Saturday, July 19, 2008

TheOld College Try

Ten College Novels

College novels and stories set at universities are like class reunions; we are curious to revisit them but nervous about encountering old friends and our old self. Here are ten novels that reunite us with the specter of what we might have been and what we are now.

1. Philosophy 4 by Owen Wister (1901). Set in the Harvard of the late 1880s, this tale of young undergraduates trying to cram for a final exam in philosophy is simultaneously a snapshot of a time where the concept of higher education was locked in battle with career opportunism, and a satire on the last fling before settling down to work in the family business. This is an early work by the man who was later to write The Virginian, the iconic novel of the American West, itself a simultaneous snapshot of a time of romanticism and opportunism.

2. Stover at Yale by Owen Johnson (1911). Not to be outdone by a Harvard novel, Johnson, a Yalie, produced a plot-driven tale of Dink Stover, an athlete/scholar who rises through the rigid ranks of early twentieth century Ivy League social layering, torn between his attractions for the secret society and club life and his genuine desire for a first-class education and service to his alma mater. Stover at Yale ran serially in McClure’s magazine, where an eager public of Yalies and civilians awaited each installment; to this day it is on the shelves at the Yale bookstore.

3. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920). A gifted combination of autobiography, wish fulfillment, and sociology, the narrative tracks Fitzgerald’s alter ego, Amory Blaine, through his career at Princeton, then to the Army during World War I, followed by dismal attempts at securing the success he sought as a writer during the years after the war. Nor was Amory successful in his pursuit of two young women he considered to be the loves of his life, his adventures ending somewhat as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ended, with the protagonist heading into the future, his only companion the confidence in his talent.

4. Stoner by John Williams (1965). A splendid example of a coming-of-age story, the narrative tracks the seeming destiny of William Stoner, a young man from a poor farming family, sent to an agricultural college only to fall so desperately in love with the world of literature that he switches to the state university, where he pursues a doctorate in medieval studies. Virtually ignored when it was published, Stoner has continually attracted the admiration of critics and novelists on both sides of the Atlantic.

5. The War between the Tates by Allison Lurie (1974). Against the subtext background of the Vietnam War, Brian Tate, an academic at a thinly veiled Cornell, married and father of two dreary teen-agers, has begun an affair with a ditsy young graduate student. Tate’s wife, more often than not the protagonist, rebels at the affair, then goes on to become even more rebellious when the graduate student discovers she is pregnant and refuses to consider an abortion.

6. Foolscap, or The Stages of Love by Michael Malone (1991). A bickering university faculty, rivalry for chairmanship of departments, and genius scholars, all menu items for the college novel, strut and fret their quirky moments on the stage of this drama-oriented romp. Drama prof Theo Ryan doesn’t see the implications of his newly written play, but Josh Rexford, America’s most acclaimed playwright does, and in the process turns young Ryan’s life upside down to get a revision done.

7. Moo by Jane Smiley (1995). College-based novels are often the place for satire, given the nature of faculty, students, and administration, all rancorously at one another’s throat, all deliciously tracking on separate agendas. Set in a Midwestern university devoted to the art and science of agriculture, featuring a hog named Earl Butz, we find amid the cow plop and satire an orgy of agricultural and academic chaos, paced as humor must be paced, but not too fast to override well-crafted portraits of the university species.

8. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995). Reaching into his own experiences with a novel that seemed easier to keep adding material to rather than finish it, Chabon has taken Professor Grady Tripp, currently in at over 2600 pages with his second novel, given him as a lover the wife of the college chancellor, added the complication of her being made pregnant by Tripp. Always able to make the implausible leap off the page as perfectly normal, Chabon further adds to Tripp’s woes a cantankerous student who has shot the University Chancellor’s dog and stolen the Chancellor’s prized possession, the jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe on her wedding day to Joe Di Maggio.

9. Straight Man by Richard Russo (1997). A significant Russo theme is family conflict, often demonstrated by a clash of agendas between father and son, a theme brought to the campus of an undistinguished college in Pennsylvania, where Hank Devereaux, nearing fifty, has a job as an English professor he hates, has not been effective as a novelist for a long while, suspects his wife may be having an affair, and is looking at the possibility that he has prostate cancer. Russo, who knows his way around farce, college campuses, and the fuzzy borders between humor and pathos, has engineered a confrontation between Devereaux and his father, the dean of literary critics as well, Devereaux is suspected of having used a golf club to kill a much beloved swan.

10. July, July by Tim O’Brien (2002). Using an ensemble cast for his major characters, O’Brien, famous at this point in his career for his war-based novels, orchestrated a head-on confrontation between the college reunion and middle age. There are few plot twists or surprises, but as the reunion begins and the alums arrive, then interact, there are considerable emotional wrenches along with their consequences.

There are significant others, such as Randall Jarrell’s biting satire Pictures from an Institution, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and John Hassler’s The Dean’s List, each in its way reminding us that the university is an institution of higher yearning. ##

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shelly: that was the perfect bibliography for anyone writing about that rarefied place:
'The Groves of Academe'.PVH