For countless dead bodies to become reanimated and swarm through the streets as cannibalistic ghouls would count as an apocalyptic development, by most people's standards. Then again, it is not one that we have to worry about all that much. Other possibilities of destruction tend to weigh more heavily on the mind. But if you combine extreme improbability with gruesome realism, the effect is a cinematic nightmare that won't go away -- one of the most durable and resonant forms of what Susan Sontag once described as "the imagination of disaster."
It all began with the release of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968: a low-budget independent film that more or less instituted the conventions of the cannibalistic zombie movie, as further developed in his Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Other directors have played variations on his themes, but Romero remains the definitive zombie auteur -- not simply for founding the subgenre, but for making it apocalyptic in the richest sense. For the root meaning of "apocalypse," in Greek, is "an uncovering." Romero's zombies expose the dark underside of American culture: racism, consumerism, militarism, and so on.
His most recent addition to the zombie cycle, Diary of the Dead, which opened last Friday, returns viewers to the opening moments of the undead's onslaught. But while his first film, Night, was set in a world where radio and television were the only sources of information for panicking human refugees, Diary is a zombie film for the age of new media. Romero's band of survivors this time consists of a bunch of college students (and their alcoholic professor) who are busy making a film for class when the end of the world hits. One of them become obsessed with posting footage of the catastrophe online -- a chance for Romero to explore the ways that digital technology makes zombies of its users.
As an enthusiast for Romero's apocalyptic satire, I was somehow not terribly surprised to learn last year that Baylor University Press had published a book called Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth. The author, Kim Paffenroth, is an associate professor of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York.
Romero's zombie apocalypse brings "the complete breakdown of the natural world of food chains, social order, respect for life, and respect for death," writes Paffenroth, "because all those categories are meaningless and impossible to maintain in a world where one of the most fundamental limen, the threshold between alive and dead, has become a threshold that no one really crosses all the way over, but on which everyone lives suspended all the time." And in this moment of revelation, all the deadly sins stand fully revealed (and terribly rapacious).
The release of Diary of the Dead seemed a perfect excuse finally to interview Paffenroth. He answered questions by e-mail; the full transcript follows.
Q:You mention in your book that George Romero's work has literally given you nightmares. How did you go from watching his films to writing about them, and even publishing zombie fiction of your own?
A: Well, I was fascinated with the original Dawn when I was still a teen, but I'm afraid my level of commentary seldom got beyond -- "Zombies! Cool!" And then, to be honest, I didn't think of or watch any zombie films from the time Day came out until the Dawn remake was released. But during those years, I was just reading everything I could -- especially ancient and medieval literature, philosophy, and theology. So when I saw the Dawn remake, things clicked and I could give a more thorough and complicated response than I had when I was a youth, because I could then see how Romero was building on Dante and the Bible.
And to be frank, at that point I'd written a lot of books about the Bible and other theological topics, and no one read them. To an author, that's probably the worst disappointment imaginable. So I took a chance that if people didn't want to read about these theological subjects directly, maybe through the filter of their favorite monster genre, they'd be more open to the discussion and analysis. And it seems that they are.
As for making the transition to fiction writing, that's just crazy hubris that strikes all of us at some point -- the idea that anyone would want to read the tales we write -- and some of us are dogged and patient and lucky enough that it actually amounts to something. I never get over it, when I realize that there are some people who like my fiction and look forward to what I'll write next. That's a huge rush and I want to keep it going as long as I can.
Q:In the New Testament, Jesus dies, then comes back to life. His followers gather to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I am probably going to hell for this, but .... Is Christianity a zombie religion?
A: I think zombie movies want to portray the state of zombification as a monstrous perversion of the idea of Christian resurrection. Christians believe in a resurrection to a new, perfect state where there will be no pain or disease or violence. Zombies, on the other hand, are risen, but exist in a state where only the basest, most destructive human drive is left - the insatiable urge to consume, both as voracious gluttons of their fellow humans, and as mindless shoppers after petty, useless, meaningless objects. It's both a profoundly cynical look at human nature, and a sobering indictment of modern, American consumer culture.
Q:The human beings in Romero's world are living through an experience of "hell on earth." as your subtitle says. There are nods towards some possible naturalistic explanation for the dead within the films (that a virus or "space radiation" somehow brought corpses back to life) but the cause is never very useful or important to any of the characters. And some characters do think mankind is finally being punished. Is the apocalyptic dimension just more or less inevitable in this kind of disaster, or is it deliberate? To what degree is Romero's social satire consciously influenced by Christian themes? Or are those themes just inevitably built into the scenario and imagery?
A: I think "apocalyptic" has just come to mean "end of civilization," so of course, any movie or book with that as its premise is, by definition, "apocalyptic." And even if we throw in the interpretation "God's mad at us -- that big, mean God!" I still don't think that's very close to real, biblical apocalyptic.
Romero's view is a lot closer to biblical apocalyptic or prophetic literature, for he seems to make it clear, over and over, that humanity deserves this horror, and the humans in the films go to great lengths to make the situation even worse than it is already -- by their cruelty, greed, racism, and selfishness. Whether this is conscious or accidental, I really can't address with certainty: I only note that his prophetic vision is compatible with a Christian worldview, not that it stems from that.
Q:The fifth movie in George Romero's zombie cycle, Diary of the Dead , opened over the weekend. Does it seem like a progression or development in his vision, or does it simply revisit his earlier concerns in a new setting?
A: I think each film in the series has a special target that is the particular focus of Romero's disgust at the moment. The media has always been at the periphery in each of the previous films -- cooperating with government ineptitude and coverup in the first two until the plug's pulled and there is no more media -- but now it's the main subject of this installment.
Romero does a great job capturing the sick voyeurism of addiction to cell-phone cameras and the Internet - there are so many shots in this one where you just want to shout at the characters, "Put down the camera and HELP HER! SHE'S BEING EATEN ALIVE YOU IDIOT!" It is surely no accident that the two people who most help our protagonists are either cut off from the media (the Amish man) or they themselves have been the target of unfair representation in the media (black men who are called "looters" when white people in Katrina were said to be "salvaging" or "gathering" supplies). And the one time a crime is committed by one group of humans against another, the camera is forced off.
With that being said, I think in many ways it does return to the vision of Night of the Living Dead with its overwhelming cynicism and despair. Certainly the last shot is meant to evoke the same feeling of finality and doom as the first film, the gripping doubt that there's anything left in human society worth saving.
Q:It feels as if Romero is suggesting that Jason, the character holding the digital camera, is himself almost a zombie. There's something creepy about his detachment -- his appetite for just consuming what is going on around him, rather than acting to help anyone. But there are also indications that the cameraman does have a kind of moral commitment to what he is doing. He's trying to capture and transmit the truth of what is going on, because doing so might save lives. What did you make of that ambiguity? Is something redemptive going on here with behavior that otherwise seems quite inhuman?
A: I'd have to think about it in detail, once I have the DVD "text" to study. My initial reaction is that that interpretation mostly comes from the voice-over by Deb, his girlfriend and the narrator of Diary. The exact motives of Jason remain hazy to me. He says he doesn't want fame (what would it mean in their world?), yet he's obsessed with the 72,000 hits in 9 minutes. But he doesn't exactly explain why in that scene. I don't think he said that maybe some of the 72k people were saved or that he's doing a public service or helping save the world.
He just seems addicted and intoxicated by the 72k number itself -- like even if it's not fame, it's a junkie's fix, it's a validation of his value, as indeed is the chilling (and slightly comical) act of handing the camera to Deb at the end. As she keeps accusing him: if it doesn't happen on camera, it's like it doesn't happen.
So the camera is not reflecting reality, it's creating it. And Jason's version of reality is better than the government's falsified version of the first attack, because it's more accurate, but it's no less addictive or exploitive or inhumane by the end.
Q:Good points, but I still think there's some ambiguity about Jason's role, because this is a problem that comes up in debates over journalistic ethics -- whether the responsibility to report accurately and as a disengaged observer becomes, at some point, irresponsibility to any other standard of civilized behavior. Arguably Romero is having it both ways: criticizing Jason while simultaneously using the narrative format to ask whether or not his behavior might have some justification (however ex post facto or deluded).
A: Perhaps artists can have it both ways in a way journalists can't. Artists deal in ambiguities, journalists (supposedly) deal in facts. But with cell phones and the internet, suddenly everyone is a potential "journalist" and the facts are even more malleable and volatile than they ever were.
Q:You note that this subgenre has proven itself to be both popular with audiences and marginal to Hollywood. "Zombie movies," you write in your book, "just offend too many people on too many levels to be conventional and part of the status quo." And while not quite as gory as some of Romero's earlier work, Diary ends with an image calculated to shock and disgust. Is this a matter of keeping the element of humor under control? While a spoof like Shaun of the Dead was an affectionate homage to Romero, the element of social satire there didn't really have much, well, bite....
A: That's a great way to put it - that humorous homages use humor to offset the gore (look at the really over-the-top squashing scene in Hot Fuzz for an example of just how much gore you can offset, if the movie's funny enough!). But it also works the other way -- that biting social criticism needs some bite, needs to be a little out of control and not tamed or staid. I like that idea.
That being said, Romero makes my job a lot harder. The gore hounds sometimes put their hands over their ears and chant "LALALALA! I can't hear you!" if I say that some image they love on an aesthetic level might *mean* something -- while I think a lot of readers or viewers who might be receptive to critcism of our society just can't make it past the first disemboweling.
I would suppose it's an artistic judgment, and for me at least, Romero has been hitting the right balance for a long time, and is continuing to do so.
When I served on college admissions committees in the 1990s, a phrase that kept coming up was "the best students," in comments like "We've got to get the best students" or "Rival College X down the road is beating us out for the best students." I came to think of the mentality behind these comments as the Best-Student Fetish, a symptom of the increasingly obsessive competition among colleges for the cream of the high school senior crop. The more I thought about the Best-Student Fetish, the more perverse its logic seemed: It is as if the ultimate dream of college admissions is to recruit a student body that is already so well educated that it hardly needs any instruction! Sitting in admissions committee meetings, it was all I could do not to ask, "Hey, why don't we recruit bad students and see if we can actually teach them something?"
