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Novels Set at ‘Cornell’ Bring You Home to the Hill

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The University has served as a backdrop for literary fiction, mysteries, tales inspired by real-life events, and more

By Beth Saulnier

Take a vicarious trip back to campus with these books that unfold, at least in part, at your alma mater—either the real one, or a fictionalized and renamed incarnation that will still strike a familiar chord.

A number are bestsellers penned by critically acclaimed, award-winning authors and remain popular. While a few are out of print and may be harder to find, copies can generally be located online.

The cover of "The War Between the Tates"

The War Between the Tates

Alison Lurie

The late professor emerita of English named her thinly disguised Cornell “Corinth University.” In this 1974 novel—made into a TV movie starring Elizabeth Ashley and Richard Crenna—it’s the backdrop for upheaval in a faculty marriage, after the wife learns that her professor husband has been having an affair with a student.

Corinth also figures into many of Lurie’s other books, including as the home institution of the two professors whose romantic adventures in London she chronicled in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs.


Vladimir Nabokov

The author taught on the Hill from 1948 to 1959—and this 1957 novel has as its title character a struggling Russian émigré on the faculty of “Waindell College.”

“Pnin is Nabokov as he might have been in American exile,” observes the Guardian, “if he had not possessed a mastery of the English language, a supportive and cherished wife, and the resource of literary creativity—a quaint, eccentric, rather sad figure, doomed never to understand fully the society in which he finds himself.”

The cover of "Pnin"

The cover of "The Widening Stain"

The Widening Stain

Morris Bishop 1913, PhD 1926

Writing as W. Bolingbroke Johnson, Bishop (author of A History of Cornell) produced what Publishers Weekly calls a “sparkling academic mystery.”

The heroine is a librarian at an unnamed university (clearly Cornell) who finds the body of a popular female French instructor last seen at a party at the president’s house; the seemingly accidental death is followed by the discovery of a strangled man inside a locked room. First published in 1942, the book—which is peppered with Bishop’s signature cheeky limericks—has enjoyed subsequent reprints.

Halfway Down the Stairs

Charles Thompson ’51, MA ’52

Thompson’s debut novel, published in 1957, centers on a young couple who are part of a bohemian crowd during a post-Korean War era of shifting values.

It follows them from their meeting in a New England resort town to their time on the Hill to post-grad life in NYC.

“Mr. Thompson has striven valiantly,” observes a New York Times review, “to be completely honest in his picture of a generation without conventional morals or visible purpose.”

The cover of "Halfway Down the Stairs"

The cover of "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me"

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me

Richard Fariña ’59

Cornell is named “Mentor University” in this 1966 novel, which was published just two days before Fariña’s death in a motorcycle accident.

Now a counterculture classic, the book—in the words of his friend Thomas Pynchon ’59—“comes on like the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”

Its protagonist, a recent grad, explores the psychedelic offerings on and off campus in a certain Upstate college town.


Paul McEuen

Cornell and Ithaca are the backdrops for this 2011 techno-thriller by McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science.

Garnering comparisons to the work of Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame), the plot involves killer fungi and spider-sized nanobots run amok; created for benign scientific purposes, both become potential tools of biowarfare.

Big Red and Ithaca references abound in McEuen’s critically acclaimed novel—from a local dog rescue group to the nature preserve in Ellis Hollow.

The cover of "Spiral"

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The cover of "Fool on the Hill"

Fool on the Hill

Matt Ruff ’87

“This exuberant first novel unfolds at Cornell University, the alma mater of its 22-year-old author,” notes Publishers Weekly, “who has re-imagined his school as the center of a violent and funny modern-day fairy tale.”

Ruff’s 1988 work, now a cult classic, chronicles the adventures of a young writer-in-residence at a fantastical version of the Hill—complete with a sorceress, talking animals, and a dragon.

The novel was Ruff’s senior honors thesis in English, published after one of his professors—famed novelist Alison Lurie (see above)—recommended him to her literary agent.

My Education

Susan Choi, MFA ’95

Choi’s fourth novel, published in 2013 and set at a Cornell-like institution starting in the early ’90s, is narrated by a grad student who’s attracted both to one of her professors and to his wife.

But, notes the L.A. Times, “this is just the background against which the larger story unfolds. What Choi … is after is the elusive territory of experience, the way people and events imprint us when we’re young and then linger, exerting a subtle pressure over how we live our lives.”

