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Reed in Fiction

A short survey of the ways Reed and Reedies have been portrayed in American literature.

By Scott Benowitz ’96

Perusing some back issues of Reed, I noticed that no one has yet written any articles about how Reed has been perceived by writers of fiction throughout the past decades, as reflected in characters who attended or taught at Reed. After some searching, I’ve found several books whose characters have some connection to Reed dating as far back as the late 1920s and up through the 2000s. This is by no means an exhaustive list; in particular, these authors are all American. I hope that other readers can turn up additional references, perhaps from overseas authors, and I encourage them to share their discoveries below. I would also like to thank the alumni who have offered support and encouragement for this idea over the years.

The Dharma Bums

Dharma Bums

The earliest example that I can find is Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums (1958), which recounts his travels with the writers who would soon come to be known as the founders of the Beat movement. Kerouac changed the names of his friends; Japhy Ryder is based on Gary Snyder ’51; Warren Coughlin is based on the late Philip Whalen ’51. There is actually one instance in the book in which Jack Kerouac forgot to change the name of the (semi-fictional) character Japhy, and actually refers to him as “Gary.” The editors apparently missed this reference, too!

The Dharma Bums is based on Kerouac’s memories of the time that he spent with Gary and Philip in the mid-fifties; it is difficult to determine precisely how much of this book is embellishment and how much of it recounts the events as they actually occurred.

The stories in The Dharma Bums take place in 1955–56 in a number of different locations, from Berkeley, California, to Mexico, North Carolina; some chapters also take place in a region of the Cascade Mountains in northern Washington. There are a number of references to Japhy and Warren’s college days of the late 1940s and the early 1950s. There is also a brief reference to a character who appears in this book under the name “Jack Joseph,” who is described as a geology student and friend of Japhy’s, who worked with him for the U.S. National Forest Service in 1952. I strongly suspect this character is also based on someone who attended Reed, but so far I’ve been unable to ascertain whom—any ideas?

The Group

The next example I found is Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, published in 1963, which revolves around eight women who graduate from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1933. The Group follows them from their graduation up until 1940. One of the eight, Kay Strong, marries Harald Peterson, who is a graduate of the Reed College class of 1927. While none of the scenes in the novel actually take place at Reed College, the character of Harald does offer some insight as to how this writer perceived Reed as it was during the 1920s, when the earliest parts of this novel take place.

The Group

In The Group, the character Harald hails from Idaho, goes to Reed, attends graduate school at Yale, and becomes a playwright shortly before he and Kay get married. Harald engages in frequent extramarital affairs. In the book (and also in the film, made three years later), Harald speaks and dresses like someone from a middle-class background. Though at first supportive towards Kay, he turns out to be horrible and abusive. The author hints to the readers that Harald may also be curious about experimenting with bisexuality, though we only see him having affairs with women.

Three years later, in 1966, The Group was adapted for the big screen; the character of Harald was played by Larry Hagman. The film makes no mention of Reed, though it does offer an interesting visual image of this character.

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven

Reed is briefly mentioned in a 1971 sci-fi fantasy novel, The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which explores a nightmarish view of the future. Set in Portland, the book’s main character George Orr (maybe a play on Eric Arthur Blair’s pen name), who alters reality through his dreams. The plot shifts forward and backward in time following some dream sequences; in one of the realities, set in 1998, Portland has a subway system and Reed College has its own station, which is later abandoned. The book was twice adapted for the screen, first in 1979 and again in 2002, but neither movie mentions Reed.

Summer Sisters

Summer Sisters

Some books feature minor characters who were students at Reed such as Judy Blume’s 1998 novel Summer Sisters, which follows the lives of two 12-year-old girls named Caitlin Somers and Victoria Leonard until they turn 30. Caitlin’s older brother, Sharkey, writes " . . . I know I’m weird,” in his diary during his teenage years and eventually goes to Reed. After graduating from Reed, Sharkey is accepted at both MIT and Cal-Tech, reflecting the author’s perception that Reed attracts intelligent, studious, and socially withdrawn students.

The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke

The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke

Some of the writers who mention Reed are in fact our own alumni. Barbara Riddle ’64 was a chemistry major at Reed. In 2000, she published her first novel, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke (Renaissance and Sound Publications), based largely on her experiences as an assistant in a biology research laboratory at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, during summer 1963, between her junior and senior years at Reed. The novel’s central theme is the coming-of-age story of Bronwen, a 19-year-old junior who is entering into a summer internship at a genetics research lab. Although disguised as Brieden College in the book, the college will seem strikingly familiar to Reedies.

The novel takes place during the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the expansion of the civil rights movement. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones reflect the turmoil of the times. There are some amusing and revealing glimpses of undergraduate life in the Sixties, including a drug scene involving the protégées of a Harvard professor who could only be Timothy Leary. One character, a brilliant chemistry professor named Dr. Krumley, is based on the late Reed chemistry professor Marsh Cronyn ’40 [chemistry 1952–89]. In fact, Marsh read the book and told Barbara that he enjoyed it.

Barbara's novel was recently included in the archives of a unique British website, which chronicles creative fiction about how real scientists think and live. Interested readers can browse Barbara's blog online.

The Burke Dynasty

James Burke

James Lee Burke is the author of a series of novels starring New Orleans detective Dave Robicheaux, whose daughter, Alafair, enters into her freshman year at Reed in Last Car to Elysian Fields, and in subsequent novels graduates and goes to law school at Stanford. The Robicheaux novels don’t contain many details about Reed, but the are worth mentioning because Burke’s daughter, Alafair Burke ’91, really did go to Reed and is herself a successful novelist.

