Harvard brainiac to Berkeley radical: Pop culture’s college IDs

May 17, 2011

Tina Fey studied drama at the University of Virginia. But that genteel Southern collegiate pedigree would hardly suit Liz Lemon, her “30 Rock” alter ego. Instead, we are told that Lemon — Northern and cerebral, but also middle-class and hopelessly dorky — attended Bryn Mawr College and the University of Maryland, “on a partial competitive jazz dance scholarship.”

Real colleges pop up all over our fictional landscapes, their names invoked to breathe life and depth into characters. The universities of Minnesota and Virginia serve as backdrops in “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated novel. “The Simpsons” caricatured the Seven Sisters in an episode touching on the collegiate aspirations of bookish daughter Lisa. (“Come to Radcliffe and meet Harvard men,” they beckon. “Or come to Wellesley and marry them.”) And the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network” essentially stars Harvard University — although the campus we see on-screen is actually that of a stand-in, Johns Hopkins University.

A citation in fiction means an institution’s brand is sufficiently familiar to help define a fictional character: Princeton preppy. Penn State party boy. MIT brainiac. Harvard kingmaker. Berkeley radical. Notre Dame jock.

Writers create collegiate identities for their characters for the same reason motorists affix alma mater bumper stickers to their cars — college can be central to our sense of social identity, as essential as home town, career or income bracket. A writer might just as easily peg a character as a Camel smoker or a Prius driver. But colleges are more richly evocative than cigarettes or cars.

Colleges “are talismanic in all kinds of ways, of course, signaling the final arc of adolescence, of freedom, of languor and the first or last sparks of intellectual promise,” said John Gregory Brown, an English professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Colleges “show up in novels and stories to suggest the ghosts that might be lingering in a character’s life.”

Colleges seeking brand identity and national repute are just as happy to claim fictional alumni as real ones. Wikipedia pages for colleges and universities routinely track references on television and in film, some seemingly haphazard and random, many more knowing and purposeful. Any fictional portrayal, good or bad, serves “as a bellwether of sorts of how embedded you are in the popular consciousness,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs.

Colleges may derive tangible benefits from pop culture cameos as well, although such benefits are difficult to measure. The sheer number of intelligent people in “The Social Network” — not to mention the sybaritic partying — surely contributed in some small way to Harvard’s record 35,000 applications this year. “I do expect positive press can drive up applications and improve yield on a short-term basis,” said Greg Roberts, dean of admissions at U-Va.

Authors have been writing colleges into works of fiction since at least 1828, when a 23-year-old Nathaniel Hawthorne drew upon fresh memories of Bowdoin College in “Fanshawe,” generally regarded as America’s first college novel. Recent years have seen the genre explode. In his bibliography for “The American College Novel,” author John E. Kramer tallies more than 200 college novels published between 1980 and 2002 alone.

Notable contributors to the canon include F. Scott Fitzgerald, who set “This Side of Paradise” at Princeton; Mary McCarthy, whose classic “The Groves of Academe” draws on the author’s time at Bard and Sarah Lawrence; and Saul Bellow, whose “Herzog” references the University of Chicago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Ivy League wins the collegiate-fiction popularity contest hands down. Harvard is the setting for 77 college novels, the most on Kramer’s list, followed by Yale (32), Princeton (21) and Cornell (12). Only two other schools claim more than a dozen literary treatments: Berkeley (19) and the University of Chicago (18).

Among Washington area schools, U-Va. is the best-represented on Kramer’s list, with three literary citations, not including the recent “Freedom,” which likens the Grounds to a Young Republicans’ convention. (The school’s scholar-athlete ethos may be better served in the film “The Silence of the Lambs,” whose central character, earnest yet gauche FBI agent Clarice Starling, is said to have graduated at the top of her class. She tells a captain, “It’s not exactly a charm school.”) George Washington and U-Md. have two; Georgetown, Howard, Johns Hopkins, Washington and Lee, and William and Mary each have one.

Local schools are better represented in the broader pop-culture universe. Television’s “The West Wing” made repeated reference to Georgetown, an institution associated with Washington’s power elite. (And where HBO Mafia heiress Meadow Soprano was ignominiously wait-listed.) The College of William and Mary, its campus drenched in colonial history, has a recurring nonfiction role as the answer to questions posed on “Jeopardy!” Both Ludacris and Biggie Smalls have rapped about Howard University, epicenter of African American scholarship and host to famously over-the-top homecoming parties. And Johns Hopkins is equated with brilliant, off-kilter doctors, most recently television’s misanthropic Gregory House.

“One of the things about stereotypes is that there’s usually some basis in fact,” said Ted Fiske, creator of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which emphasizes essays over lists. “The problem with the stereotypes is if they’re too simple.” The University of Florida, for example, “probably has the best-deserved reputation as a party school,” he said. “On the other hand, that grossly oversimplifies one of the great universities.”

Artists who want to dish dirt on a college sometimes change its name. The debauchery of “Animal House,” arguably America’s most beloved college movie, is set at the imaginary Faber College, supposedly modeled on Dartmouth. The Dupont University of “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” based in part on Duke, is portrayed as a campus “drunk on youth and beer.” (It fares better in the Myron Bolitar detective novels of Harlan Coben, which concern a Duke hoopster-turned-agent who solves crimes. President Richard Brodhead became pen pals with Coben after reading one.)

“There’s a long history of recognizable schools being recognizable even when in disguise,” said Ben Slote, a professor of English at Allegheny College who teaches courses on the college novel. He cites Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” one of several college novels that have played off the “fairly wild” reputations of Vermont’s Bennington and Middlebury colleges. Its Hampden College is presumed to be Bennington, the author’s alma mater. Tartt’s male narrator describes his first days on campus: And I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. All very well and good, except that some Hampden students later push a classmate off a cliff.

Yet even the most caustic portrayal seems to burnish a school’s mystique. “I would argue that it’s always good for the school,” Slote said. “It means that school counts in the cultural semiology.”

Indeed, colleges may even appropriate dubious stereotypes — as in American University’s recent “wonk” ad campaign or at William and Mary, where many a student has transcribed “Oh, no, William and Mary won’t do” onto a dorm-room door. The line comes from “My Old School” by literary rockers Steely Dan, a homage to their college days at Bard. Pressed by the student newspaper for an explanation, a band associate explained the impetus behind the much-parsed line.

“William and Mary” had the right number of syllables.

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