Books That Don’t Work: The Devil and Webster

Many books are being published these days, and it is difficult to find the ones that are worth reading.  I rely generally on book reviews to help me separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes this works, and other times it doesn’t.

In the last month, I have read three highly praised books that were pretty darned bad.  So today I’m going to talk about one of them.  Book reviewers, take heed:  We readers are paying attention.

This book has received many laudatory reviews and is seen as a thoughtful observation of identity politics in colleges today. A typical reaction, encapsulated in the subtitle to a Wall St. Journal critique, was this:  A “sharp and insightful account of the current explosion of student discontent, (that) ought to set off a golden age for the campus novel.”

Well, hahaha with that.  Here is my reaction.

The Devil and Webster
by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This book is set in a small New England town and at a fictional college, Webster, whose reputation has grown and changed in the 250 years since its founding.  Once a school for the boorish and disdainful sons of elite WASP families, Webster now is a highly desirable, broadly diverse liberal arts college ranked just below Harvard and Yale.  (It is difficult to explain to anyone outside the Northeast how obsessed people in that region are with this kind of signifier.)

The person who has completed the college’s resurrection is Naomi Roth, a former women’s and gender studies professor who has been the school’s first female and first Jewish president for a number of years.

Told from Roth’s point of view but not in the first person, the book goes on at some length about Roth’s history of campus radicalism, her pride at Webster’s broadly inclusive student body, her identification with student radicals and her support for same.  She’s also dismissive and scornful of people, mostly older white men, who don’t share her point of view. Establishing Roth’s righteousness takes up almost the entire first half of the book, which seems a bit much.

When students begin a quiet occupation of the campus’s main quad, Roth pays no mind.  As winter approaches and more students set up tents in the space, Roth seeks to learn the students’ complaints.  She is distressed to find herself cast in the unfamiliar role of “the man” — the oppressive campus heavy.

Eventually she learns the students’ complaint:  Tenure has been denied to a popular, easy-grading African American professor of folklore.  In fact, the professor has plagiarized the single publication credited to him in his years at Webster.  This is discovered not by his colleagues but by a high school student who remembers reading the original source material in a social studies class.

Because tenure discussions are confidential, Roth cannot explain the tenure denial.  For this she is reviled as a bigot and a racist.  The protest is led by a charismatic Palestinian student who has been mentored by the black professor and who has his own back story.  He refuses Roth’s repeated email requests to meet and talk.  For some reason, she doesn’t bother to go down and initiate a conversation at the protest site.

Things go on and then get worse.  Everything gets knitted back up by the end, and everyone, including Roth, is found to be imperfect in one way or another.  Well, who isn’t?

The Central Problem

Roth perceives herself to be powerless and does NOTHING.  She does not confront the Palestinian student or the plagiarizing professor.  She supports the demonstration by providing a luxury potty truck but does not assert that the school’s tenure decision is an honorable one.  Some leader.

The Palestinian student has obvious problems, but she defends herself in her own mind by enumerating all the “programs” she has instituted that would have ameliorated those problems.  When things go very badly for the student, she is puzzled and detached, not curious about how she might have averted his sad demise.

When bad things happen — bad things done by unknown, never-identified others — Roth becomes a victim again and therefore sympathetic.  She even ends up a with a new boyfriend who looks white but happens to have Native American ancestry.

Having learned very little from the whole experience, Roth takes up the presidency again.

Maybe the point of the book is to critique the willful passivity of college bureaucrats today.  But readers and reviewers don’t seem to take it that way.  And triumphant passivity is a pretty weak theme for a 368-page piece of literature.


The book’s title is a play on the title of a short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” that was a regular junior high reading assignment during much of the 20th century.

In that book, Daniel Webster, perhaps the most prominent 19th century American never to have been elected president,  argues in a courtroom for the freedom of a farmer who has made a Faustian pact with the devil.  The themes of that story are patriotism, the evil of slavery and, to a smaller extent, acknowledgement of American settlers’ mistreatment of Native Americans.

The last point is shoehorned into the book under discussion here, apparently to establish the virtuous nature of the college president and her wonderful, wonderful inclusive agenda.  Said another way, the title “The Devil and Webster” is an unjustifiable literary appropriation.


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