Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever | By Walter Kirn | Doubleday | 224 pages, $24.95
How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them | By Daniel Wolff | Bloomsbury | 352 pages, $26
It wasn’t the best publicized of the many literary feuds that Tom Wolfe conjured up around the 1998 publication of A Man in Full, but his waspish attack on Walter Kirn was surely one of the more misguided. Kirn had given Wolfe’s book an unkind notice, and the white-suited eminence responded by going after Kirn’s own impending novel, Thumbsucker, a coming-of-age story set in eighties Minnesota. He hadn’t read the thing, but a plot summary was circulating, and that was all it took. “Thumbsucking,” Wolfe informed one interviewer, “sums up most of American fiction today.”
This one-liner was the zingerish version of an argument that Wolfe had been amplifying for nearly a decade: an attack on the solipsism and gamesmanship of the contemporary literary world, joined to a call for a more journalistic fiction, in whose service novelists armed with notebooks would sally forth like Balzac or Zola to capture the bizarre and teeming bigness of America. As a critique of card-carrying fabulists and postmodernists—John Barth, say, or Paul Auster—this argument made a certain sense. But as an attack on the author of Thumbsucker, it made no sense at all. Indeed, if you were looking for a rising writer who embodied exactly none of the faults that Wolfe found in contemporary fiction, you could have done worse than start with Walter Kirn.
Indeed, Kirn, who was born in 1962, has spent the last decade depicting America (and the American heartland, especially) in all its gonzo, God-bothered, Ritalin-addicted glory. There are few writers who move as effortlessly from reportage (a profile of Warren Buffett here, a sojourn among evangelical chastity-boosters there) to literary criticism to the personal essay; there are fewer still who channel the gifts they’ve honed as journalists into novels with as much bite and zip as Up in the Air (2001) or Mission to America (2005).
Now Kirn has turned to memoir. In Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, he takes a disillusioned look back at his climb from a childhood in rural Minnesota to Princeton in the early 1980s. As in his novels and his journalism, his mode is narrative and his style is picaresque. But his latest book’s essential intention is argumentative: this is a true-life Bildungsroman doubling as a brief against the way we educate our ruling class.
Such briefs are common enough, but in most cases they’re frankly political: conservative critiques of tenured radicals, or left-wing attacks on the corporate university. Kirn’s argument has the advantage of being personal, philosophical, and essentially nonpartisan. Lost in the Meritocracy offers grist for right and left alike, but what it really does is suggest the ways in which higher education’s radical and corporate sides actually interlock—producing kids who can spend their academic careers dabbling in deconstructionism without ever questioning the broader system in which they’ve been embedded.
I should pause here to disclose two potential conflicts of interest. The first is that I once edited an essay that Kirn wrote for The Atlantic, an experience that left me favorably disposed to him in general (though he did vanish on a camping trip when I needed him to approve some copyedits). The second conflict, and perhaps the more serious one, is that I wrote a book several years ago—about attending Harvard in the years immediately preceding 9/11—that overlaps with Kirn’s latest effort in small ways and large. Under those circumstances, my enthusiasm for Kirn’s critique of meritocracy should be taken with at least a pinch of salt, since in praising his diagnosis, I’m effectively praising my own.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about it.
Kirn’s book begins on a high school bus ride to the sats, as his carefree classmates pass around a bottle of schnapps and he tenses for the life-determining test to come. Then it flashes back to cover his childhood, which was spent in a headlong flight from elite America (on the part of his father) and a headlong rush into its arms (on the part of Kirn himself).