Academic Life; With the Ivy, Thorns
THE STONES OF THE HOUSE, Theodore Morrison; Viking Press, 375 pp.; $3.50.
At the age of fifty, Theodore Morrison '23, has written his first novel. It is a book filled with mature characterization of men and women in an academic community. Obviously, Mr. Morrison, Lecturer on English, knows the problems of professors and administrators in a college, and he sympathizes with his characters. Andrew Aiken, the figure dominating the novel, is acting president of Rowley College. And while the trustees decide whether or not he may keep his position, Mr. Morrison hands him problems of defending academic freedom, financing a library, dealing with neurotic faculty and alumni pressure. As Aiken faces these problems, he emerges able but overly sensitive and not at all confident of his ability to carry out a bold academic policy. About him, within Rowley College, Mr. Morrison sketches familiar characters--intense academicians, professors frightened by the threat of loyalty probes. These he draws well, all mature men and women. But the students in Rowley College seem somehow unreal.
From the faculty-student dealings in "The Stones of the House," I get the impression that Mr. Morrison considers a student body as a necessary but unpleasant prop in a college. There is no evidence that the relation between Rowley's professors and undergraduates ever goes beyond the brief contacts in the classroom or dean's office. Perhaps one might explain this as selective pruning; "The Stones of the House" is primarily a few months in Andrew Aiken's life, and during this time the acting president is seldom directly concerned with students. But at one time, Aiken must deal with the college's daily newspaper, the "Register." Here his behavior is quite puzzling. He attacks the "Register" editors as irresponsible children playing at grown-up journalism, when they print a confidential report on a faculty tip. Yet, he uses the "Register" for his own purposes a little later in order to rally opinion for his library project. Never does he consider the "Register" group individually. He seems to feel the "Register" is "responsible" only when it serves his own programs and purposes.
Just as he assumes the "Register" gleefully wants to embarrass rather that to inform, Mr. Morrison implies that students in a classroom are not primarily concerned with learning; instead they face their instructors maliciously, much like a mob that needs skillful handling.
But if Mr. Morrison does not understand his students, he is able to sharply penetrate his contemporaries. The only inadequacy in his portrait of Aiken is his failure to pull the curtain from the man's past. For two months, the reader knows Andrew Aiken intimately--his character and his ability. But he never knows just what Andrew Aiken taught before he became an acting president, or what in his past exists to account for his actions. There is no need for Mr. Morrison to tell anything more about Aiken's wife Connie, than he does. She, the faculty members, Aiken's secretary are seen largely through his eyes. Since so much of the novel is subjectively Aiken, however, the reader must have a more complete individual with which to identify himself.
Aiken's problems and his resolutions are skillfully handled, for the most part, with a remarkable literary honesty. Only the circumstances leading up to the large library gift seem contrived, and this because Mr. Morrison has packed a bit too much coincidence within too few pages.
But creating action is clearly not the best measure of Mr. Morrison's ability. He masterfully captures simple relationships between mature people. Andrew Aiken's conversations with Connie, with old Martin Holmes, the college chaplain, with Maurice Holsberg, a confused, easily hurt Jewish professor--these are the representation of his talent. He can draw from a college community a perceptive sampling of the humor, frustration, and challenge in an academic life. But before he writes another novel, Mr. Morrison should get to know his students a lot better.