Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834
This slim book is partly an intellectual memoir, the author’s reflections on her own past, on the people she has known, discussions she has had, thoughts she has shared about life and literature. Elaine Showalter began her academic career not as a professor but as a faculty wife. This gave her insights into university life that a more conventional career would not have provided. It also contributed to her interests in feminism and in literature illustrating the mores of the academic elite. Twice at least, characters in academic novels have been based on Showalterone a vamp, one a frump. (She prefers to think of herself as the former.)
Half of the work’s subtitle, The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, is slightly misleadingFaculty Towers is not about “the” academic novel but about the ways in which academic novels depict English departmentsShowalter’s specialty. The discontents accurately reflect a half-century of uncomfortable challenges and change. Hers is not the popularly conceived image of a department that examines literature and writing, but insiders will recognize it instantly. Still, Showalter deals gently with her one-time colleagues, much more so than did the novelists.
Academic fiction begins with George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), partly because Eliot is widely considered the first woman to attempt to make a living in the literary profession, partly because a major subplot concerns a young woman’s ambition to share in the scholar’s life, and partly because another character, Mr. Casaubon, is the embodiment of all that is sterile and unattractive in the dedicated and desiccated academic. He is the personification of death in a black robe, a humorless scholar who comes to realize that his life’s work is worth nothing. Realizing the ultimate purposelessness of human existence, Showalter argues, is the scholar’s worst nightmarethat a lifetime of incredible work and self-denial is all vanity, all for nothing, all useless.
Eliot’s model was followed by Willa Cather in The Professor’s House (1925), the protagonist suffering a mental breakdown after life loses its meaning. For Showalter, there is more to a professor’s job than research, writing, and failure: Professors have to teach, sit on committees, counsel students, and negotiate budgets. Moreover, they interact with one another and with specialists at other universities and even on other continents. Showalter attempts to demonstrate that the academic novel illustrates how these various duties have been influenced by intellectual trends since World War II. This book is very much a study of the process of change in higher education over five tumultuous decades.
Showalter’s first chapter is titled “The Fifties: Ivory Towers.” During that decade one could still think of professors living in those proverbial places; at least, one could visualize that image when looking back at the prewar world. C. P. Snow (1905-1980), a writer of that era, produced his novel The Masters (1951) about novelist Anthony Trollope, who in 1857 had written about the internal politics in an Anglican Church, politics which can be easily visualized as the equivalent of Victorian academics seeking preferment. Snow’s story takes place at a small college in 1937 Cambridge, where the impending death of a master set off an ever-so-subtle competition among his thirteen fellows to succeed him. The novel is widely considered the best of its kind. Although Cambridge scholars took pains to assure Showalter that Snow’s plot was purely fictional, personal observations she made on her first visit to Cambridge told her that Snow had been spot-on.
Only three years later, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) broke with the traditions of gloom and self-abasement, providing both parody of the inbred intellectual world and hope for escape. Jim’s revelation was that there was life out there beyond the university, and it included sex! Was a job, a very dull job, worth sacrificing one’s humanity, he asks; was it worth marrying the wrong woman? Could he even get the right woman from her domineering boyfrienda future “great man” at the universityand his influential family? Recognizing that he was in a bizarre situation, Jim began to act bizarrely. The students loved his quirks, but not his colleagues. In the end Jim left the university, properly considering himself a very lucky man indeed.
In contrast, Mary McCarthy saw academic life as utterly normal and the university’s connections to the real world very real. The central plot of her novel The Groves of Academe (1952) involved the communist scare in the 1950’s United States. While many professors had flirted with communism in the 1930’s, inquiries about their current beliefs were taken as a threat to academic freedom. In the present day McCarthy’s book still presents powerful arguments against investigating what is taught in the classroom or discussed at cocktail parties. Political orientations, the role of women in the university, and even the existence of homosexuality drive the story line to the novel’s surprising conclusions.
Showalter ends her discussion of the 1950’s with Snow’s observation of the two culturesscience and the humanitiesfacing one another, uncomprehendingly, in each faculty meeting. Future authors would model their work on Lucky Jim, not The Groves of Academe, choosing satire and irony when treating academe.
Showalter summarizes the 1960’s as “Tribal Towers.” Political protest and ideological rage were surprisingly absent on the campuses described by novelists, though there was anger and frustration aplentyat stuffy patriarchs and bitchy feminists. The men are impotent, and their wives frustratedambitious, frustrated and angry. Universities had grown into mammoth institutions without losing their provincialism, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) had become a hotbed of radicalism. McCarthyism had shifted ground, from politics to the syllabus. The literary canon was challenged by interest groups, but it was not until the 1970’s that anyone could see where this was leading.
