Friday, March 6, 2009
Charles Webb: The Graduate (1963)
"I'm finished with schools, Dad. . . . I never want to see another school again. I never want to see another educated person again in my life. . . . for twenty-one years I have been shuffling back and forth between classrooms and libraries. Now you tell me what the hell it's got me." Composed almost entirely of dialogue (and hence practically a screenplay) that is faithfully replicated in Mike Nichols' 1967 film, Webb's book has little new to offer to contemporary readers. The four year gap between book and film, however, does affect how one approaches the material. In the book, young, well-off, and disaffected graduate Benjamin Braddock less clearly serves as an icon of the counter culture. He is far more nihilistic, and when he briefly (in a scene I don't remember in the film) goes off "on the road" to meet "real people," he quickly returns home having learned and appreciated nothing. His character seems to reside on the hazy frontier between the disenchanted culture of abundance of the 1950s (the novel appeared merely two years after Richard Yates' excoriation of that decade in Revolution Road) and the alienated children of the technocracy that Roszak describes (Benjamin has "dropped out," but there is no counter culture at the moment to "tune in" to). The narrative's geographic split between Pasadena and Berkeley is also less culturally meaningful than it would soon become, though Los Angeles, as always, does figure as the site of commercial excess and cultural vacuity. The novel's descriptions of Benjamin's beer drinking, television addiction, and easy access to his parents' finances also make him seem less like a graduate than like your typical self-absorbed, middle-class college student. Perhaps this is because the book more clearly than the film singles out educational institutions for attack, emphasizing that Benjamin is unable to escape from the fact he is a "graduate" and therefore complicit with those institutions and recipient of the value they bestow. Benjamin had studied teaching as an undergraduate, but at the beginning of the novel gives away a prestigious award to do graduate work in teaching at an Ivy league school. At one point he accuses his parents of making him into "a goddamn ivy-covered status symbol" for themselves, making explicit that sending him to college was aimed less at securing him a career (given his race and class background, this future is never put at risk by his actions) than at acquiring the cultural capital that will secure the family's upper-middle-class position in society (the party scenes with his parents' friends show this function at work). Though Benjamin's actions could be seen as an attempt to "devalue" himself, they are enabled by his awareness of how his prestigious degree is an intangible form of capital that remains unscathed and ready to be converted into money, or at least a job, at any moment. For example, when he proposes to Elaine Robinson, he claims he will just walk in and get a teaching job at Berkeley (the diminishment of a college degree's cultural capital in subsequent decades would place future "graduates" in a far different situation).