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The Devil and Webster
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Naomi Roth is the first female president of Webster College, a once conservative school now known for producing fired-up, progressive graduates. So Naomi isn’t surprised or unduly alarmed when Webster students begin the fall semester with an outdoor encampment around “The Stump”-a traditional campus gathering place for generations of student activists-to protest a popular professor’s denial of tenure. A former student radical herself, Naomi admires the protestors’ passion, especially when her own daughter, Hannah, joins their ranks.
Then Omar Khayal, a charismatic Palestinian student with a devastating personal history, emerges as the group’s leader, and the demonstration begins to consume Naomi’s life, destabilizing Webster College from the inside out. As the crisis slips beyond her control, Naomi must take increasingly desperate measures to protect her friends, colleagues, and family from an unknowable adversary.
Touching on some of the most topical and controversial concerns at the heart of our society, this riveting novel examines the fragility that lies behind who we think we are-and what we think we believe.
This, Sir, is my case! It is the case not merely of that humble institution, it is the case of every college in our Land…of all those great charities founded by the piety of our ancestors to alleviate human misery, and scatter blessings along the pathway of life…Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak, it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out! But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land!
It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!
Daniel Webster, 1818
A Small School in the Woods
At the exact epicenter of the Webster College campus, which was also the exact epicenter of the open rectangular space known today as the Quad, but formerly (and still formally) as the Billings Lawn, a large and unlovely stump protruded from highly tended grass. The stump was a lonely vestige of the great elms that once loomed over Webster’s buildings and walkways, and filled the forests of New England in general before Dutch elm disease arrived, a half-century earlier. But this particular tree—this particular stump—was not a victim of that arboreal catastrophe; it had been chopped down many years before the first fungus-bearing Scolytus elm-bark beetle had met its first North American victim. That stump went back to the very beginning of Webster’s story and it was a beloved symbol of the college to its graduates. Everyone else had to have it explained to them, but wasn’t that what it meant to be an insider?
The stump had a proper name, naturally—it was “the Webster Elm”—but nobody used that; everybody just called it the Stump. As in: “We’ll meet at the Stump at ten, okay? We can walk over from there.” Or: “Join us every Sunday at eight for sunrise yoga at the Stump!” Or: “Take Back the Night will leave from the Stump at midnight.” And of course there had been protests at the Stump. Many protests, over the years. Many sit-ins and vigils. Webster was populated by students who cared deeply, passionately about things, who thought globally and acted locally, and who had been admitted to Webster, now one of the most selective colleges in the nation, for precisely those reasons. The Stump was where they went when there was something they wanted, or wanted rid of, or when something terrible happened, on campus or in the world—safe spaces for women, dodgy institutional investments, more choices for vegetarians (back when “vegetarian” was radical enough; no one had even dreamed of “vegan”), the raging (sometimes drunken) Indian who once served as the college’s mascot (a slap in the face to those Native American students the college began to recruit in the ’70s), or the disasters—man-made or natural—the wrestling coach actually struck by lightning on the golf course, the student killed in a driving accident while on a study abroad program in Peru, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the towers, the basketball player dead in his bed from a drunken aspiration of vomit, and once, long ago, when a freshman from the Midwest who turned out to be black arrived on campus to matriculate, an actual encampment at the Stump for nearly a week. So many petitions and expressions of solidarity and rallies and moments of silence! So much empathy and outrage and passionate youthful idealism! But whatever cause or grievance brought Webster students to the Stump, what happened once they got there was always pretty much the same: a clear statement of purpose, a plainly identified leader, and lines of communication smartly established with Webster’s president, whoever he was at the time, after which that president would at least pretend to consider the students’ demands or sympathize with their feelings. But then, once the protesters had picketed a trustees’ retreat or a commencement to emphasize their point, the students would always just…go away. Had they graduated? Or transferred? Had Mom or Dad or whoever was paying Webster’s tuition read them the riot act? It didn’t really matter. The students of Webster College had convened, raised their voices, made their points, been heard…and then, having accomplished these things, they had departed, after which Buildings and Grounds would come along to clear away anything left behind. Then the area around the Stump would be reseeded and fenced off to give it a chance to recover. And that would always be the end of that.