The cover of "My Education"

The cover of "And the Sparrow Fell"

And the Sparrow Fell

Robert Mrazek ’67

Published by Cornell University Press, this 2017 novel by the former U.S. Congressman and prolific author tells the coming-of-age tale of two brothers from a wealthy Long Island family who are both undergrads on the Hill during the Vietnam era. One is passionately opposed to the war, while the other is eager to prove himself in battle in the mold of their father, who won the Medal of Honor for service in World War II.

In a blurb, the late history professor Walter LaFeber said the book “gives as wonderful and accurate an account of Cornell in those important years as anything I know.”

Audition for Murder

P.M. Carlson ’61, PhD ’74

This 1985 mystery with a theatrical backdrop is the first in Carlson’s Maggie Ryan series, which stars an amateur sleuth who’s a grad student at a university resembling Cornell (and in an Ithaca-like town) beginning in the late ’60s.

Carlson followed up with Murder Is Academic, set amid antiwar protests and violent threats facing women on campus.

She went on to publish six more—including Murder Is Pathological, Murder Misread, and Murder in the Dog Days.

The cover of "Audition for Murder"

The cover of "A Journey to Sahalin"

A Journey to Sahalin

James McConkey

“Mr. McConkey is a professor of English at Cornell and observed firsthand the troubles there,” says the New York Times in its review of this 1971 novel about a university in the aftermath of a polarizing protest for Black student rights.

“He is completely convincing. Of the book’s many qualities, the one that most impressed me was the unforced tenderness that suffuses it.”

The protagonist is the dean of students at the school, dubbed “Brangwen.”

The Latecomer

Jean Hanff Korelitz

The author is a Dartmouth alum, but this 2022 novel—which Publishers Weekly calls “an irresistible dramedy of errors about a singularly unhappy family”—features two generations of Cornellians.

The parents meet on the Hill in the 1970s, experiencing a tragedy as undergrads that forges a bond. Decades later, two of their triplets also matriculate at Cornell.

(The “latecomer” of the title is a much-younger sibling, born of a fourth embryo from the same in vitro procedure that begat the triplets.)

The cover of "The Latecomer"

The cover of "Crossover"


Dennis Williams ’73

Another novel to take inspiration from the historic racial turmoil on the Hill a half-century ago, Crossover follows a Black student who matriculates at Cornell in 1969 and undergoes a political awakening.

Kirkus calls the 1992 book by Williams, a former Cornell faculty member who has also served as an editor at Newsweek, a “solid, insightful debut.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “With scathing realism and taut, visceral prose, Williams delineates the rites of passage to Black manhood.”

Top: Illustration by Caitlin Cook / Cornell University.

Published June 26, 2023

What’s your favorite book set at ‘Cornell’—and do you have any to add to our list?


  1. Larry Carpenter, Class of 1969

    I have read two of these-War Between the Tates and Been Down So Long. Tates was going on part of the time I was there, leading to matching events to people. Been Down So Long came out my freshman year and I recently came across my paperback copy. What struck me at the time was ( I believe) Gnossos’ spring break trip to Cuba during the Castro revolution, followed by a massive demonstration on the Arts quad when he returned. I went into microfilm at Olin and found the events being referenced. Very interesting. I picked up a copy of Sahalin at a used book sale because of obvious Cornell connections, including a reference to the author by a woman who published her diary recently around the Straight events; she was in McConkey’s English class. There are several items on this list I am going to try to find. Thanks for this article.

  2. Michael Tannenbaum, Class of 1975

    The protagonist *Gnossos Pappadapolous) of :Been Down so Long . . .) is NOT a recent graduate of Mentor University, but instead is a student who was on an extended break from his undergrad studies.

  3. Martha Little Munson, Class of 1970

    My father Scotty Little, who was Cornell’s swimming coach and a lover of mysteries, was a friend of Morris Bishop, and once asked him why he didn’t write another mystery after The Widening Stain, said that Bishop said “Once is a peccadillo, twice is a sin.”

  4. Judith Friedman Babcock, Class of 1974

    We recently read The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz for one of my book clubs. Yes, it was supposed to take place at Cornell, but the author got several things all wrong, I doubt if she attended. She got the names of the dormitories correct, the gorges and that it was set in Ithaca. She knew that there was a veterinary college at Cornell, but had her character enrolled in the Vet School as an undergraduate! A main character lived in Balch Hall as a freshman in 1970, when it was only open to upper class women. Also, it had her using pay phones at the end of the halls, while there were phones in the dorm rooms at that times. I guess it’s picky…The book held my interest and gave us much to discuss at the book club meeting. Unfortunately none of the main characters were very likeable people.

    • Deborah Schoch, Class of 1975

      What a wonderful topic! A number of these titles are new to me. I don’t know if you’re touching on poetry, but the late Archie (A.R) Ammons wrote a number of poems with Ithaca/Cornell themes, whether Cascadilla Falls or Fall Creek. He was a long-time Cornell English professor.

