Mark Edmundson (who teaches English at UVA) has a very amusing, slightly rueful memoir in the Chronicle of Higher Education recalling his youthful animosity to tweeds, Bones, the American reactionary establishment and his enthusiastic embrace of the theoretical tools of deconstruction as a means of sticking it to the Man.
You couldnâ€™t see Skull and Bones from the seminar room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, though it was directly across the street. But the building was much on my mind the afternoon of the reception and had been from the day I got to New Haven. To my 26-year-old self, it seemed nearly impossible that literatureâ€”Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Whitmanâ€”was sharing space with Skull and Bones. I did not know much about Bones, but I took it to be a bastion of reactionary America. The society reached out its withered hand to tap future Wall Street pirates, CIA agents, and the sort of State Department operatives who had leveraged us into Vietnam, where a number of my high-school buddies had gone to be maimed and worse.
At least the Skull and Bones building looked its part. They called it the Cryptâ€”and it did look like it was designed by Edgar Allan Poe. It was all stone and metal, with no real windows, and doors of enormous weight. Those doors must have closed with the grimmest finality, though never in my five New Haven years did I see them open or shut.
The Crypt was a monument to the dark. It looked like the temple of a demonâ€”Moloch or Beelzebubâ€”one of the devils we discussed in our Milton seminar in the elegantly decomposing room of the Munchkin party.
One day I saw that the Cryptâ€™s front door and the wall next to it were blotched with red: the red of the anarchist flag, the red of rage and retribution. Someone had taken a couple of cans of yowling crimson paint and thrown them at the facade of Skull and Bones. I loved it. Perhaps that night people would mass in front of the building, carrying rakes, scythes, and wrenches. A strike force would arrive armed with five-pound sledgehammers and the requisite silver stakes to take care of the nightwalkers inside.
All right, I got a little carried away. I knew that wasnâ€™t really going to happen. But something might. The university and the community were finally showing distaste for the monument to plutocracy and (why not say it?) death.
This was not what I associated with American education. Iâ€™d come from Bennington College, a small liberal-arts school in Vermont, where people worshiped Martha Graham and poetry. After I graduated, I taught at the Woodstock school, a Bennington for high-school students. Woodstock was about playing music and smoking weed, writing spontaneous bop poetry and reading Marx and Kerouac. When they completed the curriculum, the kids applied to college, and things being what they were in America circa 1977, they tended to get inâ€”though not to Yale.
Iâ€™d been deluded. I thought that university education entailed reading Whitman during the week and listening to the Grateful Dead on weekends. (â€œI never cared about money,â€ the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once wrote. â€œIt was not what Country Joe and the Fish taught me to value.â€) It seemed that here at Yale, education might be about William Howard Taft and Averill Harriman, all the time. I knew that Yale was renowned for Wall Street connections; I knew that it sent recruits to the CIA; but I thoughtâ€”what did I think? I thought that the English department, in conjunction with the spirits of Emerson and Whitman, would be at war with what was dark and outdated about Yale. I thought that the English department would win, hands down. But there was the Crypt across the street, and no one was doing anything about it. No one even talked about it.
Then I discovered the opposition at Yaleâ€”or at least I thought I did. When I arrived, I was devoted to literature straight out, and my goal was to become learned enough to pass my affection on to students. That was about it. (Though I also liked the hours that professors were rumored to workâ€”I was an expert at engaging in prolonged bouts of doing nothing.) â€œWhat we have loved,â€ Wordsworth says to his friend Coleridge in The Prelude, â€œothers will love, and we will teach them how.â€ I could teach others how to love Whitman and Ginsberg and be paid for it, if only a pittance. Sign me up.
To my 26-year-old self, it seemed nearly impossible that literatureâ€”Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Whitmanâ€”was sharing space with Skull and Bones.
But the stuff that had the aura of subversion about it wasnâ€™t literature, it was theory. Maybe that was the true alternative to Bonesmanship. After a while, I dropped any illusions I might have had about running the Bones gang out of town. Still, there had to be some kind of alternative culture to Bones culture, to succor the grad students and maybe even save an undergraduate or two from being swallowed alive by Moloch. Maybe theory was 1968 by other means.
Jameson, Hartman, Bloom, Derrida, de Man: All seemed rebellious, and all were right here at Yale.
Read the whole thing.
Hat tip to the Anonymous Reactionary English Prof and Karen L. Myers.