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Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy
     

Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy

5.0 1
by Randall Jarrell
 
Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women's college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Like his fictional nemesis, Randall Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College - mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against

Overview

Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women's college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Like his fictional nemesis, Randall Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College - mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.

Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
"[An] exquisite, unerring comedy of manners. . . . [P]erhaps the funniest book I have ever read."-Cathleen Schine, New York Review of Books

— Cathleen Schine

New York Times Book Review
"Mr. Jarrell is on the side of the angels. His is a divine meanness, and he exposes his female writing devil punitively, matching her stream of poinsonous wisecracks with a series of coruscating cracks of his own worthy of Dorothy Parker at her most hilarious and deadly."

— Francis Steegmuller,

New York Times
"One of the wittiest books of modern times."

— Orville Prescott

Sunday Telegraph

"[T]he father of the modern campus novel, and the wittiest of them all. Extraordinary to think that 'political correctness' was so deliciously dissected 50 years ago."

— Noel Malcolm

Mary Welp

Move over Dorothy Parker. 'Pictures' . . . is less a novel than a series of poisonous portraits, set pieces, and endlessly quotable put-downs. Read it less for plot than sharp satire, Jarrell's forte."

Michael Wood

“[A] work of fiction, and a dizzying and brilliant work of social and literary criticism. Not only ‘a unique and serious joke-book,’ as Lowell called it, but also a meditation made up of epigrams.”

Robert Penn Warren

“I’m greatly impressed by the real fun, the incisive satire, the closeness of observation, and in the end by a kind of sympathy and human warmth. It’s a remarkable book.”

New York Review of Books - Cathleen Schine
“[An] exquisite, unerring comedy of manners. . . . [P]erhaps the funniest book I have ever read.”

New York Times Book Review - Francis Steegmuller
"Mr. Jarrell is on the side of the angels. His is a divine meanness, and he exposes his female writing devil punitively, matching her stream of poinsonous wisecracks with a series of coruscating cracks of his own worthy of Dorothy Parker at her most hilarious and deadly."
New York Times - Orville Prescott
"One of the wittiest books of modern times."
Sunday Telegraph - Noel Malcolm

"[T]he father of the modern campus novel, and the wittiest of them all. Extraordinary to think that 'political correctness' was so deliciously dissected 50 years ago."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780380496501
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
03/28/1982
Pages:
277

Read an Excerpt

Pictures from an Institution

A Comedy


By Randall Jarrell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1954 Randall Jarrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-39375-9



CHAPTER 1

The President, Mrs., AND Derek Robbins


1.

HALF THE campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Benton had been endowed with one to begin with, and had smiled and sweated and spoken for the other. A visitor looked under black beams, through leaded casements (past apple boughs, past box, past chairs like bath-tubs on broomsticks) to a lawn ornamented with one of the statues of David Smith; in the months since the figure had been put in its place a shrike had deserted for it a neighboring thorn tree, and an archer had skinned her leg against its farthest spike. On the table in the President's waiting-room there were copies of Town and Country, the Journal of the History of Ideas, and a small magazine—a little magazine—that had no name. One walked by a mahogany hat-rack, glanced at the coat of arms on an umbrella-stand, and brushed with one's sleeve something that gave a ghostly tinkle—four or five black and orange ellipsoids, set on grey wires, trembled in the faint breeze of the air-conditioning unit: a mobile. A cloud passed over the sun, and there came trailing from the gymnasium, in maillots and blue jeans, a melancholy procession, four dancers helping to the infirmary a friend who had dislocated her shoulder in the final variation of The Eye of Anguish.

In this office Constance Morgan had been, for a year, the assistant to the secretary of the President; this was her last day.

Her job was like most jobs, except for its surroundings: either she did what she did not want to do, or wished that she had it left to do. By four o'clock there was nothing left. She sat in uneasy content, in easy discontent—she could not tell, for a moment; then she remembered and laughed at herself. She picked an envelope from the top of one pile, put it on the top of another, and took a last last look through the drawers of the desk. Dr. Rosenbaum's old St. Bernard's voice came to her from the tennis courts, and she felt once more the pleasure she always felt at any reminder that he existed; she saved for him St. Augustine's best sentence: I want you to be. Two voices from the President's office—the President's, Gertrude Johnson's—she heard with different feelings; she could not have said exactly what they were.