The experience helped me realize that, despite our undoubtedly sincere efforts to make higher education democratic, the top colleges and universities and their wannabe imitators are still set up for the students who are already the best educated rather than for the struggling majority that needs us most. Perhaps we got so used to the split between intellectual haves and have-nots among undergraduates that we concluded that it's inevitable and there's nothing we can do about it. This would explain why, in the hundreds of faculty meetings I must have attended in my 40-plus years of teaching, I have never heard anyone ask how our department or college was doing at educating all its students.
That's why I've become a believer in the potential of learning outcomes assessment, which challenges the elitism of the Best-Student Fetish by asking us to articulate what we expect our students to learn -- all of them, not just the high-achieving few -- and then holds us accountable for helping them learn it. Whereas the Best-Student Fetish asks who the great students are before we see them, outcomes assessment changes the question to what students can do as a result of seeing us.
Furthermore, once we start asking whether our students are learning what we want them to learn, we realize pretty quickly that making this happen is necessarily a team effort, requiring us to think about our teaching not in isolation but in relation to that of our colleagues. The problem is not that we don't value good teaching, as our critics still often charge, but that we often share our culture's romanticized picture of teaching as a virtuoso performance by soloists, as seen in films like Dead Poets Society,Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers. According to this individualist conception of teaching -- call it the Great-Teacher Fetish, the counterpart of the Best-Student Fetish -- good education simply equals good teaching. This equation is pervasive in current discussions of school reform, where it is taken as a given that the main factor in improving schooling is recruiting more good teachers.
In fact, this way of thinking is a recipe for bad education. According to Richard F. Elmore's research on primary and secondary education, in failing schools the governing philosophy is often, Find the most talented teachers and liberate them "from the bonds of bureaucracy," which are often seen as infringements on academic freedom. (In the movies, the great teacher always works her classroom magic against the background of an inept, venal, or corrupt school bureaucracy.) Elmore reports that the pattern of teachers "working in isolated classrooms" is common in unsuccessful schools, where everything depends on the teachers' individual talents "with little guidance or support from the organizations that surround them." Conversely, as Elmore argues, successful schools tend to stress cooperation among teachers over individual teaching brilliance, though cooperation itself enhances individual teaching.
For all its obvious value, excellent teaching in itself doesn't guarantee good education. The courses taken in a semester by a high school or college student may all be wonderfully well taught by whatever criterion we want to use, but if the content of the courses is unrelated or contradictory, the educational effect can be incoherence and confusion. As students in today's intellectually diverse university go from course to course, they are inevitably exposed to starkly mixed messages. Though this exposure is often energizing for the high achievers who possess some already developed skill at synthesizing clashing ideas and turning them into coherent conversations, the struggling majority typically resort to giving successive instructors whatever they seem to want even if it is contradictory. Giving instructors what they want (assuming students can figure out what that is) replaces internalizing the norms of the intellectual community -- that is, education.
The freedom that is granted us in higher education (at least at high-end and middle-rank institutions) to teach our courses as we please should have always carried an obligation to correlate and align our courses to prevent students from being bombarded with confusing disjunctions and mixed messages. Outcomes assessment holds us to that obligation by making us operate not as classroom divas and prima donnas but as team players who collaborate with our colleagues to produce a genuine program. We all use the P-word glibly, as in "our writing program" or "our literature program," but we have not earned the right to the word if it denotes only a collection of isolated courses, however individually excellent each may be.
By bringing us out from behind the walls of our classrooms, outcomes assessment deprivatizes teaching, making it not only less of a solo performance but more of a public activity. To be sure, with such increased public visibility may come greater vulnerability: Though it is students whose learning is evaluated in outcomes assessment, it is ultimately the faculty whose performance is put in the spotlight. If we have nothing to hide, however, then less secrecy and greater transparency in our classroom practices should work in our favor. At a time when attracting greater financial support for higher education increasingly depends on our ability to demonstrate the value of our work to wider publics, anything that makes teaching more visible and less of a black box figures to be in our interest. Giving teaching a more public face should help humanists doing cutting-edge work refute the widespread stereotype of them as tenured radicals who rule over their classes with iron fists. But it should also help humanists more generally to clarify to a wider public the critical reading and thinking competencies we stand for and to show that those competencies are indispensable enough to the workplace and democratic citizenship to merit greater investment.
But of course the critics of outcomes assessment are far less sanguine than I am in the face of the conservative politics they see driving it. In a talk delivered at our Modern Language Association "Outcomes Assessment" session, Michael Bennett, presenting what he called "the radical take on learning outcomes assessment," said this position "can be summarized in one word: resist!" Bennett argued that the push for outcomes assessment must be seen in the context of the increasing privatization of higher education, the co-optation of accreditation by the for-profit educational sector, and the attempt to force colleges to accept a version of the No Child Left Behind law in the schools. As Bennett put it:
"I see the focus on outcomes assessment as a dodge from the real problems with the American educational system: that it is embedded in an inequitable and violent socioeconomic system. The kind of policies that would truly help the students with whom I work are not more hearings, campus visits, and testing but adequate funding for secondary education; child care; a living wage; debt relief or, better yet, free universal postsecondary education; an adequately compensated academic workforce exercising free inquiry and building an educational community; and universal health care."
Bennett is certainly right that many of the problems of American education -- including the so-called achievement gap between students from rich and poor backgrounds -- are rooted in economic inequality and that more adequate funding and social services would do much to alleviate these problems. But to see outcomes assessment as merely a conservative dodge designed to distract everyone from structural inequality ignores the ways our own pedagogical and curricular practices contribute to the achievement gap. Though it calls itself "radical," this view is remarkably complacent in its suggestion that nothing in our house needs to change.
Though Bennett and other critics believe that assessment is an invention of recent conservatives that is being imposed on education from the outside, the truth is that assessment originated from within the educational community itself in the early 1990s, well before conservative efforts to co-opt it. I recall attending my first assessment conference in 1991 and noting the considerable buzz about assessment at meetings of organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The original motivations of assessment lie in legitimate progressive efforts to reform higher education from within, by judging colleges according to what their students learn rather than by their elite pedigrees.
But outcomes assessment can be used in undemocratic ways, and educators do need to take Bennett's concerns seriously. We should scrutinize the standards used in assessment, how these standards are determined and applied (and with what degree of input from faculties), and how assessment results are used. Rather than reject assessment and circle the wagons, however, we should actively involve ourselves in the process, not only to shape and direct it as much as possible but to avoid ceding it by default to those who would misuse it. Had we been assessing outcomes all along in the normal course of our work, I doubt that the legislators and privatizers could have rushed in to fill the vacuum we created.
As David Bartholomae observes, "We make a huge mistake if we don't try to articulate more publicly what it is we value in intellectual work. We do this routinely for our students -- so it should not be difficult to find the language we need to speak to parents and legislators." If we do not try to find that public language but argue instead that we are not accountable to those parents and legislators, we will only confirm what our cynical detractors say about us, that our real aim is to keep the secrets of our intellectual club to ourselves. By asking us to spell out those secrets and measuring our success in opening them to all, outcomes assessment helps make democratic education a reality.
Gerald Graff is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the Modern Language Association. This essay is adapted from a paper he delivered in December at the MLA annual meeting, a version of which appears on the MLA's Web site and is reproduced here with the association's permission. Among Graff's books are Professing Literature, Beyond the Culture Wars and Clueless in Academe: How School Obscures the Life of the Mind.
During the last few years, my interests as a writing teacher and American Studies scholar have turned to the relationship between rhetoric and democratic practices and, in particular, to how I might use deliberative democracy techniques -- problem-solving strategies based on public consensus building rather than debate, partisanship, and polarization -- for teaching writing and critical thinking. These disciplinary and pedagogical interests came bundled with closely related concerns about how to better involve my students in the life of the university and in the civic affairs of Michigan State University’s neighbor, the local state capitol. I wanted to find ways, in short, for students to develop their public voices. Deeper down, I was also looking to renew my energies as a teacher and ratchet up the relevance of the humanities classroom by trying to connect the usual and venerable fare of the humanities-- principles, ideas, and critical reflection -- to the crucible of lived community problems where ordinary citizens conduct the extraordinary work of democratic citizenship.
Little did I realize that this interest in deliberation as a teaching resource would completely alter my experience of the classroom and profoundly disrupt my role and self-image as a teacher/scholar.
I began with modest experiments connecting the rhetorical and critical thinking requirements of Michigan State's general education writing course to deliberative problem solving techniques. My students, or example, studied the rhetorical processes of deliberation, examined the history of deliberative practice, and tried out deliberative arguments based on local civic and campus issues. We also conducted in-class forums based on the particular methodology of public deliberation and grass-roots problem solving practiced in hundreds of National Issues Forums taking place across the country. National Issues Forums are structured public forums about often-contested social issues that have national impact and local resonance -- for example, immigration reform and alcohol use and abuse. Perspectives on a given topic and a rhetorical framework for deliberation are laid out in issue booklets prepared by Public Agenda and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Each book presents three (sometimes four) perspectives on resolving an issue.
These early and partial efforts in my classes gave way to more sustained experiments when my colleague Eric Fretz and I designed a pair of closely related experimental writing courses in the general education sequence that would provide students with opportunities to study techniques of deliberation and to practice both public dialogue and public problem solving throughout the entire semester. These two courses were not team taught in the traditional sense. Eric was scheduled to teach a writing section with a focus on "Race and Ethnicity," and I was assigned a "Public Life in America" class with a special emphasis on education and youth issues. We each designed our own syllabus, although there was a good deal of overlapping of required texts, learning strategies, and writing assignments.
Our classes incorporated three active learning components -- a fairly traditional service experience for our students, a collaboration of both classes on a public forum on youth violence, and student-moderated deliberative study circles in class -- that we designed to link the academic issues of the separate courses, foster a strong learning community between our classes and among our students, and practice democratic skills of deliberation, collaboration, and participation. The experience of moderating a small study circle would give even the most reticent of our students the chance to practice habits of deliberation such as critical listening, asking leading questions, generating and sustaining discussion, staying neutral, and leading a group toward consensus.
Eric and I also tried to weave a deliberative pedagogy into just about every facet of the classes. Students practiced public dialogue and public problem solving at the very beginning of the semester by conducting in-class forums on topics that resonated, sometimes in discordant ways, in the public arena in our state and our university at the time, including the future of affirmative action and the quality of public education. In an effort to find out how far I could push deliberative practices into the life of the classroom, my students even framed and deliberated a class attendance policy.
Next, students gained important insights into public problems related to youth issues through question and answer sessions with invited guests (including a judge and a local police officer) and by working and learning in community settings with a number of community partners, including several Neighborhood Network Centers located in Lansing.
Our students then collaborated in small teams to research, organize, and host the public forum on “Violent Kids: Can We Change the Trend?” Students designed and drafted a discussion guide for forum participants along with worksheets and instructions for moderator assistants. They self-selected into committees that worked on timetables and deadlines for various stages of forum organization, communications, publicity, and background research on such things as children’s television, media violence, and effects of video games. After the forum, one of the work groups assembled and organized all of the forum work from each project team into a comprehensive portfolio. Eric and I drafted and circulated to all of our students an extensive portfolio assessment and evaluation memo that critically addressed the contribution of each work group -- all of which led to a deliberation we had not anticipated.
Our students were generally ruffled by our C+ evaluation of the portfolio, primarily because the grade was assigned to each student and counted for a portion of everyone's final grade. We took advantage of our students' dissatisfaction and invited them to put together a small deliberative forum to take a closer look at the evaluation memo and to present point-by-point arguments in favor of a higher grade. A small student work group agreed to frame the issue and prepare three choices for deliberation. Another work group took responsibility for moderating the joint-class forum, another for “post-forum reflections,” etc.
Here is the discussion guide they prepared:
Choice 1: The NIF Forum collaborative grade of C+ is fair and equitable. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper’s evaluation memo is thorough, well argued, and reasonable. While some students may nit-pick with details, overall the judgment is sound and the conclusions are justified. All the students in [each class] clearly knew well in advance that the forum work would be evaluated with a common grade. Sure, some students may have worked harder than others. But to insure the integrity and honesty of the forum project as an exercise in democracy and public life, students must be willing to accept the common grade.
Choice 2: Working groups that excelled deserve a better grade than C+. On the other hand, the evaluation memo suggests that other working groups may deserve less than a C+. The working groups should be evaluated on a group-by-group basis. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper should grade each group according to the arguments made in the separate committee sections of the evaluation memo. This grading procedure is ideal because it takes into consideration both collaborative work and individual effort. It is also more fair. The downside: all the work groups knew from the outset that the portfolio would be graded collaboratively. Is it OK to change that policy after the fact?
Choice 3: The common grade for the NIF forum work should be higher. The evaluation memo grade is simply too low. Granted, the points are well argued. No one claims Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper are being overly unfair. However, the forum was hard work for all students. It took up almost a third of the course work. It was a successful public deliberation. The portfolio, measured by even the toughest standards, was an excellent piece of work. No one disputes these points. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper need to raise the grade, and the class will accept without question the higher common grade.
We were generally pleased that our students had gained enough understanding, experience, and confidence in democratic deliberation to bring it to bear on a controversy and a complaint that hit closer to home. By registering their objections in a democratic fashion and by seeing their objections taken seriously, our students navigated one of the most critical thresholds of democratic life: "We have a problem; we need to talk about it." Eric and I were convincingly swayed by Choice 3, and we raised the common grade to a B.
Our students’ turnabout confronted us with turnabouts of our own brought on by new roles and practices that deliberation introduced into the classroom.
Eric and I discovered that learning strategies that promote public work through deliberative pedagogy offer teachers rewards and fresh perspectives as well as posing difficult challenges. No longer the "sage on the stage," teachers become facilitators, "guides on the side," and, in many ways, co-learners with students -- and co-workers, too. We no longer directed from the sidelines or articulated abstractions behind a podium. We found ourselves doing work right alongside our students.
As our roles shifted, we had to give up some expectations about what should happen in a college classroom. In the process, we found new ways of thinking about those questions that all of us in higher education ponder: Where does the learning take place? How can I steepen the learning curve? What do I want my students to take away with them? Through practicing democracy in the classroom, we are able to answer these questions in different and more interesting ways than we could have in a more traditional classroom setting. Students learned disciplinary knowledge (in this case, writing rhetorical arguments, thinking critically, connecting written argument to concrete public problem solving) through experience and practice. In addition, they began to experiment with ways of operating and effecting change in the public sphere of the classroom itself.
For our part, we learned that the role of professor is both bigger and smaller than the ones articulated by traditions and expectations of our academic disciplines. Our most challenging and prosaic role, for example, was that of project manager. We helped our students anticipate snags, identify community and university resources, solve problems, develop networking skills, and lay out efficient workflows -- skills we felt were basic to the toolkit of citizenship. We also fetched envelopes and department letterhead, provided campus contacts to facilitate logistics for the forum, arranged for the use of printers, fax machines, office phones and computers.
For me, a striking and lasting consequence of adopting and adapting to a deliberative pedagogy was that I no longer considered myself a "teacher" in the conventional sense in which my colleagues understood, practiced, and peer-reviewed the role. Rather, I became an architect of my students’ learning experiences or maybe a midwife of their practices to become better writers and more-active citizens -- or, perhaps more to the point, I became something like a forum moderator. In a public forum, successful deliberation is often inversely related to the visibility and presence -- indeed, the knowledge and issue expertise -- of the moderator. The same applies to a teacher in a deliberative classroom: You spend a great deal of creative intellectual energy listening to students and learning to get out of their way so that they can take ownership of the subject, in the same way that forum participants must "own" an issue.
That fundamental role shift totally changed my experience of the writing classroom, from mundane matters like the physical arrangement of desks and the venues where learning takes place to epistemological underpinnings, ethical practices and boundaries, not to mention problematic relationships with more traditionally-minded colleagues who felt that I was cutting my students too much slack. In the annual department review, one of my colleagues criticized me, for example, for comments repeated on several narrative evaluations from students that "it was like the students were teaching the class." In the future, obviously, I need to do a better job of articulating a philosophy of deliberative pedagogy so my colleagues can translate statements like that as observations of practice and not criticisms of my teaching style.
The deliberative pedagogy that we employed demands a great deal of preparation and planning, but at the same time requires spontaneity and flexibility -- and a certain degree of uncertainty. Our students’ learning experiences encompassed complex and interlocking community groups, constituencies, organizations, and several offices and units at my university. Grounded in multiple learning partnerships, action research, and real world contexts, learning became a dynamic social process -- emergent, messy, edgy, relational, sometimes inconclusive, occasionally (not often) painful and confused, frequently full of entanglements, and always, I hope, challenging. I found myself constantly pushing the class to a point of agitation, churn, and controlled chaos because that was where the real learning took place -- at that threshold where students became present in, and took ownership of, their own learning experience.
David D. Cooper
David D. Cooper is professor of writing, rhetoric, and American cultures at Michigan State University. He is director of the College of Arts and Letters’ Public Humanities Collaborative and university senior outreach and engagement fellow. Cooper explores deliberative democracy and pedagogy in more detail in a chapter in Deliberation and the Work of Higher Education, forthcoming from the Charles Kettering Foundation.
Last week, while rushing to finish up a review of Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press), I heard that Stanley Fish had just published a column about the book for The New York Times. Of course the only sensible thing to do was to ignore this development entirely. The last thing you need when coming to the end of a piece of work is to go off and do some more reading. The inner voice suggesting that is procrastination disguised as conscientiousness. Better, sometimes, to trust your own candlepower -- however little wax and wick you may have left.
Once my own cogitations were complete (the piece will run in the next issue of Bookforum), of course, I took a look at the Times Web site. By then, Fish's column had drawn literally hundreds of comments. This must warm some hearts in Minnesota. Any publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right -- so this must count as great publicity, especially since French Theory itself won’t actually be available until next month.
But in other ways it is unfortunate. Fish and his interlocutors reduce Cusset’s rich, subtle, and paradox-minded book (now arriving in translation) into one more tale of how tenured pseudoradicalism rose to power in the United States. Of course there is always an audience for that sort of thing. And it is true that Cusset – who teaches intellectual history at the Institute d’Etudes Politiques and at Reid Hall/Columbia University, in Paris – devotes some portions of the book to explaining American controversies to his French readers. But that is only one aspect of the story, and by no means the most interesting or rewarding.
When originally published five years ago, the cover of Cusset’s book bore the slightly strange words French Theory. That the title of a French book was in English is not so much lost in translation as short-circuited by it. The bit of Anglicism is very much to the point: this is a book about the process of cultural transmission, distortion, and return. The group of thinkers bearing the (American) brand name “French Theory” would not be recognized at home as engaged in a shared project, or even forming a cohesive group. Nor were they so central to cultural and political debate there, at least after the mid-1970s, as they were to become for academics in the United States. So the very existence of a phenomenon that could be called “French Theory” has to be explained.
To put it another way: the very category of “French Theory” itself is socially constructed. Explaining how that construction came to pass is Cusset’s project. He looks at the process as it unfolded at various levels of academic culture: via translations and anthologies, in certain disciplines, with particular sponsors, and so on. Along the way, he recounts the American debates over postmodernism, poststructuralism, and whatnot. But those disputes are part of his story, not the point of it. While offering an outsider’s perspective on our interminable culture wars, it is more than just a chronicle of them..
Instead, it would be much more fitting to say that French Theory is an investigation of the workings of what C. Wright Mills called the “cultural apparatus.” This term, as Mills defined it some 50 years ago, subsumes all the institutions and forms of communication through which “learning, entertainment, malarky, and information are produced and distributed ... the medium by which [people] interpret and report what they see.” The academic world is part of this “apparatus,” but the scope of the concept is much broader; it also includes the arts and letters, as well as the media, both mass and niche.
The inspiration for Cusset’s approach comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, rather than Mills, his distant intellectual cousin from Texas. Even so, the book is in some sense more Millsian in spirit than the author himself may realize. Bourdieu preferred to analyze the culture by breaking it up into numerous distinct “fields” – with each scholarly discipline, art form, etc. constituting a separate sub-sector, following more or less its own set of rules. By contrast, Cusset, like Mills, is concerned with how the different parts of American culture intersect and reinforce one another, even while remaining distinct. (I didn't say any of this in my review, alas. Sometimes the best ideas come as afterthoughts.)
The boilerplate account of how poststructuralism came to the United States usually begins with visit of Lacan, Derrida, and company to Johns Hopkins University for a conference in 1966 – then never really imagines any of their ideas leaving campus. By contrast, French Theory pays attention to how their work connected up with artists, musicians, writers, and sundry denizens of various countercultures. Cusset notes the affinity of “pioneers of the technological revolution” for certain concepts from the pomo toolkit: “Many among them, whether marginal academics or self-taught technicians, read Deleuze and Guattari for their logic of ‘flows’ and their expanded definition of ‘machine,’ and they studied Paul Virilio for his theory of speed and his essays on the self-destruction of technical society, and they even looked at Baudrillard’s work, in spite of his legendary technological incompetence.”
