28 Aug 2011

Races and Gender and Victims, Oh, My!

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Joseph Epstein finds in the recently published Cambridge History of the American Novel a perfect demonstration of exactly what has happened to university English departments in recent decades and thinks all this probably has something to do with the percentage of students majoring in English having been roughly cut in half over the same period.

Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer. Literature, as taught in the current-day university, is strictly an intramural game.

This may come as news to the contributors to “The Cambridge History of the American Novel,” who pride themselves on possessing much wider, much more relevant, interests and a deeper engagement with the world than their predecessors among literary academics. Biographical notes on contributors speak of their concern with “forms of moral personhood in the US novels,” “the poetics of foreign policy,” and “ecocriticism and theories of modernization, postmodernization, and globalization.”

Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite. A novelist, we are told, “tasks himself” with this or that; things tend to get “problematized”; the adjectives “global” and “post”-this-or-that receive a good workout; “alterity” and “intertexuality” pop up their homely heads; the “poetics of ineffability” come into play; and “agency” is used in ways one hadn’t hitherto noticed, so that “readers in groups demonstrate agency.” About the term “non-heteronormativity” let us not speak.

These dopey words and others like them are inserted into stiffly mechanical sentences of dubious meaning. “Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1925), where Nick Carraway’s homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display.” Betcha didn’t know that Nick Carraway was hot for Jay Gatsby? We sleep tonight; contemporary literary scholarship stands guard.

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” is perhaps best read as a sign of what has happened to English studies in recent decades. Along with American Studies programs, which are often their subsidiaries, English departments have tended to become intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die. If one is still looking for that living relic, the fully subscribed Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in an Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously. He finds a home there because English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender. “How would [this volume] be organized,” one of its contributors asks, “if race, gender, disability, and sexuality were not available?”

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