In search of a Columbian literary identity.
By Will Lyman
A friend informed me of Joan Didion’s memorial at St. John the Divine just hours before the ceremony. The opportunity presented itself on a Wednesday evening this past September, a day as ordinary as any other. It felt sudden and undeserved. Seated in the cathedral, I looked up at the stained glass windows, considering the ethics of mourning someone I never knew. A slideshow of photos of Didion ran on a loop next to me. There she was: sitting in her study, cooking in her kitchen, smoking a cigarette in the chic way she did.
Two hours of dedications followed, delivered by some of her closest friends and colleagues, among them Justice Anthony Kennedy, Vanessa Redgrave, Patti Smith, and Jia Tolentino. Only later did I learn that I was joined in the crowd by Bob Balaban, Annie Leibovitz, Fran Lebowitz, and Donna Tartt. Literary giants surrounded me, united to honor Didion’s inimitable talent at a landmark so significant to her. I was conscious of a shared sentimentality in the room—one that connected the strangers to those who knew Didion personally. In reading and revering a writer’s work, we build intimate, parasocial bonds. This is the invisible effect of literature. I thought of a quote by Annie Ernaux, who would speak at Barnard only a few weeks later: “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”
In the days that followed, I reread her elegiac memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. St. John the Divine plays a critical role in both works: Her daughter, she tells us in Blue Nights, was married at the very altar at which she placed her husband’s ashes in Magical Thinking, the very altar before which I sat that September afternoon. Her trips to the cathedral, just a stone’s throw from our campus, marked moments of love and loss in her life. I’d pass it on the street and think: This is where it happens. This is how close we are to greatness.
It is a miracle to be in this city, in this neighborhood, at this school; it is a miracle to take part in this history of achievement—even if only as a spectator. Time did not extinguish my wonder, but extended it into the mundanities of campus life. I trolled the bench dedications in Riverside Park and was struck by the many writers memorialized there: Jean Valentine, Mokhtar Mokhtefi, Herman Sands. I would stop to admire the wall of books that had been written in Hungarian, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death. Writers I adore have taught in buildings I frequent. Leslie Jamison, my idol, is a nonfiction professor at the School of Arts. Pulitzer Prize–winner Jhumpa Lahiri directs the creative writing program at Barnard. The Beatniks lived on 115th and committed an infamous murder in Riverside Park. While time separates us, the shared backdrop meant that I had unlocked some legendary potential by association.
Didion, however, did not study at Columbia. Neither did Coates, nor several of the writers memorialized in Riverside Park. Still, the neighborhood inspired them. I began to wonder, then, what role Columbia plays in the works of its alumni—or whether New York had subsumed our university in the collective literary imagination.
As I began to search, I recognized that despite our university’s importance in these writers’ biographies, so few of their works focus on Columbia itself. Literary alumni are in great supply: Jhumpa Lahiri, Zora Neale Hurston, Ottessa Moshfegh, Lydia Davis, Federico García Lorca, Langston Hughes, Isaac Asimov, Jenny Slate, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. They sat on Low Steps. Many of them took the Core. Still, much of their writing forces Columbia to the sidelines, if it takes us up at all.
Lorca, for example, studied English at Columbia for nine months in 1929. In this time, he wrote the bulk of Poet In New York. Other than a section titled “Poems of Solitude in Columbia University,” the work makes little reference to this place. Hughes, who in 1921 attended the School of Mines to study engineering, dropped out after one year to pursue poetry as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. None of his works produced at Columbia—“My Loves,” “To a Dead Friend,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and “Just Because I Loves You” (which was published in Spectator)—are set here.
The writing that does address Columbia depicts it as a place to leave behind. In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston writes that at Barnard, she is a “dark rock surged upon, and overswept” by the predominantly white student body. Hurston is “covered by the waters,” only to be revealed by the ebb of the figurative white sea of students. In the same passage, she writes beautifully of her self-actualization after leaving Barnard and strolling through the streets of Harlem. The protagonist of Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake briefly lives in a studio in Morningside Heights as an architecture student at Columbia. The University appears in the novel only in passing, and mostly serves as a backdrop for one of the protagonist's less significant romantic experiences. He thinks of how he and his crush have “in all likelihood crossed paths on Broadway or walking up the steps of Low Library or in Avery. It reminds him of Ruth, of the way they, too, had once lived in such close proximity as strangers.” Columbia, here, is a place where two people can miss each other completely while occupying the same space, the same campus.
The protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation—Moshfegh’s 2018 novel with a cult following among indie sad girls—visits a friend from Columbia years after they’ve graduated. “It felt safe in that part of town, sobering,” she writes. “The buildings were heavier. The streets were wider. Nothing there had really changed since I’d graduated from Columbia. Westside Market. Riverside Park. 1020. The West End. Cheap pizza by the slice. … I always thought it was pathetic that Reva had chosen to stay in the area after graduation, but passing through it in the cab, in my frenzied state of despair, I understood: there was stability in living in the past.” When she speaks about her time as a student, the unnamed narrator mostly critiques the environment of the art history classroom, its dizzying pretentiousness and inhumanity. In a flashback, her professor interrupts the lecture on “feminist performance art as a political deconstruction of the art world as a commercial industry” to lead an exercise where the class humiliatingly discusses the narrator herself as a work of art. A peer declares her “broken by the male gaze.”
Moshfegh’s account of Columbia is perhaps the most direct we see in contemporary literature. It takes aim at the University’s obnoxious arrogance and speaks of it only as a relic of an unpleasant past. Morningside Heights and the campus at its center are, for the narrator, places to outgrow. In his biography of Langston Hughes, Maurice Wallace describes that the poet left Columbia because “a new life in Harlem was calling.” Black students like Hughes and Hurston turned to Harlem for community and belonging in the face of institutional homogeneity and racism, and Moshfegh’s account indicates that contemporary Columbia is a place more broadly to be abandoned. It’s transitory, temporary; a place to write, not a place to write about.
I considered, briefly, whether this was an affliction shared by all universities. Perhaps the setting of college is wholly uninteresting, as it is a time of precarity and youth. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (2017) explores adolescence at Harvard. I also think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), set at Hampden College, a thinly veiled version of Bennington College, or Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (2020) set at a prestigious university and the surrounding white Midwestern town. But these novels work to achieve a precision about their campus cultures. Batuman’s reading of her alma mater is specific and thorough, Tartt writes beautifully about the twisted dynamics of a community of classics students, and Taylor examines the indignities suffered by a queer, Black student in a primarily white institution.
Once again, I think of St. John the Divine. It occupies a vital role in Didion’s memoir; her best moments and her worst tragedies live there. Yet the writer makes no mention of Columbia, the behemothic campus only two blocks away. Didion has a world of experience at the cathedral wholly unconcerned with our university. Herein lies the answer: you can be right next door to Columbia and have nothing to do with it.
Conversely, writing about Columbia necessitates writing about New York. Moshfegh, Lahiri, Hughes, Lorca, and Hurston all make direct mention of the University, yet their true interest lies outside of it. The authors are invested in how their characters exist in the other neighborhoods of the city: Harlem, the Upper East Side, Greenwich Village. Their connections to Columbia are brief because they exist in the context of a more compelling, varied cosmopolitan landscape.
Our relationship with the city is of great importance to Columbia’s identity. We brand ourselves as a springboard into New York. I remember a night I spent in Broadway Hall my first year, when the city was cold and unfamiliar. The windows in the lounge on the 14th floor display much of lower Manhattan. From that little perch on campus, I could see it all: Hudson Yards, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center. The entire city was in view as I gazed upon it from our collegiate acropolis. I think of this when I consider Columbia’s transitory textual identity: How can we help but see the University as temporary, if we are constantly reminded of its impermanence in our lives? If you want to study economics and become a hedge fund manager, you can look outside your dorm window and see your goal blinking at you a hundred blocks down.
In the absence of a strong sports culture, or frequent, well-attended campus gatherings, we busy ourselves with the offerings of the city. Many students and professors commute to class, sit on the steps for a moment, then return home to distant neighborhoods. Harlem is a nearby draw for live music, food, and nightlife. As alternatives to chugging White Claws in East Campus, my clubs of choice are all a 30-minute train ride away. With the privilege of New York as our campus, we rely so little on Columbia. There is nothing, truly, keeping us here.
Taylor and Tartt’s campuses are worthy of examination because they are so insular, so isolated. The appeal of these communities is their choiceless cohesion, their ability to be distilled into singular identities that lend themselves well to the trappings of a novel. Our campus, small and mighty, is harder to pin down. Our integration with the city prevents an easy understanding of a “Columbia identity.” In search of one, I came to realize that we never needed it. One can be two blocks from campus and have nothing to do with it, just like Didion.
What connects these writers is not their common location, but the sharing of experience through prose. Annie Ernaux calls it the merging of lives. I became aware of this in St. John the Divine, sensing the same anguish among people who knew Didion to varying degrees. Although I had been on the steps of that same cathedral many times—and lived across from it for two years—what brought me closer was not physical proximity, but studying her work. It happened when her words became my thoughts. This has to be the power of literature, exercised best by talents like hers. We can share the same space and be infinitely far apart. Yet, there, in St. John the Divine—brought together by words—her histories were ingrained in us all, her life immortalized in our collective memory.