August 31, 2007

Academic Etiquette

Wise words from the Little Professor on "dealing with professors". My favourites:
3. If you want to know the assignment for the next day's reading, please look at the syllabus. That's why it's there.
8. Do not ask your professor "Did I miss anything?" or "Will I miss anything?" or "Is there something important we're going to talk about?" Just don't.
Actually, I often have a version of #8 right there in my course syllabus...along with the list of books for the class, deadlines for assignments, my office hours, my policies on late assignments and missed classes, my mother's maiden name, my home phone number...OK, not the last two, but I do work hard to put everything you need to know about the course in the syllabus, so really my basic advice would just be:
Before you ask me anything at all, read your syllabus carefully.
And since it's posted on WebCT, it doesn't matter if you left your copy on the bus, or your dog ate it, or you don't think I gave you a copy last class: you can find it 24/7.

(This posting is dedicated to the anonymous student who complained in my course evaluations last year that whenever s/he asked me a question, I always said "go look in your syllabus." In case you ever read this, there's a relevant saying that is something about giving someone a fish vs. teaching them to fish...)

August 30, 2007

God's Incompatible Warriors

I've just finished watching the three installments of Christiane Amanpour's CNN series "God's Warriors," and although I appreciated the information and the varied perspectives the series offered us, I ended up frustrated (though not surprised) that the most important question of all was never asked (or at least never aired), namely, "What makes you so sure that you are right in your beliefs and the guys in the other episodes are wrong?" Over and over her interviewees proclaimed their absolute conviction about what God wants of them, but they can't all be right (and this applies not only across the three monotheisms that were her main topics but internally as well, as she met with Jews, Christians and Muslims who profess widely divergent views of the obligations and teachings of their own religions as well). Of course, the problem is that at bottom, their answers could only be of these three kinds:
  1. I'm absolutely sure I'm right because I have faith/belief; I feel it in my heart/soul.
  2. I'm absolutely sure I'm right because I was raised in these beliefs.
  3. I'm absolutely sure I'm right because I have read the infallible word of God in [fill in title of book here].
The first position gives us no way to distinguish the religious believer from someone who believes, say, that she is the reincarnation of Joan of Arc: the latter may be equally convinced on internal 'evidence' and strong feeling, but nonetheless we don't hesitate to call her delusional. The second is really an admission that the person might well have believed something else altogether if raised in another family, parish, or country (as in fact we know to be the case, since religious beliefs vary widely according to geography). And the third simply returns us to the original problem--there's more than one book that purports to be the definitive word of God, and they can't all be it. How do you know that yours is the right one and your neighbour's (or enemy's) is not? Here we have people prepared to sacrifice their own lives, take the lives of others, engage in time-consuming, sometimes self-destructive, often expensive rituals, influence the outcome of elections, subvert the teaching of science, put their children at risk of STDs by denying them sex education...and on what solid basis? None at all. Overall, the series was very depressing. I ended up feeling a lot of sympathy for Richard Dawkins's provocative notion that religious education is a form of child abuse. We intervene to ensure medical treatment for children when their parents' beliefs would deny it to them; why not consider it equally unacceptable for children to be raised to idealize martyrdom, or raised in dangerously controversial settlements in occupied Palestine, or denied the benefits of a modern scientific education because their parents cling to superstitious, magical ideas about the world and their role in it? There's no question that, historically, religious belief has contributed to what George Eliot calls "the growing good of the world" as well as to its cruelties, irrationalities, and evils, but we can see now that the foundations of modern faiths are no stronger, no more defensible, than, say, the Greek or Roman beliefs in their deities (as Sam Harris likes to point out, we're all atheists now with respect to Zeus and Poseidon). So why should we accept them as guides for living--or killing, or dying?

I hope Amanpour's planning a follow-up series on "Reason's Warriors."

