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.

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: Is It Funny?

AMis lucky jim t100_novels_lucky_jimI chortled as I reread Lucky Jim.

In Kingsley Amis’s brilliant academic satire, a novel I have loved since my college days, the hero, Jim Dixon, teaches medieval history at a provincial university.   He has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, steals a taxi from one of the more genial professors, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, which has the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

How could I not laugh? Kingsley Amis was an “angry young man.”  Jim is an angry young man. Jim’s article is tripe.

I reread Lucky Jim for a peculiar reason: Patricia Meyer Spacks trashed it in her fascinating book, On Rereading.

Spacks on Rereading 41ePBMKeIOL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Spacks’s vigorous, opinionated book is worth a look for the brilliant essay on Jane Austen’s Emma, but her readings of many twentieth-century novels are conservative.  Yes, she likes P. G. Wodehouse, but she dismisses Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as anti-male, hates J. D. Salinger’s classic, Catcher in the Rye, and deems Lucky Jim unfunny.  These three novels all challenge the assumptions of a capitalist society.

I’m wondering if Spacks so disliked Lucky Jim because it ridicules her profession.  She is the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia.

Amis’s entire novel is hysterically funny, but I especially like the scenes at the department chair Professor Welch’s arty weekend. They are expected to sing part-songs and madrigals, read a French play aloud (Jim has an odd accent), and watch a demonstration of sword-dance steps.

Although the other participants sing along jovially, Jim is unhappy.

Dixon ran his eyes along the lines of black dots, which seemed to go up and down a good deal, and was able to assure himself that everyone was going to have to sing all the time.  He’d had a bad setback twenty minutes ago in some Brahms rubbish which began with some ten seconds of unsupported tenor–more accurately, of unsupported Goldsmith, who’d twice dried up in face of a tricky interval and left him opening and shutting his mouth in silence….  Why hadn’t they had the decency to ask him if he wanted to join in, instead of driving him up on to this platform arrangement and forcing sheets of paper into his hand.

Jim escapes to the pub after a quarrel with Welch’s son, Bernard, a pompous artist. He is drunk when he returns.

I  had a similar, though less traumatic, experience as a young woman.  I was invited (I hope kindly) to a sophisticated colleague’s party.  We stood around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  It was a nightmare.

I can’t sing.  I grew up on the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Not a single Gilbert and Sullivan record in the house.  Nope.   I drank three imported beers.  This was frowned upon.  Perhaps those three beers were for the entire party!

Lucky Jim Amis penguin 0002It is not just Amis’s satire of academia that amuses me, but Jim’s alienation of those with control over his teaching contract.  Most of us have had jobs we don’t care for.  I wonder from Spacks’s criticism if we are allowed to admit this anymore.

And then there is the episode of the burnt sheets.

After Jim returns from the pub, he falls asleep while smoking.  When he awakes, he finds  he has burned holes in Mrs. Welch’s sheets, the blanket, the rug, and a table.  He cuts the holes into rectangles.  Despairingly, he shows the damage to Bertrand’s girlfriend, Christine, who laughs as she helps him smuggle the table into a storeroom.

Will Jim’s contract be renewed?

Such a charming, hilarious book!