Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Pictures from an Institution is Jarrell’s only novel. He was known primarily as a poet and a literary critic who turned his wicked wit upon any work he deemed inferior. He was prolific—in addition to his poetry, he published four translations (three from German and one from Russian), edited six anthologies (five of fiction and one of modern poetry), and in the last years of his life wrote four children’s books. Pictures from an Institution is very much a novel written by a poet. It is filled with striking metaphors and similes, and dazzling wordplay occurs throughout. The dialogue sparkles with wit; sometimes that wit stings, as when Gertrude, in a belligerent mood, decides to “smoke heads.”

There are several indications, though none is definitive, that writing fiction proved harder for Jarrell than writing poetry. First, he published only one novel in a writing life of approximately thirty years. Second, Jarrell began work on Pictures from an Institution shortly after his year of teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and, despite the fact that the novel is of only moderate length, he required six years to complete it. Third, Jarrell’s fictional technique may fail him at times. The novel is a first-person narrative, and the narrator’s personality is well developed. However, he sometimes describes in great detail scenes at which he was not present and recounts conversations that he could not have overheard. These may represent lapses, or they may simply signify that Jarrell did not feel bound by the strictures of the naturalistic, or even the conventionally realistic, novel.

For a satire written in the 1950’s by a left-leaning author (Jarrell was a Freudian and a Marxist in his thinking and the literary editor of the journal Nation), Pictures from an Institution is remarkably apolitical. It is replete with allusions to literary works, musical compositions, and paintings, but it contains few references to politics, even campus politics. The portrait of Flo Whittaker is that of an ideologue, a study of how the ideologue thinks and responds rather than a study of the ideology itself. Jarrell approaches his work not as a propagandist but as an artist.