Lost in the Meritocracy, by Walter Kirn
The novelist Walter Kirn’s new memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy, contains several references to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One comes early in its pages, when Kirn recalls how as a teenager he read The Great Gatsby and, like its author and its narrator, yearned to leave Minnesota and head East. And so he does, eventually following Fitzgerald to Princeton University. Another Fitzgerald work is mentioned as the memoir winds down. In the window of a shop near campus, young Walter notices a mannequin of a “model undergraduate” cloaked in Princeton gear and holding a copy of This Side of Paradise, which book he “understood—incorrectly, it turned out—to be a pure celebration of Princeton’s goldenness.”
His error is telling. Walter is an English major, and he sees the mannequin in 1982 in the final months of his junior year. Yet, after semesters spent in ostensible examination of literature, he still knows nothing of Fitzgerald’s famous, Princeton-based Bildungs-roman—the story of a young man who, just like Walter, comes to the college from Minnesota and loses his way. Kirn has made his book’s central point: The most burnished meritocrats may, in fact, know nothing.
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