Exactly none of these prior protests, therefore, would have offered any guidance to Naomi Roth.
Naomi Roth, who’d arrived at Webster as its first dedicated professor of feminist and gender studies and then became its dean of women’s affairs, and ultimately its first female president, and whose experience at Webster that awful year would come to seem…well, many things: inevitable, unforgiving…tragic, obviously. There were no crucial lessons in the college’s past, no kernels of sage advice from those former Webster presidents still living. It was all a new terrain, baffling and undiscovered, and once the thing began there seemed to be no way of stopping it, at least no way beyond the many ways she did try, and despite how sincerely she offered negotiation, then—to be blunt—capitulation. Nothing worked, and it even occurred to her that what began at the Stump that fall was not so much a protest in the way that she, a former student activist herself, had always understood “protest,” but rather an undefined compulsion to exchange ideas about what was wrong with Webster and wrong with the world. It was almost as if each of the students at the Stump encampment had come with some personal grievance, and in the airing of these grievances there emerged a general, generational, miasma of discontent: about Webster, the country, the way things were, that simply hung over the Billings Lawn and the campus itself, and represented, as Betty Friedan might have said, a problem that had no name. But, it was still Naomi Roth’s problem: first ignored by her, and then irritating to her, and then alarming to her, and then, all at once, intractably complex and a threat to everything she had done at Webster, and everything she was trying to do.
It was Naomi herself who noted the deference paid to one young man, a dark and slight kid in a brown hoodie and heavy rubber boots, caked in November mud. And it was Naomi who asked who he was and began to wonder, possibly aloud, whether he would like to represent the group and talk with her in a calmer way about what was at issue here, and how the administration—how she, Naomi—could begin to make it right.
And so: Naomi found him. She appointed him—you could make a case for that. And everything that happened later, to the college, to Naomi herself, but mostly, of course, to him, was her fault. You could make a case for that, too, and even if you couldn’t, Naomi herself could. She always would.
His name, it would emerge, was Omar, and he was a sophomore from Oklahoma, though he was not, of course, really from Oklahoma. He was from Oklahoma the way someone with an Irish name was from Massachusetts, or someone with a Swedish name was from Minnesota, only not even that, because the Oklahoma address on his Webster application just happened to be that of the foster family he was living with at the time, after earlier stints with other foster families in Milwaukee and Houston. Why Oklahoma? It was one of those questions you sensed there was no point in asking. Why Milwaukee? Why Houston? Why America in the first place?
Another question not worth asking, but for the opposite reason.
America because, as Omar would later tell it—to his comrades in the finally named movement, Webster Dissent, to the earnest student journalists from the Webster Daily and the alternative Webster Contra, the Webster Tonight host on the college radio station, the Yale Daily News reporter and the Hartford Courant reporter and the AP reporter and the extremely famous reporter from NBC News and the also extremely famous host of Today—America had been his dream, for so many years in the refugee camp, far away in his cherished, blighted land.
His dream among open sewers and plastic bags flapping in the dry air and the sacks of grain from World Concern and the brave little soccer skirmishes on the broken ground under the lights of the perimeter fence…far, far into the distance. The sorrow and boredom and filth, the anguish of watching his loved ones taken, one after the next until he was alone, the ache of wasted time as other boys in other countries got to study, dream, plan, move forward into their futures while he could only sit still: immobilized by frustration, tormented by longing.
Such a terrible story. Such a terrible wonderful story because…look how Omar had journeyed from there to here, from that terrifying sad place to this lovely safe campus: buildings of gray stone, pretty fluttering trees, straight walkways to guide your footfalls as you progressed from destination to destination, and that single, misshapen stump left over from the past, to which you might tie yourself as to the mast of a listing ship. You couldn’t save everyone in the world, of course, but wasn’t it nice to think that a smart boy from such an awful life, burdened by so much suffering, so many losses, might still, incredibly, find himself at a place like Webster College?
