, the worthiness of the university and the significance of the scholars and scientists contending for the job are not questioned; the conflict is between contending but serious points of view: scientific and humanistic, the school of cool progress versus that of warm tradition. In 1951, the university still seemed an altogether admirable place, professors serious and significant. Or so it seemed in the 1950s to those of us for whom going to college was not yet an automatic but still felt to be a privileged choice.

One might think that the late 1960s blew such notions completely out of the water. It did, but not before Kingsley Amis, in Lucky Jim (1954), which Showalter rightly calls "the funniest academic satire of the century," first loosed the torpedoes. In Lucky Jim, the setting is a provincial English university and the dominant spirit is one of pomposity, nicely reinforced by cheap-shot one-upmanship and intellectual fraudulence. Jim Dixon, the novel's eponymous hero, striving to become a regular member of the history faculty, is at work on an article titled "The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485," a perfect example of fake scholarship in which, as he recognizes, "pseudo light" is cast upon "false problems." Amis puts Dixon through every hell of social embarrassment and comic awkwardness, but the reason Jim is lucky, one might tend to forget in all the laughter, is that in the end he escapes the university and thus a life of intellectual fraudulence and spiritual aridity.

Amis's hero is a medieval historian, but the preponderance of academic novels are set in English departments. The reason for this can be found in universities choosing to ignore a remark made by the linguist Roman Jakobson, who, when it was proposed to the Harvard faculty to hire Vladimir Nabokov, said that the zoology department does not hire an elephant, one of the objects of its study, so why should an English department hire a contemporary writer, also best left as an object of study? Jakobson is usually mocked for having made that remark, but he was probably correct: better to study writers than hire them. To hire a novelist for a university teaching job is turning the fox loose in the hen house. The result--no surprise here--has been feathers everywhere.