We are currently visiting my wife’s family in Washington, Iowa. Julia grew up on a pig and cattle farm in Grace Hill, a Moravian community outside of Washington, and while her family lost the family farm in the early 1980s recession (which was a depression for Iowa), she still has a sentimental attachment to the farming community there. She therefore suggested that I write today’s post on Jane Smiley’s Moo.
One of my colleagues, who wrote her MFA thesis under Smiley at Iowa State, notes that her campus novel was a farewell to the university. By this I mean that, because it’s a thinly disguised roman à clef, many members of the school recognized themselves in Smiley’s characters and were glad to see her gone. But then, few schools look good after a campus novel takes them apart—I think of what Mary McCarthy to Sarah Lawrence in The Groves of Academe—so it’s about par for the course. Calling her fictional Iowa State “Moo U,” as Smiley does, shows you the direction in which she’s headed.
If increasing numbers of authors are writing campus novels these days, it’s in part because universities have become the new patrons. Few authors can make a living on the open market and even fewer can find wealthy individuals to subsidize their efforts. Universities, therefore, provide fallback income.
To be sure, you have to teach creative writing courses as well as write, which seems an intolerable burden to some authors. Still, the teaching demands aren’t necessarily onerous. Research universities are more likely to choose authors for the prestige they bring than their teaching abilities. Once she wrote Thousand Acres, Smiley had glow to bestow.
Even so, not all authors are happy with the non-writing part of their job and often use campus novels to vent their spleen. There’s a problem here, however. Not only are universities paying them a decent wage—sometimes a great wage—for what is often a reduced course load, but universities aren’t all that dramatic. Sure, there are rivalries within the faculty, but they seem pretty trivial, as Kissinger’s famous witticism notes. (Why are faculty disputes so bitter? Because the stakes are so small.) Life may seem dramatic for undergraduates—after all, they are undergoing significant growth—but for most of them, their food and lodging is paid and they live in a protected environment.* So what’s an author to do?
Write a comic novel. That way you can complain but without being seen as taking yourself all that seriously (even though secretly you may be dead serious and really mad). Iowa State wasn’t wrong to see Smiley as giving them the middle finger but she did it in a humorous way. At least humorous for those who don’t show up in it.
Since I am married to a pig farmer’s daughter, I share a passage about Earl Butz, a giant pig named after the agriculture secretary under Nixon and Ford who was prone to verbal gaffes. Earl Butz is an agricultural experiment by Dr. Bo Jones, who wants to figure out how large a hog can grow:
“Hog,” he said, “is a mysterious creature, not much studied in the wild, owing to viciousness and elusiveness. Can’t get the papers, you know, to take yourself to Uzbekistan, even if you had the funding. Never been a hog that lived a natural lifespan. Never been an old hog. Hog too useful. Hog too useful to be known on his own terms, you know. What can I do with this hog, when can I eat it, what can I make of this hog, how does this hog profiteth me, always intervenes between man and hog. When I die, they’re going to say that Dr. Bo Jones found out something about hog.”
Earl Butz proceeds to take on special symbolic significance in the novel. No one other than Jones and a student know about him and, when Jones goes missing (on a visit to Uzbekistan to study pigs in the wild), the university begins to pull down his enclosure, not realizing that there is a pig as large as a dining room buffet inside. Suddenly the pig is rampaging through the university:
Mrs. Loraine Walker saw him, and saw him for what he was, the secret hog at the center of the university about whom she had been dismissing rumors for a year. He lumbered past, his high squealing underpinned by labored breathing, his white hide streaked with red where he had scraped himself. Something about the enormous barreling, frightening animal struck her as poignant. Even as she jumped back, she held out her hand as it to pat him on the head.
Earl’s death seems to become an ominous portent for Moo U and maybe universities everywhere: bloated from consuming an ever increasing resources, he can’t stand on his own four legs and collapses. Hmm.
*Relatively protected, I should say. We can’t overlook the 1 in 5 women who are sexually assaulted on campus each year.