Webster College. Once a school of the richest, the WASPiest, the most loutish and most conservative of American men, and then later, after its extraordinary transition in the 1970s, the institution of choice for creative and left-leaning intellectuals of all genders and ethnic varieties. “A small school in the woods, from which, by the Grace of God, we might know His will” had been its motto in the early days, when Josiah Webster hacked his way north from King’s College (later Columbia) to establish his Webster’s Indian Academy beneath the towering elms. Two centuries later, with nary a Native American student in nearly that long, those words—like so much else about Webster—had been revised: “A small school in the woods, from which, by scholarship and thoughtful community, we might know the Universe.”
That was how things stood when Naomi Roth became the college’s seventeenth president, and Omar Khayal, a sophomore from Oklahoma, Milwaukee, Houston, and a refugee camp under Palestinian stars, its doomed and mystifying icon.
Naomi Roth’s Defining
What happened at Webster that year was harrowing, but it wasn’t the first harrowing scenario Naomi Roth had faced, either as Webster’s president or, indeed, in her prior roles at the college: professor, dean of women’s affairs, and reluctant member of the search committee for the very job she’d end up occupying herself.
That earlier skirmish (later she would think of it as a baptism of sorts) had been the Radclyffe Hall mess a decade earlier, more or less concurrent with the announcement that Logan Coulson, Webster’s sixteenth president, intended to retire. Radclyffe Hall had brought the college, and Naomi as its situational spokesperson, the kind of attention that generated snark on Weekend Update and the gleeful nastiness of right-wingers everywhere. It also brought figures from Naomi’s life in its many phases—her New York childhood, college in upstate New York, the years in northern New Hampshire (first as a VISTA volunteer then as a leftover from some nonexistent social revolution), and later graduate school and academia—poking back into her life, with emails to her Webster address, messages on her office phone, and a deeply unwelcome letter from her ex-husband, enclosing three glossy photos of himself with wife number 2 and kids (which went straight into the garbage, but which having been seen could not be unseen). There had even been one painstakingly written note on pink paper from a third cousin in Florida (the envelope containing a folded AP clipping from a Fort Lauderdale weekly that made Naomi look very old and grievously fat) admonishing her to do something about her hair, because she had been “such a pretty girl when you were little.” The whole crazy—and crazily overblown—thing, Naomi now understood, had utterly changed her life.
The incident began, as these things so often did, with a whimper, not a bang, and that whimper took the form of a Webster room selection in accordance with a sophomore’s designated lottery number, an enviably low number, as it happened. The sophomore’s choice of dwelling had been a single room on the third floor of Radclyffe Hall. Radclyffe was one of a number of large, once private homes that had been converted to themed residential housing when the college embarked on a wave of new construction—Science Complex, Language Cluster, Arts Neighborhood—in the ’80s. They ran in an opulent line down Fairweather Road, which was just beyond the athletic center and bordered its fields. First off the corner was the Co-Op House (genially socialist, with rotating food preparation, but not outright hippie), then the French House, then the German House, then the Sojourner Truth House, then the Gandhi Collective Center (those were the hippies), then the First Nations Center (Native American students in the ’80s had preferred this Canadian moniker, for some reason, and it had stuck), and then Radclyffe Hall, after which fraternities and sororities stretched to the end of the block. Radclyffe Hall, a squarish three-story structure, vaguely Queen Anne in style, with shared public rooms on the ground floor, was named not for the lesbian novelist but for a gruff 1908 graduate named James Radclyffe, who’d made his pile the old-fashioned way—by inheriting it—and would have been horrified, horrified, at what his namesake building had become. The “Hall” was added eventually, as must have seemed inevitable, and after a few years people just assumed that the name was a kind of pun about The Well of Loneliness, even though not all of the women who lived there were gay. Gay wasn’t the point; female was the point. “A living environment for women within the Webster community,” ran the description in the Webster Housing Handbook. Translation: Women Only.
