Fiction—even genre fiction—carries us into worlds we don’t know. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories bring the imperial London of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries back to life—and make us feel, as nothing else can, the weird brilliance of late Victorian Positivism. John le Carré’s spy novels preserve the post-imperial London of the Sixties and Seventies—and can make the young feel, as few other books can, the strange public numbness of the cold-war era. In some ways, the conventional nature of their plots—which assume that all mysteries will, in the end, be solved, even if justice doesn’t always triumph—makes these stories, at their best, particularly effective at giving the feel of a city or a closed society like the Secret Service.
Long, long ago, in a fresh green world we have lost, writers published “campus novels”—most of which had little in common with the currently best-selling novel by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, The Rule of Four, except their settings. Some of them played the game so straight that they were virtually rigid, and celebrated student culture and its values with what now seems astonishing naiveté. Owen Wister’s mephitically charming Philosophy Four celebrated the high jinks of well-bred undergraduates at the direct expense of greasy immigrant scholarship and culture. Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale followed Dink Stover and his friends as they challenged social conventions. In spite of his outbreaks of independent thought, however, Stover became a campus “big man”—an achievement sealed and celebrated, at Yale, by being tapped for one of the university’s mysterious secret societies.
Stover’s adventures inspired hordes of prep school boys who followed him into the Gothic catacombs of the Ivy League—and generations of immigrant kids born and raised in places very far indeed from Yale. Others—like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and its British inspiration, Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street—tipped their fedoras to mainline student culture but concentrated on characters that needed something the university didn’t quite provide. They portrayed universities as lovely Gothic hothouses, abloom with well-dressed, charming, pink young men, posing elegantly or striving hard. Their heroes usually tried both posing and striving, before they kicked the neat grass clippings of the quads from their feet and pursued their sentimental educations in dirtier, livelier cities.
For all their variety in tone and moral, these books had much in common. All of them centered on Bildung—the formation of a young man’s mind and character. All of them treated scenes of student life as their primary dramas. They relegated dons and deans, quite properly, to the secondary role of minor irritants and very occasional inspirations—something like sand traps on a golf course or flesh-eating monsters in a computer game. All of them, finally, chose a particular type for their hero: a young man who came to college equipped with a certain amount of money, good clothes, and a proper background, but remained just enough of an outsider to make his obsessive and perceptive observation of the college scene seem plausible.
Johnson’s Dink Stover, though a star athlete, came to Yale from Lawrenceville, Princeton’s feeder school. His incurable innocence and decency led him to quit his first Yale club—and survived unscathed through drunken dissipation, confrontations with snotty club loyalists, and scary contact with more lurid evils. His wide eyes took in sins he could never have committed himself. MacKenzie’s Michael Fane, though rich, attractive, and well dressed, was the illegitimate son of a nobleman and came from a London day school, not one of the boarding schools that produced most undergraduates. More unusually, he had already pursued and been pursued in the smoky, flaring streets of London, the modern Babylon. Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine hailed from the Midwest, like his creator, and his origins in the deep dark center of the country made him an eternal moth, irresistibly pulled toward the bright, gracious institutions of the Northeast, and fated to be consumed by them. Handsome and popular, but sensitive, these young men made appropriate heroes for what Fitzgerald called “quest novels,” whose heroes went out in search of a secret, which some identified with the universities themselves, and others eventually found in the dark realms outside.
These novels, especially in their American form, bore the stamp of a period and a culture: the university world at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In those years, American colleges and universities hit the most intense growth spurt they would undergo until the GI Bill and a generation of extraordinary leaders like Kingman Brewster transformed them again after World War II. The old colleges in New England and Ohio had been solid Protestant grubs—brick citadels of plain living and high thinking, dedicated to producing lawyers, ministers, and teachers, and generally committed to a classical curriculum. But now the stars were differently aligned. Out of the grubs crawled Gothic butterflies, bright, variegated creatures sparkling with the new colors of the Gilded Age elite.
In bourgeois societies, as Lionel Trilling noted long ago, money is—or used to be—ashamed of itself. Colleges and universities offered a respected place where malefactors of great wealth could turn their perishable piles of cash into massive lecture halls, libraries, and dormitories, and a fashionable space where the malefactors’ spawn could gain some polish before they began bilking investors or hiring Pinkertons to break strikes. Vast stone buildings, fretted and pinnacled as fancifully as stonemasons imported by the dozen from Italy could make them, sprang from the mud of cities and college towns. Rich boys, climbers, and pretenders moved in, and turned the colleges from seminaries for young professionals into finishing schools for the urban and suburban upper middle class.
