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edited by John Updike

Pub Date: May 7th, 1998
ISBN: 0-231-10248-8
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

A surprisingly dull collection of essays commemorating America’s preeminent institution of arts and letters on its centennial. Editor Updike, in his confusing foreword and his chapter covering the years 1938—47, sets the tone, managing to make this venerable, stodgy old institution seem . . . stodgy but venerable. Arranged chronologically, the essays are by historians and literary figures such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Cynthia Ozick, Norman Mailer, Louis Auchincloss, and Hortense Calisher, artists (Wolf Kahn and Richard Lippold), and the composer Jack Beeson. Founded in 1898, the National Institute was modeled on the Institut de France and its literary chamber, the AcadÇmie franáaise. There would be confusion and in-fighting over the rules, domain, and membership status between the Institute and the Academy (an exalted, and much smaller, body within the Institute) until they were —unified— in 1993. The book’s liveliest passages have to do with the barring of such figures as H.L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser, and with some pronounced rivalries: William James refused membership in the academy because his —younger and shallower and vainer brother— (Henry) was already in. Interesting and indicative of the character of the Academy-Institute is its decades-long battle against modernism, waged primarily by Robert Underwood Johnson, the secretary, who along with Grace Vanamee, the —permanent deputy,— would maintain a staunchly conservative tone. Leave it to Mailer to add a little zest to the proceedings. His chapter, —Rounding Camelot,— covers the period from 1958 to 1967. He laments that even at that late date the Academy-Institute was —all but wholly incapable of any kind of effective social or political action.— The organization would loosen up a little, eventually electing writers and artists Johnson would have abhorred. And its gold medals and grants remain highly sought after. Useful, but insufficiently edited. Nearly every entry re-explains who Johnson and Vanamee were or rehashes the early scandals.