And a particularly sharp-eyed chapter titled “Students and Users” offers an analysis of how adopting a theoretical affiliation can serve as a phase in the psychodrama of late adolescence (a phase of life with no clearly marked termination point, now). To become Deleuzian or Foucauldian, or what have you, is not necessarily a step along the way to the tenure track. It can also serve as “an alternative to the conventional world of career-oriented choices and the pursuit of top grades; it arms the student, affectively and conceptually, against the prospect of alienation that looms at graduation under the cold and abstract notions of professional ambition and the job market....This relationship with knowledge is not unlike Foucault’s definition of curiosity: ‘not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself’....”
Much of this will be news, not just to Cusset’s original audience in France, but to readers here as well. There is more to the book than another account of pseudo-subversive relativism and neocon hyperventilation. In other words, French Theory is not just another Fish story. It deserves a hearing -- even, and perhaps especially, from people who have already made up their minds about "deconstructionism," whatever that may be.
When his turn came to speak at Norman Mailer's recent memorial service in New York, the novelist Don DeLillo began by simply holding up his creased and worn 50-year-old copy of Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead.
All lovers of literature understand the nature of DeLillo's gesture; they understand that behind the little paperback that he lifted for the audience to see lay years of private aesthetic pleasure in its pages -- from the college student marveling at its prose to the venerated author of Underworld marveling at the same thumbed passages. That's the sort of writer Mailer was, DeLillo meant to say: He wrote novels you're never finished with; and the scuffs and scratches and stains you put in them over the years add up to the archaeology of your own literary life.
Alexander Nehamas says that beauty of any kind is "a call to look more attentively." Readers of poetry, lovers of music, gardeners gardening -- all people who engage actively with beauty by paying close and lasting attention to it know this to be true. Yet because, in recent decades, we have misperceived the value of beauty, literary scholars have neglected the crucial work of thinking through our relationship with beautiful forms, and have failed to teach our students about the way that relationship sustains and enlightens us.
Who would ever enter a classroom and invite their students to consider the beauty of a work because, as Nicolas Malebranche puts it, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul"? The word "soul" doesn't get much exercise in English departments any more, and neither do concepts associated with it -- inspiration, consolation, communality, transcendence, love. What do these have to do nowadays with the study of literature? In our public neglect of such concepts in favor of the political and the material, our answer is clear: nothing.
Of course, literature professors who graduated from English departments in the past 30 years can defend their neglect of matters related to the soul, since in their studies no one talked much about these things either. An English professor recalls the facile "contingency" arguments of her day, which did so much to undermine judgments of aesthetic value: "I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my humanist convictions about 'what sustains people' -- my faith for example in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful.... I was writing about [James] Joyce's insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead -- an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I was afraid I'd be attacked for 'essentializing' -- for supposing that there are features, shared across cultures, that constitute the essence of being human."
Surely "essentializing" -- a poor choice of word for an acknowledgment of shared humanity -- is necessary in the imaginative work involved in recognizing the existence of someone else. As Iris Murdoch argues, that recognition is difficult and demands a leap into the sort of empathy which the imaginative demands of literature encourage. When Murdoch expresses her admiration for T.E. Lawrence because he "let the agonizing complexities of situations twist [his] heart instead of tying his hands," she reminds us that the real-world value of great and complex art can accustom us to the intricate and often painful ambiguities of the world.
The aesthetic disposition, we argue in our book, Teaching Beauty, is actually much less quietist than theoretically convoluted dispositions which see everything as "always already" inscribed; much less quietist, indeed, than a social constructivism which regards individuals as importantly or even definitively constrained by the particularities of their race, class, and gender.
Indeed the experience of beauty cultivates confidence in one's own perceptions and preferences, expressing itself, for instance, in the "oddness" that Henry James's Strether, in The Ambassadors, praises in Chad, whose shabby but singular Paris apartment seems to Strether part of his "small sublime indifferences and independences, [his] odd and engaging dignity." Nehamas has the same accomplishment of individuality in mind when he writes that a life of aesthetic experiences and choices is one in which he has been able to "put things together in my own manner and form." The judgment of beauty, he writes, "is a judgment of value," implicating us "in a web of relationships with people and things." The conscious choices behind this implication "lead toward individuality." In that achieved individuality, with its bracing sense of independence, authenticity, and personal agency, resides beauty's promise of happiness. For implicit in this accomplishment of autonomy and agency is a larger reassurance about the ability of humanity in general to shape and improve the world.
Critics of aesthetics tend to dismiss the "better world" orientation that often accompanies a serious interest in beauty as sentimental, religious, and naïve, an indulgent distraction from the hard truths of our time. But they are mistaken in this dismissal. The ability to establish strong personal agency, and then project certain futures, certain human potentialities, as novelists often do, and the ability to enter into and respond emotionally to those projections, as strong readers do, is a realistic and mature way of expressing faith in the possibility of humanity's capacity to improve itself.
Dmitri Tymocko, in describing Beethoven's brilliance, evokes precisely this disposition of passion and reason: "[We] can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation. (As one can have powerful political convictions while still recognizing that reasonable people may disagree.) Beethoven himself may not have achieved the perfect synthesis of these two, complementary qualities. But the evidence of both his music and his life suggests that he tried. Passionate maturity, neither resignation nor moderation nor fanaticism: that, perhaps, is what is truly sublime."
The display of "passionate maturity" may be in fact the best that we could ever hope for in our teaching of literature. The centrality of aesthetic experience in the struggle toward adaptation to a world forever changed by the particular political traumas of our time, and in the struggle toward the creation of a more humane world, means that professors of literature have in fact a special, even extraordinary, responsibility. In conveying the fullness of powerful aesthetic gestures, they must convey more than the form and content of particular poems, plays, and novels. They must embody in their very mode of teaching the paradox of passionate control which so often characterizes the greatest works of art; and they must embody the moral value for each individual of this dynamic act of balance.
As William Arrowsmith writes: "[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship.[The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too."
A student of Wayne Booth's at the University of Chicago remembers an independent study on Joyce's Ulysses that he and eight other students had with Booth: "Each week the nine of us gathered in a tight circle in his office at the top of the west Harper tower, surrounded by walls of books and a window looking out over the quad. We read aloud from each chapter and Mr. Booth guided our conversations through that great maze of a book. During our last meeting, Mr. Booth read the final section of Molly's soliloquy. As he approached the end, his voice began to tremble. I looked up from my text to see Wayne Booth crying as he read "yes I said yes I will yes."
Weeping's not required, of course; but there's nothing wrong with professors expressing in their own skin the way in which sustaining fictive truths suffer into being. For those who have carried their literary affections with them through a long life it may even be impossible to keep one's private emotion at bay when a work recalls vividly moments from that life. Paul Fussell has written movingly about the difficulty of keeping his emotions checked when teaching certain works: "During my final years of teaching, I had to be very careful what I talked about, and quoted, in front of a class, for I found I could not navigate unmoved through certain things."
In the age of distance learning, downloaded lecture content, and Death by Powerpoint, it's all the more important that humanities professors resist the ugly mechanization of the classroom, the new and primitive industrial age we're in, and take more seriously than ever their function as living embodiments of the power of beauty. Raimond Gaita, a moral philosopher, puts the matter most strongly: "To be more than a high-flying dilettante you need more than intellectual skills. You must develop a certain kind of moral seriousness: you must try to overcome vanity, to have courage, to care more for truth than for status, and so on. That's as obvious as the need to be kind and just if you are to be a good person and it's just as hard. Critical thinking can be taught. How and why really to care for the truth can't be, not, at any rate, in the same way. For that you need examples in your teachers and in the texts that you study. The examples won't all come from the humanities, but only the humanities can give what you need to reflect on their significance."
It is an interesting idea that the humanities might nurture "moral seriousness," and that such seriousness is in fact required if one is to be more than merely clever, or well versed in one's subject. The return of beauty to literary studies, which we think to be both underway and overdue, is one step toward the revitalization of the liberal arts. That will be its grand, social, public accomplishment.
Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan
Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan (known to IHE readers as the proprietor of one of its blogs, University Diaries) are the authors of the just-released book Teaching Beauty in DeLillo, Woolf, and Merrill (Palgrave Macmillan), from which this piece is a revised excerpt and appears here with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. They are English professors at George Washington University.
Keith Gessen’s first novel,All the Sad Young Literary Men (Viking), is being scrutinized not just by the reviewers but by new-media gossip merchants. The latter are preoccupied with finding the real-life prototypes of Gessen's characters -- especially the three sad, young, literary ones mentioned in his title.
One of those characters is a political journalist named Keith (clearly the author is asking for trouble) who attends Harvard in the 1990s and expects that Al Gore’s victory in the 2000 presidential election will be a tide lifting all boats, including his own; and so the years after college are especially confusing and unhappy for him. Another, Mark, is a graduate student in Syracuse working on a dissertation about the Mensheviks, a faction of Russian radicals consigned to the dustbin of history by the October Revolution. And perhaps the saddest of the young literary men is Sam, who aspires to write the great epic of Zionism despite not actually knowing Hebrew. Meanwhile, Sam watches his reputation, as reflected in his Google statistics, shrink over time.
The codebreakers have worked out which person around the cultural journal N+1, of which Gessen is a founding editor, inspired each character. My impression is that it is not even necessary to read the novel to play this game. One person has speculated, for example, that the character Sam must be based on the novelist Sam Lipsyte -- presumably because they have the same name, since there is no other point of resemblance that I can detect. (Evidently players score extra points for sounding knowing without actually, you know, knowing anything.)
But suppose one reads All the Sad Young Literary Men on its own terms: that is, as a work of fiction, perhaps autobiographical in the way that first novels often tend to be, but one seeking to transform strictly personal experience into something else through literary craftsmanship. Read that way, it seems less like a group portrait of ambitious twentysomething writers in the Bush era (let alone grist for the gossip mill) than it does something much more traditional. It looks like a portrait of the artist as a young man -- but one painted as a triptych. The three central characters would be, in effect, so many authorial alter-egos.
If so, that would still not make the book a memoir in disguise. Breaking up the pattern of a life into fragments – letting each take shape as a distinct character, following a course that diverges from the others – speaks less of an urge towards self-revelation than it does of trust in writing itself as a process of finding or creating form. And more to the point, writing would be an effort to redeem the formlessness of life itself. Which really does tend to sneak up on you.