August 27, 2007

Blogging Trollope IV

So much goes on in He Knew He Was Right that it's hard for me to focus for long on any one point of interest while this reading of it is still so fresh. Since I've been remarking the novel's relationship to sensation fiction, I'll add that while I knew the main plot of the novel was 'sensational,' I was surprised at the way Trollope puts other sensational bits into the novel's most comic segments and registers, especially the saga of Mr Gibson and the two Misses French. Here's Camilla reflecting on Mr Gibson's possible perfidy:
A sister, a mother, a promised lover, all false,--all so damnably, cruelly false! It was impossible. No history, no novel of most sensational interest, no wonderful villany that had ever been wrought into prose or poetry, would have been equal to this. It was impossible. She told herself so a score of times a day. And yet the circumstances were so terribly suspicious! (Ch. LXXIV)
As the tragic drama at Casalunga advances towards its painful conclusions, so too the ridiculous affair at Heavitree lurches along, until this:
The maid-servant, in making Miss Camilla's bed and in 'putting the room to rights,' as she called it,--which description probably was intended to cover the circumstances of an accurate search,--had discovered, hidden among some linen,--a carving knife! . . . The knife [Camilla] declared, had been taken up-stairs, because she had wanted something very sharp to cut,--the bones of her stays. (Ch. LXXXII)
At times I found myself impatiently skimming these sections, as my interest and sympathies were far more engaged with the Trevelyans' trials and, eventually, most of all with Nora and her steadfast determination to achieve a new (indeed, a manifestly modern) marriage with Hugh. But at the same time they pique my critical curiosity: are they simply diversions, a break into silliness to offset the sometimes lugubrious development of the 'main' plot? The overt mock-sensationalism suggests Trollope is having fun with generic conventions and disrupting the sensation/realism distinction he rejects in his critical writing (e.g. his Autobiography) while also amplifying many of his main themes, including the not-so-mock desperation of surplus women on the marriage market and the degradation of morals that results. Still, why do so comically, when the serious plot lines of the novel offer a pretty complete theme and variations along these lines? Perhaps the best answer is just "because he can."

More evidence of self-consciousness about genre and form comes (in true Trollope style) through narrative intrusions. There aren't many extended ones, at least for a novel of these proportions, but there's a really good one at the opening of Chapter LXXXVIII:
It is rather hard upon readers that they should be thus hurried from the completion of hymeneals at Florence to the preparations for other hymeneals in Devonshire; but it is the nature of a complex story to be entangled with many weddings towards its close. [insert faint sigh of relief at the idea of 'its close'] In this little history there are, we fear, three or four more to come. We will not anticipate by alluding prematurely to Hugh Stanbury's treachery, or death,--or the possibility that he after all may turn out to be the real descendant of the true Lord Peterborough and the actual inheritor of the title and estate of Monkhams, nor will we speak of Nora's certain fortitude under either of these emergencies. But the instructed reader must be aware that Camilla French ought to have a husband found for her; that Colonel Osborne should be caught in some matrimonial trap [there's a motif that runs throughout the novel, sometimes without much hint of humour];--as, how otherwise should he be fitly punished? [and the number of characters who end up reflecting on marriage as a punishment or threat is actually remarkable]--and that something should at least be attempted for Priscilla Stanbury, who from the first has been intended to be the real heroine of these pages [interesting, that, since to me Nora emerges as the finest female character]. That Martha should marry Giles Hickbody, and Barty Burgess run away with Mrs MacHugh, is of course evident to the meanest novel-expounding capacity; but the fate of Brooke Burgess and of Dorothy will require to be evolved with some delicacy and much detail [do we detect a bit of glee in that last phrase, as he cracks his knuckles and settles in for another 100 pages?].
Trollope's world has an odd and, in my reading experience, unique quality: his novels are at once so fully realized and capacious that he can link them together with coy little cross-references (in this one, we get both Phineas Finn and Lady Glencora, from the Pallisers series, and Bishop Proudie from Barchester), and so contrived and overt in their artifice that they defy what would otherwise seem simple categorization as 'naive' realism. It's like being in some kind of virtual reality simulator, in which you are always aware at some level that you are playing a game but can look all around without really seeing its limits.

There's no doubt this is a great novel to consider in a course on the 'woman question'. It's as direct in its confrontation with women's political, social, and marital rights and obligations as any 19thC novel I know, if perhaps more ambiguous or ambivalent in its attitudes than some. But its 903 pages are difficulty simply to carry around, or hold while reading, and it's hard to imagine just how to manage it pedagogically to maintain students' enthusiasm when they are taking four other courses. If they've read Mill's Subjection of Women and Cobbe and others on 'old maids,' though, along with the other novels I have in mind, won't they find it irresistible? And failing those intellectual reasons, won't they love it because of all the friends they'll make reading it? I guess I'll find out.

