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."
The PMLA, the publication of the Modern Language Association, the major association of professors of English, has called for papers on new directions in literary criticism for the 21st century. In a World War II era poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens declared that among other things, modern poetry “has to think about war.” In a similar fashion, as the Iraq war grinds on now into its sixth year, and it has become painfully obvious that, despite some wishful thinking in the wake of Vietnam, protracted American ground wars are hardly a thing of the past, I would suggest that contemporary literary criticism, a great deal more of it anyway, needs “to think about war” and the military.
More than two decades have gone by during which time American literary and “cultural studies” critics have had relatively little to say about these subjects. About World War I and American literature, for example (which is the concern of my new book, The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the Fiction of Mobilization), there have been few major studies since the early 1980s: Stanley Cooperman came out with World War I and the American Novel in 1967; David Kennedy issued Over Here: The First World War and American Society in 1980, and Jeffrey Walsh published American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam in 1982. This subject has since gone out of fashion in English departments.
Back in the mid-1980s, I fulfilled the breadth requirements for a Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Berkeley, and I never had a single course that addressed literature of war or the military: I was never asked to read, in American literature classes or for my American literature field exams, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, or Herr’s Dispatches, nor was I asked to read the criticism cited above. (I only encountered one war novel during an undergraduate English major, but that was in England where I was assigned A Farewell to Arms on a junior year abroad.) In an article in the current PMLA on “The New Modernist Studies,” the authors compile a list of a dozen new and old “currents” in scholarship, but the issue of war is not among them. Even in the field of history, where groundbreaking new work has recently been done on the social-military history of World War I, by the likes of Nancy Gentile Ford, Jennifer Keene, Stephen Ortiz, and Nancy Bristow, these social-military historians find themselves to some degree marginalized within their larger discipline because of their “unsavory” choice of subjects.
We can perhaps guess why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor. The Vietnam War changed the meaning of war and of the military in this country, at least on the left, and the cohort of professors that for the most part has dominated and set trends in these fields of English and history in the last 20 years is of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era; most of these professors were students when the huge protest against the war took place, and most of them were against the war.
Since the Vietnam era -- and this marks a break with previous attitudes -- most American intellectual elites have not wanted to be in the military or to study it: They associate the military with an aggressive foreign policy and with homophobia, and the military’s degree of complicity in these policies is of course a legitimate concern. However, the relationship English professors generally adopt in regards to the military is strictly an oppositional one: They usually want only to criticize the military, not also to understand its undeniably major role in our history and culture. Not incidentally, that role has, historically, been in part a socially progressive one, as it was even in World War I (as the new scholarship has revealed), despite the army’s appalling discrimination against blacks and its mistreatment of women. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the army was in the vanguard in the development of equal opportunity and meritocracy. In any case, to study war and the military does not, of course, make one pro-war. After all, much American war literature is antiwar or anti-military or both.
The couple decades of relative silence about the American experience in World War I by English professors is now beginning to be broken: most notably with Richard Slotkin’s 2005 Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. But more needs to be done and more will be. Studies are forthcoming on World War I and American literature from a number of younger English professors, who, like the small cohort in social-military history who have done groundbreaking work, did not personally experience the ordeal of the Vietnam era.
Perhaps the other major change that we might ask of literary criticism for the 21st century is that it have more interchange with other fields, such as history: that it become more truly interdisciplinary. At last year’s MLA conference, in its Presidential Forum on “Humanities at Work in the World,” Peter Brooks nostalgically conjured up the moment of high promise back in the 1980s when literary theory was providing tools of analysis for other fields and for real-world inquiry, for example for legal scholars, in a talk called “The Humanities as an Export Commodity.” If the interdisciplinary potential of that era faded, it is partly because English professors’ cultural studies went on to develop a highly specialized or esoteric style and thus perhaps also to become, over time, somewhat hermetic in its discourse -- and thus literary criticism today sometimes appears to other disciplines as to some degree remote and isolated.
