While hard at work on his 1954 Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell wrote this letter from Princeton: “Tonight I’m going for three-quarters of an hour to the President’s Reception—which means going in, being introduced, and then talking to my regular acquaintances for three-quarters of an hour: not bad, not good, just University Life. Which reminds me of a sentence of Emerson’s: ‘Today I saw two snakes gliding back and forth in the sunlight—not to eat, not for love, just gliding.’”
Pictures adds Jarrell’s own revealingly oblique twist to the idea that there might be something that is “not bad, not good, just University Life.” Most scholars dub Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe (1952) the first campus novel—memorable successors include Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and more recent works such as Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. Randall Jarrell, however—poet extraordinaire, more-than-ordinary critic, and author of one sublime children’s book, The Bat Poet—sent the genre gliding in a different direction altogether.
It does not surprise me that the book’s most significant early praise came from Robert Lowell: “Whatever its fictional oddities, [Pictures] is a unique and serious joke book. How often I’ve met people who keep it by their beds or somewhere handy, and read random pages aloud to lighten their hearts.” It is because Jarrell finds a way to forge the anti-novel promised by the book’s subtitle—A Comedy—that Pictures initially seems no more than a passel of vignettes. Jarrell holds up his book’s own failure—to make a coherent campus plot—as its success. Pictures is a comedy rather than a novel, because it takes comfort in its own incapacity to capture life as it is lived. It is a comedy because it depicts those who think they are capturing life failing at capturing it.
Pictures from an Institution is set at “Benton,” a prosperous and progressive women’s college that embodies both smug American educational triumphalism (“home of the open mind”) and postwar complacency. For long stretches, Jarrell seems to be doing little more than wittily anatomizing a world he knew well, having put in his time at the UT Austin, Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, and the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro).
Endearing institutional characters abound. There is John Whittaker, the child of a sociologist and a relentlessly upbeat do-gooder, who, for years, only growls and draws pictures of snakes. And the benignly cranky Holocaust refugee and 12-tone composer Gottfried Knosperl Rosenbaum: the idea for his alphabetical tribute to Bach (nine instruments starting with B play the first movement, an alphorn and an accordion play the second movement, etc.) came to him when, “De devil soldt me his soul.” Even the fact that Jarrell named the work after a piece of music (Mussorgsky’s 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition, itself a work about paintings, the most static of art forms) hints at Jarrell’s resistance to the ordinary demands of novelistic sequence: that chapters should build on one another, that characters should grow, fall in love, maybe even die. The kaleidoscopic nature of Jarrell’s impressions is clear from page one. It is a little harder to see that these flecks and shards, these moments of local color, cohere into a mosaic.
The book’s action, such as it is, begins when sharp-tongued (and sharper-eyed) satirist Gertrude Johnson arrives at Benton to write an excoriating, take-no-prisoners campus novel. Gertrude is based on none other than Mary McCarthy, and it soon becomes clear that Pictures from an Institution takes aim at the homogenizing logic, the cynical uniformity, of McCarthy’s Groves of Academe. As Jarrell tells it, Gertrude’s novel errs when it depicts Benton as a place exactly like anywhere else: “The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine. But to Gertrude this proved that a prayer-wheel is a turbine … Gertrude felt about Benton: ‘It’s a place like any other.’ But like so many places, it wasn’t.”
If Jarrell’s comedy has a credo, it is this. Not only is this place unlike others, it is actually like those other places in the most crucial respect: its incomparability. To see the campus as just like other places in being unlike other places may sound like a passé form of provincialism. In Jarrell’s hands, however, it sometimes becomes something more. If Jarrell rejects the logic of uniformity—same old damned plot—he also rejects the logic of exceptionalism, the self-congratulatory “open mind” mantra that depicts the college as light unto the nation. This leaves Benton neither exactly nowhere nor exactly anywhere.
Jarrell’s strategy is refusal: refusal to admit sameness, refusal to allow things to happen, and, finally, refusal to categorize or to define.
If you believe Northrop Frye (striking how many people still do, at least on this point), calling something a comedy virtually guarantees a happy outcome characterized by heteronormative, wedded bliss: trouble, action, resolution, triumphant coupling. Jarrell’s anti-novel, though, defines comedy as something else altogether. In Pictures, marriages—which are what the girls at Benton are manifestly being trained for, in that creepy Eisenhower-era way—are the deadly outcomes of life beyond Benton.
Suburban Stepfordization is the conformity that a campus, even one that prizes “adjustment to the environment” above all, may manage to forestall, at least temporarily. At Benton even Hannah Arendt (Jarrell’s great and good friend, lovingly depicted in the novel as the saturnine musician Irene Rosenbaum) is willing to trade action for a kind of contemplative stillness that is anything but static. “The people of Benton, like the rest of us, were born, fell in love, married and died, lay sleepless all night, saw the first star of evening and wished upon it, won lotteries and wept for you. But not at Benton.”
Jarrell’s strategy is refusal: refusal to admit sameness, refusal to allow things to happen, and, finally, refusal to categorize or to define. At one point, Gertrude accuses the narrator of defining by ostentation, which is to say giving up on classification: instead of labeling something as an instance of a general category, you just point it out. This is anathema to Gertrude’s artistic credo, but the narrator seizes upon it eagerly: “I felt that a definition by ostentation was almost as good as none.” See no similarities, recount no actions, never categorize.
Jarrell suggests that writing a novel about a university is itself a form of university work. However, his more telling point—underscored in the anatomy of Gertrude’s campus novel—is that the campus novel is doomed to the same structural limitations as that other kind of campus work undertaken by those more visibly scholastic types, the sociologists and anthropologists. Like those other residents of academe, campus novelists (Gertrude, or Mary McCarthy, or even Jarrell) pride themselves on neatly classifying other humans but cannot actually see themselves whole. Their very sense of purpose, their collegiate zeal, is what blinds them.
One of the book’s most memorable passages describes Gertrude (like Satan in the Book of Job), “going to and fro in Benton, and … walking up and down in it.” Pictures from an Institution counters walking up and down with gliding: striving to be out for nothing.
However, Jarrell’s campus novel is a razor with the power to cut its wielder. Even the most innocent gliding also entails going to and fro—even the simplest kind of ostentation involves an act of judgment. Early in the novel the narrator mocks the artistic pretensions of a Benton sculptor whose welding is expert but whose artistic philosophy is banal. As the novel concludes, though, he drops in on her studio again, and finds her contemplating her latest work. With a shock, he realizes how wrong he had been to sum her up in a witty one-liner, and then move along. He looks at what she’s wrought—a railroad tie burnt and welded so it looks like a man of rust and iron speeding forward—and finds his description faltering, growing imprecise: “There was about him a sinister and conclusive peace.”
That imprecision, and that horrified sense of the initial error, is precisely Jarrell’s point. What the reader mainly gathers is that this artwork “was more different from her others than you would have believed possible—how could I ever again be sure what you could believe possible?” The art of fiction here is not so much to conceal art as it is to reveal its own incapacity to reveal that art. In this gentle joke book that is also something more, Jarrell concludes by pointing to the telling gap that remains between analytical description and anything worth describing.