Why is Literary Scholarship Going Through a Dry Spell?
You are only allowed to say "a drought" if you smile when you say that
[UPDATE: Please go here and read everything that Scott Nokes has to say about this. I hope to have more later, though Mondays and Tuesdays are my busiest days.]
Over the past week or so, as I've been trying to put a whole pile of projects to bed (revised King Alfred's Grammar off to a potential publisher, Dark is Rising Companion proposal to another publisher, two sets of galleys for book chapters done, compilation of the works for David Bratman's "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" finished, rough draft of bibliography for 2004 done...), I've been thinking very hard about my plan to write a short, straightforward Handbook of Philology for Students of Literature. I'm seeking the right collaborators (and may have found the right one, but that depends on job searches, etc.) and figuring out what will go into the book. I want it to preserve as much philological method as possible while at the same time being less than 200 pages and easy to follow -- no assuming that readers have internalized all of their ablaut before reading the book. I also want it to be up-to-date, not just a recapitulation of 19th-century work, but I don't want it to be a "linguistics" textbook; I want it to be a "philology" textbook (i.e., I don't care, or mind, that the field of linguistics, even historical linguistics, has moved on from the study of ancient texts. I'm not trying to reconfigure that field; I'm trying to pull together things useful to my field).
But that's not really the subject of this post; only the set-up. In at least laying some of the intellectual groundwork that I'll need to do before I even start thinking seriously about the book, I've been reading W. P. Lehmann's Historical Linguistics and his A Reader in Nineteenth-Century Historical Lingistics (you should have seen the looks I received when I pulled that one out of my bookbag and began reading it at my daughter's gymnastics class). I've been reading, and going over the great works of Rasmus Rask, Jakob Grimm, Franz Bopp, Karl Verner, Eduard Sievers and Ferdinand de Saussure, seeing how their work build on each other and coalesced into an effective, intellectually powerful discipline. It must have been amazing to be at Leipzig during the early years, or later at Paris, when these things were being figured out.
Combine this with my reading all of Tolkien's published scholarship a few weeks ago: all that great work being done by him and R. W. Chambers and Lawrence and Klaeber in the 1930's and even into the 40's. Then add in the other book I'm finishing right now, Ernst Mayr's Systematics and the Origins of Species. Mayr uses the (Name date) citation format, and Tolkien's articles were almost all written within fifteen years. I started noting the incredible number of citations from the late 20's, through 30's, up until about 1941 (I'm guessing that the papers published in 41 were those where research and writing were done before the war started). It was a time of amazing intellectual accomplishment in both literary study and in evolutionary biology.
Why hasn't this happened, in literature, again during my lifetime? There have been little bursts of interest, little fads, and out of these we get the demi-gods of 80's and 90's academia: Derrida, Foucault, Butler, Said, Bhaba, Fish. But these folks didn't build anything coherent: there's no new method (well, I guess you can go gigging for binary oppositions), there's no edifice of knowledge comparable to what was built by the great nineteenth century linguists, or by the "last philologists" of Tolkien's day, or by Mayr for biology. Maybe there were just giants in the earth in those days.
That's certainly possible, but I also think we might be seeing the results of a system that has been terribly stable (and hence ossified and boring) for a long time. There is no way a 33-year-old like Tolkien would be appointed Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon today. No way that a major endowed professorship will be given to a hot young scholar instead of someone in their early sixties, likely to retire in less than a decade. I understand the impulses (most of them laudable) that cause this.
But in the late 20's and early 30's, WWI and the Depression had changed everything. First of all, an awful lot of young men were dead, leading to expanded opportunities to those who were not dead. Hierarchies were shaken up and new blood given new responsibilities. This led to a brief flowering of intellectual life in certain fields. Changes in technology, communication and economics also shook up established fields and led to their flowering.
Out of this ferment, men like Tolkien and Klaeber and Mayr rose to new prominence when normally they might have been expected to wait and take their turn for many long years. They then had opportunities to do great work and re-shape fields that were beginning to be moribund.
But what today can shake up English studies? One hopes to God that it won't be violence and the death of millions as it was in 1918 and 1939. Economic pressure has exactly the opposite effect one would have hoped for: instead of improving the discipline and expanding its reach, everyone has hunkered down, protecting turf. I though technology might help, but even though I can edit a book with contributors from five continents and never meet any of those contributors, technology isn't shaking up the fossilized intellectual system that still operates as if we are in 1974. We need some breakthroughs, some reconfiguration of the field around new ideas. But where that will come from in this climate of the weird combination of intellectual timidity and grandiose claims, I don't know.