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In the mid-2010s, the Dark Academia “aesthetic” arose from the blogs of Tumblr, and for the past few years, it’s been experiencing a renaissance on newer social media platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok. Characterized primarily by autumnal colors, vintage clothing, the romanticization of liberal arts education, a pursuit of knowledge, and occasionally, a murder mystery, Dark Academia draws heavily from the campus novel, a genre which itself gives clues as to why this subculture has blossomed.

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The subculture doesn’t just get its name from its color palette but from the genre’s tendency to look at the dysfunctional side of academia: overwork, toxic relationships, morally dubious professors. One of the most popular examples of this—the Dark Academia book par excellence—is Donna Tartt’s 1992 why-dunnit The Secret History, a thinly-veiled satire of elite East Coast liberal arts education at Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington College.

The campus novel is often synonymized with the academic novel, and they do share some characteristics. But academic novels tend to focus on the faculty while campus novels revolve around the students, explains literature scholar Jeffrey J. Williams.

For Williams, the campus novel is partially connected to the bildungsroman, in which a young narrator introduces the reader to his college adventures with his often more charismatic peers. These books also “readily merge with the murder mystery because they depict a world insulated from everyday concerns and that assumes ease and leisure—instead of a country house, they represent the academic manor,” writes Williams.

But despite the implicit condemnation of academia’s insularity and pretentiousness, the campus novel was very popular in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. As Williams reports, British author David Lodge—perhaps the leading author of the genre—considers it a “literature of escape” and a “version of the pastoral”; it presents microcosms of the outside world, but staged far from the humdrum of actual middle-class life.

Writing in 2012, Williams witnessed a larger boom in the academic novel after the 1990s as the bildungsroman of the campus novel gave way to a literature of midlife crises. And more recently, on-screen portrayals of the same characters, schools, and themes have edged out the campus novel. Movies and shows such as Kill Your Darlings, Mona Lisa Smile, The Chair, and The Riot Club have offered simultaneously romantic and dark depictions of university life.

While the academic novel depicts how the world of academia, predominantly for faculty, has shifted “from privilege, as quasi-nobility, […] to insecurity and pressure,” it nevertheless maintains the appeal of the “Utopian prospect to have the right to assign one’s own time, as well as to pursue one’s curiosity.” This is also embodied in the insularity the campus novel depicts and ultimately is what might be appealing about the Dark Academia lifestyle, which has now arguably lent its name to a subset of the campus novel genre.

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American Literary History, Vol. 24, No. 3, An ALH Forum: Writing the Presidency (Fall 2012), pp. 561–589
Oxford University Press