If English wants again to be in the position Brooks remembered of the 1980s of exporting its analytic and having an influence even in the larger world outside of academia, then it needs to attempt to develop a more accessible style of expression as well as to import from other disciplines. My suggestion for a new direction in literary criticism is what might be called “mobilization studies,” by which I mean not merely the study of war literature, but much more broadly the study of the wide-ranging social and literary effects of mobilizing armies and populations for war and demobilizing them. Analogous to the new sub-field of social-military history developed by historians, “mobilization studies” will be situated at the intersection of policy history, social history, and literary analysis. It was heartening that this year’s Hemingway Society conference invited a social-military historian to give a keynote address. In terms of literary criticism’s engagement both with the issue of war and with other disciplines, let’s hope it is a sign of things to come.
Lily Tomlin famously quipped, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” While I am loath to think of myself or some colleagues in rodent terms, success (or winning), as popularly understood within the professoriate, exacts a price from those in the race, “winners” and “losers.”
For better or for worse, the goal of the graduate school race, winning a tenure-track assistant professorship at a certain type of college or university, frames the pre-professional experience of most students of English and foreign languages. What graduate programs boast in scholarly training, however, they often lack in institutional training -- that is, in guiding future faculty members to see and experience positively the variety of professional identities rooted in diverse academic cultures, specifically the cultures of teaching-intensive colleges.
New Ph.D.’s in tenure-track positions at teaching-intensive colleges and universities rather unfairly have to learn on the job the role of assistant professor at institutions whose cultures do not mirror those of the Ph.D.-granting universities they just left. Once the elation of securing a tenure-track appointment subsides, the same fortunate minority who emerge from the job crisis having won the race now cope with a second job crisis, one involving the cross-sector transition from research-intensive to teaching-intensive institutions.
The year I completed my doctorate, fall turned to spring, the job market turned from four- to two-year colleges, and I turned into a community college professor, one with few strategies at the ready to brook the physical and emotional toll of a 5/5 teaching load as well as a 2- to 3-course summer load. The word “graceful” does not come to mind when I think of my personal cross-sector transition from graduate school’s paradigm of reflection and knowledge production to my community college’s standard of commotion and spirited knowledge transmission, all in a microcosm, the College of Lake County in Illinois, of a macrocosm in which 12 percent of full-time faculty hold doctorates.
As a minority in terms of degree attainment, the impulse to bring the best of my doctoral education to a community college inspired several projects: an internship program to bring graduate students to our campus before they entered the job market, thereby getting a sense of at least one community college’s day-to-day life; specially designed themed composition courses that moved away from traditional rhetoric to more current theoretical orientations, social-epistemic chief among them; and, perhaps most important to initiating a national dialogue about academic cultures, a collection of essays from foreign language and English Ph.D.’s.
Intuitively knowing I was not the only faculty member struggling to bring humanistic intellectual ideals to a teaching-intensive college, I wanted to read of other Ph.D.’s who became successful public intellectuals in academic settings that, generally speaking, neither afforded them the time nor resources to articulate their stories, to publish accounts of their transformation from “scholar” to “teacher-scholar.”
Thus was Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life born. A collection of essays from faculty who have built rewarding careers at teaching-intensive colleges and universities, Academic Cultures creates a space for faculty who often remain silent in academe once they leave graduate school -- again, for lack of time and resources. To be sure, as the job crisis in English and foreign languages continues, we need detailed narratives from people who have adapted their doctoral habits of mind to the needs of schools ranging from tribal colleges, to border colleges, to comprehensive colleges, to non-elite religiously-affiliated colleges, to high schools.
