The Liberal Arts at Blackstock College in Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”

Tam_Lin_by_Pamela_Dean Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a classic.

It is a splendid retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad (you may know Fairport Convention’s version of the song).  It is also an argument for a liberal arts education. This brilliant novel is set at Blackstock College (based on Carleton College) in Minnesota in the 1970s, and chronicles the four years of the heroine Janet Carter’s education.  She is an English major, though her classics professor advisor,  a “demon recruiter,” tries to lure her into classics.  (She does take Greek.)  The classics majors are rumored to be crazy, and indeed, are very strange, especially a group of actors who speak Shakespearean English: “Cry me mercy, lady!”

Why is she an English major?  She explains to one of her roommates:

Look,” said Janet, irritated, “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay your room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”

Janet's favorite poet

Janet’s favorite Romantic poet is loathed by her classics major boyfriend, Nick.

On the internet many lists have been posted of books read by characters in such TV shows as “Mad Men” and  “The Gilmore Girls.” Well, the curriculum at Blackstock College in Dean’s novel is far more interesting.  And so I have compiled a partial list of poems, plays, and novels read by Janet, discussed with her brilliant friends, quoted, and sometimes staged or set to music.

A great liberal arts education!


Herodotus’s The Histories

T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

Homer’s The Iliad

homer iliad 41IJLxMzEGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Homer’s The Odyssey

Raymond Chandler’s mysteries

E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros

I've always meant to read this!

I’ve always meant to read this!

“The Romance of the Rose”

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

Samuel Delany’s Babel-17

Ace F-388 Paperback Original (1966). Cover by Jerome Podwil

Ace F-388 Paperback Original (1966). Cover by Jerome Podwil

Shakespeare (Janet takes two or three Shakespeare classes)

 Hamlet (Janet and three friends attend a production, critique it, and frequently refer to it)

riverside shakespeare il_570xN.182900060The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon  (all Greek students have this)

Matthew Arnold’s On Translating Homer


Keats (Janet’s favorite poet)

Milton’s Paradise Lost (read as science fiction by Janet)

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Thomas Middleton/Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy

A very important play, staged by the classics majors/actors as a revenge in itself

One of the most important plays in this novel, it is staged by the classics majors/actors as a revenge.

Arthur Koestler’s The Watershed

Cyrano de Bergerac (Janet’s boyfriend Nick is writing an opera of it)

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet (Janet hates it; her roommate loves it)

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

Oxford English Dictionary

John Donne

John Donne's Poetry 41eyb8c9O9LThomas Campion

Thomas Wyatt

Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Janet’s boyfriend Nick has set it to music)

Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings

Ballantine lord of the rings tolkein 29tolkien-slide.10Addison


Chase and Phillips (possibly the most horrible Greek I textbook ever)

All of Balzac

Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning

The Lady's Not for Burning Fry 2058Dumas’s D’Artagnan romances

Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

Nancy Drew

Pope’s Dunciad

Pope's dunciadDickens





Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Hardy Tess RO60078264Spenser


Jane Austen’s Emma

emma jane austen penguinSylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

Jane Eyre

Samuel Johnson

James Boswell

Richard Brautigan

Lewis Carroll

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time

L'Engle WrinkleInTimePBA1A complete set of E. Nesbit

Hermann Hesse

C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

tey daughter of time 2 51OOOpRnniL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

10 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts at Blackstock College in Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”

  1. Oh, I so have to get a copy of this book. One of things that you do so much better in the States than we do is the Liberal Arts Degree. There are a few Universities here that offer one but for the most part all the students do is pick various modules from the single honours courses. There is no coordination between the subject matter, no sense of integrated learning.


    • I know it’s different in the UK: tutors and lectures and essays! At least in novels. We all have to justify our liberal arts degrees these days because pragmatism is the main motivator. Very sad: languages dropped, etc. But there are still many excellent universities that don’t pander just to business students.


  2. I’m so glad I came across this! I also love this book and am planning to do a “campus tour” on October 31 as the beginning of Witch Week on my blog. I hope you’ll check it out!

    I majored in English at Carleton College, the basis for Blackstock, and it really was a wonderful liberal arts education — although I confess that I haven’t read ALL of these books.


    • Lory, I will look forward to Witch Week! Tam Lin is such a brilliant novel, and I certainly wish I’d gone to “Blackstock” Ithough my own school was perfectly fine). I majored in classics, so I am fascinated by the crazy classics majors!


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