August 26, 2007

Blogging Trollope III

I may just be preoccupied with these comparisons because of having spent so much time and thought on sensation novels this summer, but He Knew He Was Right continues to seem like a reworking of a number of key sensation themes and elements. (I haven't looked around yet to see if there's 'official' criticism addressing the connections.) I'm struck, for instance, by the close proximity between Louis Trevelyan and Robert Audley: both are motivated by intense suspicion of a woman and are driven to what others perceive as madness because of their relentless pursuit of justification for these suspicions. The key differences, of course, are first that Louis's suspicions are groundless, and second, that his monomania thus truly puts him on the wrong side of what both authors describe as the thin line separating sanity from insanity. One result of these differences is that while Lady Audley's Secret can be read as confirming all of Robert's worst fears about women, He Knew He Was Right reads like an indictment of just those fears, a critique of that kind of misogynistic paranoia. The comparison brings out the darker side of Robert's quest for justice: he is on a quest for control and domination as much as for truth, as is also clearly the case in HKHWR.

August 24, 2007

Blogging Trollope II

The further I read (and I'm now about 2/3 through, which is no small feat, let me tell you), the more I am enjoying thinking about how He Knew He Was Right would play off against the other novels I have in mind for my class. It's a seminar on the Victorian 'woman question,' and I have taught it several times before, always with a reading list that includes a fair mix of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction prose. I have always thought (and the students have always seemd to agree) that it has been successful, and discussion has always been vigorous, but I decided it was time for a change, and so this time I'm focusing on novels, and in particular on novels that follow couples past the 'matrimonial barrier.' That means I'll keep The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Odd Women, two of my favourites, but I'm going to replace The Mill on the Floss with Middlemarch and (I'm now thinking) bring in HKHWR...and maybe East Lynne also, for a more 'sensational' take. I'm finding HKHWR has a lot of links to The Odd Women in particular, starting with the obvious similarity of an excess of female characters. The notes to my edition of HKHWR suggest links between Priscilla Stanbury and Dorothea in Middlemarch; at the moment I don't really see it, but I'm interested in the possibility. East Lynne has an actual infidelity that would provide an interesting comparison with the suspected offense in Trollope's much more literal (and yet, in many ways, 'sensational') novel. If the students don't get completely overwhelmed with the reading load, this could be a lot of fun. (That does seem like a big 'if' at this point. Well, I haven't actually ordered the books yet, so there's time to pull back.)

August 22, 2007

Blogging Trollope I

I'm rereading He Knew He Was Right with an eye to assigning it in a winter term class. I have remarked a couple of times on this blog that there's something about Trollope that makes his novels not entirely amenable to the kinds of critical analysis we are most accustomed to. For one thing, he's (almost) all about plot and character--there's a tremendously literal quality about his approach that makes much reading between the lines seem beside the point. I have always loved his accounts of walking in the woods imagining what his characters would do and say in the scenes to come, and his insistence that his people were entirely real to him; once I am immersed in one of these big blockbuster books, its very expansiveness, almost excessiveness, gives me the same sense of having spent my time among actual people whose lives have all the dimensions of ours. Here's a little example from fairly early on in HKHWR that contributes to this sense that Trollope is putting his immediate plot together by selecting among dozens, even hundreds or thousands, of untold stories; this is a bit of background on the wonderful Miss Jemima Stanbury ("All change was to her hateful and unncessary"!):
It need not be told here how various misfortunes arose, how Mr. Burgess quarrelled with the Stanbury family, how Jemima quarrelled with her own family, how, when her father died, she went out from Nuncombe Putney parsonage, and lived on the smallest pittance in a city lodging, how her lover was untrue to her and did not marry her, and how at last he died and left her every shilling that he possessed. (Ch. VII)
Of course the story is "told here" after all, but he passess off in one paragraph what could easily be enough plot for another whole novel--it's just that he is telling us a different one and sets this one aside. Though it is in a much more comic register, this passage reminds me of the bit in Carlyle's French Revolution about the five act tragedy inside every man, or of the roar on the other side of silence evoked (again, with quite a different tone) in Middlemarch. If there can seem to be a certain formlessness about the way his novels just keep going on and on and on and on (I have been known to refer to him as the "Energizer Bunny" of Victorian fiction), at the same time they capture in their own way that notion of the multitudinousness of human experience and stories.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