2.

GERTRUDE JOHNSON was, of course, the novelist; she had come to Benton six and a half months ago, late in the fall, to replace a new teacher of creative writing who had proved unexpectedly unsatisfactory. Gertrude had, as her enemies put it, a hard heart and a sharp tongue, but her heart was softened a little, and her tongue dulled, at her first interview with the President of Benton, Dwight Robbins. He was a nice-looking and informal and unassuming man, a very human one, as he sat there on the edge of his desk, in the winter sunlight of his office; she felt—people could not help feeling as soon as they met President Robbins—as if she had just taken a drink. Everything was blurred a little with attractiveness, and she almost believed, as she did not ordinarily, in Friendship at First Sight. President Robbins wore a simple, grey flannel, undergraduate's suit; his fair hair kept flopping in his face; in spite of once having been a diver in the Olympics, he gave an impression of slightness. He had what novelists used to call "an engaging grin," but it was engaging; one liked the way the skin crinkled around his eyes. Gertrude tried to think of a word for him, and did: the word was boyish.

The President, for his part, saw a short slight woman who was from head to foot, except for her pale blue eyes, a pale, pale, almost wholly unsaturated brown. Her lips were painted a purplish maroon; she had put on no other make-up. She wore her hair more or less as our mothers wore it; her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished. Then one noticed that she had an obstinate Irish—or, perhaps, an obstinate apish—upper lip. Her face seemed a ground on which anything could figure: one felt that when she wore new earrings her husband, the children in the street, and the blind beggar on the corner would congratulate her on them. This is what you saw. Yet when you knew her how different it all looked; Gertrude's spirit shone through her body as though the body were an old pane of glass, and you thought, "My God, how could I have been so blind!"

They talked a little (Gertrude in her anomalous Southern speech, President Robbins in Standard American) about the job he was offering her. The salary was not what either would have wished it, but he explained why it couldn't be in a way that was new to her: his married alumnae either died before their husbands, who left money to their own colleges, or else on their husband's deaths left money to the husbands' colleges as memorials; and his unmarried alumnae left their money to cats and dogs and causes. Gertrude and the President laughed. Gertrude had not met a great many college presidents, but she knew from fiction, conversation, and Reason what all of them are like; President Robbins was different.

The job seemed unusually undemanding: one taught classes only twice a week, and did the rest of one's work in individual talks or "conferences" with the students. Gertrude smiled and said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than talk." It was true.

President Robbins laughed—he admired frankness—and said heartily: "Good! Then Benton is certainly the place for you." They both sounded a little too hearty, but they knew that one necessarily sounds that way in such circumstances: who comments on the weather with all the lack of interest that he really feels?

Gertrude was, as novelists say, "between novels"; she had taught writing once at an old-fashioned, high-schoolish college in Missouri, and knew that after it Benton would be a breeze. The President seemed to feel—several sentences implied it—that she would be a great acquisition to Benton; this was so, of course, but she was pleased that he both knew it and showed that he knew it. They arranged everything: President Robbins took her back to the station in one of the school's cars, and they had a drink on the way; late that week Gertrude and her husband found an apartment in Mount Pleasant, the little city that Benton lay at the edge of, and on Monday of the next week—a snowy Monday—Gertrude taught her first class at Benton.

Now she had taught her last class there, thank God! Suffused in summer, blind with bliss, she sat saying goodbye to President Robbins; and President Robbins, blind with bliss, sat saying goodbye to Gertrude Johnson. Constance, in the office outside, could not help hearing every word of their somewhat self-conscious, wholly delighting voices; they both sounded a little hearty, but they knew that one necessarily sounds that way in such circumstances.


3.

GERTRUDE and the President's Friendship at First Sight had lasted only until they took a second look at each other. After this look Gertrude no longer felt as if she had just taken a drink, but felt as if she had a long time ago taken a great many: that look awoke both of them from their amicable slumbers.