Samantha Kincaid

Alafair has published three novels about a Portland prosecutor named Samantha Kincaid. Her first novel, Judgment Calls, includes numerous references to the Eastmoreland Golf Course, to Safeway on Woodstock, to The Hotcake House, and to many other Reed landmarks. Alafair worked as a deputy district attorney in Portland for several years in the 1990s, and the stories in her first three books are based largely on her own experiences.

In one passage, Samantha is driving through Portland with a teenage rape survivor, attempting to find the location where the crime occurred. Driving past campus, Samantha remarks that many Portlanders refer to Reed as “that hippie school,” a viewpoint which she does not seem to dispute. In another passage, a character remarks that sweaty teenagers sometimes tell each other, “You smell like a Reedie.”

Jessica Darling

Charmed Thirds

Reed crops up in a minor way in Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, which follows a teenage girl living in Pineville, New Jersey. After completing her freshman year at Columbia, Jessica returns to Pineville, New Jersey. She and her boyfriend, Marcus, run into one of Marcus’s ex-girlfriends, Sierra, at a rather unusual crafts fair sponsored by the Church of Creativity and Song. Jessica and Marcus purchase a toilet seat and matching toilet seat cover decorated with photos of Barry Manilow. Sierra has just finished her freshman year at Reed and tells Marcus that she is writing music to accompany some poems that she wrote years earlier when they had been dating. Sierra wears “cruelty free plastic shoes, hemp shorts” and a t-shirt which reads “I think therefore I’m RAW,” (was this an actual Reed t-shirt?) and tells Marcus that she had been clean and sober for three years.

The Other

The Other

Seattle writer David Guterson’s 2008 novel, The Other, is the story of two friends named Neil Countryman and John William Barry who encounter each other at a high school track meet in 1972. Neil has a blue-collar background; John hails from one of the wealthiest families in the state of Washington. Nonetheless, they become fast friends in high school. John goes to Reed for his freshman year, but drops out and pursues the life of a hermit in a cave in the woods in the Olympic Mountains in Washington. Meanwhile, Neil becomes a high school English teacher, but continues to visit John in the mountains, and eventually seems to be John’s only contact with the outside world. After several years, Neil visits the cave only to discover John’s dead body. Neil buries him in his cave, but does not tell anyone about his friend’s death for 20 years. Neil is an aspiring writer and it turns out that his publisher, Cindy Saperstein, is also a Reedie who briefly dated John during their freshman year back in 1975. Later we learn that John bequeathed his entire inheritance to Neil shortly before he entered into his period of isolation.

It’s debatable whether the plot of The Other is realistic or whether Guterson intended it that way. However, I will say that the references to Reed in the 1970s seem to me to be believable, including the character John who is fed up with society and drops out; Cindy who attempts to date him; and John’s annoying freshman roommate. Guterson does a nice job describing some of the buildings on campus and the Cerf amphitheatre. There are references to two fictional professors in The Other named Marvin Leedy and Howard Jaffe (hmm . . .). There is also a reference to a fictional visiting professor of ecopsychology named Ronald Metzger. From what I’ve read about Reed College during the mid 1970s, it seems plausible that we might have had professors whose ideas were considered to be radical, experimental, and controversial.

The Gods of Reed

Gods of Reed

The most recent novel I found involving Reed is The Gods of Reed, self-published in 2009 by Amos Buchanan ’02. I would describe this as a truly unique work, unlike anything else that I’ve read. Amos has created a dark comedy, with elements of magic realism, which takes place entirely on the Reed campus, set sometime around the turn of the millennium. (Although no years are mentioned, there are references to recent buildings such as the Steele Street residences, meaning that these stories would have to take place after 1997.)

Amos seems to have written The Gods of Reed with an intent to make it part one of a series. The book introduces the readers to a number of characters, with a number of different subplots, and the reader does not actually know how these storylines are related to one other, except that they all take place at Reed. Amos Buchanan was a physics major and worked in the college’s IT department for a few years after graduation. According to the last page of this book, Amos began to write these stories during his senior year at Reed, so I suspect that at least some of the stories and the characters who appear in this book are partly based on Amos’s own experiences.

Finally . . .

I enjoyed hunting through the internet for novels that mention Reed. In contrast to large universities for which there are hundreds, if not thousands, of references, Reed is small and distinctive enough that the references are seldom arbitrary, even if they reflect stereotypes. I also noticed that all the references I found came from American authors; as far as I can tell, Reed College has yet to be mentioned in a work of fiction written by an author from elsewhere. It will certainly be interesting to see how writers in the future portray Reed and Reedies.

Go Further

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: The Viking Press, 1958.

McCarthy, Mary. The Group. New York: Avon, 1963

Le Guin, Ursula. The Lathe of Heaven. New York: Avon, 1971

Blume, Judy. Summer Sisters. New York: Delacorte Books, 1998

Riddle, Barbara. The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke. USA: Renaissance Sound Publication, 2000.

Burke, James. Last Car to Elysian Fields. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Burke, Alafair. Judgement Calls. New York: Henry Holte, 2004.

McCafferty, Megan. Charmed Thirdsa Novel. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.

Guterson, David. The Other. New York: Alfered A. Knopf, 2008.

Buchanan, Amos. The Gods of Reed. Portland: Amos Buchanan, 2009.

—Author info: Scott Benowitz ’96 got his BA in International Studies and is presently working as the secretary in an architectural office in Rye, N.Y.