Just when you thought it was safe to go back to English class, here come the professors again. "Many college professors," The New York Times reported last week, "are rethinking the very notion of what is literature." A "rising group" among the professoriat "contends the idea of an enduring pantheon of writers and their works is an elitist one largely defined by white men who are Northeastern academics and critics."
According to these vigilantes of the English departments, literary quality is irrelevant; they believe in "the teaching of writers principally for historical and sociological importance, for what they have to say rather than how well they say it." Thus "choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck, they hold, involves political and cultural distinctions more than aesthetic ones." According to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania named Houston Baker -- take down that name, officer -- "It's no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza. I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards."
Makes you want to rush right back to college, doesn't it? To hell with Shakespeare and Milton, Emerson and Faulkner! Let's boogie! Let's take courses in the writers who really matter, the writers whom the WASPish old guard sneers at. Let's get relevant, with courses on Gothic novels, bodice-ripper romances, westerns, detective stories -- all of which, The Times advises us, "are proliferating" in the English departments.
The reason they are proliferating, the new professoriat would have us believe, is that they bring elements into the literary "canon" that had previously been excluded from it. Quite specifically, they say that blacks and women have been excluded. In so saying they conveniently ignore the high place long accorded such black writers as W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Jean Toomer, not to mention such women writers as Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Marianne Moore -- but who cares about the facts when the real game being played has nothing to do with literature and everything to do with retrograde '60s politics and academic careerism?
What the professors decline to tell us, as they rush pell-mell to ditch Faulkner and sanctify Louis L'Amour, is that they are busily at work on their own hidden agenda. The first part of it involves institutionalizing the political sentiments that were prevalent on the campuses two decades ago.
Though most people who went through college in those days eventually grew up and entered the real world, others stayed in school and made places for themselves in the professorial bureaucracy -- especially in the humanities departments, which since the '60s have had little to offer their graduate students by way of career opportunities except appointments (and precious few of them) in the humanities departments. They clung tenaciously to their politics, with its sentimental prattle about the "worker-student alliance," its patronization of blacks and its strident feminism, and they encouraged each other in the conviction that it is the only good and true politics.
In time, of course, the professoriat being such as it is, they got tenure and rose to positions of prominence in that most ludicrous of American institutions, the Modern Language Association. Now, from this vantage point of what passes for power in their little world, they are steadfastly establishing the new order of things, the essence of which is that literature as previously we knew it no longer matters. Political orthodoxy matters. Or, as The Times more politely puts it: "Once-honored standards like grace of style, vigor of prose and originality of expression have been downgraded or questioned while the importance of historical and social impact and rhetorical strength has grown."
All of which may sound high-minded to some ears, but it disguises the rather less noble motive that is the other part of these young fascists' agenda. A central fact of life in the humanities departments, the English departments in particular, is that all the really good subjects for study already have been taken -- have, in fact, been studied right into the ground. If there is anything left to be said about Hawthorne or Hemingway, Melville or Crane, Longfellow or Frost, it could only be said by a person of such originality of mind as to border on genius, and there are approximately as many such people in the English department bureaucracy as there are in your average insurance-company bureaucracy.
No, the English departments are populated by ordinary people of ordinary abilities whose chief aim in life is to secure position and tenure for themselves. With the good subjects for study already taken, they have done the perfectly sensible thing and invented new subjects around which to construct their careers. This means that they must invest those subjects with academic legitimacy: Hence the rush to cover with glory writers and books that previously had been properly regarded as of minor stature and therefore of minor scholarly interest. If you can make a case for Zora Neale Hurston or Edith Summers Kelley as a writer of consequence, then similarly you can make a case for a career based on the study of that writer of consequence.
In the process you can take a few well-aimed swipes at what remains of the academic and critical establishment, which at some institutions still has an anachronistically WASPish coloration. It is historical fact that some members of this establishment reacted with horror and outrage to the excesses of the '60s, as well they should have, and that in some instances they allowed their own political and social views to affect tenure decisions involving younger faculty, as well they should not have. The result has been a lot of intergenerational tension in the humanities departments -- giving them, in this if nothing else, something in common with the real world -- and a great opportunity for the young turks to get back at their "oppressors" as the passage of time forces the changes in departmental personnel that the old men resisted.
All of which is to say that there is a lot more to the "rethinking of literature" than the new humanities establishment is willing to admit. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that literature itself is not an issue here at all, for these people simply do not understand or care about literature as the term traditionally has been understood. Not merely are they careerists and political schemers, they are also children of the age of semiotics and deconstruction, an age in which it is taught in the English departments that the critic is more important than the artist and that the interpretation is more important than the work. This is balderdash to the core, but then so too, these days, are the English departments.