In 1960, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award. The title story of the collection is a novella that tells of the doomed romance between Neil Klugman, a recent college graduate who works in a library and lives in a working class neighborhood in Newark, and Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliff student from an affluent family. The differences in class, family pressures and the two young lovers slowly forming adult identities cause the relationship to fall apart. It was one of the first books that formed what I call “The Twenty-Something Genre.”
Seven years later, Mike Nichols turned Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate into a blockbuster movie starring a very young Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who is seduced and corrupted by the wife of his father’s law partner, the infamous Mrs. Robinson, played deliciously by Anne Bancroft. The film captures 1960’s affluent society’s shallowness, best summed up in this memorable exchange:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
What one word might a contemporary Mr. McGuire whisper to Benjamin? “Derivatives”?
In the end, Ben finds redemption in the love of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and in the final scene we see them escaping on a city bus. They may be free, but their future is still uncertain as revealed by the uncomfortable expressions on their faces. As much as we want them to, I can’t actually picture them staying together.