[Note: A couple of years before I retired, our energetic new high-school librarian proposed that interested faculty and staff contribute to the library’s website brief essays on books that had had a significant impact on their lives. What follows is a revised version of my contribution.]
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Many years ago, in graduate school, I was reading the preface to a new book about Kentucky politics during the era of the Early American Republic (yes, I should have gotten out more!), and I noted that the author had interesting things to say about the role Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a novel set in a backwater college in England after World War II, had played in helping her navigate the emotional and intellectual shoals of graduate study and college teaching.
Amis follows the stumbling academic career–and love life–of the title character, a historian who has very little good to say about either college teaching or historical research. I was so taken by the description of the novel that I found a copy, read it–and laughed myself silly.
I was especially struck by a passage that occurs while Jim Dixon is accompanying his department head, Professor Welch, on a scarifying drive in the country. To pass the time, and to remind Dixon how important publishing his work in a professional journal is to his future at the school, Welch asks for the title of the article Dixon says he has been working on:
Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. It wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last half-minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. “In considering this strangely neglected topic,” it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. “Let’s see,” he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: “oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. . . .” (pp.14-15)
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After reading Lucky Jim, I promptly put it down and forgot about it, until I had been in my prep school teaching job for a few years. By then, as someone who had trained to be a college professor but had somehow wound up as a high school History teacher, I was struggling with the transition from “professing” to “teaching” and worrying about what I might have to do if I were unable to make that quantum leap. Moreover, the politics of this place, both secular and religious, were pretty brutal “back in the day”: each year seemed to bring a series of events that ranged from just plain loopy to outright bizarre, and trying to navigate these conflicts and crises proved very stressful.
Finally, one summer, anticipating with dread the crazy things that the new school year would undoubtedly have in store for me, I once more picked up Lucky Jim , re-read it, and again could hardly stop laughing. Then it occurred to me that, having experienced in Amis’s fictional setting a place that made this school seem almost “normal” by comparison, perhaps I might now be better prepared to return to work in the Fall. And that’s how things worked out.
Pleased with the results of this exercise in “literary therapy,” I made it a practice over the next decade or so to re-read Amis’s novel towards the end of each summer. I even passed on to colleagues my belief that reading Lucky Jim might have a positive impact on other harried faculty members here. Once, I even lent my copy of the novel to a fellow teacher, and the embarrassed borrower told me later that the book had been ruined by rain on a camping trip and so had to be replaced.
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Lucky Jim never failed to prepare me (and a few others) to cope with the new year at this school, a development I’m sure was the farthest thing from Kingsley Amis’s mind when he published the novel. More broadly, the novel played a major role in enabling me to fit in to the overall life of this place.
I had never attended any private school before I entered graduate school, and my first years at the “prep school” where I had fetched up after finishing my doctorate were, not to put too fine a point on it, the equivalent of my having landed on Mars. For instance, I found myself expected to further the school’s “Christian mission,” while at that point I was unsure of my own stance on the whole Christianity issue. Moreover, I was to do this in an institution that segregated classes by gender, for the most part (the History Department, where I worked, was the lone exception at the time). But, hey, you take comfort where you can find it, right?
Strangely enough, it was only when I no longer needed Kingsley Amis’s wacky outlook on things “educational” before the start of each new academic year that I finally felt I was where I was supposed to be. I could finally face the new school year without using Amis’s book as a crutch, so Lucky Jim became just another of the many volumes on the shelves in my study–reassuring to look at but infrequently consulted. (In the years since my retirement, I’ve re-read Amis’s novel just once.)
Yet, to those of you still active in–or contemplating a move into–“prep school” teaching, I have to say that I continue to believe Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim can, as the Quakers say, “speak to your condition.” And, if it doesn’t, then perhaps you’ll be able to find a different key to life in the prep school classroom, just as I did all those years ago.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: