For more than two decades a panoply of poets, musicians, and critics have helped me with a course I teach on poetry and music every other spring. A course staple over sixteen years was a trip from Washington DC, where I teach and live, to the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, where the Allman Brothers Band held a three-week run of sold out concerts each March. The band would play three-hour shows, and afterwards about one hundred students would stay in the theater and gather for a session on the creative process. Band members and writers whom I’d invited (I take advantage of my friends) would discuss questions I’d sent them in advance and answer students’ questions.
On several occasions Butch Trucks, one of the band’s original members, insisted that reading William Faulkner’s novels helped inform his drumming. Butch had read a good deal of literature and philosophy, and would explain his drumming’s relationship to Faulkner in terms of creativity and consciousness, but as one might imagine, a direct connection seemed shadowy. On January 24, Butch passed away. Of late I’ve been recalling his conviction that Faulkner’s work and other forms of art influenced his drumming. Butch’s nickname was “The Freight Train,” and in over forty years he never missed a show. Forgive me, Wallace Stevens—I can’t help myself:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, rockin’ Butch!
The drummer’s rage to order the beats of Bill’s words,
Beats of syncopated emotions, strikingly stirred,
And of our minds and of our blood,
In thundering propulsions, keener reverberations.
I believe there was a connection between Faulkner’s tidal wave sentences and Butch’s relentless, surging rhythms. Once he pointed it out, I could see it and feel it, though precise explanation still evades me. I wonder, “Whose spirit is this?”
Literature, the other arts, our minds, and our bodies are linked in ways that resist scientific or logical explanation. I’ve read studies that detail what happens to our brains while reading literature, and I’m glad that great fiction, as Dr. Oately tells us,
is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.1
As I’ll discuss later, the most ambitious claim for literature as a pragmatic social good involved “great books” programs, which after World War II were designed in part to combat rigid ideological and nationalistic thinking.2 The importance of literature, art, and the humanities in our troubled times is evident to me, and shouldn’t be underestimated. We should all embrace the humanities’ power to better society. But what most lures me, and I suspect many others, to literature and art doesn’t involve a practical good, or at least not directly. It has to do with how great literature spurs paradoxical emotions that linger within me, “Arranging, deepening, enchanting” my world and my existence. This has been the case since I started reading poetry and novels in the back of our baseball team’s bus on road trips in high school and remains the case today. It’s the most vital thing I try to convey to my students, but like Butch’s discussion of the connection between drumming and reading Faulkner, how to do it—and design a curriculum that nourishes students emotionally and intellectually—can be elusive in today’s academy.
Felicitously, I recently entered into an exchange with Kent Cartwright, a scholar of Renaissance literature at the University of Maryland. Professor Cartwright is chairing an ad hoc committee created by the Association of Departments of English on the English major, and had presented “preliminary observations” regarding suggested changes to the major at the 2017 Modern Language Association annual meeting. I’d been following his thoughts on the matter for two years before I approached him. In January of 2015 Inside Higher Ed reported his observations on enrollments:
“If our spring 2015 numbers follow the pattern of our recent death spiral, we will have lost in four years twice as many majors as we gained in 15,” Kent Cartwright, professor and former English department chair at Maryland, said earlier this month during a panel at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver. “I describe this situation in order to emphasize our surprising vulnerability, especially that of the literature [concentration].”3
In a feature published in January 2017, Cartwright asserted that he believes Maryland’s experience typifies what’s occurring in English departments across the country and that curricular changes have only spurred Maryland’s dilemma.4 Cartwright and other English department faculty at Maryland studied graduating student surveys to determine what they felt was worthwhile and the changes they’d like to see in the major. “What really amazed me when I started reading through the senior surveys is that literary study is profoundly transformative,” Cartwright said. He noted that seniors reported enjoying and learning from the classics as much as from contemporary fiction. “Its value registers profoundly with students, and that’s the basis on which to build, and what I would turn our attention to.”
Cartwright also observes that,
“The curriculum of the English major, like the faculty, has traditionally been organized according to a principle of literary history, and the profession in all sorts of ways continues to embrace the values of that model,” and he continued. “On the other hand, at the large Ph.D.-granting institutions that educate the majority of undergraduates, the curricular structure that enshrines literary history is being progressively abandoned. We need to face this dilemma.”
He went on to describe three different versions of the major established by his own department over the last three decades, “each differently conceived but showing over all a drift away from survey courses and even away from meaningful historical requirements.” He feels the current version of the major is “essentially formless,” with one required course on critical methods in the study of literature; one course each in literary and cultural history; one in literary, linguistic or rhetorical analysis; and one in literatures of people of color, women and/or lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Two courses in writing before 1800, one in U.S. ethnic writing, and one in modern or postcolonial literature are also required. All these requirements can be satisfied by various courses. In some instances courses serve multiple categories. Cartwright points out that, “. . . as my colleagues recognize, this major is a taxonomical illusion, arrived at as a political accommodation after our previous failed experiments.”
