For the past few years a little meme has been drifting around the internet that parodies the arguments people make against books or movies or music they dislike. Such people argue as follows: “1. It’s stupid. 2. It sucks. 3. I hate it.”
Which brings me to Ron Rosenbaum’s essay on graduate study in English. He’s agin’ it because, at Yale for instance, though “the frenzied fad for French literary theorists” has faded, “the tenured relics who imposed this intellectual regime are still there, still espousing their view that literature itself is only to be understood through their diminishing deconstructing lens.”
So one might assume that Rosenbaum is more sympathetic to traditionalist approaches to literature — except that when he took a class from the great scholar of Irish literature Richard Ellmann he found that “Ellmann was sedulously, reductively, droningly biographical in his approach to Yeats. Every luminous poetic line was dragged down to its mundane source in Yeats’ life.”
Perhaps, then, more recent historical approaches to literature would suit him better? No, because it turns out that there are Shakespeareans like James Shapiro who wonder why certain speeches that were present in the early quarto printings of Hamlet got left out of the 1623 First Folio. Shapiro suspects that Shakespeare himself may have edited the play after its early performances, which, Rosenbaum says, clearly demonstrates “tin-eared arrogance” and a “meretricious attempt to pour poison into the ears of grad students.”
And surely those poor grad students deserve something much better! — um, or maybe not, since Rosenbaum says they “evince no love of literature, just a lack of imagination” and practice “careerist sycophancy,” because they’re “too timid to taste life without the prospect of tenure.” So they hope to “stay behind and ruin literature” for future generations of students.
So there’s graduate school in literature according to Ron Rosenbaum: theory is bad, traditionalism is bad, historicism is bad, teachers are bad, students are bad. It’s stupid, it sucks, and he hates it.
All I can say in reply is this: in the 32 years since I began graduate study in literature, I’ve found academia to be populated with pretty much the same mix of people you’d find in any other profession. I’ve met sycophants and careerists, and I’ve met people who love literature and just want to share its wisdom and its beauty with young people. I’ve met self-important pedants and I’ve met paragons of humility. I know people whose attachment to High Theory has disabled them from reading, and I know people whose love for literary achievement and receptiveness to the beautiful have only grown year by year.
Perhaps my view of the profession of literary study is skewed by my unusual location: in a Christian liberal arts college, surrounded by colleagues who still get excited about stories and poems and ideas, and share that excitement with students and with one another. But there are people like that everywhere. I have had some of my most rewarding conversations about literary beauty and power with people who teach at Columbia and Stanford and Princeton; I recently had a wonderful talk about children’s books with a guy who teaches at Rutgers.
Maybe such refreshingly non-cynical people are in the minority in literary studies; but, pray tell, in what profession are such people the norm? Rosenbaum fled academia for journalism, so maybe he’d like to prove to us that journalists are morally superior to academics — because if they’re not, then why is he singling academics out for reprobation?