Just as Ph.D.-granting departments depend upon faculty members to design curricula that will meet the needs of graduate students, so do all departments, whether they grant A.A.'s, B.A.'s, M.A.'s, or certificates. Aeron Haynie, a Victorianist at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, a comprehensive university, asks in an essay an important question of professors: “Shall we devote more concern to ensuring that students read certain authors ... or to developing their skills in critical thinking, reading, and writing?” The same question can be asked of professors across higher education, whether humanists or scientists. Haynie concludes that “our profession needs to clarify what we teach and how it might be useful to a larger public that exists in the varied cultural contexts in which colleges themselves reside.” To clarify connections between the humanities and real communities, our profession needs to hear the voices of humanists practicing in all sectors of higher education, especially those colleges and universities with greater ties to the community, with a greater need for public intellectuals.
The K–12 system already links theory to practice, the humanities to communities, because primary and secondary schools are integral parts of the communities they serve . Colleges of Education and state regulations mandate the student teaching experience, in which candidates learn first-hand how to apply knowledge to the classroom, all the while enjoying the benefits of mentors, meetings, and college classes devoted to supporting students as they navigate the choppy waters of taking the lead in a classroom.
Ph.D.’s in secondary schools can take the lead in translating the language of advanced study in a discipline to praxis, as Stephen da Silva does at a private high school in Texas, where he taps into a mainspring of positive challenges. “When I began teaching high school,” Da Silva comments in his essay, “I rather arrogantly imagined that I was regressing. Instead, I have entered a profession that demands that I grow.” Although we do not expect high school faculty members to produce conventional research, the broad community of Ph.D.’s, scholars all, need not accept the silence of those who are busy with large class loads, large class sizes, and community activism. The political stakes are too high.
As past director of the Writing Center at Concordia University of Oregon, Lynnell Edwards makes literal da Silva’s growth metaphor in the title and content of her essay “Grow Where You’re Planted.” She candidly articulates both the nourishment offered by an evangelical institution’s call to community as well as the deprivation that comes from wondering “more than once whether I keep this position simply because it is a full-time job, something more and more scarce in the humanities, or because the work I am doing here matters at some level beyond my own intellectual and professional satisfaction.” Grappling with the dissonance between the institution’s values and her life’s work remains a paradox that Edwards finds vitalizing. “Ultimately, having had to reckon with the dilemma is what gives meaning to the life.”
Others find work in contexts with more harmony between their personal beliefs and professional practice. Keene State College professor Mark C. Long, for example, acknowledges those, like himself, who “have managed to make satisfying professional lives in less than ideal circumstances by setting aside the conventional narrative of the profession.” That conventional narrative, shaped as it is by expectations of moving from the position of a student at one Ph.D.-granting department to the position of an assistant professor at another Ph.D.-granting department, excludes faculty members who consider it their good fortune to have traveled between and among diverse academic cultures.
How can we broaden notions of career success beyond the hierarchical Carnegie classification system of colleges and universities, research-intensive or not, to include considerations of the social impact of an institution, of the extent to which a work life fulfills professors, or of the match between the talents of Ph.D.'s and the needs of certain college, university, and/or community constituents?
Indeed, narrow definitions of career success limit professors’ self-definitions and their potential as public intellectuals. Humanists have devoted too little attention to the relations among the profession, higher education, and society. As Vladimir Lenin noted, “One cannot live in society and be free from society.” Demands from external stakeholders for accountability in the professoriate make active teacher-scholars a necessity for the future of the humanities.
Time and again I find colleagues like Robert Chierico, Fabiola Fernández Salek, Evelyne Norris, and Virginia Shen, who demonstrate to Ph.D.’s the meaning of accountability: teaching, service, research, and public outreach. They live in society, creating innovative undergraduate foreign language programs at Chicago State University for an urban student body consisting of “more women than men, many part-time students who work full-time, many students from low-income backgrounds, and a good number of returning students.” Echoing the themes of professors as change agents, of colleges as fundamental elements of communities, this team of professors works toward enabling student success by “delivering a high school–to–college transition program for minority students, providing special Spanish courses for native speakers, ensuring a strong study-abroad program, and offering a complete range of foreign language [courses], including ... Chinese and Arabic.”
