Are University Towns Paradise? Jude the Obscure, Lucky Jim, The Groves of Academe, and Me

Iowa City

I grew up in Iowa City, a midwestern university town.  Was it Paradise?  Charles R. Frederick Jr., director of the Academic Student Center at Indiana University, thinks so.   In his fascinating essay, “Growing up Mennonite, Growing up Hawkeye,” he describes growing up in Iowa City.  He says,

I often tell my own children that they grew up ‘in Paradise.’  Their version of the place is Bloomington, Indiana. But I was there first; Iowa City was a great place to grow up.

Bloomington, Indiana

I yearned to move to a big city. But, coincidentally, like Frederick, I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, which is leafy, green, lush, and more paradisiacal in terms of climate.  In both towns, there are great libraries, beautiful tree-lined streets, lush gardens, a food co-op, foreign films at the Union, museums, poetry and fiction readings (Borges, Tillie Olsen…), and you didn’t need a car.   I didn’t realize what I had till I left.

But university towns, whether the schools are state-funded or posh, aren’t for every literary hero. I have just reread Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and am musing on how Christminster, the Oxford of Hardy’s novel, did not prove to be Paradise for  Jude.  A stone-mason and an autodidact, he taught himself Greek and Latin.   When he moves to Christminster, he is told he will never be admitted to the university, could not possibly compete with men educated at Eton, and should stick to stone.  And then things go from bad to worse…so bad, so much worse.  His girlfriend, the brilliant, pretty Sue Bridehead, who doesn’t like to have sex, finally leaves her husband, with whom she also did not like to have sex, and commits herself to Jude only after  his wife, Arabella, a voluptuous barmaid, returns from Australia and tries to get him back.  Later, their son, Father Time (yes, really), kills his siblings and commits suicide, because he understands they are a burden to Jude and Sue.  And that’s the end of Jude.

Might I have been a Jude if I hadn’t grown up in Iowa City?  Well, no, I don’t see myself as the heroine of a gloomy novel (not Hardy’s masterpiece, whatever people tell you), but I studied classics, like Jude.  And I climbed a class or two by getting degrees in literature and classics.   So God bless midwestern university towns, and all the loans, grants, and assistantships!

Wouldn’t working at a university be idyllic?  In 20th-century literature, many professor-heroes hate college towns.  In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jim Dixon, who teaches medieval history at a provincial university, has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, gets drunk at parties, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, with the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”   He gets  fired–and that’s a blessing!  You can’t live a good life at a provincial university in Amis’s world.

In Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, a satire of an experimental college during the McCarthy era, the hero, Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar and instructor at a small “progressive” college in Pennsylvania, learns that his contract will not be renewed.  It is not a good time to be a leftist:  he was fired from a university in California because of his radical writings in The Nation.   Hen manipulates his friends to intercede on his behalf:  he says his wife Cathy has a severe heart condition and that any shock could kill her, and he implies that the FBI is out to get him and that Hoar has caved to pressure.   When his friends  learn that Hen has lied (Cathy was ill after her last pregnancy, but isn’t now, and Hen was never a member of the Communist party), the group is furious.  Although Hen  is brilliant and popular, how far must they go to protect him?  (I wrote more about this here.)

Ah, well, university towns are not ideal for everyone.  And since my mother died, I go less often to Iowa City.  My hometown has changed:   the downtown is undergoing a second urban renewal, there is ugly  development south of downtown, but most of the town survives intact, and is still very pretty.   It was a great place to grow up:   bicycling to the quarry to swim, looking at the Jackson Pollack at the art museum, co-writing satires of the classics department with my fellow Greek students, sitting by the river, eating at the  Pagliai’s Pizza, and hiking through Hickory Hill Park.

I had so much fun!

And that’s important, as life goes on.

