Then and Now

March 9th, 2012

The latest best-selling work by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jeffrey Eugenides ’82, The Marriage Plot, a sentimental journey back to his undergraduate days some three decades ago, certainly invokes a Proustian wave of memory (“The Unparalleled Power of Unrequited Love,” Arts & Culture, November/December). Who would have imagined that the Pig Book would have a place in a major American novel?

I should know. I was there—well sort of. In 1982, the year the book opens, I would have been an uncool first-year student at Brown. As Eugenides painfully reminds us, freshman males were stranded at the very bottom of the sexual hierarchy, at best one rung above high school seniors visiting for Early Action Weekend. Not exactly Pulitzer Prize material.

Today I teach college students, and when I walk around campus, the watershed changes between then and now are palpable. The early adulthood angst is still there, but unlike Eugenides’s characters set on the very cusp of the digital age, today’s college students Google, Facebook, post on YouTube, text, tweet, e-mail, blog, and Skype. Eugenides’s characters, by contrast, do not walk around campus with digital phones or iPods implanted in ear and hand. They type their papers. No laptops, no inboxes, no online classes, no chat rooms, no virtual classrooms. They don’t have to worry about losing or backing up files. They actually go to the library and read printed books.

Without sounding like a Luddite, I wonder whether today’s students are missing something—the art of conversation, perhaps. As Eugenides shows—and I remember—our education really did take place in the cafeterias, cafés, and bars of Providence’s East Side. We did have three-hour group dinners in the Ratty, daily endless cups of coffee in the Blue Room, and hip hours of coffee and smoking at RISD’s Carr House. In the novel, when two characters are falling in love, they spend three days in the guy’s apartment, talking, eating pizza, and having sex. (He doesn’t own a TV.) It’s hard to imagine a contemporary student lasting on such a regimen for more than about five hours.

Maybe the nostalgia Eugenides sparks is not for lost days of our youth but for the lost days when we were unplugged.

David Kramer ’85
Rochester, N.Y.

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March/April 2012