“I have been a character in academic fiction at least twice,” Elaine Showalter writes, “once a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, dumpy, judgmental frump. I hope I am not too easily identified in either of these guises . . . although I can tell you that I preferred being cast as the luscious Concord grape to my role as the withered prune.”
In the days before there were handbooks, self-help guides or advice columns for graduate students and junior faculty, there were academic novels teaching us how a proper professor should speak, behave, dress, think, write, love and (more than occasionally) solve murders. If many of these books are wildly funny, others paint pictures of failure and pain, of lives wasted or destroyed. Like the suburbs, Elaine Showalter notes, the campus can be the site of pastoral refuge. But even ivory towers can be structurally unsound, or at least built with glass ceilings. All is not well in the faculty towers, and the situation has been worsening. In “Faculty Towers,” Showalter takes a personal look at the ways novels about the academy have charted changes in the university and society since 1950.
With her readings of C. P. Snow’s idealized world of Cambridge dons or of the globe-trotting antics of David Lodge’s Morris Zapp, of the sleuthing Kate Fansler in Amanda Cross’s best-selling mystery series or of the recent spate of bitter sexual harassment novels, Showalter holds a mirror up to the world she has inhabited over the course of a distinguished and often controversial career.
Elaine Showalter is a teacher, author and critic whose books include “A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing,” and professor emeritus of English at Princeton University.
—University of Pennsylvania Press
Originally published on February 24, 2005