Reading the Classics of Academic Literature

Five lofty texts about professors and learning for your summer book list

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

June 05, 2016

Question (from "Selma"): My officemate makes sport of my eagerness to get your annual Academic Novel Reading List. "Summer orgies of reading trash again, eh?" he says. He’s a supercilious old goat who claims that his first language was Latin. Can you give us an academic-novel reading list that will amaze, awe, and shut him up?

Answer How venerable is your colleague? Ms. Mentor starts her ninth annual academic-novel list with The Clouds, a juicy little bauble by Aristophanes — some 2,300 years older than your provocateur.

Ms. Mentor already hears quibblers. Aristophanes was a playwright, not a novelist! But it’s not his fault that the novel form hadn’t yet been invented. Ms. Mentor sees in him the sensibility of an academic novelist. He knew about lazy students, helicopter parents, and the lure of lucre over learning. His characters fight about words. They take turns being buffoons.

But Aristophanes was a genre creator without honor. His academic comedy was a flop, dead last, at its Athenian premiere in 423 BC. Did the audience not get his jokes?

The Clouds has the slacker son, lolling about the house and squandering his inheritance on horseflesh. There’s his despairing father, who decides to send him to school, to the "thinkery" (Phrontisterion) run by Socrates and his disciples ("sophists," or wise ones). Dad’s goal is for the son to argue his way out of paying bills. The Socratic method is born.

Ms. Mentor’s flock will recognize the terrain. The Clouds has allegorical arguments between Just and Unjust Reason — or theorists versus clinicians. The chorus of the play is a lunchtime gossip clique. Meanwhile, Socrates himself flies through the story in a balloon basket, his head in the clouds, philosophizing, whether anyone listens or not. Ms. Mentor recommends reading The Clouds aloud during your Friday-afternoon cocktail-and-complaint sessions. You are part of a glorious tradition: the underappreciated genius.

Academic novels are usually wry and rueful but often produced by the young and callow. Aristophanes was 25 when he wrote The Clouds; Nathaniel Hawthorne was 24 when he published Fanshawe (1828), sometimes called the first American academic novel. His fictional Harley College is a small place noted for its rocks and streams and trees. The students are farm boys, merchants’ sons, and a few "aborigines," but diversity is not one of Hawthorne’s subjects. The students’ great lament is that the housekeepers are not young and pretty.

Like most academic novels, Fanshawe is not about the life of the mind. Its plot is mostly about who will marry the lovely Ellen, the college president’s ward. (She has no intellectual interests — invited to learn a language, she chooses to read a romance instead). The students do write her love poems in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but these produce "no perceptible effect."

Two suitors, though, move her. Edward is handsome, rich, tall, and graceful, despite his "youthful follies" bordering on "occasional derelictions from discipline." Fanshawe, his classmate, is a dedicated, unworldly intellectual, kind but sickly and pale.

Ms. Mentor’s readers should recognize these two: the jock and the nerd. One gets the girl. The other dies young, his tombstone honoring "THE ASHES OF A HARD STUDENT AND A GOOD SCHOLAR."

Hawthorne published Fanshawe anonymously and at his own expense, just three years after his own graduation from Bowdoin College. The book was a failure, and he destroyed most of the copies. Maybe it was too early for academic novels, or maybe anonymous books had to have a different kind of mass appeal. In England that year, an anonymous novel called The Lustful Turk, or Lascivious Scenes From a Harem was much more successful.

Academic novels, as far as Ms. Mentor can determine, were not common in 19th-century America. In England, George Eliot’s dry-as-dust professor Casaubon in Middlemarch was a warning — and may have inspired the absent-minded professor Lorenzo Worthington in Kate Chopin’s At Fault. Both men are grandiose, with their heads in the clouds. Both are better acquainted with Hegel than with their own wives. Middlemarch’s story is tragic; At Fault’s comes closer to farce.

Or maybe professors just make bad husbands.

Meanwhile, what unites academic novels is the students’ lack of interest in education for its own sake. Most 19th-century American college students were socially secure young white men already slated for law, the ministry, or politics. One of Hawthorne’s college classmates was the future president Franklin Pierce, famous for being very handsome and very stupid.

But the first academic novel by an African-American is full of yearning to learn.

