Give the People What They Want
Feeling particularly cynical about academia, I was thinking about how sometimes a particular essay ends up making a reputation for someone, and then, many years after the reputation has been made, the elite positions attained, you go back and reads the essay, and you realize that it wasn't all that great, that there were major flaws, and you wonder, why did this essay do so much for this person's reputation?
The answer, I think, is that the essay gave the people what they wanted. And for doing that, the author was rewarded.
Sometimes this is done is a relatively small-scale way: the critical establishment doesn't like a claim and so the board of a major journal decides to reinforce the orthodoxy. For example, Patrick Conner makes some very significant claims about the Exeter Book. These are never published in Anglo-Saxon England, but Richard Gameson's "refutation" of those claims is published at exceedingly great length. Likewise, and much more egregiously, Tom Shippey writes a critique of some of Walter Goffart's theories about Beowulf being influenced by a specific Latin text. Almost immediately Goffart's critique of Shippeys' piece appears in Anglo-Saxon England even though other articles, already accepted but not published, had been languishing for (literally) years.
But sometimes the "establishment" is just about everyone in a field. An inconvenient set of facts has come to light, or a new theory has challenged some significant orthodoxies, or a revisiting of historiography has shown that a foundational claim is problematic. When it is not just a minor conspiracy of editors, but the sense of the field as a whole, an essay can become immensely influential and its author celebrated for doing the job that the field wanted done, even though the essay, in hindsight, wasn't particularly good.
Larry Benson's "The Literary Character of Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Poetry," PMLA 81 (1966): 334-41 is the perfect example of such an essay. Enormously influential at the time, this essay is embarrassingly bad when you actually read it as opposed to mindlessly citing it to show that Anglo-Saxon texts derived from literary sources have the same 'formulaic density' as those that might be oral compositions. Setting aside the fact that formulaic density is a terrible measure of orality (a point that had been made by Albert Lord in the 1960s), Benson's essay still fails to do anything more than assemble some clumsy statistics that clump together all different kinds of formulas and quasi formulas without reasonable differentiation. Even worse, Benson is essentially searching for Homeric formulas in Anglo-Saxon texts, even though the Anglo-Saxon system works much differently. The essay may be useful as a counterpoint to the somewhat over-the-top cheerleading for orality done by Francis Magoun, but as an argument on its own, it should have been convincing to no one.
Yet it was convincing, not because of its intrinsic merit, but because it gave a lot of literary scholars in the 1960s exactly what they wanted: a reason to ignore all that new, confusing oral tradition stuff. Benson was rewarded for this with publication in PMLA (which really doesn't publish much medieval scholarship any more, though it did back then) and widespread citation.
There are other examples, but this is just the most egregious that I know. Efforts to locate Beowulf firmly in time of the manuscript (I'm not really talking about Kevin Kiernan's work here, even though he does this, because Kevin isn't giving anyone what they wanted) might be an example. I think that in another ten years people will see that Spivak's "Three Women's Texts" and Said's Orientalism are also examples of giving people what they wanted (a reason to rush as fast as possible to postcolonialist political readings) but aren't particularly well done in themselves.
The elephant in the room, though, would be J.R.R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics". This text, so dear to my heart and which I've worked on for so many years, could be the ultimate example of giving the people what they wanted. The field didn't know it, I think, but it dearly wanted Beowulf as a literary work rather than something historical. Tolkien gave them this, and so in that sense I would have to damn him like I do Benson, Spivak or Said. But there's something different about "The Monsters and the Critics," also, because Tolkien wasn't only giving the people what they wanted. Yes, they got their literary Beowulf, but Tolkien also wanted them to see how the literary rose out of the historical. Tolkien thought that the Beowulf-poet knew his history, that references, as Tolkien saw them, to the Heruli or to Scedelandum in, or to the Heathobards or to Hengest were basically historically accurate. That wasn't what the field, at the time, wanted from "The Monsters and the Critics," and so it didn't take that path (and to be fair, Tolkien was not exactly clear about the specifics of his views; see Finn and Hengest, where the nearly the whole story has to be pieced together from footnotes). It took what it wanted and rewarded Tolkien for providing that.
The lesson seems to be that if you want to be influential and eventually powerful, give the people what they want.
(And if you care about the intellectual quality of your field, you might want to strongly question--even stubbornly resist--getting what you think you want).