As future faculty members prepare for the job market and as their professors who know best the rigors of research-intensive careers consider the market into which they are sending students, I hope they regard diversity in postsecondary education as a strength of the system rather than a problem to redress. Discussions with future English and foreign language faculty should include all the academic cultures in which professors establish gratifying careers. Listening to practitioners from teaching-intensive academic cultures (tribal colleges, community colleges of all sorts, art schools, baccalaureate colleges, and master’s colleges and universities) unsettles the provincialism of professors inhabiting different academic cultures, exposing them to a rigor unknown within the doctoral department.
My intended audience for Academic Cultures -- graduate faculty, doctoral program directors, and graduate students -- will find expressed in the essays of this anthology the unifying foundational ideals of higher education, albeit with different context-dependent definitions: teaching, service, and scholarship. While unity expressed in diversity is noble, change in graduate education is nobler.
Research is important, as is the dissertation. Teaching fellowships and assistantships serve graduate students well, on balance. But a physician would not dream of practicing medicine after having spent time in one medical school and one portion of the medical system. Much can be said for rotations, and doctoral candidates might do well to follow the medical school model by teaching at a range of institutions during their course of study. Graduate coordinators or directors can facilitate partnerships with local colleges and high schools, which would entail giving up some graduate student labor but gaining intellectual breadth.
If faculty members and administrators from different sectors of higher education communicated more systematically across academic borders to express distinctive features of their institutions, we might progress toward Ernest L. Boyer’s goal of “ diversity with dignity in American higher education,” thus affirming the various ways Ph.D.’s express their intellectual leadership within their careers and, of great consequence to the public intellectual, to their students and home communities.
It hasn’t been a problem for the last 15 years. Fall semesters have come and gone, and I’ve managed to keep up with my grading and on top of my reading and even get some research done. I’ve done the routine administrative work that has come my way and been a good academic advisor to my students. I’ve gotten eight hours of sleep a night.
That is, until this fall.
The Phillies are in the World Series.
At almost three hours per game, in first a best-of-five-game, then two best-of-seven series that adds up to a whole lot of hours I don’t have during the academic year.
But I have no option.
This is a team that last year hit a U.S. professional sports franchise record of 10,000 losses. A team that was, during my entire childhood and adolescence, referred to in my house as “those bums.” A team who managed to win its only World Series title one month after I moved away from the Philadelphia area to go to graduate school. (Try looking for a bar full of Phillies fans in Bloomington, Indiana).
The Phillies earned my love and loyalty when I was a kid via the unlikely channel of my report card. In the 60s and 70s, the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin sponsored a challenge that awarded two Phillies tickets to four different games over the summer to every kid in greater Philadelphia who got straight A's on her or his report card in June. My sister and I used to score big every year, earning us four tickets to each of those four games. Our parents chipped in for the other two tickets that would enable our family of six to attend, and we set off across the bridge from South Jersey, first to Connie Mack Stadium and then to the concrete behemoth Veterans Stadium.
We never went to any other professional sports events – who could afford tickets for a family of six to the Eagles or the 76ers or, later, the Flyers? Consequently, none of those other teams or sports ever really caught my attention.
But the Fightin’ Phils had me for life. Free tickets for straight A's? How cool was that? And what’s not to like about a professional baseball game? From the hot dogs to the Cracker Jacks to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball is tailor-made for kids. It’s the only pro sport that woos fans so young, and it certainly worked on me.
So now I’m in trouble. Hours and hours of baseball-watching time, plus chatting with my sister and my mom about the games, plus repeated washing of my Phillies T-shirts and jerseys is interfering with my ability to get through October as a respected professional.
The first problem is my lack of cable television. Because I am one of those annoying academics who can’t keep up with pop culture conversations because I don’t get enough channels, I found myself, come playoff time, in a pickle. Given how badly the Phillies have always done (until last year, but we won’t speak of that sweep in Colorado), I haven’t had to worry much about watching playoff games. I actually pay Major League Baseball a sum that is the equivalent of two or three good books in my field in order to be able to watch Phillies games during the regular season on my computer. But that fee does not cover the postseason. And my lack of cable means that I had to spend late September in bars. This is a sad, sad thing. Is there anything more pathetic than a lone, middle-aged woman (sometimes in a Phillies shirt) sitting at a bar, nursing a beer? (Try finding a bar full of Phillies fans in Red Sox Nation.)
