Schooled in political correctness

May 27, 2011

This exceedingly strange first novel arrives festooned with lavish quotations from reviews of the author’s previous book, a collection of short stories called “The Bostons” (2001), and the usual array of rhapsodic blurbs from fellow members of the literary set. It gives me no pleasure to say so, but all the excitement is quite beyond my understanding. Yes, the novel spouts all the usual left-of-center opinions fashionable among the literati, with a strong dash of feminism thrown in, but viewed strictly as a work of fiction it is almost wholly without redeeming qualities.

Daughters of the Revolution” is set in and about a small New England preparatory school between 1963 and 2005. This, more than the pre-publication ballyhoo, is what drew me to it. Personal experience, much of it unpleasant, has left me with an exaggerated and perhaps unhealthy interest in the minuscule world of prep schools and the even more minuscule literature that has emerged from it. The most famous of these books is, of course, J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” with John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace” running a distant second, though the only novel of genuine and lasting literary distinction with a prep-school setting is Louis Auchincloss’s “The Rector of Justin.”

One distinguishing characteristic of these books is a deep skepticism about, if not outright hostility to, the values preached in these private, exclusive schools and what they teach their students about their responsibility toward others as well as themselves. Thus, for example, the fictional headmaster of the school Justin Martyr in Auchincloss’s novel confesses: “I see that Justin Martyr is like the other schools. Only I, of course, ever thought it was different. Only I failed to see that snobbishness and materialism were intrinsic in its make-up. Only I was naive enough to think I could play with that kind of fire and not get my hands burnt.” It is a rare admission, but then the rector of Justin, for all his faults, is a rare man.

The same cannot be said for Goddard Byrd, the headmaster in “Daughters of the Revolution.” Carolyn Cooke, who has a fetish for names that belabor the obvious, notes that he is “known to his friends and enemies as ‘God’ ” and is “a virile, uncircumcised male of his class, upbringing and era,” the era in question being the late 1960s. The institution over which he presides is called the Goode School — talk about belaboring the obvious — but needless to say it scarcely lives up to its name, being a redoubt of male privilege and what used to be called muscular Christianity. Byrd is an old-fashioned man who treasures “the souls of dead white men” but resents being “dismissed as a moth-eaten conservative, an antifemale chauvinist, a reactionary fogy.” He takes deep pride in his school:

“What did the school stand for, after all, but a certain kind of boy . . . whose character was forged on the playing field, whose soul was enlarged (but not falsely puffed up) by literature and language, whose mind was sharpened by mathematics and science, whose spirit was tuned by daily hours in chapel to the profound mysteries of life, whose manners at table were stiffened like lightly starched napkins by years of French service at the evening meal? Even if on the surface God’s boys resembled regular boys of the era, with their long hair and woozy airs, they were at heart conservative in the Goode School tradition — boys in possession of traditions worth conserving.”

If you sense that’s sarcasm dripping from every syllable of this passage, you’re right. Cooke (who according to her Web site “teaches in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco”!) brings the politically correct sensibilities of the 1980s to bear on her tale, and employs them without an ounce of subtlety. I have no more sympathy for the cloistered, all male prep-school world of the past than she does — though I do have considerably more direct experience of it — but believe it is far more accurately depicted with the nuance of “The Rector of Justin” than with the ham-handed derision to which Cooke repeatedly resorts.

The central issue around which the novel is framed is, hardly surprisingly, the admission of girls to the Goode School. God Byrd had been on the side of the angels with regard to race, as Cooke (sarcastically) observes — “He has been something of a radical himself, the first Head to find promising colored boys in Roxbury, take them to the Goode School, wake them up and arm them against poverty, drugs and crime with Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare” — but when the trustees pressure him to admit girls, he says, bluntly, “Over my dead body.” Then a girl, Carole Faust, and a black girl to boot, is admitted when God’s secretary “mistakenly included Carole’s name in the ‘Negro’ acceptance pool under the traditional male name Carroll.”

Never mind that it’s just about impossible to believe that the secretary would make such a silly mistake or that the headmaster would not have reversed the decision as soon as he learned about it. What matters is that Cooke wants to get a black girl into the school in order to puncture God and Goode with all the arrows in her quiver. Carole isn’t a character but a deus ex machina (or, more accurately, a dea ex machina), to wit:

“As more girls and more students of color arrived, it became clear that the issues of integration and coeducation were not only about ethnicity and gender but also about class and culture. . . . Carole herself, who seemed to embody blackness, oppression, sexism, equal opportunity and ‘religious tolerance’ — a muddy commingling of any faith that anyone suggested — grew tired of representing these ideas, tired of masters habitually tilting in her direction when they mentioned slavery or civil rights, a long history of racist and sexist assumptions burning brightly in their apologetic eyes.”

Any reader can be forgiven who, after reading that paragraph, thinks that she or he has stumbled into the middle of a political/ideological tract rather than the middle of a work of fiction. “Ethnicity,” “gender,” “class and culture,” “oppression,” “sexism” — this is the language of the soapbox (or, perhaps, the language of the classroom at the California Institute of Integral Studies) rather than that of fiction, and in a novel it carries no weight; it merely feels false, contrived and gratuitous.

The point of the novel, if it can be said to have one, has to do with the uses of adversity. As Carole puts it: “The Goode School was like a huge white skin that covered everyone — that covered me. My whole consciousness was black and poor and female every second of every day. The experience damaged, sharpened and defined me, and I would not trade it for anything.” She comes to understand that her fury against “the Head” was “indistinguishable from love. . . . He is the source of my adrenaline, anxiety and rage — and the secret of my success.” True enough, but Cooke argues the point so didactically that any force is sapped out of it.

It should be mentioned that a subplot in “Daughters of the Revolution” involves a popular graduate of the Goode School who drowns while still in his 20s, leaving a widow and young daughter whose histories follow and in some ways parallel those of Carole, God Byrd and the Goode School. Though in the closing pages a strong connection emerges between these two women and Carole, it is pure contrivance — as is, from first page to last, the novel itself.

DAUGHTERS OF THE REVOLUTION

By Carolyn Cooke

Knopf. 173 pp. $24.95

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