Faculty Towers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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...

(The entire section is 1834 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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.