Saul Bellow – The Dean’s December

Last modified: February 9, 2018

An investigative journalist becomes a university professor and dean, but comes under heavy criticism for recent articles about corruption in Chicago and the racial basis of social inequality in the United States. Then he openly takes sides in a controversial court case concerning the violent death of a white student. He is accused of racism, and the university authorities try to limit the damage to its reputation. When it becomes clear that the dean now intends to turn his attention to the destructive and widespread impact of lead poisoning, he comes under pressure to avoid another scandal.

This book highlights the difficulties of academic citizenship and shows how thin the line can be between objective criticism and ideologically motivated activism. Science is not value-free. The story is told from Cold War Romania, which the dean is visiting because his mother-in-law has reached the end of her life. That perspective creates a distance from the daily grind of the workplace, and also reveals how the individual’s behaviour is shaped by aspects of the society he lives in – a theme further developed by exploring the different ways in which the dean and his childhood friend from the white underclass, now a prominent newspaper columnist, look at the events of the story.

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