Swarthmore College and the Fiction of Jonathan Franzen ’81

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, protagonist Patty Berglund visits her daughter Jessica at her Philadelphia-area liberal arts college on Parents’ Weekend. There are a number of clues that Jessica attends Swarthmore, Franzen’s alma mater. The college is a “beautiful Quaker campus” with “sumptuous grounds.” The afternoon colloquium is titled “Performing Identity in a Multivalent World.” As an excuse to blow off time with her mother, Jessica mentions that “the workload’s pretty intense” (183).

It could conceivably be Haverford, or some fictional liberal arts campus, were it not for this passage:

…Her daughter was gazing with desolate self-control at the main college building, on an outside wall of which Patty had noticed a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM” (184).

by Will Treece

The inscription outside Parrish is actually from the Class of 1927, but no matter. A quick Googling reveals no source of the quote other than this particular inscription. If someone can prove that the Class of 1927 lifted the phrase from an ancient Greek text or somesuch, speak up, but “Use well thy freedom” appears to be unique to Parrish Hall.

If you’ve read Freedom, you know that “Use well thy freedom” is about as close to a four-word summary of the book’s lesson as you can get. “Use Well” carries a sense of resource management (a major motif of the novel), as if freedom is finite and bounded by our actions; there are tradeoffs involved in the way we exercise it. Sarfraz Manzoor of the Guardian contends that the book’s message is that America “fetishizes freedom and forgets that actually, there are greater freedoms to be had by having bonds.”

It’s pretty exciting, then, that Swarthmore’s Class of 1927 partially inspired the title to one of the bestselling novels of 2010. Freedom hit the #1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list the first week it was released, and the novel put Jonathan Franzen ‘81 on the cover of TIME magazine – the first living novelist to be featured on the cover in 10 years.

Franzen’s 2001 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Corrections, doesn’t have such overt references to Swarthmore – but if you’re looking, you can find them. Denise, a major character and compulsively responsible overachiever, attended a secluded liberal arts college near Philadelphia accessible by SEPTA. Her sister-in-law Caroline wears Swarthmore College gym shorts while she argues with her husband in bed. Franzen introduces a likable character with: “He looked like what he was — a former Haverford lacrosse player and basically decent man to whom nothing bad had ever happened and whom you therefore didn’t want to disappoint” (524).

Reading The Corrections, I’m struck less by the little references and more by the major themes of the novel, some of which seem quintessentially Swarthmorean. The way that Franzen self-consciously makes fun of liberals and do-gooders, while still remaining extremely left-wing, will be familiar to many Swarthmore students. Denise, the capable and driven overachiever, seemed especially real to me. Franzen notes Philadelphia’s insecure relation to New York City – although personally, I related more to the disjointed transitions between the Midwest and the East Coast that the characters experienced. I put down the novel thinking, “This author and I went through the same education system.”

Of course, not all Swatties will relate. For one, gender is probably a blind spot of Franzen’s. In her excellent New York Times essay “The Naked and the Conflicted: Sex and the American Male Novelist,” Katie Roiphe uses a sentence from The Corrections as an example of the sort of male writing that is hailed by critics but remains shockingly un-feminist: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.”

Franzen’s autobiography The Discomfort Zone doesn’t reference Swarthmore quite as much as his fiction. In telling his life story, Franzen doesn’t make many jabs at Swarthmore’s intellectualism or Quaker values. For the most part, he wraps references to Swarthmore within his stories of learning German and attempting to lose his virginity. Franzen mentions Honors seminars and the old practice of professors’ wives baking seminar breaks, but The Discomfort Zone wasn’t the frolic through Swarthmore student life circa 1980 that I was hoping for. Curiously, Freedom and The Corrections feel closer to home.

Franzen’s time at Swarthmore shows early glimmerings of a writing career. He was an editor and prolific reporter with the Phoenix, writing articles such as “Poli. Sci. Leads Sex Imbalance in Honors.” He also served as editor of the literary magazine The Nulset Review. His first act as editor was to organize a contest to rename the magazine, resulting in the title Small Craft Warnings. The name stuck, and Small Craft Warnings remains the oldest lit-mag on campus. Submissions for the Spring issue are due February 23rd.

In 1992 Franzen returned to Swarthmore to teach creative writing as a visiting professor. He lived in faculty housing – fans of The Corrections will note the similarity to Chip’s living situation – and brought his friend David Foster Wallace to judge Swarthmore’s fiction contest that year. In fact, one of the first readings of Wallace’s Infinite Jest took place at Swarthmore.

Perhaps Swarthmore exerted some sort of profound influence upon Franzen’s work, but I think it’s more productive to simply note the place that Swarthmore College holds in the writings of a great – TIME Magazine might argue the great – modern American author. In Freedom, the unnamed liberal arts college is an opportunity for Franzen to poke fun at both academia, noting that “the college itself seemed immensely proud of its wealth and altruistic mission,” and overachievers like Jessica’s boyfriend, who founded “some grotesquely worthy program wherein poor Malawian girls had their educations sponsored by soccer clubs in San Francisco” (183-4). But even while Franzen unleashes his sardonic wit upon Swarthmore College, it is telling that he uses the green Quaker campus to dispense the book’s essential lesson, “Use well thy freedom.” Thus, according to one of the most popular works of American fiction in the 21st century, Swarthmore College is a place where the buildings themselves can offer eternal truths if you just look carefully enough.

The Phoenix