As one of Gessen's characters says towards the end of the novel: “The trouble is that when you’re young you don’t know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don’t exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences for certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose. But at the time I didn’t know; and now, when I knew, my mind was too filled up with useless auxiliary information, and beholden to special interests, and I was confused.”
Each of the major characters in All the Sad Young Literary Men finds himself in that position. So, perhaps, does the reader. It is one of the motives people have to write fiction, or to consume it. We go in search of lost time.
Recently, while Gessen was in Washington to read from his novel at a bookstore, he confirmed in conversation that all the sad young literary men had been spun out of the raw material of his own life. He had seen the bloggy speculation that the book was a roman à clef. It seemed to annoy him.
I did not have the digital recorder turned on at the time -- so that part of our exchange won’t be found in the podcast interview accompanying this column. Which is probably just as well. There is not much to say about the phenomenon of industrialized ressentiment that has not already been said elsewhere.
Instead, the podcast that accompanies this column covers other matters. Gessen describes trying to write about characters who actually care about politics, and whose interest in philosophical and historical matters is just as much a part of the texture of their experience as falling in love (or out of it). The interview also includes Gessen’s thoughts on publishing a rather old-fashioned species of literary magazine at a time when long-established patterns of cultural production are being disrupted by a medium that permits, even demands, instantaneous dissemination and feedback.
Thanks to the activity of digital gremlins, only part of the conversation got properly recorded. But for an earlier treatment of the themes of youth, regret, and making sense of things ex post facto, see this earlier column on the N+1 booklet called What We Should Have Known. And as an alternative to some of the more witless speculation about Gessen's novel (be warned: clicking that link will make you dumber), see the review by Joyce Carol Oates.
When I tell new acquaintances that I am an English professor, they generally react two ways. First, they express dismay that they now have to watch what they say (as if I were grading their performance). Second, and more to the point, many of them ask an inevitable question: “How well do your students write?” That people outside of academia recognize a crisis of communication within speaks to one central fact: The average college student is remarkably challenged by the age-old practice of putting ideas down on paper.
Very few people would argue with the truism that success within the university and beyond is predicated upon students’ achieving a certain level of proficiency as writers. Thus, if the inability to communicate is begrudgingly taken as a given at the beginning of the freshman year, it becomes -- in the general lament -- a tragedy by graduation. Who, then, is to blame?
English departments are a common target. I was stunned when, as a work/study graduate student in the department office, I answered the phone during lunch only to be berated by a physics professor who wanted to know what the hell we were doing over there. Things had apparently become so critical that even the good people in the sciences were beginning to notice. Leaving aside for a moment the unexamined presumption that only English departments should be responsible for writing -- as if we alone knew how to impart the wisdom of subject-verb-object -- I do in fact want to take his complaint seriously.
What are we doing over here?
I have no interest in the now clichéd grumblings over English departments and their esoteric if not onanistic engagement in high-octane literary theory. I will only say that there is merit to the criticism. On the whole, however, such censure really isn’t going anywhere; these exercises in cryptic marginalia are simply what we do, much in the same way that hyenas eat carrion. Both have their place, and whether one is more useful than the other is a matter for disputation.
My questions are more practical, if not more overtly political: Why is the teaching of writing so readily given over to the novitiate? If writing is that important as a university and life skill, why do we assign its teaching to graduate students and part-time instructors? Where are the associate and full professors of English, for it is exceedingly difficult to find them in writing classrooms?
I am not at all suggesting that teaching assistants and part-timers are incompetent or careless; perhaps no one in the English department works harder, save for the staff. And there’s little doubt that the composition classroom is the best training for the part-time grunt work that often follows the Ph.D. in English. Even today -- after more than 20 years of empty promises -- the dirty little secret that doesn’t often make it to graduate orientation is that a large number of doctors of philosophy will be stuck in part-time employment fixing thesis statements and correcting schizophrenic syntax.
It is a familiar enough story, but useful to rehash. Graduate students and adjuncts are cheap labor. They fill untold numbers of sections and receive miniscule pay and laughable benefits, if any. But graduate students receive tuition remission, you say. True enough, yet this is an exchange administrations can live with. If universities couldn’t afford to forgo the tuition, they wouldn’t. In return, the university places 20, 25, 30 freshmen in a classroom with a part-time instructor where it otherwise would have to place a comparatively expensive professor who enjoys a modest salary and other benefits. From an administrative point of view it’s a system that works.
More insidious, however, than the short-term economic benefits to the university is the way in which so many English departments both enjoy and perpetuate this status quo, so much so that I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the teaching of writing appears secondary to the other, more lofty work of professing literature. Since when did writing become anathema? If writing is so important that virtually every student at nearly every college and university must take at least one composition course (and usually two), why aren’t more professors of English teaching it?
The current system allows us to maintain our own esteemed position as professors of literature and theory. Writing pedagogy is work for the masses -- graduate students, adjuncts, and those oddballs in rhetoric and comp. I find it strange that in some universities composition instruction has been completely removed from English departments into its own unit, and the English . . . er . . . literature professors like it just fine. They don’t have to grade those awful papers. They don’t have to undermine their status or misuse their expertise with something as mundane as composition. Life is good when you can spend it with Gilbert and Gubar rather than Elbow and Belanoff. The argument can be made that a separate department assures that those who teach composition are there because they care about what they’re doing. But it creates two separate and unequal entities: one for the rock stars and one for the roadies. And I would like to see some empirical evidence that the folks in rhetoric and comp -- whom I respect -- have more success than the rest of us.
Why does every graduate instructor in composition clamor to get one of the coveted spots teaching literature? Watching my fellow graduate students at Indiana University yearning to escape from the writing classroom was like witnessing an academic version of white flight to the suburbs. In retrospect, there was something slightly unseemly about the feeling of relief when we were finally anointed to teach a literature class. I should know; I felt the same way. When I was granted my own literature class I knew I was finally becoming a professor. The composition classroom was for amateurs.
Literature and literary theory are essential, difficult, and rarefied (or so we have been led to believe), thus experienced professors will teach it. They will lead the best and the brightest students, often English majors who are beginning to understand how the game is played. Evidently, a class that covers, say, The New Southern Literature is a better use of an instructor’s time than a discussion of the finer points of the subjunctive or how to approach a rewrite. I’m not making an argument about Southern literature or literary theory. However, the general consensus seems to be that ideas are important but imparting the skills to communicate those ideas is a task best reserved for the worker bees.
Teaching writing -- and doing it well -- is a taxing business. It means thinking about course objectives and how to achieve them in a very practical way. It often means our learning how to impart skills that may come naturally to people whose inclinations and talents lie elsewhere. As a graduate student, my initial experiences in the composition classroom were marked by confusion and fear. I had a general inclination about what a good paper looked like -- having written a few -- but I also had almost no idea how I did it. My process had been to write and rewrite until it felt about right. How and what I was supposed to impart to others out of my intuitive sense of what worked and what didn’t escaped me completely. I began to think that I was there because no one else wanted the job.
So I did what every other beginning teacher does: I fell back on discussions of other writers’ essays and assigned the occasional in-class writing exercise. Classes were comprised of my asking questions about the readings and praying that the students would have something to say. The only problem, of course, is that my approach was literary interpretive rather than vocational: We talked about what the authors were saying and almost nowhere about how they were saying it. We almost never discussed the methods and means by which a writer might achieve a finished piece of work. Neither did we consider artistry. And as a graduate instructor, I never touched grammar.
I didn’t know what I was doing then; I continue to learn today. As graduate instructors we didn’t confess it to each other, but I suspect that most of my classmates that first year were equally befuddled. I am merely suggesting that if we acknowledge and value writing, if we still believe that composition has a place in the university (and this can certainly be a question for debate) -- as it does in most -- then those who profess the centrality of the written word might wish to carry some of the actual load.
The English professor rarely teaches freshman writing courses because it is beneath her to have to worry over catchy introductions, pithy thesis statements, and thoughtful conclusions. Certainly she cannot be bothered by grammar and form, except briefly and in passing. There is a workman-like quality to the teaching of writing; it is as close to blue-collar as you can get in the liberal arts classroom. In my first tenure-track job at a community college I taught a five and five load, four of which were composition classes (far too many, to be sure). I felt like Lucy in the candy factory. We’re English professors; why work up a sweat?
That’s an honest perspective. Writing classes are difficult to teach because to do it well you have to assign a lot of …well…writing. Which means you have to grade the papers. Which means late nights and early mornings with some of the most tedious assaults to the intellect. And then you do it all over again, usually week after week.
But it has to be done, and so why not by people with a history of teaching who are not fazed by the prospect of a room full of students who probably don’t want to be there and who suspect they can’t write? In an ideal world, many of these students would be taught by writers themselves who practice their craft. (Leaving aside the snippy but not altogether untrue argument that as prose stylists go, we English professors might not be the best models. It would appear that we are the only game in town.) Why can’t we all be like Stanley Fish? I was almost floored when, skimming through Fish’s New York Times blog, I found a post in which he explained the challenges and delights that he, after 40 years, finds in teaching writing. Stanley Fish, author of 10 books, Distinguished University Professor and professor of law at Florida International University, teaches writing? There’s hope.
At the very least, full professors of English belong in the composition classroom because they might learn a thing or two about writing themselves. Moreover, the benefits to those students who will not see a professor their first year could be intangible. They would understand that we in the university take writing seriously enough that someone with gravitas and experience is teaching it. They would benefit from close contact with instructors who are not looking to move up or into the more ethereal realm of literature, those who believe that strong, clear writing is as essential as oxygen.
There could be other structural and institutional benefits. Might we see smaller Ph.D. programs because there is less need for composition instructors and because the professors are more fully engaged with undergraduate education? Might we have fewer doctorates awarded? A meaningful loosening of the job market? Imagine a world where positions teaching literature and composition are actually available for the professionals we graduate from our programs.
William Major is associate professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.
We reached the island on the morning of Labor Day, as the last of the vacationers were closing up their summer rentals; they caught the afternoon ferry back to New Bedford. At peak times, there may be 300 people on Cuttyhunk. It is a tiny island with a peculiar shape, located about two hours from Boston -- one hour each by land and by sea. A retired academic couple, Marvin and Betty Mandell, had lent my wife and me use of their place for a few days. (Marvin is professor emeritus of English at Curry College, while Betty holds the same position in social work at Bridgewater State College.) By the evening of our first day, the island's population had shrunk to a few dozen people – none of whom, it turned out, was a restaurateur.