      The writer E.B. White – mentioned above – was editor of The Cornell Sun long before he went to The New Yorker. In his collected letters, he describes his arrival in Ithaca this way:

      “We toiled up a rise of seven or eight hundred feet and flew through a countryside buried under two inches of new-fallen snow. The hills, all bonneted, were like little Alps; and, toward twilight, everything turned blue – hills, snow, and sky.”

      I was in Ithaca briefly in early January, and much is the same today.

    • Kathryn Whitbourne, Class of 1985

      Agree that the characters were not very likable and some of the Cornell facts were off. She mentioned in her acknowledgements that someone who attended Cornell helped her with research bur maybe that person’s memories were off.

  5. Kathleen Sullivan (Law, 1981), Class of 1981

    Did you forget The Way We Were?
    Not the best book ever written, but Arthur Laurents did set the college part at Cornell (he was an alum) and wrote the novel based on his film treatment.

    • Patrick MacCarthy, Class of 1971

      Kathleen Sullivan’s comments about “The Way We Were” are “right on”. It should have been on your list. I fondly remember Arthur Laurents speaking about his novel at the NYC Cornell Club in the early 80s.

      As a ’71 graduate, I was amazed by the similarity of polarized views at Cornell in the era just prior to WW2 and during Vietnam.

    • Don Perlgut, Class of 1975

      I watched THE WAY WE WERE for the first time (and at least three times since) when a student at Cornell. I was disappointed none if it was filmed at Cornell but convinced if the inspiration.

  6. Marisa Brook, Class of 2009

    I was a linguistics major and spent most of my time firmly lodged in the social sciences, but the one English literature class I took was a fun romp taught by Molly Hite called “The Great American Cornell Novel” in Fall 2005. It was a mix of fiction either set (more or less) on the Hill or written by Cornell authors, or both – including a few (but only a few!) of these selections.

    Richard Fariña would never have been on my radar, and getting to talk through “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” with Professor Hite and the class was a real pleasure. Meanwhile, I was aware of Lurie and Nabokov but had never read anything of either of theirs, and the course ensured that I kept working through their oeuvres thereafter. ‘Fool on the Hill’ I discovered only well after-the-fact and kind of by accident, but I read it anyway, and enjoyed the experience of essentially visiting campus in a fever-dream.

    A footnote: Professor Lurie came to visit Professor Hite’s class after we read “The War Between the Tates” and gave me one of my all-time favorite anecdotes from undergrad.

    In the question-and-answer period at the end, one of my classmates put up a hand to ask Lurie a question and asked, “Uh, so you know that part where Erika, like, goes on a drug trip?”

    “Yes?” said Professor Lurie.

    “Well, uh, how did you…research that?”

    And Lurie, who was seventy-nine years old, got a truly wicked twinkle in one eye and went, “How d’you think?!”

  7. Ron Pies, Class of 1974

    Cornell provides the perfect setting for fiction, as this excellent listing demonstrates. I will confess to feeling just a tad “left out”, in as much as Cornell figures fairly prominently in my own fiction. (Yes, I know: I am guilty of shameless self-promotion. Repentance is pending). I suppose it is both the magnificent setting of the campus and the hot-house atmosphere of academic striving that account, in part, for Cornell’s prominent role in fiction. Of course, it is easy to romanticize one’s student experience at Cornell, draping those undergrad days in sepia-toned nostalgia.
    In truth, those years (1970-74) were both glorious and painful for me–which is always fertile ground for compelling fiction!

    Ronald W. Pies, MD, Class of ’74

  8. Ben Anderson, Class of 1969

    “Hothouse” by Joyce Thompson tells the “coming of age” story of several students at Cornell in the late 1960s. Although I read a borrowed copy of the book thirty years ago, the images and experiences of the characters remain vivid in my mind. They are a point of reference for me as I think back to those times.

    • Joyce Thompson, Class of 1970

      I haven’t read Hothouse for 30 years either. But the rights have reverted to me by now, so should anyone want to re-issue, please be in touch.

  9. Eric Roth, Class of 1974

    I would add to this list “The Netanyahus,” by Joshua Cohen, winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The main protagonist of this novel is Professor Benzion Netanyahu, an Israeli scholar specializing in the history of the Spanish Inquisition, who arrives for a job interview in the winter of 1959-60 with his young family in tow at the fictionalized Corbin College in upstate New York. Of course, the real Benzion Netanyahu, a leading scholar of the Spanish Inquisition and the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, taught at Cornell from 1971 through 1975 and chaired the Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures, now the Department of Near Eastern Studies, in the College of Arts & Sciences. The novel offers hilarious satirical observations and insights about several topics, including the role of Jews in American society, the cultural differences between American Jews and Israelis, and the hiring process at WASP-dominated American universities in the mid-twentieth century. Wickedly funny, beautifully written.