This book has a simple premise--that the best way for aspiring writers to learn their craft is to read (closely, attentively, alertly, appreciatively) the work of other novelists. Prose proceeds to elaborate on what she sees as the pedagogical benefit of close reading by moving through a sequence of chapters addressing specific aspects of novel-writing, each illustrated with examples from writers she admires. Her intended audience is primarily creative writing students; she offers her close-reading approach as a counter-balance to what she describes as the fundamentally negative tactics of writing workshops: "Though it also doles out praise, the writing workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong, what needs to be fixed, cut, or augmented. Whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly" (11). I'm not in a position to evaluate how well either strategy would work for someone trying to produce an original work of fiction, though it does seem to me that Prose's emphasis on writing as a craft that presents technical challenges needing to be acknowledged and worked through intellectually (rather than transcended through inspiration) is probably useful.

Prose's subtitle ("A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them") suggests that she also hopes to appeal to and help out avid readers (the same ones who might pick up Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel or Sutherland's How to Read a Novel. It may be this hope that leads Prose to avoid most specialized vocabulary. For instance, in her chapter on narration, she acknowledges briefly that there are types of narrators ("should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?" [85]) but does not explain in any systematic way just what these options are or that they are not exhaustive. As a result, her discussion of examples tends towards the impressionistic, rather than the analytical; she often seems to take for granted, too, that her reader will recognize the qualities she admires or finds effective, that she does not need to explain or justify her praise or her interpretation. Here is some of her commentary on a long quotation from Richard Price's Freedomland:
Everything in the paragraph contributes to the speaker's credibility, as a fictional character and as an honest human being: the diction, the rhythms, the slight repetitions for emphasis, the way that the tenses keep shifting from present to past and back. The choice of words and phrases ("used to like his cocktails," "never raised a hand," "passed on") make us feel that this is how this woman might really recount an incident from her life. The language, the story itself, the specificity of the details (Jimmy Durante singing "September Song") convince us that the woman is telling the truth. (91)
I can tell that she is convinced, but she has not explained the basis of her conviction to me in a persuasive or useful way. What aspects of the speaker's diction are indicative of credibility and honesty? Why should including specific details convince us that someone is telling the truth? What are the signposts of unreliability?

I was also concerned at times about the qualities of Prose's own reading. In some cases, she seemed to me an unduly trusting reader. Here's some of her commentary on the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice, for example:
Lest we receive a skewed or harsh impression of the Bennets' own marriage, Mr. Bennet compliments his wife by suggesting that she is as handsome as their daughters. In fact, as we are discovering, theirs is a harmonious union, and indeed the whole conversation, with its intimacy, its gentle teasing, and with Mr. Bennet's joking reference to his old friendship with his wife's nerves, is a double portrait of a happy couple. (127)
Well, maybe, and the same needs to be said about her confidence in Nelly Dean as "the most credible witness" in Wuthering Heights. But she writes well about the significance of details (they "aren't only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they're also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment" [207].

I think that what struck me as weaknesses in the book, particularly in its analysis of particular examples, come at least in part from Prose's own deliberate distancing of herself from academic approaches to literature. "Only once," she tells us in her account of her own development as a writer,
did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading "texts" in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written. (8)
I have written before on this blog about my own frustrations with aspects of "literary academia," but I have also resisted (even resented) this kind of dismissive attitude to scholarly and theoretical expertise. It is possible to turn such expertise (including attention to ideas and politics) precisely to understanding "what the writer had actually written," and the result will be a better, fuller reading--and thus, if Prose's own pedagogical theory is correct, better new books.

August 18, 2007

Becoming George?

I was interviewed recently by our campus news service about Becoming Jane--not about the movie exactly (fortunately, as I haven't actually seen it) but about Austen's popular appeal. I found myself thinking that really, if movie makers (and movie audiences) want a bio-pic about a woman writer's interesting, sexy life, they should really be working on Becoming George. Isn't the transformation of country girl (and preachy evangelical) Marianne Evans into leading intellectual, free-thinker, strong-minded woman, and renowned novelist George Eliot really as good as (really, better than) anything someone could make up about a 19th-century woman's life, and true, to boot (which is more than can confidently be said about Becoming Jane)? If I were directing, I'd begin (and possibly end) with Marian and Lewes leaving on the boat for Germany in 1854:

George: "You know what they'll say about us--about you...There's no going back from a step like this; it will mean the end of your life as a respectable woman."

Marian: "I've made my decision. And every ending is also a beginning..."

