27 August 2011

The Reign of Good Queen Anne Was Culture's Palmiest Day

I hadn't read an ill-tempered screed against all things contemporary and academic for at least a couple of days, so it was with delight that I happened upon Joseph Epstein's Wall Street Journal review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel. What a hoot!

Some sadistic editor at the WSJ assigned Epstein to read and review a book that was never intended for people to just sit down to read. It's a reference book, something for library shelves, a book to be cited, and, for its contributors, a credit for touting. That's not to say it's not useful -- were you doing some research on a particular phase of American lit, it might give good guidance, and I would find it especially useful with undergraduates to show them the wide range of topics that can be thought about, analyzed, studied. Like a 1,200 page collection of academic essays about American history. Useful for various purposes, but not really something to take to the beach or the bed.

Properly categorizing and assessing this book isn't Epstein's priority, because he's not actually interested in the book itself. He wants to rant about the decline and fall of university English departments and the general decline of American culture. He's an inveterate conservative, and that's what they do. We can go to the WSJ to watch them as we might go to the Right-Wing Zoo and knock on the glass at the Crusty Curmudgeon exhibit.

"The Cambridge History of the American Novel," Epstein writes, "is perhaps best read as a sign of what has happened to English studies in recent decades. Along with American Studies programs, which are often their subsidiaries, English departments have tended to become intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die." (He then cites Marxism for his only evidence of an old, dead idea that nobody who knows anything about economics thinks is worthwhile, and because Marxism is nothing but economics, and can't tell us how to better diversify our stock portfolios, is deserves to be forgotten.) He ponders how horrible it must be to be a student of any of the contributors to The Cambridge History, and then gives the data-loving readers of the WSJ a bite of red meat:
Some indication of what it must be like is indicated by the steep decline of American undergraduates who choose to concentrate in English. English majors once comprised 7.6% of undergraduates, but today the number has been nearly halved, down to 3.9%. Part of this decline is doubtless owing to the worry inspired in the young by a fragile economy. (The greatest rise is in business and economics majors.) Yet that is far from the whole story. 
If you want a more nuanced view of the rise, fall, rise, etc. of English majors, I'd recommend a data-filled 2003 report (PDF) by the Association of the Departments of English, which demonstrates that, indeed, Epstein's random and uncontextualized percentages (87.3% of which are horse effluent) are so far from the whole story that they aren't even on the same shelf in the library. To blame the relatively low percentage of English bachelor's degrees on the lack of Lionel Trillings in the classroom is like blaming the rise of business majors on the pedagogical popularity of close readings of Adam Smith.

Epstein's sure that it must, though, be horribly depressing to be a student of these people, and that's why so many people prefer Business to English:
Two or three times a week one would sit in a room and be told that nothing that one has read is as it appears but is instead informed by authors hiding their true motives even from themselves or, in the best "context-centered" manner, that the books under study are the product of a country built on fundamental dishonesty about the sacred subjects of race, gender and class.
Throughout the review, Epstein complains about discussions of race, class, gender, and disability. These, you see, are not Literary, and therefore have no place in discussions of anything Literary, including Literary History. Such discussions depress people. They make them feel that their country is not the shining beacon of universal utopia that Ronald Reagan insisted it was. (His complaint about "authors hiding their true motives even from themselves" is disingenuous, because the era Epstein pines for is the same one that produced the idea of the "intentional fallacy" -- and a valuable idea it was, too.) It's not that Epstein objects to students learning to analyze texts for the complexities of their meanings and resonances -- I have trouble imagining him yelling at, say, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren for finding too much meaning in poetry -- but that he doesn't like what is found there. Epstein yearns for the days of innocent texts that talked only to themselves.

Sorry, dude. Those days are dead and gone, and, like all innocence, impossible to regain. And they weren't really innocent days, anyway, because, much as Epstein would be nauseated by my saying it, they were only days of innocence for straight white guys. (And I don't say that from prejudice. Some of my best friends are straight white guys.) Even when the writers being studied weren't exactly straight white guys themselves, they were still being studied as if they were.

But you don't have to agree with that statement to see that Epstein's whine is little more than nostalgic senility. His argument is actually for less knowledge, fewer ways of considering any cultural object, narrower perspectives on art.