The old classical curriculum slowly dissolved and was reformed as a mosaic of departments and elective courses, more suitable than the uncut Greek, Latin, and mathematics of the old colleges to raw youth without professional ambitions. At the same time, a new undergraduate culture took shape, one rich in gaudy traditions invented as rapidly as the Gothic style itself. Student activities—sports, newspapers, laundry agencies, and fraternities—held illimitable dominion over all. The vast stony campuses, grandiose as the government buildings of the British Raj, echoed to the thud of football players in collision, the plunking of mandolins, and the wails of frat pledges undergoing corporal punishment. The college became a lively world unto itself, one that fascinated not only undergraduates and their younger siblings, but also the American public as a whole. National magazines regularly portrayed the colleges, huge crowds attended their football and baseball games, and changes in their curriculum or coaching staff became headline news on the front pages of the big city papers. It all seemed very, very important and very, very exciting. The classic college novels of the 1910s and 1920s gave—and give—a sense of what it felt like to live through this first campus revolution.
Since those innocent years, of course, the American campus has gone through more metamorphoses than Ovid’s demigods. The naively fervent hopes and values of the old campus culture, focused on all-absorbing competition for local offices and goals, withered in the wised-up age of the GI Bill and after. Combat veterans in the Forties and Salinger’s young men and women in the Fifties had little enough in common, but they all knew that the eager, the ambitious, and the sleazily sociable were phonies. Fraternities and sororities suffered in their turn, a few years later, when the generation of the Sixties loudly claimed to choose equality over hierarchy and collectively turned from beer to other intoxicants. In the Eighties and Nineties, the all-white student bodies of the old colleges became multicolored and multicultural, and most of the informal barriers that once protected the campus from the city were battered into rubble by summer internships, the World Wide Web, and the cell phone.
Yet in the fin de siècle and the new dawn we are currently living through, some of the older collegiate institutions have shown unexpected resilience. In an age of public piety, when presidential candidates must pray or be eliminated, religious organizations have burgeoned. A century ago, white male patricians awaited the Call to China. Nowadays multiracial groups of boys and girls in identical T-shirts and baseball caps, many of them Chinese, Japanese, or Korean by descent, sip hot chocolate and sing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” while waiting for the Call to Wall Street. In an age of privilege, fraternities and other private clubs glisten with a new appeal. The fancy cocktail and the fine fillet, the limousine and the dance, the floral display of bright gowns and bare shoulders beside the black-and-white parade of muscular young penguins—these images play as powerful a role in student fantasies now as they did when Fitzgerald lovingly recorded the applause that greeted “her sweet face and my new clothes.” It all makes a rich and puzzling tapestry.
For the last thirty years or so, however, the most prominent campus fiction has been written either by professors or by writers who had put in time on campus running fiction workshops and giving readings. Inspired by that lonely masterpiece of satire that transcends the limits of genre, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and provoked by the harsh debates, glitzy perks, and ghoulish misbehavior of the new professorate, David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, Alison Lurie and Jane Smiley, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, and James Hynes have preserved for posterity a rogue’s gallery of left-wing prigs, Mephistophelean prince-of-darkness theorists, and hapless middle-aged male professors destroyed by desire. These often witty books, many of them not just over the top but down the other side, have been read by a vast public. They have even been translated into European languages, and have inspired some continental imitations, such as the leaden campus novels of Gustav Schwanitz and Thea Dorn’s sprightly Berliner Aufklärung.
By contrast, students’ experiences in this new collegiate world have only recently begun to yield fictional responses. One of the first—and by far the most successful, before this year—was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This eloquent hybrid of the college novel and the thriller, steeped in nostalgia for a world of natural colors, Victorian porch swings, itchy tweeds, and oxford shirts, took a male outsider from California through the parties and pretensions of a rich, progressive small college in New England. The Secret History is marred by more than one cliché or formula. It would take a reader with a heart of stone not to grumble a bit when it turns out that the languid, pretty twin brother and sister from the South engage in incest. But Tartt also devised some elegant innovations. Her main character ends up concentrating exclusively on the classics, working with a small group of fellow students and one charismatic teacher. By focusing to an unusual degree on his academic experiences, she found a way to justify a first-person narrative as allusive, as stuffed with recondite information and literary references, as Fitzgerald and MacKenzie had written in their time. And by turning the central story of this little group into a Gothic tale of secret ritual, murder, and betrayal, she made her book a strong fictional record of a pervasive mood in the contemporary university world.