And then flashbacks (with lots of voice-overs drawing on her letters and diaries) to take us from her childhood through her intellectual awakening and 'holy war', to her life among the London intellegentsia, the interlude with Chapman (I guess there would need to be some speculative in-filling there), the disastrous 'romance' with Herbert Spencer, and the development of her relationship with Lewes, complete with asides about his unconventional domestic arrangements. The story has everything: rebellion, romance, and ideas. Casting would be challenging, of course. You'd need someone graceful, charismatic, low-voiced, and plain for the main part (sorry, no place for Anne Hathaway here), and someone sprightly, charismatic, maybe slightly manic, and homely for Lewes (any ideas?).

Such a film would accomplish for a general audience what one of her contemporaries (reviewing John Cross's biography) hoped for: "the salt and spice will be restored to the records of George Eliot’s entirely unconventional life." It might even send people to her novels with a new appreciation for what she risked and achieved in them. Of course it will never happen, will it? Too bad! But then, apparently there is a big-screen version of Middlemarch in the works, so maybe her time is coming.

August 16, 2007

Best bad book?

Germaine Greer, in The Guardian:
In 1978, a guest at my little house in the Tuscan hills left behind a paperback copy of Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds. Having nothing else with which to read myself to sleep, I took it to bed with me. When the clatter of the nightingales (the original thorn birds) gave way to the pre-dawn chorus, I was still reading, utterly engrossed in the best bad book I had ever read.
I was engrossed in The Thorn Birds once too, though I don't think I had the excuse of having nothing else available to read. I haven't looked at it in many, many years. I wonder if I re-read it now if I would find it "the best bad book" I've read. Until I re-read it and find out (if I ever do), I wonder which book is the current winner in that category. What exactly does it mean to be "the best bad book"? The book you like best, even knowing that by some standard it's pretty bad? Bad in what way? Bad writing? Bad politics? (Greer says "It would probably be over the top to denounce The Thorn Birds as a sneakily racist and sectarian book, but it is definitely contrived and insidious.") Bad (improbable?) plot? Bad dialogue? Just a bad idea? Maybe I'll nominate Lady Audley's Secret (it's fresh in my mind because I just finished teaching it). Any further nominations?

August 12, 2007

Wuthering Heights Named Greatest Love Story

From The Guardian:
Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, recounting the doomed affair between sweet Cathy Earnshaw and the brutal outsider Heathcliff, has seen off Shakespeare, Gone With the Wind and everything by Barbara Cartland in a survey which shows the lasting power of classic works.

Almost all the entries in the top 20 choices of 2,000 readers are major works of English literature, with Jane Austen pipping Shakespeare as runner-up and Emily's sister Charlotte coming in fourth with Jane Eyre."It's really heartening to see how these stories, written so long ago, retain the power to captivate 21st century audiences," said Richard Kingsbury, channel head of UKTV Drama, which commissioned the study. (read the rest here)

"Sweet" Cathy Earnshaw? Hmmm. Maybe these 2000 people (and the article's author) read a different version of Wuthering Heights than the one I know or Jane Smiley compared unfavorably to Justine. John Sutherland and Martin Kettle are also skeptical.

The more I think about this poll the odder the results seem. It seems as if, at least as far as Wuthering Heightsis concerned, we have three options: either most of these people have not read Emily Bronte's novel at all and are voting on the basis of some received idea about it; or they have read it and (dismal thought) really find its version of love (obsessive, possessive, selfish, destructive) romantic; or they have read it and completely misinterpreted it. Occasions like this (as the responses from Sutherland and Kettle already make clear) can certainly highlight the gap between "common" and expert readers (though in this case I'd like to think it does not take professional training to find Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship and behaviour at least somewhat troubling), but what's particularly interesting here is it's not a contest of values (it's not, for instance, more about Harry Potter vs "the classics") but a problem of misreading and thus misrepresenting a particular text. As Kingsbury says, it is "heartening" that readers still find these "long ago" stories compelling, but it's less heartening that they don't seem very clear on their content.
It makes me think again about the question of readers' responsibilities--if not to the author, then to their reading (as I recall, Wayne Booth spends a fair amount of time on this issue in The Company We Keep; I'll have to go back and take another look).

August 11, 2007

Searching for Mrs Oliphant...?