We sank into the quiet. Cell phones didn't always work, and we were wireless-less. It was a good place to let your imagination to take over. We began speculating about the puzzling sets of rocks arranged in odd patters, the occasional symbol painted here and there, the graffiti laboriously scratched into the stones of a bridge. We worked out our own myth about the sacrificial traditions of the island – two parts Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and one part H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” (It seemed obvious that worship of sinister fish gods would be involved, given all the yachts). What made the private joke work, of course, was the absolute lack of menace or stress on the island otherwise – unless you counted the occasional need to get out of the way of golf carts putting down the road.
Exploring the local history books on Marvin and Betty’s shelves and in the Cuttyhunk Public Library, I became intrigued by the area's most ambitious claim to fame. This was the theory that it served as the inspiration for Prospero’s island in The Tempest. Since getting back home, to a city with good research collections, it has been possible to explore the matter a little further. By now, it is not so much a case of scholarly fascination as reluctance to surrender all of the vacation mood.
Our story begins on another, rather larger island with a figure who never saw the New World. This was Henry Wriothesley, better known as the third Earl of Southampton. The title was thrust upon him at the age of 8, when he was orphaned by the death of the second Earl. He came under the protection of an aristocrat who enjoyed what must have been an extremely strong connection with Queen Elizabeth’s inner circle. And a good thing for Henry, too -- for he was high spirited, in a bad way. He quickly proved himself to be one of the most annoying people in Elizabeth's court.
One night, while Henry and friends were gambling and whooping it up, the Queen sent out a squire demanding that they hold it down so she could get some sleep. The group broke up, at least upon the second warning. But the next day Henry found the squire and beat him up. Actually it sounds as if the squire gave as good as he got. Henry lost some hair. Her Majesty was not amused.
When not making a nuisance of himself at court, the young Earl was hanging out with the rough elements who frequented theaters, and he showed no great urgency about getting married. (The expression that fits here is probably "gay blade.") That was all bad enough. But then Henry got involved in an effort to foment an armed putsch. The Essex Rebellion was put down, and the conspirators condemned to death. With who knows how many favors being called in, the Earl's supporters were able to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in the Tower of London.
This at least gave him a chance to catch up on his reading – in particular, the reports coming back from explorers of the lands on the other side of the Atlantic. A few years later, in 1605, Ben Jonson would get into trouble himself for co-authoring Eastward Hoe, a play that satirized the enthusiasm of aristocrats for the New World, where, as one character put it, “chamber pots are pure gold.”
In hopes of having a fortune waiting if he ever got out of the Tower, Henry decided to fund an expedition to colonize America. It set sail in March 1602. At the helm was a young adventurer named Bartholomew Gosnold, who had recently brought both glory and booty to England as privateer (that is, an officially licensed pirate, expropriating wealth from Spanish ships). By late spring, Gosnold and his crew had reached Maine and were making their way down the coast of what would eventually be called New England. They named places as they went. A cape with plenty of cod became Cape Cod. In honor of his daughter, Gosnold named one island Martha’s Vineyard. Another, very much smaller body of land he called the Elizabeth Island – after Gosnold’s sister, it seems, not his monarch, though it was still a savvy move.
Upon disembarking at Elizabeth, the captain and his men encountered a number of members of the Wampanoag tribe -- who were, with the benefit of hindsight, probably much too genial for their own good. Despite the language barrier, gifts were exchanged. The Englishmen managed not to enslave or exterminate anybody. The two groups parted ways amicably. (In later years the Elizabeth Island would be renamed “Cuttyhunk” as a very rough approximation of its orginal Wampanoag name.)
The explorers did not find any gold, but they harvested an enormous amount of sassafras, which recent advances in medical science had shown to be an effective treatment for syphilis. Alas, not really. But until someone figured this out, sassafras was valuable.
Along the way, Gosnold’s men began noticing that the food they were eating was not just vile but meager in portions. A member of the expedition named Bartholomew Gilbert had been in charge of buying the provisions necessary to establish the settlement. Evidently he had diverted part of the funds to some other purpose. Either that or he had sold off many of the supplies before leaving for the voyage. It was just the sort of thing Gilbert did. He had also been involved, at one point, with some questionable business involving a diamond. Had he been alive 400 years later, Gilbert would have been developing creative approaches to the mortgage market.
In short order, Bartholomew Gosnold had a revolt on his hands. The would-be settlers now feared that investors would just pocket the sassafras profits and never send a ship back. They would be stranded without adequate supplies. The colonization plans fell apart when everyone demanded to be taken back to England. They reached home in July 1602.
Within three months, London bookstores were carrying an account of Elizabeth Island written by a member of the expedition, putting the best possible spin on things. Part of the damage control was an indication that the whole effort had been approved by Sir Walter Raleigh. A letter by Raleigh suggests that this was not the case. In it, the gentleman sounds pretty pissed off – especially about the effect on his own investments of having one ton of sassafras dumped on the London market.
In any case, both Sir Walter and the imprisoned Earl of Southampton would undergo a dramatic reversal of fortunes the following year, when Queen Elizabeth died and King James took the throne. In due course, Raleigh ended up in the Tower, while Henry was a favorite of the new king. And in 1607, the explorer Bartholomew Gosnold helped to establish the new colony of Jamestown, whereupon his luck ran out. He was among those killed by disease within a few months of landing.
Where, then, does The Tempest come in? Ardent Shakespeareans will have noticed part of the connection already. The Earl of Southampton was the patron of the Globe theater. In the 1590s, Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to him. In 1609, Shakespeare published a collection of sonnets; the reference, there, to “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, Mr. W.H.” in Shakespeare’s 1609 collection may be a (very) slightly encrypted nod towards the Earl’s given name, Henry Wriothesley. In his best-selling Shakespeare biography Will in the World (Norton, 2004), Stephen Greenblatt makes a case for the sonnets themselves as an appeal by the poet to his aristocratic ex-lover to get married and start having kids.
Without venturing quite that far into biographical speculation, it seems reasonable to suppose that the playwright might have taken an interest in the 1602 book about the Elizabeth Island voyage, given that the trip was sponsored by his patron. But no mention of a possible Tempest connection is to be found in the places one might expect to find it. There are just two incidental references to Shakespeare himself, and none to the play, in Bartholomew Gosnold, Discoverer and Planter (Archon, 1963) by the late Warner F. Gookin, for example. (Gookin, who died in 1952, remains a towering figure in Gosnold studies, which is definitely one of the less crowded fields of historical scholarship.)
Nor is The Tempest singled out for attention in biographies of Shakespeare’s patron, or at least none that I could locate. The most likely seeming monograph for a possible reference to the play's Cuttyhunkian origins is a new book, John Klause’s Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit, published earlier this year by Farleigh Dickinson Press. Klause, a professor of English at Hofstra University, makes a close analysis of possible biographical and historical subtexts of various plays -- but the book makes just a handful of references to The Tempest, and none to the Gosnold expedition.
Where did the idea that Shakespeare set his play just offshore from Massachusetts come from, then? And what is the evidence for it, if any?
The “onlie begetter” of this school of interpretation appears to be Edward Everett Hale – a New England clergyman, a genteel social critic, and one of the Victorian era’s more appallingly prolific authors. Next year marks the centennial of his death. Hale’s fiction, essays, and historical writings made him a respected and even a popular figure in his day, but almost none of it is still read today. Googling his name turns up a few inspirational quotations at websites devoted to that sort of thing. But while most of his work has been forgotten, he did leave one lasting mark upon American popular culture – a story from 1863 called “The Man Without a Country,” long taught in public schools and adapted numerous times for radio, film, and television.
In 1902, Hale gave a lecture called “Gosnold at Cuttyhunk” that later appeared in a slender volume called Prospero’s Island, published in 1919 by the Dramatic Museum of Columbia University in an edition of just 333 copies. (The copy that should have been on the shelf of the Cuttyhunk town library was missing. I later obtained the book from the Library of Congress.) It appeared with an introduction by Henry Cabot Lodge that ran to 30 pages -- three times as long as the lecture itself.
Hale was a popular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, and his talk was doubtless meant as food for thought rather than rigorous philology. His method is simply to note parallels between the early narrative of Gosnold’s voyage and Shakespeare’s description of the island in “The Tempest.” On Cuttyhunk, the explorers had cut up sassafras logs to transport to England. “I took down my Tempest,” writes Hale, “and read the stage directions which represent Ferdinand entering Prospero’s cave ‘bearing a log.’” Then he quotes various bits of log-related dialog.
There was a conflict between management and labor once the ship landed at Cuttyhunk -- and a dispute the "gentlemen adventurers" and the rowdy sailors in the play. In 1602, Gosnold's expedition found green meadows, fresh water, and various roots and herbs on the island. You find all of them mentioned in The Tempest. The play contains Shakespeare’s only use of the word marmoset. “Did one of Southampton’s seamen bring home a flying squirrel?” wonders Hale. Maybe!
By this point, it begins to seem as if the old Brahmin might be pulling his audience's collective leg, in however refined a manner. That impression is strengthened when Hale says about Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, that his New England listeners “have a right to claim [her] as a Massachusetts girl.” This is probably a joke – but you have to wonder if perhaps the whole of Prospero's Island might be, too.
To clinch his case – however seriously it was meant – Hale writes, “I think the critics now all unite in saying that the date of the production of ‘The Tempest’ is 1603. This corresponds exactly with the time of Gosnold’s return.” But as of a century later, the consensus is that Shakespeare’s play (often taken as his farewell to the stage) was produced in 1611. The argument thereby loses the saving grace of coincidence.
Finally, the most striking thing about Prospero's Island now – more than a century later – is that Hale shows no interest at all in Caliban, the native enslaved by Prospero’s magic. He quotes only the lines in which Caliban lists the tasty foodstuffs available on the island. As interpreted by Hale, Caliban is more like a waiter than an archetype of the colonial imagination. (Shakespeare’s variation on Montaigne’s theme that “every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to” seems to fly right over the genteel author’s head.)
The best case for keeping Hale’s interpretation alive appears in a booklet called The Story of Cuttyhunk by Louise T. Haskell, first published in 1953 and reprinted some two dozen times since then. Haskell ran the Cuttyhunk school and prepared the volume as a survey of “the history, geography, and legends of the island.”