For somebody like me, whose ancestors are white folks who first came to New England in the late 17th century, maybe learning some of the uglier sides of American history is depressing. Maybe discussing the ways that my skin color and gender identity (among other physical attributes) have given me advantages I never asked for or could give away is disconcerting. Maybe looking at how the culture has been shaped by some of these forces and this history will inspire self-hatred. But that's not been my experience. In fact, I don't think I began to feel at all comfortable with myself until I began to think about those forces, to think about how I got to be where and who I am. Because such thinking is not, if done well, depressing. Instead, it's best described by a word I'm sure Epstein loathes: empowering. (Also, interesting. It makes the world look more complex, variegated, and impossible to pin down than it looked to me before.)

Such ways of reading can also be highly literary, maybe even Literary. One of the reasons those of us who are inclined toward such ways of thinking are also inclined toward literature is because it's one of the best ways humans have developed to represent, share, and analyze subjectivity. That's not the only thing art and literature do, nor the only thing that should be studied, but it's a big component.

At heart, Epstein is a monarchist, as his rant about the unfortunate loss of a distinction between high and low culture shows: "With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today." In the paragraphs in which he laments the study of anything other than the highest of High (that which has been granted the divine right of his admiration), Epstein shows that his anger and resentment are at the loss of the cultural power wielded by a few well-read men in tweeds. He seems to be angry that he wasn't born a few decades before he was, back in a time when he might have had a better shot at being the American Minister of Culture.

Epstein believes the study of English should help us become "intoxicated by literature—its beauty, its force, above all its high truth quotient," and that universities should encourage and culture "a love of stories". That's very nice, and I'm sure that anybody who has spent a lifetime devoted to books and stories and plays and art of all sorts agrees that a certain level of intoxication is one attraction of such work -- but I don't look to intoxicated people for truth (despite their penchant for saying things they might not with more sober mind). Epstein, who in those sentences is nothing if not a blubbering Romantic, seems to think "beauty" and "truth" are uncomplicated things, universal, obvious, immutable, eternal. Talking about the ways stories represent, reflect, subvert, absorb, and perpetuate various beauties and truths, various ways of knowing and being, is not an activity that destroys all pleasure in a text. I certainly wish more English professors would talk about their pleasures, but just because they don't fill their histories and analyses with evaluations and gushing pronouncements doesn't mean they are people incapable of feeling. That idea's just stupid, and usually employed for a political purpose, as Epstein does, effectively saying, "I don't like you people talking about stuff that makes me uncomfortable, and so I'm going to proclaim that you are a killjoy!" He's no better than the anti-intellectual fan who says talking about the textual complexities of a beloved book/movie/comic "ruins" it. Both think pleasure is tainted and destroyed by reflection and analysis. (Of course, Epstein, unlike the rabid fan, would say he's all for reflection and analysis, that Great Literature in fact encourages it, but his idea of reflection and analysis is too narrow to be called anything but prejudice.)

I could go on and on about the history of literary study in U.S. universities and the forces (good and bad) that have shaped it into what it is (any such discussion should certainly include the ever-growing push for the humanities to be more "useful", the constant need for professors to publish, the corporate-minded movement away from tenure-track positions and toward the exploitation of contingent faculty such as myself, etc. -- of course, all of that is outside the text), and I could lampoon the utterly exhausted and ignorant complaints about English professors' prose (as always, Sturgeon's Law applies), and I could hoot and holler about how inaccurate his citing of Famous Professors Past as some barometer of the value of English departments is, and--

But what's the point? Epstein's arguments are at best ill-informed, his perspective warped, his desires fanatical. He doesn't need our attention; he needs a pasture in which he can be put out to chew on his cud. Apparently, that's what The Wall Street Journal is for.


  1. Having just taught my first survey of American lit for undergraduates, I can say that intoxication is entirely possible alongside interpretation (and discussion of the troublesome aspects of culture as they are presented and dealt with in lit). I'm oversimplifying a lot of what you've said above in order to get to my point: that I know you can do both because at least half of my students over summer, who never will be English majors and never wanted to be (let alone wanted to be in my course), came out of my class having felt like they learned something and having a new fondness for literature. And I did it without dumbing down texts to just teach them how "to love stories."

    I call that a victory. Epstein should come take one of my classes (or yours).

  2. Surely there were books (even *genre* of books) you used to love when you were younger which now, because of long engrained habits of analysis and evaluation, cannot give you pleasure anymore?

