Pondering Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”

Jottings on Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”


I am loving Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, a comic novel set at Benton College, which is based loosely on Sarah Lawrence College, a progressive college where Jarrell briefly taught. In this rare video, I speak of my impressions of the book.

Here is a little background: Pictures from an Institution is partly a roman à clef, featuring such celebrities as Mary McCarthy, who, in Pictures, is portrayed as Gertrude, a creative writing teacher who turns all experiences into biting satiric novels. Indeed, McCarthy’s brilliant The Groves of Academe, a hilarious satire of Sarah Lawrence College, was published in 1952, two years before Jarrell’s. Was there some rivalry between the two writers?

Worth reading for all who love satires!

6 thoughts on “Pondering Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution””

  1. I’ve read both “Pictures from an Institution” and “The Groves of Academe”, and both are excellent. I believe “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis started the campus novel trend.

    I didn’t care much for Randall Jarrell’s poetry, but the novel was great. Also he was a fine literary critic, and his review of “The Man Who Loved Children” brought that novel and writer back to the limelight.

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    1. Mary McCarthy’s book (1952) precedes Lucky Jim and Pictures from an Institution–both published in 1954. I wonder if we can include Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), and perhaps even Zuleika Dobson (1911). We do think of campus novels starting with Lucky Jim, but curiously there were others.

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      1. You are right! I had always thought ‘Lucky Jim’ was written before ‘The Groves of Academe’, but I was mistaken.
        Evelyn Waugh also had some funny stuff about college in one of his novels, but I can’t remember which one.

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      2. Lucky Jim is the most famous, and was certainly the first I read. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has many charming Oxford scenes. There are quite a few “campus novels”! So much fun to read.

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  2. Waugh’s first novel – “Decline and Fall” – featrures Oxford too.
    There was a long history of campus/university novels (Philip Larkin’s “Jill”, in 1946, must have been one of the first after WWII), going back through Compton MacKenzie and “Mr Verdant Green”. The big difference with “The Groves of Academe” and its successors is the move in emphasis from the students to the teachers. Oddly enough – as with Sayers – it was detective stories rather than conventional novels that featured academics before WWII.

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    1. I vaguely remember “Jill”–true to form, I liked Larkin’s novels almost as much as his poetry. I may or may not have read “Decline and Fall.” Another of my favorite academic satires is Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “Night and Silence Who Is Here?”, in which the 51-year-old playboy hero, Matthew Pryor, finds himself the world’s expert on his friend the poet Dorothy Merlin very small oeuvre, because she nagged him to write a study of it. And so he finds himself a fellow at an American college…

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