Have writers always gone to college?
Essayist Elif Batuman here takes aim at MFA programs in a London Review of Books piece titled “Get a Real Degree.” The essay, a review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, fires in particular at McGurl’s claim that the GI Bill dramatically increased the percentage of college-educated American writers. McGurl argues that before the GI bill “college education was not yet perceived as an obvious starting point for a career as a novelist.” Instead, he argues, “the uncredentialled, or rather press-credentialled, example of the high school graduate Hemingway makes clear, the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century was journalism.”
Batuman counters that “According to the internet, writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years” and offers the results of her research in a wonderful footnote:
Goethe studied at the University of Leipzig, Swift and Beckett at Trinity College Dublin, Fielding at Eton and the University of Leiden, Balzac at the Sorbonne, Flaubert and Baudelaire at the Paris law faculty, Tolstoy at the University of Kazan, Dostoevsky at the Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, Chekhov at Moscow State University, Babel at the Kiev Institute of Finance, Solzhenitsyn at Rostov State University, Hawthorne at Bowdoin, Poe at the University of Virginia and West Point, Hardy and Maugham at King’s College London, D.H. Lawrence at University College Nottingham, Fitzgerald at Princeton, Steinbeck at Stanford, Henry James at Harvard, T.S. Eliot at Harvard and the Sorbonne, Pound at the University of Pennsylvania, Sinclair Lewis at Yale, Jack London at Berkeley, Dreiser at Indiana, Pirandello at the University of Rome and the University of Bonn, Camus at the University of Algiers, Giovanni Verga at the University of Catania, Kafka at the University of Prague, Joyce at University College Dublin, Proust at the Ecole libre des sciences politiques, Mann at the University of Munich, and Musil at the University of Berlin. Byron, Carroll, Donne, Forster, Galsworthy, Greene, Marlowe, Milton, Sterne, Tennyson, Thackeray, Waugh, Wordsworth and Wilde all attended either Oxford or Cambridge. Many of these writers failed to complete their degrees, but they all spent some time at university. Of writers who didn’t go to university, many attended elite lyces or secondary schools (Trollope, Pushkin, Maupassant, Melville, Borges). I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism (Defoe, Dickens, Twain). For women, of course, university was a later development
Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.