A Defining Election

No, not that one: Members of an association of literary scholars are sparring over the choice of a new vice president, saying the group's future ability to shape their discipline is at stake.
April 25, 2008

Association elections are rarely the stuff of national news, even when they get nasty, as is sometimes the case. But so too is it uncommon for the election of officers of a group to speak so directly to the status of an entire academic discipline.

But such is the case, as some participants see it, in a bitterly contested election unfolding now among members of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. The group thrived for a decade as a "traditionalist" alternative to the Modern Language Association, the primary coalition of English and language professors, which the new group's members saw as increasingly overtaken by identity politics and cultural studies instead of what the considered substantive literary interpretation. But in recent years ALSC has seen its fortunes decline, as its membership (from over 2,000 in the mid-1990s to about 800 now) and attendance at its annual conference both have flagged.

Exactly why the group has struggled is a matter of debate. For some of its founders and leaders, the problem lies in the fact that the association has largely abandoned one of its two original missions, continuing to serve as a forum for genuine literary criticism but generally ceasing to engage in the culture wars as it had early on, to "work for change in the profession, and to contest the influence of the destructive forces that had brought it to this low state," as John Ellis, the group's founding secretary/treasurer and a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said in a letter last year to the association's then-president, Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

Ellis and other critics saw signs of the triumph of what he called "quietists" over "activists" in many trends within the association: conference programs featuring sessions on "eco-feminism" and "A Case for Green Cultural Studies," a one-sidedness in the association's main journal, Literary Imagination, and the "mainstream" approach of the ALSC-sponsored Web site, the Valve, among other things.

But what brought the internal rift to the surface was the nomination of Susan J. Wolfson, a professor of English at Princeton University, to be the group's next vice president (a position that naturally leads to its presidency). The selection of Wolfson, a scholar of Romanticism who also writes about gender, prompted a group of scholars to take the unprecedented step (within the ALSC) of petitioning in mid-March to add the ballot an alternative candidate, Gary Saul Morson, chair and professor of the department of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University.

The reasoning? “ALSC is in a critical period,” a group of scholars and ALSC members, including Ellis, Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia and Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, wrote in an e-mail message Thursday explaining why they were supporting Morson.

“We believe a major cause [of the group’s decline] is that ALSC has lost its sense of direction. The organization was founded by men and women who believed there were serious problems in literary studies, especially in our colleges and universities.... In its early years, ALSC engaged the problems of the profession -- not polemically but through sound, solidly researched activities.... For the last five or six years, reform efforts directed at the profession have been all but abandoned, and the discussions at the annual meetings have come increasingly to resemble the esoteric panels conducted by the organizations whose deficiencies led to the creation of ALSC. We believe that in order to recapture its initial successes, ALSC must resume its original purposes,” and Morson is the “ideal person to energize the organization.”

Wolfson is a "worthy candidate for those who believe the organization should stay on its current course," who "believe the changes in literary studies have obviated the need for reform efforts," the group wrote. Although they sought to emphasize their positive reasons for backing him -- Morson's election before 50 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “best book of the year” awards from two major associations, praise and support from such stalwarts of literary criticism as Frederick Crews and Robert Alter, and longtime leadership in the association -- the insurgents also suggest that ALSC members visit the two candidates’ scholarly Web sites, and Amazon.com for “description of and commentary on recent books by the two, Morson’s Anna Karenina in our Time and Susan Wolfson’s Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism. The none-too-subtle suggestion is that Morson is the scholar more faithful to the association’s original purpose.

The association’s current leaders have studiously avoided responding directly to the critics’ suggestions that the group is heading down the wrong path and that Morson, not Wolfson, is the right person to lead it going forward. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t had plenty to say -- far from it.

The association's current president, Christopher Ricks, the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, sent a letter to the group's members in late March describing Morson's candidacy as "ill-advised," for a variety of reasons. Among them were that Morson was from the same department at Northwestern as the association's current vice president, Clare Cavanagh, who will assume the presidency next year. Not only should a national association representing many disciplines not have its top two officers be in the same field and from the same university, Ricks wrote, but the fact that Morson will also chair "the committee that is to consider Clare Cavanagh's promotion to full professor" in 2008-9. "If Professor Morson were to be serving under her while she is president, Clare Cavanagh would be put in at least a difficult and probably an impossible professional position."

Ricks's letter started a remarkable exchange of memos, e-mails and other missives in which Morson's supporters and Ricks and the association's other officers blasted each other for how the election was being conducted; befitting a group of English professors, the documents are filled with words and phrases like "malefactions" and "irremediably tainted" and "destructive energies of malice and pettiness." An April 10 letter of protest from Morson and a 13-page memo on April 16 from his supporters inspired a 30-page e-mailed reply and rebuttal from Ricks and William Flesch, the association's secretary-treasurer -- "a substantial but a substantiated reply to vituperation." Only Thursday -- days after the ballots were mailed to the group's members -- did Morson's supporters win the right to send an association-wide e-mail making their case.

Both sides have called for a free and open debate and election and accused the other of standing in the way; Daniel Lowenstein, one of Morson's supporters on the association's governing council and a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, went so far Thursday as to ask the council to immediately nullify the current election and start over, in a way that would allow both candidates to argue, positively, why they should lead the organization.

So far, Wolfson has remained relatively quiet on that front; in an e-mail message Thursday, she said she had decided to stand for election after being approached by ASLC council members and despite the fact that "in addition to being a sometime member of ALSC, I am a lifelong, happy member of MLA." "The ALSC is an important organization that has served as a vital voice in the cultural conversation of the last several years," she added. "Whether the membership elects me, or decides to go with another candidate, I wish the association the very best."

Ricks also declined an opportunity Thursday to discuss what the election says about the association's status and its role in the continuing debate over literary criticism.

But it is possible to glean some insight from comments he made to Inside Higher Ed last year about the emergence of another group -- this one in the field of Middle East studies -- that had its genesis as oppositional to an existing, dominant scholarly entity. Asked how groups like that evolve and stay relevant over time, he said:

“Some people think we are not spending enough time resisting bad things, while others -- and I’m in this wing -- think our main enterprise should be to show good things.... The reasons we came into existence aren’t the same as our raison d’être. He had some kind words for the MLA, and suggested that times had changed. “A lot of the heat has gone out of the culture wars,” Ricks said then. “A lot of people convinced of a certain kind of necessity to theorize have become convinced not to. A lot of people have left every kind of -ism because it became boring to them and boring to their students.”

That would be an interesting, and perhaps more germane, thesis for the ASLC's members, and vice presidential candidates, to debate.


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