What a pity it was that that party had ever been given!—the party that brought with it their first terrible quarrel, a quarrel that ended their friendship after eleven days. Without the party, they both felt bitterly, it might have lasted for weeks. One could not help blaming Gertrude a little more than one blamed the President; the President, like most people, behaved in a different way after he had had a great deal to drink, but Gertrude, knowing no other, behaved as she always behaved. But the drinks at the party, the almost unavoidable intimacies at the party, what they had said and what Mrs. Robbins had said and what people had said they all of them had said at the party—these, the memory of these, made Gertrude and the President look narrowly at each other, and their eyes widened at what they saw. George looked at the dragon and thought, Why, that woman's a dragon; and the dragon looked at George and thought, That's no man, that's an institution.

The word had come to Gertrude at the party, when she had found herself reflecting, "This institution's drunk." For days after the party the President felt, Another such party and we are lost—his ordinary disorderly executive existence had not prepared him for Life; Gertrude felt, yawning, Another party. It was one more pearl on the string of her existence, and she had come here to string pearls; when the pearls gave out, she knew, Godfather Death would come and cart her away.

But Dwight Robbins; President Robbins, that is; the President, that is—the President interested Gertrude. She realized, suddenly, that she was no longer between novels. She looked at the President as a weary, way-worn diamond-prospector looks at a vein of blue volcanic clay; she said to herself, rather coarsely—Gertrude was nothing if not coarse: "Why, girl, that Rift's loaded." How can we expect novelists to be moral, when their trade forces them to treat every end they meet as no more than an imperfect means to a novel? The President was such invaluable material that Gertrude walked around and around him rubbing up and down against his legs, looking affectionately into the dish of nice fresh mackerel he wore instead of a face; and the dish looked back, uneasy, unsuspecting.

Mrs. Robbins, the Robbins' little boy Derek, the Robbins' two big Afghans: these and Benton—and Benton!—interested Gertrude too. Derek and the Afghans didn't really, except as properties: Gertrude thought children and dogs overrated, and used to say that you loved them so much only when you didn't love people as much as you should. As much as you should had a haunting overtone of as much as I do—an overtone, alas! too high for human ears. But bats heard it and knew, alone among living beings, that Gertrude loved.

If you loved people as much as you should, Gertrude told you that you should not "extend to or expect from created things the love that belongs to their Creator." Gertrude's wheel was fixed, everybody soon found; and yet most of us, fools that we are, could not resist going back to play at it.

Gertrude thought Europe overrated, too; she voyaged there, voyaged back, and told her friends; they listened, awed, uneasy somehow. She had a wonderful theory that Europeans are mere children to us Americans, who are the oldest of men—why I once knew: because our political institutions are older, or because Europeans skipped some stage of their development, or because Gertrude was an American—I forget. She would have come from Paradise and complained to God that the apple wasn't a Winesap at all, but a great big pulpy Washington Delicious; and after the Ark she would have said that there had not been the animals, the spring rains, and the nice long ocean-voyage the prospectus from the travel-agency had led her to expect—and that she had been most disappointed at not finding on Mount Ararat Prometheus.

Age could not wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony: in fact, neither Age nor Custom could do anything (as they said, their voices rising) with the American novelist Gertrude Johnson.


4.

IF GERTRUDE had asked Dwight Robbins what two times three is, he would have hesitated a fraction of a second and then spontaneously replied—or rather, would have replied with charming spontaneity, with a kind of willing and unconsidered generosity, of disinterested absorption in her problem—

What did it matter what he would have said? You could always find it worked out in percentages in the monthly poll of public opinion in Fortune, back under the heading Opinions of Liberal Presidents of Liberal Arts Colleges. He loved to say to you, putting himself into your hands: "I know I'm sticking my neck out, but...." How ridiculous! President Robbins had no neck.