I've recently noticed that an unexpectedly large number of 'hits' on this blog result from Google searches for Margaret Oliphant or one of the two Oliphant novels I've posted on (Hester and Miss Marjoribanks). I'm guessing that the explanation is not a surge of interest in Oliphant among internet surfers but rather a dearth of other internet sources on her, which would make my small contributions more visible. (It would be nice if it were a sign of something else too, of course.) In case anyone lands here who is looking for more substantial sources, I recommend Mary Husemann's bibliography at the Victorian Web and the collection edited by D. J. Trela called Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive as useful starting points for research. And if you haven't read it, Oliphant's Autobiography is engaging and often moving.

August 9, 2007

A.S. Byatt on Middlemarch

From The Guardian:
What do I think of Middlemarch? asked the great American poet Emily Dickinson. "What do I think of glory?" And Virginia Woolf called it "The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people". Many of what Woolf thought were imperfections are in fact strengths. It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel. (read the rest here)
The special features on the DVD set of Middlemarch include an excellent hour-long feature on the novel featuring interviews with a number of writers and critics including David Lodge, Terry Eagleton, and Byatt; a great moment is Byatt remarking that if she envies another novelist anything, she envies George Eliot the moment when she realizes what she can do with her web metaphor in Middlemarch. The occasion for this piece is the reissuing of Middlemarch along with Byatt's Possession in the Vintage Classics Twins series. I must say that though I am a fan of both novels, they seem an odd pairing.

(HT: Conversational Reading)

More on Professional vs. Public Criticism

Brian McRae accepts the decline of literary criticism as a public activity as a trade-off for the benefits of professionalization. In contrast, others continue to believe that criticism (including that of professional academic literary scholars) can and should be relevant and accessible to non-specialists. In Uncommon Readers, Christopher Knight points to Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner as examples of critics who insisted "that the scholar find a way to engage the larger educated public in conversation" (8); because, as a result, they often worked outside the forms of academic criticism, "professionals have been loath to recognize their contributions" (12). In Double Agent: The Critic and Society, Morris Dickstein posits the alienation between professional critics and a non-academic readership as a central problem in the discipline: "the main task for criticism today is to recapture the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century. The first step," he continues, "would be to treat criticism as a major form of public discourse" (6), making the critic a "mediator between art and its audience" (7). In his turn, Dickstein points to Helen Vendler, John Bayley, and Christopher Ricks as academics who have bridged the gap between professional and amateur readers, particularly through their literary journalism. But need an academic critic have a broad public in mind, any more than a specialist in any other field has an obligation to popularize his or her work? Or, ought literary journalism or other critical contributions not made through the formal routes of academic publishing to be given professional weight? It seems to me at this point that one's answers to questions like this will turn on one's idea of literature, once, as Dickstein argues in his more recent book The Mirror in the Roadway, conceived of primarily as a kind of imaginative negotiation with or refraction of the real world--a view now, Dickstein points out, that is "completely out of fashion . . . except among ordinary readers" (1).

August 8, 2007

Brian McRae, Addison and Steele are Dead

In parallel to my reading of 'books about books' aimed at non-specialist readers, I have been reading scholarly books that treat the development of English studies and/or academic criticism in historical as well as theoretical contexts. (Examples include John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Morris Dickstein's Double Agent: The Critic and Society, and Geoffrey Hartman's Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars. My notes on these have been largely maintained off-line, though my post on Denis Donoghue's The Practice of Reading comes out of the same line of research.) All of these books (and many more like them, of course) make explicit that what now appear to be the "givens" of professional literary criticism and the discipline of English studies are highly contingent and far from exempt from scrutiny, evaluation, or (presumably) further development.

McRae's Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books in this collection. As his title suggests, McRae frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele "render it useless to critics housed in English departments"--not, as he is quick to add, that "their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform" (11). The opening sections of the book look first at the express intentions of Addison and Steele as critics and men of letters, particularly at their desire to be popular, widely read, accessible, un-mysterious. The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs (e.g. 146); the "techniques of simplicity" that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. (McRae reports that the last PMLA essay on Addison or Steele appeared in 1957, and that Eighteenth-Century Studies, "the publication of choice for the best and brightest in the field," published only two short pieces on them in 20 years.) (As an aside, I wonder if a similar argument could be made about Trollope, whose novels often seem difficult to handle using our usual critical tools.)

