American Scholar is a skillfully told, emotionally powerful tale about intellectual discovery and relationships.
The novel recounts one night in the life of James Fitzgerald, a literature professor celebrating the release of his novel about influential 20th century academic F.O. Matthiessen and his love affair with an older male artist. In alternating chapters that jump back in time, James remembers his first serious relationship with brilliant but troubled Gregory during the late 1980s, when he discovered Matthiessen as a recently out graduate student.
Early on, the story portrays the younger James’s (called Jimmy) first meeting of Columbia’s Gay Study group, where members analyze and debate various texts, while also amusing each other with Barbra Streisand and Gypsy quotes, combining serious inquiry with playful, flirtatious banter.
When Gregory, a group founder, asks out Jimmy, Jimmy is awed by Gregory’s wide-ranging knowledge and “mature” understanding of romantic affairs. As their relationship develops, however, he experiences Gregory’s demanding nature and mood swings. Jimmy also becomes obsessed with Matthiessen, dragging Gregory to the scholar’s Boston home where he committed suicide after his lover’s death.
Meanwhile, in the novel’s present, James tries to understand his fight that morning with his partner, with whom he shares an open relationship, meets with his younger boyfriend, and grapples with Gregory’s sister’s gift of the now-deceased Gregory’s documents and photos, including some of Matthiessen’s letters Jimmy gave to Gregory.
The novel skillfully explores the characters’ complexity and relationships. For instance, on their first date, Jimmy desires Gregory but worries he might not be smart or attractive enough for him, yet panics at going “all the way.” In their messiness, his thoughts feel realistic and human.
The book also celebrates scholarly work, the joy of finding books, authors, and ideas that speak to one’s life and how to live it. Readers who don’t appreciate scholarly pursuits will still enjoy seeing how Jimmy and Gregory’s relationship unfolds.
All told, American Scholar is a fine work, one sure to grip those looking for an unusual story with irresistibly complex characters.
Also available as an ebook.