The “Glass Towers” of the 1970’s was a fragile institution rather than a fortress, but the innovations in teaching and scholarship made the university an exciting place to work. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975) caught the spirit of the new campus architecture and the new intellectual spaces. Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth is filled with feminism, every leftish idea imaginable, and lots of sex: a Women’s Lib Nude Encounter Group, a Marxist version of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. 1605-1606), and much more. It is a discouraging place, too: vandals deface the buildings, the revolution never comes, the wives lose their respected role in academic society without finding a new one. David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975) is more positive, but barely. Lodge’s protagonist, Morris Zapp, exchanges jobs with a professor in England for a semester. Zappa thinly disguised Stanley Fish, some thinkis an academic hotshot on a Faustian roll, one of the great Jewish characters in a profession now filling with nontraditional arrivistes from the big cities of the United States. With Philip Roth the academic novel begins to merge into the Jewish novel, the outsider trying to make sense of dual identities.
The chapter on the 1980’s, “Feminist Towers,” examines the ultimate outsiders, those who are excluded by virtue of gender. While plenty of women taught at small liberal arts colleges (note the word “taught,” meaning they were therefore not really professors), at the major universities the unspoken rule was, the better the institution, the fewer women on the faculty. Showalter was among the women breaking through the barriers.
The most important academic novel of the 1980’s may be Carolyn Heilbrun’s Death in a Tenured Position (1981). Heilbrun’s protagonist hates Harvard University, its pretensions, and its competitiveness. None of her characters is based on anyone at Harvard, and none has any admirable characteristics, but in higher education, once one has met the narrow range of pompous male professors anywhere, one recognizes them everywhere.
The “Tenured Towers” of the 1990’s are mean-spirited places, battlegrounds of political correctness, affirmative action, the culture wars, and the tragedies of tenure. The marketplace having become a buyer’s paradise, untenured faculty are desperate to find a niche, to curry favor with hiring committees, and somehow land a permanent job at the right kind of place. The MLA is no longer a sexual bacchanal but deadly serious competition. One favorite niche is in critical theory, an arcane and rapidly evolving world disdained by literature.
The ground is thus prepared for the twenty-first century’s “Tragic Towers.” The free sex of the 1960’s gives way to fear of sexual harassment charges or accusations of racism. Such are the central themes of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000). The protagonist, Coleman Silk, a dean of classics at Athena College, asks innocently if two students who have never attended class are “spooks”; the absentees turn out to be black, and the game is on. The controversy contributes to the death of Silk’s wife and to his resignation. He still is given no peacewhere the college leaves off the persecution, the community begins. When Silk takes up with a black cleaning woman, younger than he, a young feminist professor of French leads the attack. If Silk is an unattractive figure, his sexually repressed persecutor makes him positively sympathetic. It is eventually revealed that Silk is himself black but had sought to hide the fact.
Silk may know his ancient literature, but his own meaninglessly tragic fall takes him by surprise. Roth suggests that the world is more complex than anyone imagines, and that anyone who believes that they have figured anyone out is deluded. Roth’s suggestions that Silk, as well as former president Bill Clinton, have been wrongly persecuted are obvious (the “human stain” on White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s silk dress). The day of the seductive student out to destroy her mentor has arrived. The time is ready for Saul Bellow’s fictional portrayal in Ravelstein (2000) of his friend Alan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Morality and Jewishness are the central themes; the setting just happens to be a university. The university has joined the rest of society.
Showalter is not greatly impressed by the typical academic novel. She feels that in it there is too much satire and too little tragedy, too much concern with intellectual fads and petty discrimination, too little that will stand the test of time. In it, students tend to vanishtheir needs cannot compete with the lures of class, race, gender, multiculturalism and diversity. Fictional English professors seem to believe that they are the centers of the universe, or else that spot is occupied by their department or perhaps their university. In any case, theirs is a closed society, and it is not one that an intelligent person would want to spend much time in.
In contrast, Showalter loves university life. It may not be utopia, but there are people dedicated to ideas rather than ideology, to literature rather than just books, to teaching as well as scholarship, and who have friends, spouses, children, and even parents in their lives. It is refreshing that reality comes off better in her book than does its fictional counterpoint.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32
The Boston Globe, March 27, 2005, p. K2.
New Statesman 134, no. 4759 (September 26, 2005): 85.
The Spectator 299, no. 9223 (September 10, 2005): 50.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 16, 2005, p. 24.
The Virginia Quarterly Review 81, no. 4 (Fall, 2005): 291-291.
Weekly Standard 10, no. 32 (May 9, 2005): 35-39.
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