Columns > Published on July 17th, 2015

Academia vs. Imagination: The Problem of Intellectualism in the Works of Stephen King

Author photo by Shane Leonard via - Bday image by Cup of Couple
Graduation image via Pixabay

Stephen King is known for consistent themes throughout his work. The biggest would be his vilifying of religious fundamentalism, from Carrie White's mother in his first published novel to Mrs. Carmody in The Mist to Reverend Coggins in Under the Dome. Then there are the vindictive bullies, sadistic in their hounding of the protagonists, from Ace in The Body to Henry Bowers in It. There is, of course, his fascination with writer characters, a way perhaps to transplant himself into his work, done literally when he appears in his The Dark Tower series. But while these are all well-documented, less discussed is a throughline of anti-intellectualism across much of King's work.

As stated in an impressive Rolling Stone article from last year, King has "never had much patience for academic bullshit." This is in response to a question about the 2012 documentary Room 237 that provided a forum for different theories and interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of King's novel The Shining. King's well-known antipathy toward the movie's fidelity could be one explanation for the negativity, but the truth is this attitude permeates much of his oeuvre, personified by Brent Norton in The Mist (1980), Calvin Tower in The Dark Tower series (those entries released from 1991-2004) and Thurston Marshall in Under the Dome (2009). What King does value, however, is imagination and utilitarian application of knowledge.

In The Mist, Brent Norton is a big city lawyer that had previously filed a lawsuit against neighbor and audience surrogate David Drayton. After a freak storm the night before, Brent and David temporarily call a truce and go to the supermarket for supplies. When a strange cloud descends upon the town they are trapped in the supermarket, and not long after David witnesses something monstrous pull a bagboy out into the desolation. When David attempts to show Brent, the latter man believes he is the object of a prank in retaliation for the lawsuit and refuses. Almost immediately cracks show, with one of the locals calling Brent a "cheap New York shyster," emphasizing the class rift. Not long after he leads a party outside, in denial that there is anything supernatural taking place. He and his followers are never seen again, their downfall correlating with a reliance on rationality without the benefit of imagination.

Ideas without applicability are just masturbation, and knowledge without imagination can never be wisdom.

Calvin Tower, by contrast, is the lease holder of The Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind bookstore, first appearing in The Waste Lands (1991). He also owns the lot containing the Rose, the avatar of the Dark Tower. Over several books Calvin, who is first identified as "a fat guy in an open-throated white shirt", encounters both Jake Chambers and Eddie Dean, gunslingers and members of Roland Deschain's Ka-Tet. They are both disdainful of the man who Eddie believes, in Wolves of the Calla (2003), has "a kind of willful stupidity about him…self-created and maybe propped up by his analyst." His extreme reluctance, selfishness and obsessive addiction to collecting rare books makes him both an asset and a hindrance. Of course the first thing Eddie does to convince Calvin he is in danger is tell him gangsters will mutilate his testicles, "the old sperm-firm" as Eddie eloquently puts it, implying the importance of masculinity, or Calvin's lack thereof. Calvin does eventually sell the lot and becomes a member of the Tet Corporation's board, but mostly due to the influence of his one friend, Aaron Deepneau. This character embodies a reliance on material possessions and abstract associations made with them.

Finally Thurston Marshall in Under the Dome, a recent character that is played more humorously and achieves a bit of redemption. A "full professor of English (and guest editor for the current issue of Ploughshares)," something he loves to inform people of, he is first introduced as a "Masshole" tourist who has rented a cabin in the small town of Chester's Mill for a weekend of wanton sex with one of his graduate assistants. Sporting a ponytail and a rotund gut, when the dome drops he finds himself trapped and subsequently abused by resentful townie police. Obstinate and outraged, he is at first a figure of impotent, pacifist ideals. Eventually, however, he reveals positive qualities when he takes in his charge two stranded children and later volunteers at the hospital, having learned medical skills while working as an orderly at a veterans' hospital during the Vietnam War. Consequently, he gets the most sympathy from King when stacked up against main character Dale Barbara, a former Army lieutenant that is reluctantly promoted to colonel during the crisis in Chester's Mill. This brings full circle King's philosophy of action trumping ideas.

Contrast Brent against David, the son of a famous artist and an artist himself. Itself cerebral, painting doesn't jive well with King's usual blue collar fetishism, but it lends David the imagination to accept the outlandish when the creatures arrive. Brent is a rational, well-spoken man that bases his life on facts, but they're facts within the known world. David, consequently, dubs Brent and his followers "flat-earthers", exemplifying how they view themselves as superior due to their intellect, but are limited by the realm of available information. Even when he accepts that David actually intends to show him a physical object he dismisses it, claiming it would only be a prank. For all his education and logical assertion of control over the world, he walks freely to his death due to his inability to think outside the box.

