As commencement draws near, many graduating Elis will look back on their four years to examine what they will take away from their undergraduate experience. Some Yalies graduate with near-perfect GPAs, many leave campus with lifelong friendships and an unfortunate few depart with broken hearts. Others, however, pack up their belongings and move out with something much simpler — inspiration.
Many Yale-grown writers and artists have drawn on their experiences at the University in a variety of experiences, from direct recollections of their years as undergraduates to appropriations of Yale archetypes into pieces of work. These works range from written fiction to film documentaries, but all of them share the common thread that is Yale’s influence.
Even those writers whose work does not deal directly with college life admit that their writing ends up infused with at least a bit of Yale-ness.
M.G. Lord ’77 wrote little about her actual experience at Yale in her new book “Astroturf,” which chronicles her father’s work at the national Jet Propulsion Lab during the Cold War.
But Lord says that her experience at Yale had a profound effect on her writing style. Specifically, she still carries the wisdom imparted upon her by several Yale professors, such as famed “Hiroshima” author John Hersey, who taught at Yale while Lord, a former News graphics editor, was an undergraduate.
“The John Hersey class was really important because you looked at models [to base your writing on],” Lord said.
Yalie memoirs are just one element of a genre that can be called the “Yale book.” In addition to the memoir, some members of the Yale community place the University squarely at the center of their fictional plot-lines.
Yale’s prominence after the 2000 presidential victory of George W. Bush ’68 motivated Jeffrey Lewis ’66 to write the novel “Meritocracy.” Though not set in New Haven, “Meritocracy” follows a group of recent Yale graduates as they gather at a Maine resort in the summer of 1966 to send off fictional Yale-grad Harry Nolan to the Vietnam War.
Lewis said he meant for Nolan to represent an Eli archetype — the student who everyone suspects will become president one day.
“It was almost a syndrome. There were a lot of guys people thought would be president one day,” Lewis said. “It had something to do with a combination of Yale’s tendency to look to one category for admissions — future leaders of America — and, on the other hand, a lot of guys whose fathers were big shots in some way.”
The University has impacted not only the literary work of alumni writers but of faculty members as well. Katharine Weber, a former lecturer in the English Department, set her novel “The Little Women,” a modern retelling of the Louisa May Alcott classic, in an off-campus apartment on High Street.
Weber said the University plays a crucial role in the unfolding of “The Little Women,” a story about two sisters that move in with their older sister after finding out about their mother’s affair. Yale, at first a foreign environment for the characters, eventually becomes home for all three girls.
“Yale becomes in loco parentis for my characters, for the three teenage sisters,” Weber said. “They fled the structure of my family, but they have fled toward the structure of Yale University.”
Sandra Chwialkowska ’05 took another route with her Yale experience and recorded over 70 hours of footage of her and her four freshman-year suitemates since October 2001. Her documentary “It’s About College,” which she will be submitting as her senior project for the Film Studies major, will be screened this Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center.
“A lot of people come to Yale as freshmen feeling as if they were a big fish in a small pond in their high school,” Chwialkowska said. “It’s about how they have this reality check and … gradually build up confidence and find their niche.”
These artists are all indebted, directly or indirectly, to the experiences they had while attending Yale.
“Yale took a fair amount of emotional space in my life, but I can’t quite put my finger on [its influence on my writing],” Lewis said. “If it didn’t help me to become a writer, it at least helped determine what I would write about.”