Well, it’s been months and months since my last contribution to this fine blog, but this time, folks, I have a real excuse: the dog ate my August, and it’s all Janet’s fault. Janet, you may recall from months and months ago, is married to me. We learned in mid-July that Janet would need surgery to keep a couple of bones in her neck from pressin’ on her spinal cord. Those bones have now been put back in their proper places, and Janet’s recovering the way people do when they’re told that their surgery has been a “complete success.” (That’s how the neurosurgeon felt about it; now we gradually find out what the patient thinks.) As for me, the minute I learned the surgery would take place on August 28 and that Jamie would have no summer camp in August, I realized that I would very likely have to spend every spare waking second of my summer trying to finish a draft of the book I’ve been talking about for the past couple of years, The Left At War: The Totalitarian Temptation from Hume to Human League. So I made my apologies to my fellow CTers via “electronic” mail, and let them know that I probably wouldn’t be posting again for quite some time. And though I know this will mortify Janet no end, I thought I’d offer CT readers a closeup of the X-ray that started the whole thing:
As you can plainly see, those stray bones were causing Janet some serious neck and shoulder pain, and needed to be “fused.” And if there was one thing we did well back at my old haunt, it was fusion!
But that’s not why I’ve come out of semi-retirement (again). I’m here because I am exasperated as no creature has ever been exasperated before, and you know how I get when I’m exasperated. Last Sunday there was an essay in the New York Times Book Review on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and since it is my job, in such affairs, to be quoted as the person who says a me-like thing, I happily obliged. I was also called upon, ten years ago, to comment on the tenth anniversary of the publication of Bloom’s book, and I told the Chronicle of Higher Education that although I admired Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic as well as his brilliant essay justifying the translation, I thought that whole sections of Closing read like the work of the dotty uncle who comes down from the attic to rant at the family during Thanksgiving. For some reason, this appeared in the Chronicle, iirc, as “the dotty uncle who comes out of the closet to rant,” which is really not what I meant at all. That was not it, at all. But never mind that! The important thing is that I have to start thinking now about what I will say on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind. Suggestions welcome, as always.
Now, I know perfectly well that Henry was all over this a week ago, but still, I am exasperated to the point of flummoxation, and here’s why. It’s not just that Alan Wolfe’s Achebe/Yeats remark was foolish beyond belief, claiming that an African novel for which the New York Times has to provide an identifier is better known than one of the most-cited poems in the English language. (That kind of thing goes with the territory: I’m tapped to say the me-like thing, and Wolfe gets to say the Wolfe-like thing. Somebody’s gotta do it, and he’s just the guy.) And it’s not just that Alan Wolfe’s foolish-beyond-belief remark is a tired retread of the famously mistaken remark from the 80s canon wars—namely, that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is assigned in English courses more often than all the works of Shakespeare combined. It’s that the entire premise of the zero-sum argument is dead wrong. Here’s how Rachel Donadio framed the crucial me-to-Wolfe transition:
But many scholars see these changes as part of a necessary evolution. To Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?” (2006), the changes have been particularly beneficial in American literature, which has seen the most canon revision in part because it never had a very stable canon to begin with. “The old guard had very little to offer in the way of serious intellectual argument against the reading and teaching of … Olaudah Equiano or Djuna Barnes or Zora Neale Hurston, so the canon of the past two or three centuries got itself revised in fairly short order,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Only the Department of Surly Curmudgeons still disputes that we’re dealing with a usefully expanded field.”
Reading lists, though, are a zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped. One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past— at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ”—Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria—“but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”
You know, I thought I was fairly careful about naming names here. I tried to pick writers who were intellectually complex and historically important, and I subtly suggested that people who would try to argue against the study of such writers were surly curmudgeons. But I forgot that in Canon-Debating World, it’s always 1987, and we always have to be on the lookout for the possibility that some black writer, somewhere, is getting too much attention at some dead white guy’s expense. (Odd, isn’t it, that the allegedly overrated contemporary writer is always black? And if people don’t want to make an issue of this, then they shouldn’t complain about the attention being paid to writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe. They should try complaining instead that everyone has read Don DeLillo’s Underworld but few people have read Book VI of the Aeneid, or something along those lines.) It’s the last part of this formulation—the “at the expense, some argue”—I forgot: since I inhabit a sane and sunny world in which it is reasonable to expect people to read more books every year, I completely overlooked the fact that because the Department of Surly Curmudgeons actually don’t have any good arguments against studying Equiano or Barnes or Hurston, they pretend, instead, that the study of these figures is a “zero-sum game” that will distract us from the real classics. This is—how shall I put this decorously, so that even the surliest curmudgeon will understand it?—ah, yes, I know: this is horseshit.