The second problem is the time. Time for the games has to come, of course, out of my sleeping time and any social life I might have had – the grading and the course prep and the meetings just don’t go away. And I learned early that I can’t drink more than one beer during a game and expect to be able to stay awake to read Thomas Carlyle afterwards. I plan my days around the games, at the expense of my partner and child (though, to be fair, they do sometimes join in the game-watching). We all must live around this postseason, and housework, and sometimes even cooking, will just have to wait.
Professional credibility would be a problem as well, were it not for the enthusiasm of folks in New England for their own baseball team. Last week, while the Sox were still in contention, I was walking through campus in my Eastern Division Champs 2008 Phillies T-shirt (discreetly hidden under a zip-front cardigan), when I spotted a colleague from the computer science department. I unzipped and pointed to my Phillies logo. He responded by pointing to his Red Sox cap. The silent acknowledgment of our mutual (yet not) passion comforted me.
And now, instead of grading or prepping to teach or, heaven forbid, getting some work done on my research, I am following the Phillies and, what is more, I am writing about not grading or prepping to teach or doing research because I am following the Phillies.
Still, no one gives me anything anymore for getting straight A's. I figure I owe the Phillies this.
Paula M. Krebs
Paula M. Krebs is a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
We don’t know how soon it will happen, but it is happening and it will be consummated soon. The commodity of the book, as we have known it for the last few decades, is vanishing and being replaced by new electronic media. Paper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records. The age of the massive emporium bookstore is coming to an end under the crushing, virtual weight of the Internet. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader is doing well and it promises to get better and cheaper in the future. Textbook companies have developed publishing platforms, like www.ichapters.com, for textbooks to be digitally delivered to students through a price-per-chapter system. And worst of all, if you’re a paper-and-binding book lover such as myself, people are reading less paper than before.
In the diverse, mostly Latino first generation student population that I teach, responses to the paper-and-binding book are often mediated by practical economics. A few years ago I assigned Antonio Skármeta’s beautiful, hardcover children’s book about dictatorship, The Composition,to a Latin American literature class. The Spanish edition I assigned cost about $25, which I didn’t consider to be too much, especially because the total cost for all the books in my class was under $70. All but one of the books I assigned were books that I thought were beautiful as artifacts and as stories. These books, I believed, would command students’ minds and hearts to such a degree that students would want to keep them after the class was over. Most of all, Skarmeta’s book, with its color illustrations and poignant lessons about life and death issues was a book that I was excited to teach to my students. When we got to discussing the book in class, several of my students did not have the book, only black and white photocopies because they could not or did not want to buy the book. I felt a strange mix of powerlessness, disappointment and distance. I had conscientiously made my class inexpensive compared to other classes, but it was not inexpensive enough.
Lest you think that this was an isolated situation, a few examples from one of my current classes come to mind. I have one student who has not bought any of the books on the syllabus because he reads the 19th-century classics I have assigned off of the Internet on his laptop, which he brings to class for discussions. Another student has already begun returning the books we’ve read in class so far, after confirming that they would not be covered in the final exam. A third student, a talented and curious young man who arrives to class with an ipod plugged into his ears, is a graduating senior who had never read a novel before my class. They are all bright, responsible and hard-working students but they are not consumers of books. This is also reflected in the reaction that dozens upon dozens of students have had upon entering my office over the years and noticing my 5 or 6 huge bookshelves full of books. They ask: “Have you really read all of these books?” Which sometimes leads to an interesting conversation about my library, in which I explain which parts are my teaching reference and which parts are the books that I’ve read cover to cover.