    I find that once I rigorously ripped apart a text and pick through all its underpinnings I can no longer take the same pleasure in it--and I hardly think this is a unique or absurdly unsophisticated experience.

    There's something to be gained, of course, applying those critical strategies you admire to a text--they can be empowering, as you say. But I would argue that they have a destructive element, too, and ruin or mar the fictional dream to some degree. The power in the "empowering" has to come from somewhere, as it were.

    Kai in NYC

  3. Of course there are books, stories, movies, paintings, etc that 20 years ago I thought were the height of human accomplishment and now I have no response to at all. That's what happens with experience. We grow, we learn, we change. It doesn't make me sad or make me want to stop learning for the sake of staying naive. I'm rather happy that I'm not as passionate for, say, Roger Moore's James Bond movies as I once was.

    If people want to remain naive so that their immediate and least reflective reading experience is the one that's preserved, that's fine as a personal choice, of course -- they can avoid reading literary criticism and they can try to avoid literature classes in college. I don't think it makes somebody a better or worse person either way (plenty of very skilled analytical readers are utterly awful human beings), but pretty much by definition it makes them a less sophisticated reader.

    I also don't think critical reading skills are the antithesis of pleasure. As S.M.D. quite rightly pointed out above, it can be really fun and exciting to practice complex ways of reading.

    Bad teachers have certainly made analysis a dreaded activity for some people -- in high school, I so hated the approach of one of my teachers that I wrote a poem called "Please Professor, Don't Dissect This Poem", but I was wrong to blame all analysis rather than to blame a boring, unenlightening, what-does-this-symbol-mean kind of flatfooted thumping around. But once some better teachers gave me methods of opening up texts and the world, and not just reducing them to unambiguous fill-in-the-blanks responses, my passion for literature grew exponentially. One of my many annoyances with the essay by Epstein is that he doesn't seem to recognize how many bad teachers who were influenced byNew Critical approaches (which he seems to approve of) used exactly those approaches to make reading into a dull and unrewarding chore, while he thinks later approaches inevitably must do that. Bad teaching is bad teaching.

    Even the most analytical people have realms of life that they don't spend a lot of time analyzing, realms in which they are naive. There's no shame in that, but neither should it be a source of pride. We choose where we put out energy and attention, we all remain ignorant and naive about all sorts of things -- but to praise it as something other than ignorance or naivety seems to me perverse.

    And yes, when analysis raises one's standards, it can, in fact, impede pleasure, because we develop the ability to be discriminating. I definitely enjoy going to the theatre less than people who just go to a show now and then, because I've been doing theatre stuff since 3rd grade and it's hard for me to be really impressed by a play anymore. (But what a joy to discover a show that's thrilling! My appreciation is increased to awe because I know how hard certain things can be.) For reasons of time and location, the amount of plays that I can go to is very limited, so that is in some ways a lack I feel, a loss. If I could get a lot of pleasure from a local community theatre show, I might, in fact, be a happier person. But no. Theatre's a special case, however. Books, which threaten to bury my alive, are not limited at all. So while it's true that with age, experience, and an analytical mindset I am not as likely to enjoy as many books as I would have enjoyed when I was younger, or would be enjoyed by somebody who reads more superficially, there is no lack of books in this world, and I will die with thousands unread that I had hoped to read, thousands I probably would have gained much pleasure from. Additionally, I will enjoy some books that I never would have been able to enjoy with less experience of life or reading.

    So the effect of increased skill with analysis is, indeed, complex. But I don't think that's an argument against it.

  4. This may be off topic, but as I read your (insightful and wonderfully constructed) response, I started thinking about Keith Oatley's recent discussion about the psychological effects of reading fiction. If, as Oatley claims, we tend to subconsciously adopt the characteristics, morals, and language patterns of the characters we follow/submerge ourselves into (particularly those we visit on a regular/repeated basis), then doesn't a critical eye and robust discussion of those plots and characters become of vital importance? In a way, is it psychologically irresponsible to consume characters without raising awareness about the nuances they bear and the paradigms through which they can/should be seen?

  5. I think your approach is too kind to Epstein on one count: there really were no innocent days of texts that talked only to themselves. I mean, Empson and Trilling were denounced as ideological by the conservatives of their day; and Richard Chase's "Melville is good for anticommunism" chapters are hardly apolitical (not that you needed me to point that out).

    Plus now you've got me humming G&S . . .