Books by Alvin Kernan

IN PLATO'S CAVE by Alvin Kernan
Released: March 1, 1999

This gentle, wise, yet tough-minded memoir will delight and inform anyone who—d like to understand the academic world of the last 50 years. While academic autobiographies are often insular and dreary works, occasionally they—re witty as well as serious, self-critical as well as egotistical, and constructed around a theme larger than a single life. Kernan's (Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's World War II Odyssey, 1994, etc.) bid for the genre is of this rarer kind. The book relates his experiences since the 1940s at some of the world's great universities, particularly Yale and Princeton, as he ascended from student to professor to administrator. His theme is the democratization of American universities, especially private ones, during these years. While Kernan does his best to convey the gains as well as the costs of a continuing process of change, his heart is with the way things used to be, especially at Yale, where his strongest affections seem to lie, and which he saw wracked by fermenting student culture, racial turmoil (notably, Bobby Seale's trial), and sundry errors of leadership. Kernan describes himself accurately as a conservative, but he's an unusual variety of the species: courtly, wry, measured, unideological—the kind, that is, who makes you think. And yet one wishes that, in addition to the situations he deftly relates, often with devastating wit, he'd shed his gentle courtesy now and then, and simply let fly—against plagiarism, for instance, which has made inroads into the classroom that he so well describes. Kernan believes that eventually the structural changes in American higher education will end and things will settle down. But as his own tale of the emergence of what he calls the "demoversity" suggests, one cannot be sure. No diatribe at all, this work serves instead as an elegy for education as it once was. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 11, 1994

An unpretentious personal memoir of participation in WW II. Kernan (a senior advisor in humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; The Death of Literature, 1990) left the shadow of the mountains of Wyoming to join the Navy. He soon found himself on the carrier Enterprise just outside Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Kernan watched Doolittle's bombers take off for Tokyo, was aboard the Hornet in its death throes as Japanese firepower sank it, had a sea-level view of the decisive Battle of Midway, and was again outside Pearl Harbor on V-J Day. The young sailor advanced from ordnanceman to airborne gunner and finally to chief petty officer at 22, when he was discharged at the end of the war. But that's not what the story is about. It's about the unadvertised superiority of torpedoes labeled ``Made in Japan'' and the appropriate ratio of tracers to armor-piercing ammo. It's about shore leave and drinking and women. It's about tedium and terror and random death. One sailor's story becomes, somehow, emblematic of the collective memories of all those boys of war half a century ago. And no matter who the survivors are now, this is a tale of who they—and their comrades—were then. Kernan remembers sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge to the war in the Pacific: ``My eyes moved from one face to another of men who are as alive to me now as they ever were but whose bones are washing around the bottom of the sea, tangled in the wreckage of their planes, between Okinawa and Taiwan.'' This quiet book is no techno-heroic Tom Clancy text. It's an honest story of collective courage, evocative, well-written, and fixed before the colors fade. (Photos and maps, not seen) (Book-of- the-Month Club/History Book Club selections) Read full book review >