In an email to me he explained that
In summer 2015 John Guillory gave a talk at an ADE conference about the importance of foundational knowledge in the discipline and what he saw as the erosion of it in the decline of the required survey course (replaced by distribution requirements). John pointed out reasonably that knowledge in English literary studies is organized chronologically and that such a structure, as expressed through survey courses, has specific values in building a foundation of knowledge. In some ways, my talk was following in his footsteps – and, if anything, the status of the survey looked a little weaker to me than it did to John. So, for scholars, our discipline is structured chronologically and historically in all sorts of ways, while at the undergraduate level we seem to be retreating from that structure. This is a dilemma, it seems to me, that the profession needs to face much more forthrightly than we have been doing. There are a couple of possible ways to proceed. One is to bring back required survey courses, and, although that is not the trend generally, I think that a few schools are looking in that direction. Another might be to develop a set of courses that address foundational knowledge straightforwardly: e.g. courses in “What Is Literary History?,” “What Are Genres and Why Do They Matter?,” and “What Are the Big Questions in Literary Study?” I like the possibilities there. Another approach might be to develop more courses that work comparatively across period and other boundaries, e.g. Shakespeare and Stoppard, and the like. So, the question of what is foundational knowledge in the discipline seems important and fruitful. I should add that curriculum revision will not be in itself the antidote for our enrollment malaise, but I think that we need always to keep in mind the intellectual coherence of our programs in the major – and my own opinion is that a major with a clear and valued intellectual structure will actually appeal to students.
I agreed with Professor Cartwright’s assertion that “a major with a clear and valued intellectual structure will actually appeal to students.” I also explained that at my home institution, Catholic University, we’ve maintained a chronological, historical focus. Our majors take a year-long survey of British literature, two courses in the history of a genre (narrative, lyric, or drama), a course on Chaucer, one on Shakespeare, and a year-long senior seminar on a major author or a closely related group of authors (I’m doing William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren this year), and four other upper level literature or writing courses. Majors are also highly encouraged to take a year-long survey of American literature, and must pass a comprehensive exam that focuses on literary history and aesthetics. For what it’s worth, our courses are full. Professor Cartwright—who displayed tremendous patience with my intrusions—responded that
The major that you describe sounds much like the one in place when I first started teaching at Maryland, and it was, in my judgment, vastly the best of the three majors that I have taught under. Because students had so much by way of common experience, it also produced the best student organizations that I have seen. It collapsed not because the students did not like it but because the faculty felt hamstrung and wanted more opportunity to teach their own interests and research.
“Ay, there’s the rub,” I thought. It’s a dynamic involving tenure, promotion, and “standing-in-the-field,” as well as scholars’ intellectual interest. But unlike Hamlet, I won’t equivocate. When major works of literature are taught as literature, as human expression artistically rendered, literature’s importance is evident. The study of great literature is especially suited to teaching writing and sophisticated thought because that’s what literature is. Literature is much richer, more diverse, and more humanly compelling than what any literary theory can convey (or “expose,” as many post-structuralist theorists might put it).
After World War II, the literary canon was influenced and extended by two then-powerful groups, the New York Intellectuals (among them Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, and Malcolm Cowley) and the southern New Critics (including Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, Robert Penn Warren, and Louise Cowan). All of them had been educated in the classics, albeit to differing degrees, but their life experiences—urban vs rural southern—were in sharp contrast and contributed to their political differences.5 Nevertheless, these critics were united in their rejection of fascism and in their admiration of high modernism, and both factions valued a literature of complex thoughts expressed through aesthetic innovations. Their critical agenda was of course inflected by their political experiences; we don’t have to guess at this, as the critics themselves wrote ample and explicit essays on the subject.6 Their pedagogical goal—again, not hidden—was to create a canon that was anti-totalitarian. The impetus was to feature a wide range of works that stressed the universal and formal, and that delved into the ironies, ambiguities, and paradoxes of the human condition. Modernist literature, with its self-conscious literary techniques and its emphasis on a symbolism that evokes large philosophic contexts, contained aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional complexities that attracted and challenged these critics.
Key essays by Lionel Trilling and Robert Penn Warren provide good examples of how World War II shaped critical practice. In “The Meaning of a Literary Idea” (1949), Trilling discusses modernist literature in the context of the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, and Dante, and observes that though his own politics seem to align more closely with Dos Passos’, he recognizes that Faulkner and Hemingway are greater writers because they are “are intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life,” an activity which he sees as central to American democracy and as an antidote to fascism.7 Similarly, in “Knowledge and the Image of Man” (1955) Warren draws on the Judeo-Christian tradition, and invokes Dante and Shelley, to defend thematic and formal complexity in the work of Conrad, Faulkner, and others to “combat the force of some absurd or dangerous image of man—the image of man, say, that stood behind Nazism.”8
The New Critics and the New York Intellectuals had wildly divergent ideas on some subjects, certainly, but they came to value many of the same writers, artists whose work reflected a preference for aesthetically intricate writing that stressed the contradictory nature of experience. Consequently, they emphasized a canon that led up to and informed the work of Yeats, Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence, Kafka, Frost, Moore, Stevens, and others. This canon was, inevitably, limited by their shared assumptions on what they thought literature ought to attempt, but it was a paradigm that foregrounded the need for inclusiveness (continental and American, rural and urban, secular and spiritual) and experimentation, and that valued literature that highlights the perils of reducing experience to local and topical interests. These critics felt that exceptional literature could address the social and political implications of specific circumstances while also finding larger resonance within them, a disposition that remains preferable, I think, to balkanized materialist or relativistic criticism that dismisses or distrusts the question of literary beauty and its ability to address our collective humanity.