Against the gunslingers, Calvin Tower's fragile civilized world collapses. Books are a source of comfort for him, and show his cathexis with the past that extends to his unprofitable book shop and the lot the Rose resides in. These possessions have no pragmatic function and hold him back from real living, such as a social life or some works that give back to society. Gunslingers rely on things as well, such as their ancient pistols and certainly the Tower, but their ideals and objects are put to good use as lawmen and the Tower is the last vestige of hope for saving the multiverse. Lofty philosophy and veneration of objects are only acceptable if they can be put into action for the benefit of others. They are a means to an end, not the end itself.

Thurston is similarly insufferable and possibly morally questionable at first, due to his fling with the much younger Carolyn Sturges, but by two-thirds of the way through Under the Dome has been changed by his experiences. This could very well be as a result of the author's accident in 1999 altering his world view. Taking old knowledge and applying it to helping people at the hospital proves to be so emotionally fulfilling as to make Thurston "happier than he had been in years," with others commenting, "The guy's wasted in some college English department – he should be doing this." This continues King's view of the satisfaction and obligation of those that can give back using their skills to do so. Dale Barbara, Barbie to his friends, by comparison starts the novel as one of King's working class heroes and never succumbs to manufactured ideas of ego, like military rank or savoir vivre. Instead he uses his in-born skill of understanding human nature, something that benefited him while deployed in the Middle East, in service of the town such as when he helps quell a supermarket riot.

So where does this mindset come from? After all King has lived a stereotypical life of an intelligentsia. Before the publication of Carrie he was a high school English teacher, and even after cementing himself as a professional novelist he taught a college class on horror that resulted in the non-fiction Danse Macabre. His age, however, and oft-cited oppression as a long-haired youngster in the 1960s do point in the direction of a problem with authority and any power base. Considering his time in that world it makes sense that he would have butted heads with the gatekeepers of academia, and has continued to do so. For instance, in 2003 King won the National Book Foundation's annual award for "distinguished contribution", something Harold Bloom, the acclaimed American literary critic, described in an op-ed for The Boston Globe as, "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."

So if King prides himself on populist writing that appreciates the small town everyman, it makes sense that even his writer characters are as devoid of pretension as he claims to be. Many of them, from Gordon Lachance in The Body to Bill Denbrough in It, write the same kind of horror and pulp fiction that is King's wheelhouse. One that stands out as drunk on his own grandiosity includes Jack Torrance in The Shining, who struggles with a play after a once-promising career has fizzled, and in the end pays for his arrogance with his life. In this case, his imagination leaves him open to the Overlook Hotel's manipulations, but it's his pride and entitlement that brings about his destruction. A man must be humble, says King, and put others before himself. If all of these writers are variations on the same type, then King must be their template. He justifies their possibly pretentious livelihoods the same way he would his own, portraying them as folksy storytellers in touch with the common man. Even so, King is self-depreciating of himself and his profession, and this is never more evident than in the latter two Dark Tower books.

He first shows up in the sixth book, Song of Susannah (2004), although he is hinted at earlier on with Eddie Dean remembering the movie The Shining as early as The Drawing of the Three, as a successful author in 1977. "[P]udgy in the middle" and "rather stooped", he has been putting off continuing The Gunslinger out of a fear he doesn't understand. Eddie Dean and Roland are nonplussed by him, although Eddie worries after seeing a fridge full of beer that, "Writers liked to drink." Under hypnosis King admits he is no writer but a channel for Gan, the creator of the universe and spirit of the Dark Tower, or maybe even is Gan. The younger man states, "I know that there are writers who do write, but I'm not one of them." Roland tells King to listen for the song of the Turtle, one of the guardians of the beams that hold up the Dark Tower, as King can only write when he is inspired.

By the final book, The Dark Tower (2004), however, the older King has changed his opinion on himself and writers in general. Once again Roland encounters King, this time on June 19, 1999, saving King on the day he was, in reality, struck by a van, nearly fatally. The "lazy, fearful man" with a "coward's eye" admits that it was only pride that made him believe he was Gan. In fact, he continues, "No writer is Gan – no painter, no sculptor, no maker of music," but that all artists are kas-ka Gan, the prophets or singers of Gan. Thus he is bestowed with a higher purpose, separating his ilk from any accusations of bourgeoisie navel-gazing.

So in the end, King has a very clear ideology about the power of knowledge and its uses. Ideas without applicability are just masturbation, and knowledge without imagination can never be wisdom. What's learned must be used to help others and better the whole, even if it results in the sacrifice of the one. From Brent Norton to Calvin Tower to Thurston Marshall to himself, there's a throughline of redemption, possibly spurred by his near-death experience, showing that although King has no time for academics, he believes they can be of use if they get their hands dirty.

Get The Mist at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Under the Dome at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: