Ernest Hemingway once called Vance Bourjaily ’44-who died Tuesday at the age of 87-“the most talented writer under 50,” while Norman Mailer called Bourjaily’s book, The Violated, “one of the very few good, ambitious and important novels to have been done by the writers of my generation.” But for all his prowess as an American novelist, Bourjaily may be remembered best as a brilliant teacher. Bowdoin, which holds Bourjaily’s papers (1942-1984), presented the author with an honorary doctor of literature degree in 1990. His citation follows, along with a collection of book jackets from Bowdoin’s Special Collections and Archives.
VANCE BOURJAILY, writer and legendary teacher, member of the Bowdoin Class of 1944, you stand today not far from the library steps where the hero of your novel Confessions of a Spent Youth sits alone brooding one night “as light snow falls on his insentient shoulders from the cold night sky of a New England spring.” The war interrupted your education, though not your writing, and in some sense your novels and short stories have formed an extended-and much praised-meditation on the lives of those Americans who were young in the 1940s. The Man Who Knew Kennedy, Brill Among the Ruins, and Now Playing at Canterbury will be read for years to come to understand mid 20th-century America. You have proved, moreover, a generous writer, devoting much of your career to teaching the craft of writing to others-most famously at Iowa, and afterward at Arizona and Louisiana State universities. Bowdoin feels privileged to have your papers in our archives and your name on our rolls, and with much pride we inscribe you, honoris causa, DOCTOR OF LITERATURE.