The author, Sutton E. Griggs, was the son of slaves, born just seven years after the Civil War. In 1899 he published his Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem (A Novel), when the black audience for literature was tiny. Slaves had not been allowed to read, and when the war ended, there were only half a million free blacks in the United States. Griggs, a Baptist minister, had to write for white people, appealing to a common humanity.

He starts with a poor, illiterate black mother who sews together hand-me-down clothes (the legs don’t match) so that her son will have one whole pair of pants for the newly opened "colored school." Her children are patronized and beaten by the white missionary teachers who’ve set up the school to "uplift" the children of slaves. For graduation, the best students are assigned to speak about the superiority of "the Anglo-Saxon."

Griggs shows the bravery and dedication of those young students and their mothers, a decade before the newly created NAACP rewarded "positive images." He emphasizes the virtue of the young women despite constant threats of sexual abuse. "There is hope for that race or nation that respects the women," he writes. Later in the book, he anticipates Marcus Garvey and Ralph Ellison, but it all starts with a passionate struggle for education.

Ms. Mentor notes that the Morrill Act (1862) created land-grant colleges to promote agriculture. But it took a Second Morrill Act (1890) to make sure that those colleges were open to black students.

A white agriculture student is the title character in John Williams’s Stoner. A Midwesterner born in the 1890s, Stoner has to walk 40 miles to enroll in the local land-grant college, where he’s the first in his family to go beyond elementary school. He’s the equivalent of the immigrants in novels of the 1920s and 1930s — a stranger in a new world of books and learning he doesn’t understand. When he does, he’s estranged forever from his rural roots.

In short, he refuses to major in what his parents wanted him to major in. But Williams’s story of a farm boy who loves literature is poignant, gripping, and beautifully written, with the great joys and desperate sorrows of an academic career.

Stoner marries and stays married, despite a tempting young student, because he has a sense of duty that’s unheard-of today. He also suffers from snake-pit academic politics. A tiff with a boss winds up sentencing Stoner, a published classicist, to teach freshman composition for the last 20 years of his career. Yet the book is also a celebration of the joys of teaching.

Stoner is the one academic novel Ms. Mentor’s readers have consistently recommended every year. She recommends it, too.

The power of memory and the sense of loss are also strong in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, about a gawky Russian émigré who comes to America without any particular academic training and finds himself teaching at a small college, where he’s an odd duck.

He never fits in, is mostly lonely, and his students never cotton to him. His memory is a fascinating palimpsest of the European past and the American present, full of dropped Russian expressions, transliterated but not always translated. Ms. Mentor, who studied Russian as a young duchess and has always been an ostentatious pedant, reveled in reciting the Russian aloud in her ivory tower, to her amazed cats. She cherishes Nabokov’s grandiloquent words, the work of a polyglot in flower. But the character, Professor Pnin, is no longer at home in any language.

Pnin does not live happily ever after. After he gives a dinner party, his first real social success after nine years of isolation, he learns, most cruelly, that he’s going to lose his job. Oh, there are funding issues — but mostly, like most tenure-trackers who aren’t kept, his problem is a matter of fit, or collegiality. He’s not part of the club, and he’s cast out.

Happy endings and happy-go-luckiness are not characteristic of academic novels generally. Or of academic humor in general. Mordant wit, yes, but not unbridled whooping and wheeing. Professors demand dignity.

And perhaps that’s what Selma’s officemate objects to. There may be, in our barbarous times, academic novels that are funny, satirical, full of in-jokes and barbed humor that older folks may not "get."

Academic novels may not save you from the humiliation of not getting the joke. Or maybe they will.

Question Will you provide a handy list of this month’s academic novels? And will your next column be about contemporary academic novels full of plotting, posing, noblesse, and snark?

Answer: Yes (see below), and yes.

Sage readers: Here is this month’s shortlist of academic novels for classical tastes:

  • Aristophanes, The Clouds (423 BC)
  • Kate Chopin, At Fault (1890)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)
  • Sutton E. Griggs, Imperium in Imperio (1899)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fanshawe (1828)
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957)
  • John Williams, Stoner (1965)

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants and comments, especially while she prepares her next column, on recent academic novels. She will reveal how the world has changed, and how Socrates has been replaced by four adjuncts.

She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are scrambled, and anonymity is guaranteed. Ms. Mentor won’t tell the world that you’re writing The Academic Novel to End All Academic Novels — until you do it.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is