The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz


Having loved The Latecomer, I was moved to listen to this one. It was a good choice, always engaging and kept me tuned in.

I read somewhere that the college this book uses as the backdrop, Webster, is based on Wesleyan with a bit of Dartmouth thrown in.  The Dartmouth bit was that part of Webster’s original mission was to educate Native Americans. The main character is Naomi, president of the college; she had been at the college for years, but when she was tapped to be president, she had to buy a wardrobe suitable for the job. Her background included a time as a Vista organizer and later a women’s study scholar. A divorced single parent, she moved with her daughter into the oversize presidential home, where she lived by herself when Hannah “went off to college” at Webster.

Things take a turn when students camp out in a prominent spot on the campus to object to the rejection of tenure for a Black professor. Though only those involved in the process knew the details, the popular professor plagiarized his attempt at the tenure-required publication. Although her experience as a college president would help her through this ordeal, things become very complicated. There is a surprising turn of events that stretches credulity.

Reading this made me think of books that are send-ups of college politics and I want to remember Moo! by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo (which has the threat by the chair of the English Department to kill a duck), and Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a very funny epistolary novel. Mr. Booklog reminded me of Allison Lurie’s books set at “Corinth” (Cornell). I read Foreign Affairs.

Among the little “bits” I want to remember is Naomi recounting her typical Sunday afternoon in the kitchen preparing food for herself and Hannah, “as NPR delivered the bad news with musical interludes.”  Another is an Evelyn Waugh quote, “I caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread,” written about Catholicism. Naomi says it’s just as true for parenthood.

Naomi discovers that her best friend, the Head of Admissions for Webster, has a problem and she cannot talk about it. Naomi says they could talk about when she was ready, or never. “Never’s good,” Francine says, referring to the New Yorker cartoon that I remember fondly, too. In the cartoon a person on the phone says, “No, Thursday’s out, how about never—is never good for you?”

Just in case some of us forgot why the title sounds vaguely familiar:  “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, written in 1936 and published in The Saturday Evening Post.

Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Devil and Webster, Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 359 pages. Available from the public library.

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