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Swarthmore College and the Fiction of Jonathan Franzen ’81

By
February 17, 2011

In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, protagonist Patty Berglund visits her daughter Jessica at her Philadelphia-area liberal arts college on Parents’ Weekend. There are a number of clues that Jessica attends Swarthmore, Franzen’s alma mater. The college is a “beautiful Quaker campus” with “sumptuous grounds.” The afternoon colloquium is titled “Performing Identity in a Multivalent World.” As an excuse to blow off time with her mother, Jessica mentions that “the workload’s pretty intense” (183).

It could conceivably be Haverford, or some fictional liberal arts campus, were it not for this passage:

…Her daughter was gazing with desolate self-control at the main college building, on an outside wall of which Patty had noticed a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM” (184).

by Will Treece

The inscription outside Parrish is actually from the Class of 1927, but no matter. A quick Googling reveals no source of the quote other than this particular inscription. If someone can prove that the Class of 1927 lifted the phrase from an ancient Greek text or somesuch, speak up, but “Use well thy freedom” appears to be unique to Parrish Hall.

If you’ve read Freedom, you know that “Use well thy freedom” is about as close to a four-word summary of the book’s lesson as you can get. “Use Well” carries a sense of resource management (a major motif of the novel), as if freedom is finite and bounded by our actions; there are tradeoffs involved in the way we exercise it. Sarfraz Manzoor of the Guardian contends that the book’s message is that America “fetishizes freedom and forgets that actually, there are greater freedoms to be had by having bonds.”

It’s pretty exciting, then, that Swarthmore’s Class of 1927 partially inspired the title to one of the bestselling novels of 2010. Freedom hit the #1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list the first week it was released, and the novel put Jonathan Franzen ‘81 on the cover of TIME magazine – the first living novelist to be featured on the cover in 10 years.

Franzen’s 2001 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Corrections, doesn’t have such overt references to Swarthmore – but if you’re looking, you can find them. Denise, a major character and compulsively responsible overachiever, attended a secluded liberal arts college near Philadelphia accessible by SEPTA. Her sister-in-law Caroline wears Swarthmore College gym shorts while she argues with her husband in bed. Franzen introduces a likable character with: “He looked like what he was — a former Haverford lacrosse player and basically decent man to whom nothing bad had ever happened and whom you therefore didn’t want to disappoint” (524).

Reading The Corrections, I’m struck less by the little references and more by the major themes of the novel, some of which seem quintessentially Swarthmorean. The way that Franzen self-consciously makes fun of liberals and do-gooders, while still remaining extremely left-wing, will be familiar to many Swarthmore students. Denise, the capable and driven overachiever, seemed especially real to me. Franzen notes Philadelphia’s insecure relation to New York City – although personally, I related more to the disjointed transitions between the Midwest and the East Coast that the characters experienced. I put down the novel thinking, “This author and I went through the same education system.”

Of course, not all Swatties will relate. For one, gender is probably a blind spot of Franzen’s. In her excellent New York Times essay “The Naked and the Conflicted: Sex and the American Male Novelist,” Katie Roiphe uses a sentence from The Corrections as an example of the sort of male writing that is hailed by critics but remains shockingly un-feminist: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.”

Franzen’s autobiography The Discomfort Zone doesn’t reference Swarthmore quite as much as his fiction. In telling his life story, Franzen doesn’t make many jabs at Swarthmore’s intellectualism or Quaker values. For the most part, he wraps references to Swarthmore within his stories of learning German and attempting to lose his virginity. Franzen mentions Honors seminars and the old practice of professors’ wives baking seminar breaks, but The Discomfort Zone wasn’t the frolic through Swarthmore student life circa 1980 that I was hoping for. Curiously, Freedom and The Corrections feel closer to home.

Franzen’s time at Swarthmore shows early glimmerings of a writing career. He was an editor and prolific reporter with the Phoenix, writing articles such as “Poli. Sci. Leads Sex Imbalance in Honors.” He also served as editor of the literary magazine The Nulset Review. His first act as editor was to organize a contest to rename the magazine, resulting in the title Small Craft Warnings. The name stuck, and Small Craft Warnings remains the oldest lit-mag on campus. Submissions for the Spring issue are due February 23rd.

In 1992 Franzen returned to Swarthmore to teach creative writing as a visiting professor. He lived in faculty housing – fans of The Corrections will note the similarity to Chip’s living situation – and brought his friend David Foster Wallace to judge Swarthmore’s fiction contest that year. In fact, one of the first readings of Wallace’s Infinite Jest took place at Swarthmore.

Perhaps Swarthmore exerted some sort of profound influence upon Franzen’s work, but I think it’s more productive to simply note the place that Swarthmore College holds in the writings of a great – TIME Magazine might argue the great – modern American author. In Freedom, the unnamed liberal arts college is an opportunity for Franzen to poke fun at both academia, noting that “the college itself seemed immensely proud of its wealth and altruistic mission,” and overachievers like Jessica’s boyfriend, who founded “some grotesquely worthy program wherein poor Malawian girls had their educations sponsored by soccer clubs in San Francisco” (183-4). But even while Franzen unleashes his sardonic wit upon Swarthmore College, it is telling that he uses the green Quaker campus to dispense the book’s essential lesson, “Use well thy freedom.” Thus, according to one of the most popular works of American fiction in the 21st century, Swarthmore College is a place where the buildings themselves can offer eternal truths if you just look carefully enough.