The literary canon has never been static, but many works of literature have enjoyed remarkable longevity. What’s needed today are curricula and criticism that point a way for literature to continue and to flourish. Critics must assess literary techniques and styles, and make exacting aesthetic judgments. This brand of criticism, as Ralph Ellison maintained, by no means excludes discussion of social issues. It’s certainly true that the heightened attention given to women and writers of color over the last several decades has been a boon; without it, literary history wouldn’t accurately reflect the level of achievement by these artists. But what’s primarily responsible for the reappraisal is not the critic on the bandwagon of gender and identity politics. Like the emergence of modernist authors and their effect on a generation of critics, the advent of gifted writers of color and female writers, in greater and greater numbers, producing finely wrought and innovative literature, is—or should be—the force compelling reassessments. This is the stuff of literary history. The development of new artists—Toni Morrison, Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa, for instance—has not only resulted in a contemporary canon that’s different from previous versions, but has also caused reassessments of writers from various backgrounds with whom current writers are in creative dialogue, be it Virgil, Shakespeare, Fredrick Douglass, Jean Toomer, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
People and departments that approach literature and the arts as half-baked sociology, politics, psychology, phenomenology, or economics are placing their own self-interest as “cultural critics” ahead of their subject matter, which turns off many students. Departments need to start hiring people with a sense of literature as a craft in order to restore the obvious: literature is an art form written by a broad range of people from sundry places over centuries. If a graduate student wants to use psychology, political theory, sociology, or another discipline when approaching literature on his or her dissertation, someone from the appropriate department should be on the dissertation committee.
My exchange with Professor Cartwright focused on literature in English, but I believe the things I’ve emphasized are true for the study of literature in all languages. I urge those of you who teach literature to speak up in your departments in favor of a historically and aesthetically oriented course of study with, as Professor Cartwright put it, “a clear and valued intellectual structure.” I urge you to argue that departments strongly consider applicants for faculty positions who are both creative writers and scholars. The study of literary history and aesthetic forms isn’t just a chronological enterprise, though chronology—presented as precisely, fully, and lucidly as possible—is essential. It’s part of the history of ideas, in this case pertaining to literature and the arts, and how powerful, artistically rendered human expression has developed over time. It’s vital that students are introduced to the tools of the artist, and how those tools have developed over millennia to express new ways of envisioning the world and people’s place in it. Let’s do everything we can to help new generations of readers and writers, in and out of the academy, experience the practical and the richly evocative, mysterious, life-affirming intellectual and emotional pleasures of literature and the arts.
All of the above is at the heart of the ALSCW’s mission. The new issue of Literary Matters offers riches in support of that mission. Enjoy it and share it widely. If you haven’t renewed your ALSCW membership for 2017, please do so. And consider presenting someone with a gift membership—I offered one to Professor Cartwright and he took me up on it. (I wish I could give one to Butch.) Join us and help literature and the arts thrive!
1 Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, quoted in Anne Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” NYT Sunday Review, March 17, 2012.
2 An emphasis on the great books began at Columbia College in the 1920s with the intention of making students better-read individuals. Later Mark Van Doren’s Liberal Education (1943)—composed as World War II raged—and other works began to provide a more ambitious framework for liberal education. Van Doren’s son, John, points out that the people who shaped the great books programs at Columbia and the University of Chicago believed “there is something common to us as human beings, whatever divides us, which the great books may be said to address.” John Van Doren, “The Beginnings of the Great Books Movement at Columbia,” Columbia Magazine. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/alumni/Magazine/Winter2001/greatBooks.html
3 Colleen Flaherty, “Where Have All the Englsih Majors Gone?”Inside Higher ED, January 2015 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/26/where-have-all-english-majors-gone
4 Elizabeth Redden, “The Changing English Major,” Inside Higher ED, January 11. 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/11/amid-enrollment-declines-speakers-consider-shape-english-major
5 The New York Intellectuals generally favored democratic socialism and the southern New Critics preferred stronger local government and less federal authority (most of these New Critics supported racial segregation in the South before World War II and then changed their position). But there was considerable variance within the groups. Jarrell, for example, was a socialist, and in the 50s and 60s Warren was a strong proponent of federal civil rights legislation. Trilling maintained more mainstream political positions—he and his wife were staunch Kennedy supporters—than, say, Rahv, who often considered Trilling’s politics suspect.
6 Thomas Hill Schaub’s American Fiction in the Cold War (U of Wisconsin Press, 1991) offers a compelling analysis of the milieu.
7 Collected in Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950), p. 298. The essay first appeared in The American Quarterly in the fall of 1949.
8 The Sewannee Review, pp. 188-189.