By Randall Jarrell
This book has been on my shelf for years. The paper cover is pretty battered and the colors are drab and boring. From the title and the cover, I assumed Jarrell had taken notes on various patients in a mental institution, perhaps in the 1950s or ‘60s. None of those things could be further from the hilarity that is this story. If I would have known it was about professors at a small girls college I would have read it a decade ago! The writing style is so lyrical and poetic that I had to look up Randall Jarrell. It all came to make sense when I found out he was a real-life poet! As you know, I like to share “the best bits” by transcribing the most beautiful, touching, joyous or heartbreaking lines, but the language in this book is so off-the-charts that I would have had to mark every line. I had to stop. If you are a professor, a lover of poetry, comedy or spot-on scathing character sketches, you must read this book!
Meridian Fiction New York 1960
Randall Jarrell was born on May 6, 1914, in Nashville, Tennessee. He was educated at Vanderbilt University and has distinguished himself as poet, critic, novelist, and teacher. He has taught at various colleges, including Princeton, and has been poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Jarrell has published five volumes of poetry; a book of criticism, and edited an anthology of short stories.
- The President Mrs., and Derik Robbins
It is Constance Morgan’s last day as assistant to the secretary.
“…her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished” (5).
Gertrude had been teaching at the college. Constance listens to Gertrude and President Robbins as they say goodbye.
“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 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” (7).
A very fun description of the novelist, Gertrude Johnson, who is leaving.
Who could explain President Robbin’s marriage?
“People did not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry.”
“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” (11).
“To hear her was to be beginning to despair” (13).
Mrs. Robbins’s horrid personality. Later in the book I began to realize that most of the text is description of character. Not much actually happens; therefore, chapter summaries became less and less frequent.
President Robbins has illusions about himself. There is the thought that only some people are very important. Derek is the president’s son and he is kind of odd.
President Benton is a slick orator, good at raising funds, and different than us.
“Not to have given him what he asked, they felt, would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supply of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars. They felt this; it seems far-fetched to me” (27).
Did Gertrude go on to write lies about President Robbins in her next novel?
- The Whittakers and Gertrude
Couples attend a party at Gertrude’s house.
“People say that conversation is a lost art: how often I have wished it were” (41)!
“Gertrude didn’t want conversation, she wanted an audience” at the dinner party.
“…she was so thin you could have recognized her skeleton. Sometimes it seemed to you that she was not a person, not a thing, but an idea, and a mistaken one at that. A badly mistaken one: she always said not the wrong but the wrongest, the most wrongest thing–language won’t express it” (44).
“When well-dressed woman met Flo they looked at her as though they couldn’t believe it. She looked as if she had waked up and found herself dressed–as if her clothes had come together by chance and involved her, an innocent onlooker, in the accident. If a dress had made her look better than she really did, she would have felt guilty; but she had never had such a dress” (45).
“In the classroom, where Dr. Whittaker was almost as much at home as in his study, this would not have happened; there each sentence lived its appointed term, died mourned by its people, and was succeeded by a legitimate heir” (50).
There are hilarious descriptions of Flo and others and a dinner party at which no one ate. Gertrude disparages the South from which she still keeps an accent. How Gertrude feels about the music teacher. We meet Gertrude’s devoted husband, Sidney.
- Miss Batterson and Benton
Miss Batterson was an earlier creative writing teacher.
The teaching philosophy and life at Benton.
“Benton was, all in all, a surprisingly contented place. The people who weren’t contented got jobs elsewhere–as did, usually, any very exceptional people–and the others stayed. They didn’t need to be exceptional: they were at Benton. One felt that they felt that all they had to do was say, “I’m at Benton,’ and their hearer would say, raising his hand: ‘Enough!’” (105).
We learn why Benton is the subject of Gertrude’s novel. Miss Batterson got a better job but soon died. There is a funeral.
How the Rosenbaums live; very European. The narrator recalls a story told by Miss Batterson about her father.
- Constance and The Rosenbaums
Gertrude looks at life as fodder for her novels.
Dr. Rosenbaum’s wife and Constance’s friendship with the Rosenbaums.
“Old faces are forbidding or beautiful for what is expressed in them; in a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful both for what is there and what cannot yet be there. Constance’s face was a question mark that you looked at and did not want to find an answer for” (146).
Constance and her music. Colleagues talking about home with the Rosenbaums. Irene singing. Constance is upset about the portrayal of the Rosenbaums in Gertrude’s story. The Rosenbaums’ personalities are described.
“…it is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life” (173).
How Americans are different from Europeans. Irene and her personality.
- Gertrude and Sidney
Gertrude was filled with anger she couldn’t understand. The narrator is dropping some work from a student at Gertrude’s. Gertrude takes care of her sick husband.
“But now that she saw she could not possibly get along without Sidney, her trust was shaken. When Sidney found out that she was in his power–if he found out, her heart substituted hastily–what would he do? How could you trust anyone with such power” (206)?
“…if Sidney had come home from work some evening and had said to her, ‘I’m not interested in you any more, Gertrude,’ she would have thought this a disastrous but perfectly reasonable, perfectly predictable thing for him to say–he would simply have come to his senses” (207).
“…she was like a magic sword that is content only as it comes shining from the scabbard” (209).
Gertrude can do without all others, except Sidney.
- Art Night
Gertrude is drunk as they head to Art Night.
“Mr. Daudier had a queer look on his face, as if he were a box of mixed nuts, but mostly peanuts…” (242).
- They All Go
If you are a teacher and/or love lines that run like crazy poetry, please read this book!