In The Blackboard Jungle, neither the author Evan Hunter, nor his lead character Richard Dadier, who recently started to work at North Manual Trades High School, can keep their eyes off teacher Lois Hammond's "full and rounded breasts." She's so "busty" and "big-breasted" that every time she so much as shrugs her shoulders, both Hunter and Dadier continually focus on the way that "her breasts move." These remarkable bazooms are at some times concealed by a blouse that is "thin nylon" and at other times by one that is "peekaboo." There are occasions when the Hammond breasts are enhanced by "the delicate lace of her slip and the slender straps of her brassiere," and other times when the "firm abundant cones of her breasts [are] caught tight in a white cotton bra." But whether enhanced or restrained, not only the "thrust of her brassiere," but even more so "the obvious thrust of her breasts" are under constant scrutiny. After an inadvertent sighting, Hunter and Dadier are able to report that one of these breasts (it isn't specified whether the left or the right) is "a youthful breast, firm, with a nipple large and erect."
It is dispiriting to recall that for high school students in the 1950s, this kind of romance-novel twaddle seemed like a breakthrough in the direction of realism. But consider the context: in the novels that were read in Erasmus Hall English classes, none of the heroines (Eppie, Rebecca and Rowena, Lucy Manette) had any breasts at all, or at least, none that came to the attention of author or reader. The Blackboard Jungle seemed to be frank, honest, down-to-earth, and it was recognized in the schoolyard-and-drugstore culture of mid-century adolescents as a "hot" book, and along with The Amboy Dukes and Forever Amber was passed in cheap paperback editions from hand to sweaty hand. It reflected a reality (bad language, sexual urgency, near-anarchic disorder, gratuitous cruelty) far more present and immediate than did our 'official' reading.
Returning after all these years to The Blackboard Jungle has been a sad revelation. As a work of literature, it's piss-poor. The tough-guy prose aims to be hard-boiled, but it's undercooked ("the boys in the class considered English a senseless waste of time, a headless chicken, a blob without a goal"). The story is padded with interminable didactic digressions, and many of its episodes are either woefully overwrought or just simply meretricious -- Dadier's infant son, for example, is stillborn for no earthly reason except to squeeze a sob from the reader.
Nevertheless, and in spite of its amateurism, it's still a disturbing book. The Blackboard Jungle covers the first four months of Dadier's teaching career: in the course of one melodramatic semester, he prevents the rape of a fellow teacher, he's attacked and beaten on the street by a gang of students, and he's slashed in a knife-fight in his own classroom. So much violence in so short a period of time seems to be beyond belief. Does it accord with the facts? Wasn't it the case that the local bully-boy, Herbie Wessoly, attacked Mr. Proshan, our seventh-grade social studies teacher and wrestled him to the floor? Didn't the gang leader Runzi Marfeta terrorize the schoolyard? Weren't there fights outside the Bedford Arch almost daily? Wasn't it the case that every tenth student wore a "garrison belt," the three-inch buckle of which was ground razor-sharp, just in case? It was the heyday of "juvenile delinquents" and zip-guns and gravity knives and gang fights, and in many of my classrooms the out-of-control ambience was established and sustained by the psychopaths and sociopaths among whom I was educated. And isn't it also the case that The Blackboard Jungle doesn't even tell the whole truth but is a sanitized version of real life? There's not a single mention of drunkenness, of heroin and other widely-used drugs, of accidental pregnancy and illegal abortion, or even of what used to be called, euphemistically, "broken homes."
Almost entirely anti-nostalgic, the novel did nevertheless provoke an occasional smile: Delaney cards, "official class," "daddy-o," street corner harmonizers. There's also one very brilliant comic touch in The Blackboard Jungle. At North Manual Trades High School, there's a men's teacher's lounge in which Richard Dadier seems to pass a lot of his time, smoking. In the lounge is a couch, and on the couch is a man -- a teacher -- lying prone, his face concealed. He's asleep at the beginning of the novel, and he's still asleep at the end; Dadier never sees his face and never learns who he is or what subject he's supposed to be teaching. It's an exquisite metaphor for an exhausted and overwhelmed educational establishment. The Blackboard Jungle is a bad book, but Evan Hunter has earned his place in the story by bringing the scandal of high schools like North Manual Trades to public attention.