The sophomore, whose name was Nell Jones-Givens, would later claim to have been surprised by the impact of her room selection, which bubbled and brewed for a few weeks before, just prior to midterms, two women who lived at Radclyffe came to the dean of students’ office with an official objection. The dean, a perpetually irritated man named Bob Stacek who had been at Webster since his own undergraduate days, had swiftly drop-kicked the matter to Naomi, whether as chair of the Women’s Studies Department or as dean of women’s affairs she was never sure. Not that it mattered. Bob’s distaste for the situation was plain; indeed, he acted as if he’d been personally asked to dig bloody tampons out of the Radclyffe Hall toilets. And Naomi, who until that time had been so underinvolved in matters of college administration that she routinely spent her time in meetings surreptitiously making to-do lists, understood that this particular bell was tolling for her. And she had to admit: No one on campus was remotely as well prepared to address the issue at hand as herself, a tenured professor of women’s studies and gender studies, and author of the respectably read (for academic nonfiction) Divide and Conquer: Femaleness and Feminism in the Women’s Movement’s Second Wave.
Nell Jones-Givens, the sophomore with the enviably low housing lottery number, had by her own account (published eventually on Slate and later wildly misquoted by Laura Ingraham and other right-wingers) been grappling with gender dysmorphia since early childhood, and by the age of twelve had accepted that she was essentially a male person misplaced in a female body. Her efforts to delay menses and mash her breasts flat against her rib cage, her unsuccessful attempt to run with the men’s cross-country team at her suburban Illinois high school, and her attainment of peace within her family on these issues had also been the subjects of her admissions essay to Webster. Hence, though Admissions did not routinely share such material with the administration, the college could not claim to have been ignorant of the implications of Nell’s housing selection.
Over the summer that followed her freshman year, Nell had legally changed her name to Neil in her home state of Illinois. Official gender designation was a bit thornier, which only added to the mayhem once the whole mess began to roil. She was a woman, genetically. She was a man, spiritually. She had been admitted to Webster as a woman. She was a man by temperament, by choice, by fate, by all that was holy—except to those few poor evangelical Christians on campus, who asserted that whatever else she was, she was far from holy. She was a member of a gender designation that had expanded beyond patriarchal structures to assume a spectrum of identities, of which Neil’s was simply one among so many. She was a knowing invader of the only female-designated safe space on campus, and a debaser of femaleness itself, due to the incomprehensible fact that she had been given the gift of being female and had chosen to decline it. She was…well, at the end of the day, what she was mattered far less than what she was not. She was not a woman, by her own account. She was also not remotely ready for what was about to happen to her. Webster was not ready. And Naomi certainly was not ready.
It had been a slowly unfolding, lovely, and uneventful fall. That hadn’t helped.
All began well enough at Radclyffe Hall. Neil had made a friendly announcement about his new name at the first sharing circle meeting in September, and generally assumed his uncomplaining share of the cooking, cleaning, and upkeep of the house. He prepared exotic teas for his housemates from a large personal collection and frequently loaded the dishwasher, even when it was not technically his turn to do so. He tutored two of the women on his floor who were struggling in Japanese (Neil was fluent, having spent a gap year in Kyoto) and maintained the Radclyffe Hall Facebook page, soon to be inundated with vitriol from the world at large. But slowly, the situation began to fester.
There were the hormones: little ampules of injectable testosterone in the first-floor bathroom (for one junior girl in the house, the needles themselves were triggering traumatic flashbacks to a childhood bout with leukemia, but that was a separate issue). There was the clomping presence of an increasingly hairy, increasingly muscular person in the hallways and on the stairs, “taking up space,” said the needlephobe’s roommate, in that indefinable yet obvious way men did everywhere in the world. And finally, there was the boyfriend, a slim-hipped fiddler who claimed to have dropped out of Webster because it wasn’t academically rigorous enough, and who now worked at one of the coffee bars downtown. And this, Naomi would come to understand, was the most incendiary of all the resentments engendered by Neil Jones-Givens. Had Neil actually become a man only to sleep with other men? In which case…what was the point of that? If he’d wanted to sleep with men, why not just remain a woman?
