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Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy (Phoenix Fiction) Paperback – April 30, 2010

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Product Details

  • Series: Phoenix Fiction
  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (April 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226393755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226393759
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #736,911 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Randall Jarrell's only novel features a Bryn Mawr-like women's college in which whispers and verbal shivs and sycophancy rule. "Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Benton had been endowed with one to begin with, and had smiled and sweated and spoken for the other." The institution's star-struck head is a Clintonesque young man particularly adept at raising money in Hollywood and who "wanted you to like him, he wanted everybody to like him--it was part of being a president; but talking all the time was too." Unfortunately, his new creative-writing hire only likes him the first time they meet. Thenceforth, she not only stirs things up but skewers them as well.

When the book was first published in 1954, most considered Gertrude Johnson to be a none-too-veiled portrait of Mary McCarthy. (The Partisan Review, for instance, failed to run a planned excerpt for fear of litigation.) "As a writer Gertrude had one fault more radical than all the rest: she did not know--or rather, did not believe--what it was like to be a human being. She was one, intermittently, but while she wasn't she did not remember what it had felt like to be one; and her worse self distrusted her better too thoroughly to give it much share, ever, in what she said or wrote." Pictures from an Institution is a superb series of poisonous portraits, set pieces, and endlessly quotable put-downs. One reads it less for plot than sharp satire, of which Jarrell is the master. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


“[An] exquisite, unerring comedy of manners. . . . [P]erhaps the funniest book I have ever read.”

(Cathleen Schine New York Review of Books)

"Mr. Jarrell is on the side of the angels. His is a divine meanness, and he exposes his female writing devil punitively, matching her stream of poinsonous wisecracks with a series of coruscating cracks of his own worthy of Dorothy Parker at her most hilarious and deadly."
(Francis Steegmuller, New York Times Book Review)

"One of the wittiest books of modern times."
(Orville Prescott New York Times)

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Customer Reviews

You will, like Wilde, say "How I wish I had said that."
Steven E. Buster
It is stuffed with satiric set pieces, gorgeously funny one-liners, and characters only slightly exaggerated from reality.
Jessica Weissman
Her deliberate social wickednesses are some of the highlights of the book.
MSP Rose

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Jay Dickson VINE VOICE on November 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
Randall Jarrell's roman a clef about life in a small college, in that it centers upon a Mary McCarthyesque novelist who is herself embarking upon her own roman a clef (very much like THE GROVES OF ACADEME) about the "little people" who also trundle through the small college campus where she is allowed to stride magnificently like a contemptuous giantess. Thus the reader has the double pleasure of seeing her ironic views of the failings of the people around her contextualized by his or her ironic view of her own grosser moral failings. The giddy mise-en-abyme effect of this is tempered at the end, wherein the novel's narrating consciousness (our guide through this academic Wonderland ) must confront whether there is something to find beautiful--and sincerely--in this most artificial and insincere of playworlds. A wonderful work.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stanley H. Nemeth on December 18, 2006
Format: Paperback
Author Randall Jarrell's brilliantly witty, prophetic novel from the middle of the last century shows in their bud many of the absurd developments which have come to full flower in current American academe. Endless Tolerance, Creativity, and Diversity are already the buzzwords par excellence at fictional Benton College of the 1950's. Accordingly , Jarrell presents us with an art department whose members are so open minded (i.e. reluctant to judge between good and bad) that "if someone dipped a porcupine in chocolate and called it modern, they'd swallow it." Similarly, a creative writing department replete with published authors brought in to teach students more ambitious than talented flourishes at Benton. One such student, Sylvia Moomaw, has written a story of which she's singularly proud. It involves a bug which wakes up in bed to find itself turned into a man. "Influenced by Kafka," she shyly acknowledges, when talking about her "artistry" to the skeptical central character, Sydney. Finally, Benton College is especially self-congratulatory over its efforts at outreach, seeking token representatives for Diversity's purposes, even from an area as remote and unpromising as Tierra del Fuego, lest anyone be excluded. If artists generally see in advance of the rest of us, this novel may be adduced as evidence for the point.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Charles Morgan on June 15, 2006
Format: Paperback
I laughed out loud through the entire thing! People on the street would stop me and ask what was so funny. Randall Jarrell, a poet, and Mary McCarthy were on a College campus at the same time in the '50's, when McCarthy was a writer in residence for a year. Jarrell shadows her cold-hearted fiction-gathering techniques, as she observes the faculty in action(this is during the 1950's) for a book she wrote called The Groves of Academe. My piano teacher thought it was a mean-spirited view of McCarthy, but Jarell was a cose friend of hers; it's somewhat of a loving portrait. PS: Groves of Academe was also very good. Pictures is a "Making Of".
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By MSP Rose on December 30, 2010
Format: Paperback
Randall Jarrell's only novel is intelligent, sparkling, tender, entertaining and singularly plotless. It really is what it says on the tin - some pictures from an institution. The institution in question is based on the American ladies' college where he taught for some years - one of the key portraits is apparently that of his one-time colleague Mary McCarthy (author of The Group and other best-sellers) - as Gertrude. Her deliberate social wickednesses are some of the highlights of the book.

You will need a reasonably good background in the arts to get even half the jokes here. I think of myself as well-read but I was aware that many things in the text were going over my head. I would guess that the book was written partly out of a sense of frustration at being surrounded by doe-eyed undergraduates and having no one actually intelligent to talk to. There's a vaguely bitter edge to the constant flights of brilliant humour that makes one sense the author's loneliness and anger at the on-going waste of intellectual potential in the world. This slightly savage tone provides an excellent counterpoint to his poet's eye for detail and his honest regard for beauty. Certain select things and people in the book can be suddenly redeemed from mockery when they become or produce something really worthwhile. This is humbling, to one who has been riding along with Jarrell's high-handed mischievousness - to be brought up short against the man's aesthetic honesty and willingness to admire. He - or his narrator (it is for once a justifiable confusion) - is utterly unafraid to admit it when he has made a mistake. This rescues us just a little from despair. It brings compassion to the spirit of Vile Bodies, and reckless hi-jinks to the reflectiveness of Point Counterpoint.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 24, 2010
Format: Paperback
What a strange novel. I knew of it vaguely as about Mary McCarthy's stint at Sarah Lawrence in the postwar idyll when college jobs appeared easy to get and the literate spoke of German poetry in the original and listened to twelve-tone music, but Jarrell's only fiction's certainly exceedingly odd. It meanders, it ruminates, it penetrates, all in an elusive style permeating tone, voices, conversations from a curiously placed, not quite omniscient, narrator sounding a lot like the poet himself.

Moments of mockery, as in the performance of "The Life of Nature" ballet by students, or poignancy, as with Constance's immersion in the Grimm's tale of the Juniper Tree, alternate. Gertrude as the McCarthy stand-in for me seemed less engrossing. Descriptions such as "torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile" make her seem more evilly enjoyable than she really is as a figure to be caricatured. "She's the worst Southerner since Jefferson Davis" is a great line, all the same. I guess you, as was Jarrell, had to be there.

Other characters such as the boyish booster President of Benton College, and his dull wife, and other cowed faculty (few students make much of an impression, tellingly, and few scenes take place in class) float by with similar blends of observation and detachment. The attention given Dr. Rosenbaum appeared enormous given the relatively small role his part added up to in terms of advancing the storyline. The college appears as if remote from the rest of the world, even as it determinedly (this being 1954) imposes its progressive values on generations of women, bohemian or polite, mannered or gawkish. "Living around colleges the way you do, you've just lost your sense of what's probable," Gertrude chides the narrator.
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