Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Professing Literature: Tendentious with Extra Tendentious Sauce

I've had to go back and re-read Gerald Graff's Professing Literature so that I can dot the i's and cross the t's for an article, and ... wow.

I'm going to break my own rule about not using rhetorical questions just to give an example of how tendentious the "history" in this book really is:

Of the "Classical College" in the early 19th century: "Classroom concerns hardly ever went beyond the endless memorization and recitation of grammatical and etymological particularities."

Endless? Is that a technical term? Is that an honest, fair, accurate historical evaluation?

Of Johns Hopkins in the 19th century: "Its early work in modern languages was so wholly monopolized by philologists that it was late in developing courses in literature proper."

Have we defined "literature proper"? Have we made an argument for "literature proper" as being separate from philology? No, we have not. Can we read "literature proper" in any language other than contemporary languages without philology? (You might think you can, but you'd be wrong). So is all literature before 1800 outside of "literature proper," or should we just assume that the philologists have already gotten everything right and we can just read their editions transparently? How comforting.

Francis A. March's description of his class "makes no mention of the meaning of Milton's works." Instead, the student went through Paradise Lost line by line, "calling for the meaning of words, their etymology when interesting, the relations of words, parsing when it would help, the connection of clauses, the mythology, the biography and other illustrative matter."

Now I'm not the president of the MLA, but it sounds to me that they were figuring out a lot about the meaning of Milton's work by *shudder* studying it in detail.

As opposed to? Well, I assume bloviating about the "meaning" of Milton without having to trouble to tether that meaning to any actual, "relations of words."

It goes on and on like this, and at a certain point I can't decide if Graff just doesn't know what he is talking about (for example, when he talks about philology or etymology), if he hasn't bothered to read the books he is criticizing (when he talks about Albert S. Cook, for instance), or if he does know and is just being tendentious to the point of intellectual dishonesty.

If you want to know why your colleagues think the odd things they do about our discipline and its history, part of the answer might be that they have read Professing Literature uncritically and without actually knowing very much about 19th and early 20th century literary studies.

Depressing. But on the other hand, in a single 24-hour period I topped out on a particular bouldering climb that had been impossible just a few days ago, got bitten by a snake and taught my son how to slide into a base (hint: if you do this at the beach, make sure you don't do a backdoor slide into a chunk of weathered basalt). Real life, when you're doing it right, can be more exciting even than academia.


John Cowan said...

There is nothing new under the sun. Tolkien had to put up with this, and so, I fear, must you.

Philology: the Rodney Dangerfield of the exact sciences.

(Comment CAPTCHA: "emetive". The OED doesn't list it, but the meaning is obvious, and evidently appropriate for this book.)

Michelle said...

I think I shall swoon. You used "bloviate". I do so love a well-placed fifty-cent word :) Even your rants are well worded, carefully considered, and eloquent. Thanks! (and, btw, this clown sounds like a serious detriment to scholarship)

N.E. Brigand said...

Ooh, what kind of snake was it? (I've been bitten by garter snakes, milk snakes, rat snakes, and water snakes.)