Calm, Naomi told the delegation from Radclyffe, on their first visit to her very small office in Crump-Eustis Hall, where the English and Comp. Lit. departments were based. Calm, calm. Let’s remember that we’re talking about young people—people learning who they are. Let’s remember that we’re talking about a college housing assignment, and working out how to live with people who don’t fall in with every one of our beliefs, predilections, innate prejudices, or tastes in junk food was one of the little challenges of life and a test of civilization in general. The women—four of them—did not nod. They did not smile. The needlephobe, who headed the campus LGBTQ political action committee, was sitting in one of Naomi’s visitors’ seats, a Hitchcock-style wooden chair, not very comfortable, with the college crest stenciled on the back in bright blue and green. She had her hands wedged beneath her thighs, and she leaned forward, mashing them down against the wood, as if she was scared they might escape her control and do something terrible.
“No,” said her roommate, a basketball player from Florida. “No, we won’t be ‘calm.’ Would you tell us to be calm if we were being threatened with rape?”
“Absolutely not,” said Naomi, straining for composure. “But I don’t think that is what is happening here.”
“I don’t see a difference,” said one of the others. This one Naomi knew. She had been in Naomi’s First Wave/Second Wave seminar the previous spring. “This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space.”
Penetration, thought Naomi. Oy.
“Designated by whom?” she said instead.
“By…the college,” the girl sputtered, outraged.
But in fact there was no official Webster designation for Radclyffe Hall, Naomi would discover when she looked into the matter. There was nothing there at all in the way of official rules or bylaws. Radclyffe Hall, like the other houses on Fairweather Road, had attained its distinction of habitation through a phenomenon far more subtle than official language, a phenomenon that would return to bedevil her life again and again over the following years: institutional tradition.
Tradition! Fine for a Broadway musical about a shtetl on the Russian steppes, fine for the shtetl itself (like the one Naomi’s own great-grandparents had long ago fled, in that classic, crushed-in-amber American story). Fine for a class prank or a holiday ritual. Fine, even, for the Webster seniors’ own smashing of their ceremonial clay pipes against the Stump on the eve of their graduations—the ritual that most Webster alumni associated with the Stump—or any of the myriad other Websterian rituals. Not so fine for gender designations in the swamp of ideological ferment that was American higher education (subdivision: Liberal Arts), New England, circa 2006.
No wonder this would become Naomi Roth’s defining moment, and the thematic overture to what came later. No wonder it would focus attention on her, just at the delicate moment when President Coulson announced his retirement and commenced a yearlong victory lap of alumni gatherings and honorary degree ceremonies, as a committee of trustees, consultants, and faculty members convened to begin thinking about a successor.
When Naomi, to her great chagrin, found that she was expected to serve as a member of the search committee (this news was delivered without fanfare in an email from Dean Stacek), she imagined she’d be able to wiggle out of it without much difficulty. She was already teaching her usual First Wave/Second Wave seminar that fall, and co-teaching a literature/history course on feminist utopias, and she had agreed to take over a freshman seminar on Ann Bannon for a queer theorist on maternity leave (an offer she regretted almost immediately as she reread the Bannon novels for the first time in years, finding them far less compelling than she’d remembered). Also: She had a ten-year-old feminist of her own at home that year, who furthermore was entering a phase in which all topics, from the profound to the banal, must be argued as a point of principle, which was exhausting. Also: The Radclyffe Hall situation was taking more and more of her nonexistent free time. But when she phoned Bob Stacek to explain—with appropriate regret—her situation, the bastard declined to excuse her.
“You were requested,” he said bluntly, managing to communicate that Naomi’s participation had been neither his idea nor his preference. “I’m afraid we’ll have to insist.”
