In her wonderful 1993 essay on "The Art of the Memoir," Mary Clearman Blew compares memoir writing to quilting, that art of piecing together scraps into a beautiful and useful whole. Blew is someone who gets up at 5:30 in the morning to quilt a couple of hours before heading off to teach. She recommends cutting scraps of cloth as they turn up, making, say, the petal shape for your pattern. Put them in a three-pound coffee can. When it's full, sort the scraps into colored piles. Then you hand sew them together bit by bit until you complete the whole wondrous kaleidoscopic design.
This Is Not the Ivy League is a memoir constructed in just that fashion. Each of the ten chapters has been published separately, so the book is linked by theme rather than chronology or narrative development. The themes play like colors in the patchwork. If it were a quilt rather than a book with white pages, the love of scholarship would be green, for example, and teaching purple, shades of red for love and marriage and lust and romance and divorce, and perhaps orange for sheer shock. The themes, the colors twine themselves into vivid patterns. Blew explores the eighteen years she spent teaching at Northern Montana College (now Montana State University, Northern). She explores not only her lifelong passion for learning but also the hurdles placed in her path by 1950s culture, a reluctant family, and an all-male faculty at Northern. Weather and circumstances may be more extreme than most readers expect, but Blew has captured the zeitgeist well indeed. One chapter recounts her earliest education in a one-room schoolhouse with a dazzling description of learning to read: an "unblinding," she calls it (24). Another examines becoming department chair, then dean—and not liking the person she becomes as a result. Painful personal situations weave through the chapters. We root for her, holding our breaths a bit.
Like Blew, others have written about their experiences in the academy, sometimes publishing satirical novels: Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe (1951), Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954), Jane Smiley's Moo (1995), to name a few. Blew certainly had enough humorous material to have written such a book. Were this a satire, one chapter would be "Drinking with Dwarves," another "Dumping the Dean," another "The Paranoid Prof." Taking a different tack, other distinguished scholars have written inspirational memoirs about early failure and subsequent success with appropriate modesty. Blew's memoir draws a more convoluted arc than is typical of either genre. About her brave and undistinguished college, Blew is unblinking, tending toward kindness. Faculty members were committed, she says, to "solid teaching" [End Page 91] (106). She describes vividly the college president's rage at finding a philodendron thriving in an old mint-green toilet placed under an unrepaired drip in the foreign language lab roof. She does not play these absurdities for comedy, nor does she cast herself as inspirational heroine. Instead, she looks to understand these isolated academics in their banality, absurdity, and sometimes melodramatic crises.
Blew doesn't shirk from describing her marital problems and divorce, her drinking and partying with students and faculty, being stranded miles from city and research facilities, and her work with student/faculty theatrical productions. A chronological memoir could have traced Blew's path from eager learner on a remote ranch in central Montana to college girl to doctoral student, assistant professor, department chair, dean, and professor again—omitting husbands, divorces, romance, and other nonacademic matters. "Who," she asks "could have imagined Northern Montana College?" (12). Whatever the ivory tower is, it's not this.
Ironically, had Blew had access to a research library, she would not have become the writer she is today: one novel, three collections of stories, five books of nonfiction—including the powerful All But the Waltz (1991)—along with a fistful of prizes. She might have published books for scholars excited about ablative absolutes in Old English. Instead we have this memoir...