As he develops his argument, McRae offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians' admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I'd say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McRae's larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not "academicians" or "specialists in a field" (89):
For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline--housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition--not in English literature--justifies the existence of the English department. (92)
As McRae tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism) this decline in the critic's public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical 'death' of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:
People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman's Shropshire Lad with the full professors. (147)
While we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McRae's discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McRae says, "from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics--otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public" (164-5). (In Democracy's Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: "There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one's allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself" [65]).

But why, McRae goes on to consider, should we expect such cross-over between our work--our professional lives and discourse--and our personal lives? McRae's answer to this question (we shouldn't) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McRae's book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, 'professing English' is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: "The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it" (17). If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McRae argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their 'stock of ideas,' nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today's critics] might wish to share STeele's influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . . (213)

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive. (215)
Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

August 4, 2007

Evaluating East Lynne

Working through Ellen Wood's 1861 best-seller East Lynne with my sensation fiction seminar yesterday, I decided to come clean with my students: for all that I find many aspects of the novel interesting, even fascinating, and certainly worth our time in class, I also think that as a novel--that is, as an aesthetic artefact, an artistic production--East Lynne is second-rate at best. But, as I also told them, it's challenging to justify this judgment. There's no universal standard for greatness in novel-writing, after all, no ready measure of skill or accomplishment. G. H. Lewes praised Jane Austen for her perfect "mastery over the means to her end"; we need such a flexible notion of greatness in a genre that accommodates both Dickens and George Eliot, both Virginia Woolf and, say, George Orwell among its acknowledged geniuses. 200 years of novel criticism have taught us to be eclectic in our tastes and adaptable in our reading practices, to be wary of defining great traditions. And yet is it really so out of order to ask "but it is any good?" How could we answer this question, absent some template for first-rate fiction? (For the record, the class has been enjoying the novel, and it certainly has its defenders!) The only strategy I could think of was comparative. Since we obviously could not do point-by-point comparisons between entire novels, and because my primary interest was in the quality of the writing, rather than broader issues of theme, plot, or characterization, I put together some short passages for us to consider. Of course it's an imperfect exercise, but I tried to be fair. The passage from Wood is both key to the novel and (I think) representative of her tone and style; the same (I think) is true of the other samples. All use intrusive (and moralistic) narration; all describe "fallen" women. Here they are:
How fared it with Lady Isabel? Just as it must be expected to fare, and does fare, when a high-principled gentlewoman falls from her pedestal. Never had she experienced a moment's calm, or peace, or happiness, since the fatal night of quitting her home. She had taken a blind leap in a moment of wild passion, when, instead of the garden of roses it had been her persuader's pleasure to promise her she would fall into, but which, in truth, she had barely glanced at, for that had not been her moving motive, she had found herself plunged into a yawning abyss of horror, from which there was never more any escape--never more, never more. The very instant--the very night of her departure, she awoke to what she had done. The guilt, whose aspect had been shunned in the prospective, assumed at once its true frightful color, the blackness of darkness; and a lively remorse, a never-dying anguish, took possession of her soul forever. Oh, reader, believe me! Lady--wife--mother! Should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the nature, the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees, and pray to be enabled to bear them--pray for patience--pray for strength to resist the demon that would tempt you to escape; bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you do rush on to it, will be found worse than death. (Ellen Wood, East Lynne)
Poor wandering Hetty, with the rounded childish face and the hard, unloving, despairing soul looking out of it—with the narrow heart and narrow thoughts, no room in them for any sorrows but her own, and tasting that sorrow with the more intense bitterness! My heart bleeds for her as I see her toiling along on her weary feet, or seated in a cart, with her eyes fixed vacantly on the road before her, never thinking or caring whither it tends, till hunger comes and makes her desire that a village may be near.
What will be the end, the end of her objectless wandering, apart from all love, caring for human beings only through her pride, clinging to life only as the hunted wounded brute clings to it?
God preserve you and me from being the beginners of such misery! (George Eliot, Adam Bede)

What were her thoughts when he left her? She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about—dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself?—she thought—not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs? The French maid found her in this position—sitting in the midst of her miserable ruins with clasped hands and dry eyes. The woman was her accomplice and in Steyne’s pay. “Mon Dieu, madame, what has happened?” she asked.
What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? (Thackeray, Vanity Fair)

The discussion that followed was certainly lively. Perhaps rather than recapitulating it, I'll stop this post here and see if anyone out there would like to comment on how the passages compare.