Requested by…? By one of the trustees, she was told, though Naomi was not to know which for some months. This person had read the previous week’s New York Times article about what was happening at Radclyffe Hall. Attention was being paid, Stacek informed her, somewhat tersely, to how things were being “handled.”
How Naomi was handling things, at least thus far, involved pretending that every interrogator who came to her about Radclyffe Hall was a fellow intellectual engaged in a genuinely curious and open discussion on the subjects of gender fluidity and the “trans experience,” and that the variously outraged students, parents, journalists, and alumni were as interested in thoughtful, unemotional debate as she herself was. This was a folly of one, of course, but so far it had disarmed everyone from the various students to the New York Times writer (whose name, as a lifelong reader of the Times, she’d readily recognized), and the serious (i.e., not-political, not-satirical) coverage had been, as a result, rather encouragingly dignified. The issues Radclyffe Hall raised were valid and even essential topics for scrutiny at a place like Webster, she liked to remind people, and as pertinent and pressing as politics, class, religion, race, or any time-honored -ism. “Universities are not static environments as a rule,” Naomi had insisted to the New York Times reporter, who, gratifyingly, reproduced her words exactly and in the right order to boot. “Stasis is the last thing we want. Webster is a place where discourse happens. This is a place where ideas come to meet one another.” And then, as if she hadn’t been reading this man’s byline for decades, she asked him what his feelings were on the subject.
That line in particular—a place where ideas come to meet one another
- "Korelitz's new novel is a smart, semi-satire about the reign of identity politics on college campuses today... The Devil and Webster is wittily on target about, among other things, social class and privilege, silencing and old-school feminist ambivalence about power."—NPR's Fresh Air
"Satisfying...A sharp and insightful novel....with a clever plot twist...This ought to be the start of a golden age for the campus novel."
—The Wall Street Journal
- "Korelitz taps into the current unsettled campus and cultural zeitgeist with eerie precision."—Booklist
- "The Devil and Webster can be read as a suspense novel seasoned with social commentary or as a plot-driven academic satire. Korelitz excels in both directions."—Shelf Awareness
- "A hilarious send-up of the current college climate."—The New York Post,
- "Compulsively readable, uncanny, and irreverent...Korelitz - author of Admission, a college-admissions novel that was made into the 2013 film starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and You Should Have Known, about a New York shrink who learns her husband of two decades is a sociopath - is an expert on the art of deception, a talent she puts to excellent use in her latest book.—TheNationalBookReview.com
- "There is so much in this novel, a thoughtful and beautiful work.... This is highly recommended reading, but don't forget to put on your thinking cap. You'll need it."—BookReporter
- "Ms. Korelitz's book is smart and devious--enough so to bring to mind another work of trickery, one that has "Gone" in its title and does not feature Scarlett O'Hara."—The New York Times (Praise for You Should Have Known)
- "Tempt the gods with smug self-righteousness and they will deliver a windfall of tragedy, as witness in Jean Hanff Korelitz's rollickingly good literary thriller...Korelitz writes intimately and engagingly about a social strata few are privy to, but the ugliness is very familiar."—Vanity Fair (Praise for You Should Have Known)
- "This consuming, expertly plotted thriller moves along at a slow burn, building up to shocking revelations about Grace's past and ending with a satisfying twist on her former relationship mantra; 'doubt can be a gift.'"—People (Praise for You Should Have Known)
- "Korelitz does not disappoint as she chronicles the emotional unraveling of her heroine in this gripping saga...A cut above your average who-is-this-stranger-in-my-marriage-bed novel, YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN transforms itself at certain moments from a highly effective thriller into a nuanced novel of family, heritage, identity, and nurture."—The Boston Globe (Praise for You Should Have Known)
- "This excellent literary mystery [unfolds] with authentic detail in a rarified contemporary Manhattan. . . intriguing and beautiful."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) (Praise for You Should Have Known)
- On Sale
- Mar 20, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing