In Praise of Professor Protagonists

I like novels starring professors because they bring back memories of the ones I had in college.
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I must admit I have a thing for novels starring professors.

Why, you ask? That's a good question -- worthy of a college course titled "Explain Your Introductory Paragraph 101."

I like novels starring professors because they bring back memories of the ones I had in college. Also, academics are almost always smart, almost always articulate, and often quirky. And there can be drama in their competitive relationships with fellow profs, in their sometimes-fraught encounters with university administrators, in their interactions with students, and in their quests for tenure.

Last but not least, there's that whole publish-or-perish thing. Yes, books that feature professors feature people who ... write books! What's not to like about that?

In short, there are many positives about professor protagonists that make up for the fact they are (usually) not the heroic, adventurous sorts who make readers turn pages faster than tuition payments drain a bank account.

I assigned myself this blog post after just finishing Foreign Affairs, a novel recommended by a commenter under one of my previous pieces. Alison Lurie's marvelous 1984 book tells the alternating stories of a professor (Virginia Miner) and junior faculty member (Fred Turner) from the same Ivy League university. Both are (separately) in London, where they do research and soon find themselves in opposites-attract liaisons.

Their "foreign affairs" couldn't be more different, with one of the visiting scholars meeting a likable, not-that-educated fellow American and the other meeting an upper-crust, emotionally unstable Brit in the acting field. Fascinating stuff, told with compassion and humor. But the highlight of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is Professor Miner herself, who Lurie describes as "fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried." This polite, reserved, resentful, self-deprecating specialist in children's lit is not a typical protagonist, but an unforgettable one -- partly because of her nimble professorial mind.

"Vinnie" Miner reminded me a bit of another, later-created academic: Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwood's superb 1993 novel The Robber Bride, which focuses on three middle-aged friends (the other two aren't profs) dealing with the reappearance of a scheming, supposedly dead woman who had wreaked havoc on their lives. One thing that makes Tony such an original character is that she's a short, witty, brainy, somewhat timid woman whose academic specialty is ... the macho history of warfare!

Marine biology is Professor Humphrey Clark's specialty in Margaret Drabble's aptly named The Sea Lady, which co-stars Clark's ex-wife Ailsa Kelman. One compelling thing about this excellent 2006 novel is the contrast between the low-key, scholarly Humphrey and the flamboyant Ailsa, who's a TV personality (among other things) rather than a prof. It's also interesting to read about how Humphrey's academic career, while a worthy one, never quite lived up to its early promise.

Then there's Michael Chabon's seriocomic Wonder Boys (1995), about a Pittsburgh prof with a rather chaotic life. Grady Tripp's wife walks out on him; his lover (the college chancellor!) is pregnant; one of his students commits a weird crime; and he's writing a way-too-long mess of a book after enjoying success with a novel. That last situation is sort of a goof on how some academics don't exactly write with the average reader in mind!

Seventy years earlier, Willa Cather penned one of her lesser-known novels, The Professor's House. That 1925 book offers an absorbing story about a midlife crisis faced by history prof Godfrey St. Peter as he moves into a new home, becomes an empty-nester, worries about where society is heading, etc.

I'm tempted to also discuss Harry Potter professors such as Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, and Minerva McGonagall. But although J.K. Rowling gave professor titles to her charismatic wizard teachers, Hogwarts was in effect a middle school/high school rather than a college. Also not on the university level are the memorable educators in novels such as James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

This post might deserve an "incomplete," because I only named a few novels starring academics. What are your favorite books featuring professor protagonists (or professor supporting characters)?


Dave Astor has written a memoir titled Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press). Originally slated for June 2012 release, it is now scheduled to be published later this summer -- when the book can be purchased online. Signed copies will also be available; if you'd like information about that, contact Dave at at any time.

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Paul Krugman, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, includes mentions of novelists, and more.

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