Honestly, I am so very, very weary of people who pretend that the field of literature consists of a reading list—one reading list. For every writer added, another is dropped? Ah, no. That’s what the National Association of Surlycurmudgeons will try to tell you, because that’s their job: they don’t punch out and go home until they’ve written or said something to the effect of “Toni Morrison is displacing Shakespeare because of affirmative action racegenderclass OH NOES,” but there’s no reason for a smart person like Rachel Donadio, whose work I like, to fall for this tripe. In reality, for every writer added, a writer is added to the field of literary study—perhaps to a freshman-level survey; perhaps to a lower-division undergraduate course; perhaps to an upper-division course on a literary genre or period; perhaps to an undergraduate honors seminar; perhaps to a graduate seminar—and those are just the basic possibilities for teaching assignments. Quiet as it’s kept, the college literature curriculum does not consist of one course on the West’s Greatest Hits; you can read Achebe in one course and Yeats in another. Then there are all the possibilities for research, for literary criticism, for scholarly editing, for new anthologies, and for literary history: in none of these endeavors is there a zero-sum game among writers. A new book on the poetry of H.D. does not wipe out another book on the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge; and a new book on the “long eighteenth century” is enriched, not enfeebled, by a scholar’s study of a wide range of writers and works. (And if you’re the kind of person who’s given to complaining that the newer, larger literature anthologies are too inclusive, well, I have a Department for you! As Nina Baym once told me, there’s even a minor cottage industry devoted to complaining about how “writer X gets Y pages but Hemingway only gets one short story” every time a new anthology is published, because no one bothers with grainy material details like the fact that the Hemingway estate will permit no more than one short story to appear in each anthology.) The only place where the zero-sum dynamic operates is at the level of the individual syllabus. But since these exasperating “debates” have started from the assumption that there is room for only one literature course in your average undergraduate’s college curriculum, the Surly Curmudgeons have been allowed to pretend that every citation of a previously neglected or underappreciated writer somehow diminishes Shakespeare.
The truly weird thing is that even the National Association of Surlycurmudgeons’ survey of ZOMG They Are Killing Shakespeare doesn’t quite bear out Donadio’s claim for it:
The invasion of politics has been particularly notable in the literature curriculum. On campus today, the emphasis is very much on studying literature through the lens of “identity”—ethnic, gender, class. There has also been a decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past. In 1965, the authors most frequently assigned in English classes were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and T. S. Eliot, according to a survey by the National Association of Scholars, an organization committed to preserving “the Western intellectual heritage.” In 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Milton, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.
As John Quiggin pointed out, this isn’t exactly a “decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past.” What’s more, my sense is that most people—that is, except for members of a certain Department, one of whom I’ll get to in a moment—would gladly trade Dryden and Pope for Austen and Woolf in any literary fantasy league you care to name. And since Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer (in 1965) have been replaced by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (in 1998), that leaves only the controversial Eliot-for-Morrison matchup, which is well described as an “invasion of politics,” since, unlike Morrison, Eliot didn’t have politics—or, if he did, at least he didn’t write about them, and so they were irrelevant to his stature as a writer.
Perhaps the sorry state of contemporary canon-commentary is best exemplified by Ross Douthat, who picks up the NAS study and writes, “obviously, having Morrison and to a lesser extent Woolf in that group is somewhat depressing.” Obviously, you just gotta love the “obviously.” In a stroke, five of the most accomplished novels from the high-modernist era—Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves—have now been so pwned by Ross Douthat! No way they deserve to be sitting in the chair reserved for the author of “Mac Flecknoe.” Douthat’s judgment is then seconded by a couple of rapid-fire commenters, one of whom writes that “intelligent professors should acknowledge that Toni Morrison’s work is low-brow junk” only to be corrected, one comment down, by someone who writes, “Excuse me. Toni Morrison’s work is not ‘low-brow junk.’ It’s middle-brow junk.” I can’t explain these comments myself, any more than I can explain why a once-respected literary magazine like the Atlantic would want to offer gigs to people who find it “obviously” depressing that writers like Woolf and Morrison are widely read and studied, but I can suggest three options: (1) the commenters have actually never read Paradise or Beloved, novels that make substantial demands on ordinary readers; (2) people are unaware that the properly highbrow way to sneer at Morrison is to compare her unfavorably with Faulkner or Garcia Márquez, neither of whom is usually associated with the lower brows; (3) these remarks are actually a subtle form of praise, insofar as they link Morrison to Charles Dickens, long considered by Surly Curmudgeons everywhere as the king of middlebrow junk.
And why are people still hating on Toni Morrison? Because in Canon-Debating World, it’s always 1987, and . . . oh, you know the tune. Everybody have fun tonight.