Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Smith Thing

Smith is ubiquitous in literature. Perhaps you, too, have come across the Smith thing. It seems that Smithies can't stop writing about Smith. A friend obsessively wrote about her mother’s posh days at Smith, though she adamantly chose to attend a hippie general-studies college. Two women I’m reading at the moment describe Smith. In Nora Johnson’s light, humorous memoir, Coast to Coast: A Family Romance, she fondly recalls Smith in the '50s, where she spent a lot of time listening to Patti Page and Elvis on the jukebox, dating the wrong guys, sulkily tolerating the domination of Sylvia Plath in class, and watching her friends get married immediately after graduation. In Ursula Perrin’s novel, Old Devotions, the witty heroine Isabel, an alumna of Smith, also reminisces about Smith and coincidentally watches her roommate get married right after graduation. Isabel, the cranky daughter of German immigrants, initially dismissed Morgan as a “horsey type” but learned there were hidden depths and became her lifelong friend.

Both these books are entertaining, and to be honest, only segments are about Smith. But what is with the Smith thing? As a graduate of a good state university, I think how rarely I read books about women who graduated from state universities (Marge Piercy is the only one who comes to mind). I wouldn’t have been caught dead at a women’s college - I was too progressive and thought girls’ schools were medieval - and I still get bogged down in the class issues.

Johnson, who grew up shuttling between New York and Hollywood, with a parent in each port, liked the structure of Smith.

“I know now, which I didn’t then, how happy I was at Smith...if happiness is having a place where you belong. I made the customary complaints about living with hysterical girls and a housemother who smelled your breath when you came in, about spending four years gathering useless information and the absurdity of living without men - but I didn’t really believe any of it.”

Perrin’s Isabel expects to dislike the country-club girls who attend Smith, especially Morgan, her roommate, who has hockey sticks, shin guards, a saddle, etc.

“It turned out, against all possible odds, that we grew to like each other. Besides our roaringly high rates of metabolism, we had this in common: We were both broke. I had gone to a seedy, failing girls’ day school in New York City, where I had been one of two scholarship girls and not often left to forget it.... Morgan hadn’t gone to Madeira but to a seedy girls’ boarding school in Maryland where, between bouts of alcoholism, her father was the riding instructor.”

So stereotypes are broken: Johnson and Perrin’s Isabel claim not to have much money, yet one can't help but notice they grow up in elite intellectual homes, Johnson the daughter of Nunnally Johnson, a director and writer, and the fictional Isabel the daughter of a fictional scholar who expects her to get a Ph.D.

I doubt that the rest of my reading this summer will be about Smith. Still, what were the odds with these two?


Natalie Tyler said...

Have you heard of the newish novel, "Commencement"? I cannot recall the author--it's about a quartet of "Smithies".

Mad Housewife said...

I just looked it up and the author is J. Courtney Sullivan. It looks amusing and I'll look for it.

If I'd gone to Smith, I'd have a whole Smith-in-literature collection.