Under the ivory tower: Labor in the American academic novel 1929--1940

Date of Completion

January 2010


Literature, American|Sociology, Industrial and Labor Relations|Education, Higher




This dissertation examines the representation of academic labor in the American college novel of the 1920s and 30s, with a particular focus on the intersection of the intellectual and proletarian classes depicted in these narratives. Recent attention to the corporatization of the university invites an examination of academic labor from a historical and cultural perspective. The college novel or academic novel, as it has more recently come to be known, offers a compelling vantage point by which to examine the intersection between the intellectual and the proletariat because education is understood as the route to socioeconomic mobility independence and class affiliation. Critical studies in the academic novel generally focus on faculty-centered narratives in which the protagonists are tenured research, professors. Instead, this study discusses novels in which characters are college teachers, undergraduates, and graduate instructors in order to expand the conventional, historical definition of the academic, intellectual class. The college novels chosen for this study include Bess Streeter Aldrich's Miss Bishop (1933), Kathleen Millay's Against the Wall (1929), and George Rippey Stewart's Doctor's Oral (1939). This dissertation argues that narrative representation in these texts either reinforces a schism between manual and intellectual labor or seeks to deconstruct it. The depictions of academic labor contained in these books reflect historical tensions between the intellectual and manual labor classes about the value of each party's work. During the early to mid-twentieth century, misperceptions about the worth of each other's labor prevented alliances between seemingly disparate workers. College novels from the 1920s and 30s foreground academic labor conditions in ways that emphasize failed partnerships between various types of laborers, both in and outside of higher education and which demonstrate that the democratic premise of the higher education is always undermined by the pressures of capitalism. ^