14 Responses to Swarthmore College and the Fiction of Jonathan Franzen ’81

  1. CM

    February 17, 2011 at 7:09 am

    The phrase "frolic through Swarthmore student life circa 1980" really made me laugh. Does anyone ever frolic through Swarthmore?

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  2. young turks & ottomans

    February 17, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Don't forget <a href="http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2007/04/02/wedekinds-spring-awakening-given-new-life-by-franzens-translation-and-stevens-direction/print/">Franzen's last appearance on the DG</a>!

    There's also some decent zings at the college's expense in <i>The Twenty-Seventh City</i>, if I remember right.

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  3. young turks & ottomans

    February 17, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Crud, html.

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  4. Eric Behrens

    February 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

    For those of us who were here at Swarthmore at the same time as Franzen, many details about Chip's story in "The Corrections" were thinly veiled (though clearly fictionalized) references to a particular Swarthmore faculty member and the dynamic that surrounded him.

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  5. Recent Alum

    February 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    It would, I suppose, be pretty exciting that Swarthmore inspired so much of Franzen's recent novel, the charm of the literary establishment right now, were it not for the fact that Franzen has behaved so deplorably towards his alma mater in recent years. First of all, why the reluctance to mention Swarthmore by name in his novel? It's not as if Franzen, who name-checks everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to Conor Oberst in his work, is afraid of specific proper names. Indeed, it is this narrative specificity that makes "Freedom" an often compelling, relatable work, one that is aware of popular culture without being captive to it. His refusal to acknowledge Swarthmore, in light of this novelistic style, just seems churlish.

    Moreover, Franzen has refused to allow any of his works or fame to be used to market Swarthmore, or even to be included in materials produced by the college. Fair enough, you say; he doesn't want his work used to sell a product, even if that product is an education at an elite liberal arts college. But all of this pales in comparison to what is surely one of the largest snubs of one's alma mater in recent years. To capitalize upon the success of the recent Broadway musical "Spring Awakening," in 2007 Franzen published a new translation of the Frank Wedekind play upon which the musical is based. He did this all without publicly acknowledging that his translation was produced while a student at Swarthmore, in collaboration with the Swarthmore Theater Department. Franzen essentially stole a work that we translated, working with Swarthmore professors, to enrich himself and his own career.

    Though, I suppose, what should one expect from a man so arrogant that he would actually criticize certain readers for being low-brow, simply because they appreciate the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey. Anyone who claims that his art is above certain consumers does not deserve to make the claim that he is writing a "great American novel."

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  6. correction

    February 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Denise's sister-in-law's name is Caroline, not Diane.

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  7. Gabriel Riccio

    February 17, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    When Tolstoy wrote 'War and Peace', he wrote it for the few people that could actually read French and Russian at the time – a very small audience. He was openly derogatory towards people who did not fall into that category. Does that mean that 'War and Peace' is not a great Russian novel? Be wary of judging an artist's works by the artist themselves.

    With that said, I'd never even heard of Franzen before this article, so I have no idea how I feel about his books. Great article as usual, Will!

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  8. rumor

    February 17, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Not to mention that Chip lives in the barn!

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  9. Holden Caulfield

    February 18, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Gabriel,

    Recent Alum misrepresented Franzen's comments regarding Oprah lovers. Franzen criticized American society's tendency to think of reading as exclusively feminine and he worried that an "Oprah's Book Club" sticker on one of his books would turn away potential male readers.

    Nevertheless I really see no reason why you would bring up "War and Peace" in a comment about Jonathan Franzen except to show off and/or bring attention to the fact that you're taking Weinstein's "Modern Epic" course.

    How very phony of you.

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  10. Gabriel Riccio

    February 19, 2011 at 1:38 am

    When you dedicate the majority of your time to reading a book for a month of your life, you inevitably start to see everything through the lens of said book. I see no reason why you would aim your response about Oprah lovers at me, when I said absolutely nothing about the Oprah comment, except that you wish to bring attention to your knowledge of Franzen's comments on Oprah, regardless of whether the context is appropriate.

    How very phony of you.

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  11. Holden Caulfield

    February 19, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Gabriel,

    I only wanted to point out that Recent Alum misrepresented Franzen's words and so you can't really compare Tolstoy and Franzen because the latter didn't actually dismiss a large group of people (the Oprah lovers).

    That being said I only know of thta fact because of an external link from a wikipedia article – I assure you this was no attempt to show off my knowledge of Jonathan Franzen. Again, I'm sorry the phoniness comment was a joke and an attempt to fit my moniker – I was moreso an asshole than a phony

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  12. Gabriel Riccio

    February 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    As was my response, good sir. Neither one was a particularly effective joke, and they probably both deserve somewhere around 3/10.

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  13. Bonathan Thanzen

    February 21, 2011 at 10:25 am

    the real question is what do 19th century russian peasants think of jonthan franzen's work? i'm sure they would appreciate the emphasis on freedom so boldly lacking in tolstoy's works. one day in future i hope that at a small russian liberal arts college they will reflect on the resonance of an alum's work with 21st century american serfs, the majority of whom have no idea what a liberal arts college is. thank you mr franzen for bringing these colleges to the masses

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  14. tolstoy

    February 23, 2011 at 8:55 am

    excuse me, i wrote war and peace for my peasants? so they can read all about my parti-uh hm- soires?

    also, i love bears.

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