The fate of the book in the university classroom is impacted by many factors: the use of instructional technology, the economics of textbook publishing and the pedagogical idiosyncrasies of professors, who either promote the disappearance of the paper-and-binding book or try to reinforce its value in the classroom. Let’s look at each one of these factors for a moment. Naturally, in some contexts and disciplines, it is relatively easy to teach a class without books thanks to the wealth of realia and sources on the Web, whether they be freely available, or available through institutionally subscribed databases. In fact, I find great material online and value its role in my courses. I think that we can agree that some material may be best taught off of the Internet.
The economics of textbook publishing is a little bit more complicated and ties in with the surprising choices some faculty members make as teachers. The bottom line is that a lot of textbooks are just too expensive for what you get. There are certain kinds of textbooks, ubiquitous in certain disciplines, that have become monsters of paper and color, a carnival of colored insets and attention-getting graphic design and layout. They are alternately exciting or stupid, but always exhausting. Worst of all, they are dreadfully disposable. The dizzying rate at which one edition substitutes another so that a publisher can make a profit or stay in business makes these books as valuable and as enduring as colored photocopies. This wasteful, pathetic cycle is the best argument for doing away with over-saturated textbooks altogether and going to an online, subscription model.
Other textbooks are more modestly priced and dispense with the graphic fireworks and multiple editions. These thoughtful anthologies or edited volumes are reasonably priced and straddle the border between textbook and stand-alone book. You can see their classroom application immediately but you can also see these books sitting on a public or university library shelf, and yes, even resting on your average reader’s night table. These books are the innovative work of professors, not a corporate marketing team, and are designed for other professors to use in their classes. Although reasonably priced, you would be mistaken to think that all professors value such books. Many professors will spend countless hours putting together elaborate and voluminous course packets of photocopies for classroom use (I used to be one of them). And now, it is more frequent for technologically minded teachers to file-share large numbers of PDFs through password protected sites on campus. This is so wrong it hurts. We are killing our own chances to have readers in the future or be remunerated for the scholarship we do. It’s not only about the modest royalties that faculty authors may or may not receive, it’s about the principle of valuing each other’s scholarship and editorial work. I order good, attractive and useful paper-and-binding books or textbooks for my classes because I want there to be a system in place to support my work as an author and editor in the future.
If the paper and binding book vanishes as a dominant commodity, as it seems to be, maybe the new virtual system of book distribution, reproduction and delivery will allay some of the problems I describe in relation to photocopies and PDFs. It is becoming increasingly easier to put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense. If this wave of the future takes hold and becomes the new standard in textbook publishing, I think it will be good for all parties involved. But what about the paper-and-binding book? Say you are teaching David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and you had a choice between an excellent paper-and-binding edition by a major academic press, with useful footnotes and front matter, and an electronic edition that students could download to their handy e-book readers, along with selected secondary articles you have selected for them to read? What if their e-book readers had a stylus and/or a network that enabled the class to annotate those assigned texts, and share them over the class network? I don’t think anyone’s nostalgia for paper-and-binding can replace the pedagogical value of my not-so-fanciful or far-fetched e-book scenario.
And yet I am sad about the fading of the paper-and-binding book and I am not going into the good night without putting up a good fight. I am committed to making the cost of my assigned books affordable. I order my books with care and I try to use them in their entirety, so that students get affordable books that are actually used in the class. This does not mean that I limit myself. I do use the occasional supplement (or two or three) and I share with my classes my disagreements with the books or textbooks that I am using. I continue to pick books that I believe are worth keeping and treasuring, both for the words they contain and for their tactile beauty as works of art and design. I want the books that my students hold in their hands to have the heft of what is important and of what is beautiful. I want that student who never read a novel before my class to value the physicality of the reading a paper-and-binding book. This endangered act, after all, will connect him to a centuries-old, vanishing tradition that has touched the lives of millions and altered the course of history on many occasions. That’s just too good to pass up.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and faculty co-chair of the University of Texas Arlington One Book Reading Program. He is currently editing a book designed for classroom use that will be very reasonably priced.