Universities

Universities

I am reading Mary McCarthy’s 1951 novel The Groves of Academe. It is a marvelous satire on university politics and pretensions, centering on one Henry Mulcahy, unjustly fired from his post. What is astonishing is how little things have changed in the interim, except for the worse. There is the rogues’ gallery of credulous clowns (her phrase), arid deceptive administrators, callow students, creepy careerists, the constitutionally corrupt, nasty pieces of work, bookish buffoons, and ideological idiots. Mulcahy has done nothing wrong, but that makes very little difference once doubts have been sown. Friends flee, students turn, presidents politicize—the usual parade of human viciousness. No one seems immune from hysteria and dubitation (a word the author introduced me to). The book is startlingly well written, funny, gimlet-eyed, and generally spot on. There is even some philosophy in it. I haven’t reached the end yet, but I will be interested to hear the fate of this hapless and well-meaning (if eccentric) man. Of course, the story is steeped in American psychopathologies. A book for our time—perhaps for all time.

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  1. Henry Cohen
    Henry Cohen says:

    Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” features a professor in a comparable situation. I am going to quote a favorite passage from it — my favorite in all of Roth’s work — even though it does not relate to the professor. The novel came out in 2000, soon after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

    “In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band … all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman’s ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again.” (p. 2)

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