In a short chapter titled “Is Cuttyhunk the Scene of Shakespeare’s Tempest?” she calls this “one of the unanswerable questions of the ages,” which certainly seems fair. But Haskell does not end on an agnostic note. She points her students to Hale’s landmark study. “His argument seems sound to us,” writes Haskell. “We like to think so anyway and it adds lustre to our island.”
Well, you can’t argue with that. And even less with Henry Cabot Lodge, who, in his introduction to Prospero’s Island, wrote: “We must admit that it is after all merely speculation and guesswork but possest none the less of an unfailing fascination.”
At this point, though, the fascination has less to do with the historical validity of Hale's thesis than its implications for performance. What difference would the Cuttyhunkian interpretation make to how a director would stage The Tempest? My best guess is that it would have to involve golf carts.
On Friday, David Foster Wallace’s wife returned home to find that he had committed suicide by hanging himself. He was 46. For the past few years he was professor of creative writing at Pomona College. Since 1987 he had published two novels, two collections of essays and three of short fiction, plus one book on the concept of infinity and another, much shorter one about John McCain’s 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He was also the co-author of a book called Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, issued by a small press in 1990, that for some reason is never included in the usual roundups of DFW titles.
I mention it because it happens to have been the first thing by Wallace that I ever read. At the time, white hiphopsterism was not quite the dominant subcultural force it was soon to be; and while I don’t actually remember much about either DFW’s book or my essay on it (called “Defness and Insight,” as if alluding to Paul de Man in fanzine were a good idea), it piqued an interest in his first novel and book of short fiction. Then, in 1993, in the pages of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wallace published a long essay called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which, even after all this time, still seems like a prerequisite for understanding whatever the hell is going on with American culture, high and low and all points in between. (It is available online, but you have to pay, so better to go ahead and obtain his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which contains “Unibus” and much else besides.)
For a young writer to discover Wallace in those days could be an experience of very mixed emotions, for it meant realizing that one’s generation had produced a literary genius, and that it was somebody else. So, yes, envy -- common literary foible as that is, no surprise there. But not just envy. Also awe. Wallace made you hear the language in a new way (arguably the definition of genius, at least in this sphere). In his fiction and his essays alike, Wallace incorporated the world around him in streams of consciousness that were like some hitherto unimaginable hybrid of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, and the rock criticism of Lester Bangs, but that also seemed to register the inner tics of personality common among people who had grown up inundated by mass media.
It was his extreme sensitivity to how commercial messages and network-fostered norms of human interaction were shaping the whole cultural landscape that made Wallace come to seem, over time, like the spokesman for a younger cohort than my own, even though he was actually a year older. In part this was because he was often imitated; even some of his imitators found imitators. Wallace’s incredible capacity to mimic and deconstruct the endlessly proliferating new varieties of self-hypnotizing American bullshit (the argots of psychotherapy, public relations, TV production, etc.) became widely dispersed, watered down beyond all capacity to serve as a tonic.
Much less easy to imitate, though, was a certain quality without which the mimicry remains just satire: namely, Wallace’s ear for the yearning or desperation expressed in those the endlessly proliferating new varieties of self-hypnotizing American bullshit – the desire to escape one’s condition, or to transcend it, or to get to the bottom of things, where real values might be found.
He could evoke all the crazy-making stuff going on in his characters’ heads, and make you feel how trapped they had become by their own devices – but he did so with humor that was not scornful, in spite of all the wild escalation of irony. He had a sense of human fragility, particularly the kind embodied in loneliness. Most political, cultural, and commercial bullshit involves trying to persuade you that there is a cure for human fragility. That form of persuasion often involves lying. One of Wallace’s simple points (though “simple” seems hardly the word for it) is that being lied to is painful, and that cynicism is a natural response to being lied to constantly. Cynicism is a cheap sort of power over one's environment. Sometimes it is the only one readily available. But you get what you pay for, and at the end of the day we remain credulous animals, trying to make the best of bad circumstances.
In one of his last published writings (how terrible it feels to put it that way) David Foster Wallace referred to “the sound of our U.S. culture right now" as Total Noise: "a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen – at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.... In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help. That’s about as clearly as I can put it.”
He went on to mention, all too briefly, his hope that there might be “a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error.”
None of us is in a position to know why Wallace ended his own pursuit of that goal. Of course it is appropriate to have compassion for whatever intensity of suffering made suicide seem like a necessary escape, and sympathy for those close to him. But my own feelings keep coming back to a kind of horror. This goes beyond any sense of loss. When Wallace wrote about human fragility, he seemed to be defining a moral perspective, rather than pointing to an abyss that would swallow him whole.
Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recently told the Associated Press that the literary culture of the United States is too mass-media oriented and cut off from the rest of the world. "The U.S. is too isolated," he said, "too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." The last Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a U.S. writer was given to Toni Morrison 15 years ago. An obvious implication of Engdahl's remarks is that things will remain that way for a while yet.
How valid are Engdahl's criticisms? Are there tendencies in U.S. culture that negate his perspective, or particularly grievous ones that confirm it? What American author seems an obvious candidate for the Nobel?
Those were the questions I posed by e-mail to a range of writers, critics, translators, and scholars. Most if not all of them are citizens of the United States, though it didn't actually cross my mind to ask for anyone's papers.
Here are the responses, presented in the order that they arrived. The winner of the Nobel prize for literature for 2008 will be announced on October 9.
Ron Silliman is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and criticism, including most recently The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press) and The Age of Huts (University of California Press).
"[Engdahl's criticisms] are valid & not valid is my take. But then I think that the only American who has received the Nobel Prize for Literature who has really earned it has been Faulkner. Giving one to Hemingway, but not to Gertrude Stein, whose literary style he normalized into his own, is like giving a Grammy to the Dave Clark Five while ignoring the Beatles. The others, without exception, show the degree to which the award is political, not literary.
If by American literature, Engdahl means the likes of Roth, Irving, Updike, Oates, then I'm entirely sympathetic to his complaint. If by it he means Pynchon or David Markson, then I'm a lot less sympathetic, because I don't think it's accurate there. Or Samuel R. Delany, for that matter.
I've always felt sad about the fact that neither Allen Ginsberg nor Robert Creeley received one, nor William Carlos Williams in the 1950s, which would have been the appropriate time to have recognized him.
In addition to John Ashbery, the only U.S. poets I would seriously consider would include Judy Grahn, who has done more to create a women's literature than any other writer in the past half century, conceivably Adrienne Rich (or possibly the two together), Joanne Kyger, the lone great woman writer of the beat generation, or Simon Ortiz, the Sioux poet. But those aren't the names I see being bandied about.
I think the problem that Engdahl might be having -- and likewise might account for some of the reaction he's gotten -- has to do with the fact that the relationship between great writing and the trade presses is like a Venn diagram with not so much overlap. If one judged American writing by what one saw published by Random House or [Farrar, Straus and Giroux], one would be apt to conclude exactly what he has."
Franco Moretti, whose method of "distant reading" was discussed in this column some time ago, is a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University and editor of the two volume study The Novel (Princeton University Press, 2006).
"Engdahl seems to me to be perfectly right. But unfortunately I am traveling, and cannot do any better than that. Sorry."
Levi Stahl is the publicity manager for the University of Chicago Press. His fiction and criticism have appeared in numerous magazines, online and off, and he blogs about what he has been reading lately at Ivebeenreadinglately.
"As usually happens with sweeping generalizations about culture, the ignorance of Horace Engdahl's assertion that American writers are too insular to conceivably win the Nobel Prize for Literature obscured the kernel of truth at its heart: American literary culture is relatively insular, as evidenced by the paltry number of literary translations published each year (let alone the even smaller number that achieve prominence). I had been thinking about this topic recently when reading an advance copy of Roberto Bolano's 2666: to an even greater degree than in his earlier The Savage Detectives, in 2666 Bolano draws his characters and settings from all over the Western world. Though the dark heart of the novel is in Mexico, whole sections take place in Europe and important characters hail from Germany, France, Italy, England, the United States, and a handful of Latin American and South American nations. Bolano's globe-trotting narrative reflects more than a casual comfort with internationalism; rather, it suggests a deliberate refusal to allow national boundaries to negate deeper ties of responsibility, affinity, and basic humanity.
I don't think it would be inappropriate to describe that approach as relatively uncommon in American fiction, but where Engdahl tripped up was by painting with such a broad brush, not hedging. After all, there are many prominent American writers who are internationally engaged -- literary reputations aside, it's hard to argue that such writers as William Vollmann, Philip Caputo, or Robert Stone, to take just a few, fail to demonstrate an informed interest in the larger world.
However, unless Engdahl's comments were an extremely canny publicity ploy, it sounds like we can't expect any American winners for a while. That would seem to let out such perennial possibilities as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Who's in the next rank? What writers might be on the verge of a Nobel-level career? I'm placing my bet on Richard Powers (as did the MacArthur Foundation several years ago): His oeuvre to this point has shown him to possess a restless, inquisitive mind that is unlikely to allow him to repeat himself or settle into a rut, while his ambitious attempts to marry the language and insights of science to psychological realism seems like a reasonable formula for the sort of sweeping masterpiece that could get the Nobel committee's attention.
Claire Messud is another novelist whose work I could imagine developing sufficiently to make her a contender, especially if she were to expand on the gestures to internationalism that she made with some of the scenes and characters in The Emperor's Children. My longshot candidate (though admittedly age is working against her) is poet Mary Oliver: though her poetry, deeply rooted in her New England home, could be described as provincial, her rigorous attention to nature, and her constant questioning of the relationship (and boundaries) between humanity and the animal world, seem particularly suited to the worldwide discussions, negotiations, and battles about conservation and responsibility that are sure to be a defining aspect of the coming decades."
Charlotte Mandell is a prolific and respected translator of French literature into English. Her recent work includes translations of Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair (Melville House, 2008) and Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).
"It's true that the U.S. doesn't publish enough translations: only 3% of its publications every year are translated books. Europe publishes many more translations: 'American publishers have one of the lowest translation rates in the Western world, according to Andrew Grabois, a consultant for Bowker, which tracks the publishing business. Only 3 percent of books published in the United States are translations (4,114 in 2005), Mr. Grabois said, compared with, for example, 27 percent in Italy. As a result, linguists contend, much of the English-speaking world knows little of other countries and cultures.' [Source here.]
