After the success of his first novel, East of the Giants, Stewart decided to write another. It was the goal of every serious writer of the time to become an author – that is, a creator of novels – and Stewart wanted to join that small club.
This was also a way to develop his fiction-writing abilities. He had a few ideas about novels of grander vision and greater success, but he knew he needed to hone his skills before tackling such projects. He once said that the first book is hard, the second harder, and the third the hardest of all. This would be his second novel.
Wisely, he kept the book small in scale and carefully focused. In doing so, Stewart may have invented what might be called the “micro-novel.” That is, as in Pickett’s Charge, the micro-history he would write 20 years later (see earlier post), the entire action of this novel takes place in a very confined setting and in a very brief period of time.
The book is set on a mythical university campus in the late 1930s. It is the story of one day (as I recall) in the life of Joe Grantland, a mediocre graduate student in English who must pass his oral exams before he receives his PhD. He’s poor and he’s not a scholar on Stewart’s level, but he must face seven professors, successfully, if he is to graduate. If he fails, he will not find a job. Since he’s taking the oral during the Great Depression, finding a job is critical. To make matters worse he has a major personal problem hanging over his head — a problem of such magnitude that he can hardly sleep, let along concentrate on the exam. Yet concentrate he must, or he will be stuck in poverty. (Of course we now know that, had he failed, Joe would also certainly have gone to war, and possibly died. So passing the oral, in hindsight, was even more important than Stewart or his protagonist realized in 1939.)
This is the only Stewart novel which might be described as humorous. The author is clearly working in places to make events somewhat light in tone, even though it is about serious business. To me, that seems not to work well; and Stewart rarely put humor into his later novels. But, again, he was trying things out, as he worked to develop his novel-writing ability.
The microcosmic setting, which is largely urban, seems to lack passion — another experiment in style from Stewart. But he cannot stay in the drawing room. In one scene, Joe walks to the edge of the campus and town, looks at the wilderness across the river, and wishes himself there. That’s probably Stewart, in Joe clothing. After this book, Stewart would stay in the wilderness for most of his future writing.
The locations and the professors are well-disguised, but those who know Stewart’s connections with UC Berkeley can identify at least a few of the places where the action takes place — like Le Chat Gris, the local student/professor cafe. (It’s the Black Sheep, on old Telegraph.) He does a fine job of describing a typical University campus of the day, and the professorial types of the time, without resorting to caricature or satire.
Does Joe pass? Does he solve his problem? You can buy a first edition for about $125 dollars, and probably find a used copy for less, and then you’ll know the answers.
The book received mixed reviews. The Saturday Review found the professors’ portraits well-done, but felt the book was not well-written. The New Masses, in a very astute review, noted that it was the first novel to present college students of the Depression Era, and thus an important historical leap ahead from the Fitzgerald novels which focused on wealthy students. (Interestingly, Stewart and Fitzgerald went to Princeton together, and graduated in the same class, in 1917.)
The most important “review,” though, came from Jaques Barzun, the distinguished thinker and writer, who famously once said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” When he became Dean of the Graduate School at Columbia University, Barzun made Doctor’s Oral required reading for all PhD students — high praise for Stewart’s work, indeed.
Doctor’s Oral is not without its flaws — Stewart was learning how to write fiction and so it is not as polished as his later work — but it is worth reading. That’s especially true if you are faced with any great challenge or test, and at the same time dealing with major personal issues. Read the book, and you won’t feel so alone.
His “practice” in writing his first novels paid off. George R. Stewart was about to write an Earth-shaking work of fiction that would affect all human society, and change the way we look at ourselves and our place in the universe.