    • Jeff Schwartz, Class of 1973

      I was thinking the same thing, Eric. A very funny book, although except for the crummy winter driving (and schlepping) weather, the locale didn’t feel all that Cornellian to me. Two more: Although it wasn’t set there, the swim test in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano topsy-turvied the plot, and for completeness, one should at least reference the hockey game in Love Story, where preppy Oliver (sore) loses to the Canadian “hordes” in Ithaca. (The movie scene was filmed at Dartmouth, but they were playing/losing to us.)

  10. Richard Barron, Class of 1970

    Comeuppance by Michael Ahn, ’69, is a collection of stories, most of which take place at Cornell in the 60s. Available on Amazon and well worth reading.

  11. Susy Schaflander Rothschild, Class of 1965

    When I joined a book club in 1998, my first selection was a gripping book, Guilt By Association, by Susan R Sloan, who writes legal thrillers involving social issues. The book was published in 1995. The setting for the initial incident is the Cornell campus, which she is very familiar with (her bio states that she was educated in New York).

  12. Marcia Wities Orange, Class of 1971

    “The Latecomer” was a terrific thrill…but including the last paragraph in the description here was totally unnecessary as that was a major plot point. Please, no spoilers!

  13. Gordon Frank Sander, Class of 1972

    Thanks for the cool feature about novels set on The Hill. I might add “C-Town Blues,” the autobiographical novel I published in “Sun” beginning in 2004, when I was artist in residence at Risley. The novel, based on my own adventures and misadventures in the late 60s and early 70s, was published in 23 installments through 2006. Conceived as a sequel to both the Thompson and Farina books, the novel begins in 1968, when the character, named Harold Rothman, matriculates and finds himself drawn into the storm and fire of the Straight Takeover, and follows him to his move to C-Town and his experiences there–including an acid-fueled “death trip,” through his suspension and exile after he accumulated an historic 0.00 cum, through his return and romance with a freshman he meets at a “Spawn on the Lawn” [sic!] party. And much more. The novel, which was illustrated by my Risley neighbor and now renowned artist, JJ Manford, was quite the rage for a while, which helps explain why the “Sun” kept publishing it for two years. At some point I expect to complete it and publish it as a book. In the meantime you can read all 23 installments in the books, including Manford’s brilliant sketches, in the book section of my website at Enjoy!

  14. James Euchner, Class of 1978

    I would add to Jeff Schwartz’ comment on Vonnegut’s Player Piano. One character in the book reaches a very high role in the dystopian society he describes, but then someone discovers that he never passed his swim test at Cornell – meaning that nothing he achieved after it was valid. He was stripped of all responsibility and demoted to the “Reeks and Wrecks”–the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.

    I think that there is also a drawing of the Clock Tower in Breakfast of Champions.

  15. Mordecai (Mordy) Blaustein, Class of 1957

    Another book to add is the novel, “Cleaning Nabokov’s House” by Leslie Daniels, a humorous love story involving the coach and members of the Cornell crew and a whorehouse in downtown Ithaca. Perhaps a bit of Nabokov spoofery.

  16. Karen Tallentire, Class of 1989

    Stuart Little by E. B. White was maybe my first introduction to Cornell – there is a Cornell pennant on the wall in one of the pictures.

  17. Alan M Cody, Class of 1969

    “Five Freshmen: A Story of the Sixties” Steven Kussin ‘69! A great read.

  18. Tom Barron, Class of 1972

    “Water for Elephants” is a novel about a tragically orphaned Cornell Vet student who hops a circus train to escape reality (now that’s a unique a plot trope), discovers an elephant with a linguistic secret and falls in love with a beautiful trick rider? How’s that for a one sentence plot summary?

  19. Marc Milgrom, Class of 1994

    Beth is clearly too modest to promote her own work, but her Alex Bernier mysteries set at “Benson University” are quite enjoyable. I have several floating around the house somewhere.

  20. Dave Gross, Class of 1980

    Player Piano?

  21. Jennifer Stoever, Class of 2012

    Where is Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers (2015)?!?!?!?!? It is a brilliant book, and A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-themed Fiction 2016, Longlisted for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

    Named a best book of the season by Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, Bustle, NBC Latino and Men’s Journal!

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