From The Wealth of Nations one learns that the interest of each is, in the end, the good of all; if one observed President Robbins one saw that the good of all is, in the beginning, the interest of each. We have read in the Gospels that the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light; but both, when they choose between God and the world, are stupider than those who know that we do not need to choose. President Robbins had no complaints about this Paradise, the world. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Tree of Life, he knew; and President Robbins lay sleeping in its branches, his parted lips smelling pleasantly of apples.

About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the President of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs and lo! the two were one. (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers—that gives, even, the typographical errors in the back of the book.) President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.

Had it not been for Mrs. Robbins, President Robbins' life would have been explicable down to the last detail, and he himself the only existing human representation of the Theory of Perfect Competition: as one looked at him one could not help thinking of all the marginal producers who because of him must have been forced out of living or what ever it was they did. But why had he married Mrs. Robbins? It was a question to which there could not be an answer. Marianne Moore has said: We prove, we do not explain our births; and this is true of marriages.


5.

PEOPLE DID not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry. She was a South African—not a native, not a Boer, a colonial. She had been a scholar once, and talked somewhat ostentatiously of her work, which she tried to keep up. To judge from her speech, she was compiling a Dictionary of Un-American English: if lifts and trams ever invade the North American continent, Pamela Robbins is the woman to lead them. Often, when you have met a true Englishwoman—the false ones are sometimes delightful—you feel that God himself could go no further, that way. Mrs. Robbins existed to show what he could do if he tried.

For Mrs. Robbins understanding anybody, having a fellow-feeling for anybody, admitting anybody else exists, were incomprehensible vices of Americans, Negroes, continentals, cats, dogs, carrots. She was "half British phlegm and half perfidious Albion," according to Gertrude Johnson, who loved to refer to Pamela as the Black Man's Burden; any future work on Mrs. Robbins will have to be based on Gertrude's. This half ... half formula was Gertrude's favorite. She said that the President was "half jeune fille, half faux bonhomme." I hadn't liked her formula for Pamela, so I accepted her description of the President with bored matter-of-factness, as if she'd told me that he was half H2 and half SO4; but then I thought, "It's so; it's so." Sometimes Gertrude was witty without even lying.

For Mrs. Robbins life was the war of one against all; in this she was another Gertrude, a commonplace, conventional, jointed-hardwood Gertrude. (Yet her conception of this war was that of a Hessian prince of the eighteenth century, while Gertrude's was that of the director of some War of the Future, a war in which the inhabitants of the enemy country wake up one morning to find that they have all been dead a week.) Mrs. Robbins asked: "If I am not for myself, who then is for me?"—and she was for herself so passionately that the other people in the world decided that they were not going to let Pamela Robbins beat them at her own game, and stopped playing.

Once Mrs. Robbins had a long and, in its later stages, surprisingly acrimonious argument with several of her guests (to Americans English manners are far more frightening than none at all) about a book of Evelyn Waugh's called Brideshead Revisited. She believed it to be a satire on the Roman Catholic Church, since she was sure that its author was "too intelligent a man" to believe in "all that." Her guests had few good arguments, and she many bad ones: yet, say what she might, the guests stayed unconvinced. Finally she exclaimed, drawing herself up: "I have lived among the English aristocracy, and I know." I had always loved Cleopatra's "The man hath seen some majesty, and should know," but before this I had never really heard it.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell. Copyright © 1954 Randall Jarrell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Michael Wood
[A] work of fiction, and a dizzying and brilliant work of social and literary criticism. Not only 'a unique and serious joke-book,' as Lowell called it, but also a meditation made up of epigrams.
Robert Penn Warren
I'm greatly impressed by the real fun, the incisive satire, the closeness of observation, and in the end by a kind of sympathy and human warmth. It's a remarkable book.
Mary Welp
Move over Dorothy Parker. ''Pictures'' . . . is less a novel than a series of poisonous portraits, set pieces, and endlessly quotable put-downs. Read it less for plot than sharp satire, Jarrell''s forte.

Meet the Author

Randall Jarrell (1914–1965) was the author of six volumes of poetry and the recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry in 1961. Pictures from an Institution is his only novel.

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