Each novelist requires circumstance — a situation to describe, from which a conflict arises — and the ivy-covered college hall or dormitory room provides such context readily. It would take research and, thereafter, expertise to write about a Fortune 500 company or those who built the Cabot Trail; why not invoke old campus adventures instead? That hoary advice to the young author "write about what you know" results in volume after volume about school: All writers have been students, and nowadays a sizable number are teachers, so it seems nearly unavoidable that we write about the golden groves we knew.
It's easy to dismiss "Tom Brown's School Days" or "Stover at Yale," or to make fun — as
In the largest sense, this has been going on since the Socratic dialogues or "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise." Both of them report on an encounter (platonic and/or physical) between the teacher and taught. Virgil led Dante to that point in "The Divine Comedy" where he could relinquish his role as guide; Paolo and Francesca closed their books and "that day read no more." The bildungsroman has always offered a protagonist who comes into increased awareness of selfhood at tale's end; the campus novel in this sense is simply an arena within which to chart growth.
It focuses on institutions, but there have been wandering minstrels and tutors and scholars aplenty who conduct their study outside of campus walls. A figure such as the Rev. Casaubon in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" or Mr. Gradgrind in
More often than not there's a comic aspect to the campus novel. I myself wrote such a story, "Old Scores" (a book based on the love affair of Abelard and Heloise), and it was hard to do so without tongue in cheek. The life of the mind and the life of the body — as every student knows — get easily conflated and, at times, confused.
I want to cite, at slightly greater length, three examples of the genre that were published in the 1960s and seem to me wholly successful:
As suggested above, there are bad books as well that deal with the circumstance of education. The professoriate makes an easy target; so does the undergraduate. Often a writer gets tempted to make intellectual molehills into mountains; lord knows it's easy enough to overstate the cultural significance of freshman year. The risk is that of stereotype and even caricature: the absent-minded professor, the scheming administrator, the idealistic and then disillusioned student — stock figures from English 101. But the college campus is no more and no less fertile a place to situate a story than is, say, a boxing ring or tenement or cattle barn.
The proof is in the telling, not the thing told.
Nicholas Delbanco is the
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The Art of Fielding
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