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.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.