That said, it's not true that the literary scene in America is insular. American writers like John Ashbery, Robert Kelly, Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are not only great writers in their own right; they're also prolific and accomplished translators (Ashbery, Davis, Auster, and the Waldrops from the French; Kelly from the German and French). Robert Kelly has published several collaborative books with German authors like the Tyrolean artist Brigitte Mahlknecht, and the German writer Schuldt; Ashbery has translated or collaborated with French writers like Raymond Roussel, Pierre Martory, and Franck-André Jamme. I would add Clayton Eshleman (who translates from the Spanish and French) and Jerome Rothenberg (who translates from just about everything). Also, Rosmarie Waldrop translates from the German as well as the French.
Young American novelists like Paul LaFarge, Edie Meidav, and Emily Barton are deeply involved with cultures outside of America. It would be wonderful if the publishing world in America were as interested in other languages and cultures as the American poets and novelists living and writing today."
Steven G. Kellman, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005) and won the Balakian Citation for his critical writing. Last month he received the Gemini Ink Award for Literary Excellence.
"Though Russia is visible from Alaska, who is looking? Not the nationalistic cheerleaders chanting their mantra about the uniqueness of “America” (an inverted and hubristic synecdoche for “United States of America”). Nor the student at my university who had the chutzpah to demand exemption from a language requirement on the grounds that: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” Not the moviegoers allergic to subtitles or the justices who deny the pertinence of any foreign case law. Popular culture and political discourse both corroborate Horace Engdahl’s observation about American insularity and self-absorption. And, yes, a pitiful smidgen of the world’s literature ends up in English. The Swedish Academy’s apotheosis of Elfriede Jelinek, Gao Xingjian, Wislawa Szymborska, and Kenzaburo Oe was an embarrassment to American publishing, to whom they were strangers.
And yet … Engdahl would have to revoke William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize, since the Mississippi novelist confined his fictions to the tiny postage stamp of Yoknapatawpha County. Sinclair Lewis never moved his prose from Main Street to the Champs Elysées. Many major American writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, find the universe in a grain of local sand. American literature at its best is adversarial, at odds with the Babbitts and Snopeses who dominate the culture at large. To refute Engdahl’s claim that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature," it is sufficient to cite Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Translation feeds the creativity of American poets such as W. S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Jerome Rothenberg, and Richard Wilbur. Among senior figures whose productivity is worthy of canonization in Sweden, Don DeLillo, David Mamet, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon are hardly isolationist hayseeds. The fictions of Philip Roth, who edited the invaluable “Writers from the Other Europe” series, establish lively connections with London, Tel Aviv, and Prague. Stockholm proclaims its own provincialism if, embracing the hoary stereotype of Americans as savages, it excludes them from the literary conversation."
"Engdahl's remarks seem to have about as much validity as Lawrence Summers's infamous statement regarding women's ability for math and science. And perhaps, like Summers, Engdahl would choose to defend himself by saying that these words were just a few taken out of context. Who knows. But these words do make me wonder about Engdahl and his own level of cultural insularity; certainly what he said would indicate he has some. At any rate I'll just make the following rather obvious but perhaps necessary (for Engdalh, at least) observation: Cultural insularity is a stereotype about America, one that I'm sure many Europeans embrace; there's some truth to it, but the fact that some Americans are incurious about the world in no way means that every person in this extremely diverse nation of 300 million is the same way.
I'm not going to get into an argument over where the "center" of literature resides these days, but it's strange that Engdahl would consign America to the margins when there's no doubt that postmodernist literature originated in and is still dominated by the U.S. When you talk about investigating human identity and critiquing society through a postmodern lens -- which is exactly what the Nobel committee spoke about when it gave Orhan Pamuk the award in 2006, or Jenelik it in 2004, or Lessing in 2007 -- you're talking about ideas that largely originated with American writers.
If the Nobel committee were interested in honoring an American postmodernist, then to these names could easily be added Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, John Barth, or William T. Vollmann (who seems to know a little about the world). Beyond the Nobel candidates, American authors like Norman Rush, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Powers, Matthew Sharpe, Cormac McCarthy, and Deborah Eisenberg should be able to furnish Engdahl with proof that we are not all sheltered over here."
Sandra Gilbert is professor emerita of English at the University of California at Davis. Her most recent books are a study of elegy, Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, and a collection of poetry, Belongings, both published by W.W. Norton in 2006.
"Engdahl's comment seems to me to be such a massive overgeneralization that it's hard to know where to begin to respond. Certainly American poets are frequently (though not always) worldly & wise readers who keenly grasp the importance of contemporary artists around the world: Darwish, Khoury-Ghata, Malroux, Ravikovitch, and a range of others."
"The parochialism of the Nobel's literary gatekeepers is nothing new. The Nobel committee’s literature selections tend to be based on mid- to late twentieth-century Eurocentric aesthetics. Still, even within the cautious framework of traditional Nobel considerations, there are Americans whose scope and conceptual daring should put them in the running. Consider the writers recognized numerous times by the National Book Critics Circle over the past 35 years: E.L. Doctorow (he won the first NBCC fiction award for Ragtime in 1975, the 1989 award for Billy Bathgate, was shortlisted for Loon Lake and won the 2006 NBCC award for The March), Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth. These are writers who have for decades engaged with the roiling cauldron of American culture, depicting the repercussions of our legacy of violence and war, the distorting and numbing effects of mass-market materialism.
But to say the U.S. is “too isolated,” and “too insular,” betrays Engdahl’s own ignorance. It is especially embarrassing to him at a time when the doors of American literature have swung wide to gather in a new generation of writers whose work is shaping a post-conflict global literature, a literature of mixed cultures reflecting experiences on many continents. In the past few years, the National Book Critics Circle has recognized the contributions of this group -- young writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Vikram Chandra, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Kiran Desai, Aleksandar Hemon, to name a few.
Incidentally, I’d add to the list of deserving candidates Americans Edward Albee, who has forged new ground in theater as a worthy successor to Pirandello, and Peter Matthiessen, whose artful, original, and empathetic nonfiction and fiction has explored historic, cultural and natural borderlines in Indian country, along the Atlantic Coast, in the Himalayas, Siberia, Africa, and South America."
Morris Dickstein is a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is The Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (Princeton University Press, 2005).
"The main glitch in the competition for the Nobel Prize in Literature used to be the demand for positive moral uplift built into the award. This conflicted so dramatically with the direction of modernist literature that it was hard to imagine how any serious writer could get it, and in the early years few did. The names of those passed over are legion. In later times this requisite dovetailed with the undying hostility of individual Academy members to particular authors. These two factors explain why writers like Graham Greene, Nabokov, and Norman Mailer were passed over year after year, though Sartre and Beckett somehow managed to slip through, much to their own chagrin. More recently another obstacle replaced this one: European anti-Americanism, bolstered by a virulent left-wing anti-Semitism.
There’s always been a political dimension to these awards. When it was still cool to like Jews, still seen as the chosen victims of modern history, the award went to Agnon, Nelly Sachs, I.B. Singer, and Saul Bellow. Today it would be even harder to imagine the selection of an Israeli writer than an American writer, though Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Aharon Appelfeld all have strong claims and are widely read in several European languages.
The same may hold true for the American writer whose appeal, since the death of Mailer, is strongest, Philip Roth. Though invariably provocative, his work too has been a great success with European readers. Updike also has a serious claim on the strength of his early novels, his lifelong productivity, and his consistently great short fiction. Neither of them is a Faulkner or a Hemingway, writers who revolutionized world literature, but Horace Engdahl’s dismissive comments are more about Bush and his damn-the-world, go-it-alone policies than about American writers. It’s true that American audiences are insular and read few works in translation, but our writers are not, except perhaps those seduced into playing postmodernist games at the expense of any felt human world."
Benj DeMott is one of the founders of First of the Month, which describes itself as "a newspaper of the radical imagination." He edited a recent selection of its greatest hits, First of the Year: 2008, just published by Transaction.
"That Nobel Committee-man’s snotty line about the provinciality of U.S. writers may be a sign that anti-Americanism is rife among A-Students in Euro-land. But on the b-side, consider those Huns and Brits who mounted an exhibition of Bob Dylan’s sketches this year, featuring a catalogue that talked up the artist as a Universal Genius -- a Goethe-like figure who not only composes music but draws and writes (memoirs as well as lyrics). What the hey -- maybe the Nobel locust is setting the high table for Dylan. I won’t mourn for J.C. -- the anti-Christ? -- Oates or Don DeLillo if that’s the October surprise. But I might organize for a more deserving American writer who was born in real time right when Bob Dylan was transforming pop life. Richard Meltzer’s early work on rock and roll -- The Aesthetics of Rock -- and pop culture -- Gulture -- made sense of the ‘60s as it all screamed by so fast. In more recent times, Meltzer has made himself into writer for the ages.
Like his wild brothers and sisters under the hill, Meltzer’s canon is marked by his (1) fascination with words qua words (2) radicalism (3) honesty. (He titled his massive collection of music writing, A Whore Just Like the Rest.) If you care about American writing, look out for Meltzer’s soon-to-be-published A World that Don’t Exist, and check Autumn Rhythm: Musings on Time, Tide, Aging, Dying and Such Biz (2004). In these (blues-, rock-, and jazz-drenched) meditations on “the death of your ass and mine ... the one-size-fits-all-ness of life,” Meltzer is finding his own way up into that high country that Dylan’s been reaching for since Time Out of Mind.
"I think it's a mistake for anyone to make sweeping statements about literature, but history judges the givers of prizes especially harshly -- and maybe no prize of the last century deserves that scorn more than the Nobel. This is, after all, the prize that passed over Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, and Leo Tolstoy. And they've compounded their errors in recent years by letting major figures of humane letters die unacknowledged -- Roberto Bolaño, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Ryszard Kapus'cin'ski, and Kurt Vonnegut in the last five years alone. I mean, how seriously are we supposed to take the pronouncements of Secretary Engdahl when the academy under his guidance has chosen to honor Elfriede Jelinek and Gao Xingjian but not Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Tomas Tranströmer, Chinua Achebe, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Margaret Atwood.
So do I despair when Endahl says that American literature "is too isolated, too insular" and fails to "participate in the big dialogue of literature"? No, I don't. But maybe that's because I've read novelists Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Chabon, poets Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Yusef Komunyakaa, playwright Tony Kushner, and -- yes, I'll say it -- graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. I'd stack that group of writers against any country's on any day."