19 thoughts on “Are University Towns Paradise? Jude the Obscure, Lucky Jim, The Groves of Academe, and Me

  1. The only university town (city) I really have experience of is Leicester, where my kids are (and two of them attended). I like it a lot, and had I the choice I think I would live in a university town for the chance of more culture. There ain’t a lot round here where I live and the local so-called university (a jumped up college) frankly seems to focus more on training people to be nail technicians and the like – yes, really…


  2. I think universities in the U.K. Offer so much less to the locale than they used to. At one time my local university had a thriving extra mural programme which brought in people from all over the city and gave them access to an education they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to obtain. These days it offers a one off community day aimed at children. But other than Oxford and Cambridge cities/towns don’t tend to have grown up around a university here. A lot of institutions have just been dropped down in the middle of an already established conurbation, some of them in multiple buildings spread right across a city centre. The campus university is relatively rare here.


    • How interesting! It’s always a great shame when those extramural programs get cut; some important programs have been eliminated at state universities in the U.S., as they cut budgets and become more business-oriented. The campus is a big part of the university towns I mention, but there are also universities just dropped down in big cities, as you say, and they do fulfill a purpose, though I do not think there is that same sense of campus life..


  3. No, working at a university is no so great, especially if you are a student wife — underpaid and generally condescended to.

    There may be a genre of college-town novels. Alison Lurie wrote some good ones and even Philip Roth did some in Goodbye Columbus and The Human Stain.


    • Oh, dear, I’m sure it IS not great. You’re right about the college-town genre, and thanks for the recommendations. In the two I wrote about, the “heroes” are about to lose their jobs. Maybe that’s a trope in some? though I hardly remember Goodbye Columbus and should reread that one.


  4. I suppose as a man Hardy must’ve looked for some kind of career through his education. He did through his apprenticeship as an architect, which released him from working class life. Like the characters in New Grub Street, there are none or few minor academic positions. So we have to remember 19th century conditions, the perspective of the male. Not that Hardy is not deeply pessimistic in his later books. Not so much the earlier ones.


    • Yes, only the “gentlemen” went to Oxford and Cambridge, so I gather there were no opportunities for Hardy, son of a stonemason. Fortunately he was so brilliant he was able to make his own opportunities as a writer.


  5. I grew up in Elizabethtown, PA, home to Elizabethtown College, a private liberal arts college. I appreciated the culture and the intellectual stimulation the college brought to the town. They had a deal with the local high school whereby students with a certain grade point average could take courses at the college during their senior year in high school. I took courses both semesters and loved it. There were fewer than a dozen students in either class. When I graduated from high school and went to a different, cheaper, bigger college, there were 200 students in my music class. I dropped out after three weeks, never to return to college. My childhood was fairly idyllic, but I haven’t been back to E-town, as we call it, since my parents died. I know it’s changed a lot and I want to remember it as it was in the 1950s and 1960s.


    • What a great relationship between a town and college! I’m sure i would have loved Elizabethtown. I know those big lecture classes at universities can be a headache, and I can see that music would not have been an ideal lecture subject for lectures, so that would have been VERY disappointing.. Yes, going back to the hometown is either like going back through a time warp, or wondering what the hell has happened!

      On Tue, Sep 19, 2017 at 6:57 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:



    • Oh, yes! I read Stoner a few years ago and had forgotten it. He certainly sees his share of academic problems.

      On Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 1:34 PM, mirabile dictu wrote:



  6. As a commuter to university in my undergrad years i didnt really get to experience life in a college town. I was outside looking in. Later on after i started to work, I lived for two years in Normal, IL home of Illinois State University. Living in a college town with money and freedom was the best time of my life to date. It was utter delight and last year going back to see the current configuration of Normal (renovated beyond recognition) was The Horror. Only a few recognizable remnants remained, one being the small apartment house that we lived in. But the atmosphere was sufficient to remind me of the past in a very bittersweet way.


    • It is odd how these college towns change! The neighborhoods remain the same, but downtown changes. I thought it would stay in a time warp, but it has lost its dept. stores, etc., just as if it were a city. It’s all restaurants and bars now downtown, with a few bookstores, but to be honest it’s still as popular, so everyone has adjusted.

      On Thu, Sep 21, 2017 at 7:33 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:



  7. Pingback: Alison Lurie’s Love and Friendship – mirabile dictu

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