On closer reading

At the fifth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, the old guard looks for the the Young Turks to take up their bookish battle cry.

Published November 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

A decade ago, in an academic climate polarized by the culture wars, the idea of a politically neutral English professor seemed ludicrous. "English," once the erudite pursuit of literature's deeper meanings, had become a battleground where the natives -- mostly left-leaning theorists -- tried to defend their intellectual turf from fire-breathing traditional outsiders. Well-fed students at Stanford and other ivory towers angrily preached the dangers of the "canon" while conservatives conveniently forgot that the American canon hadn't existed before World War I.

But in 1993, a small band of senior literature professors declared themselves conscientious objectors. Their central mission was "to uphold broad conceptions of literature, rather than the narrow, highly politicized ones often encountered today." Their new organization, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, was determined to remain apolitical; though funded in part by the conservative Bradley Foundation, its founders critiqued academic radicalism while refusing to sink to political rhetoric.

The ALSC's fifth annual conference in October at the New York Marriott Hotel was cautiously celebratory. They've navigated the maelstroms of the culture wars with their dignity intact, while earning curiosity -- and even respect -- from such entrenched political theorists as Michael Berubi and Edward Said. Now all they need is a sense of direction.

Today there are 2,350 members, with about a dozen new converts a month -- including retired professors, graduate students, old-school New Critics, postcolonial specialists, visionaries, pragmatists, conservatives, old farts and Young Turks. The ALSC just hired its first executive director and, six months ago, launched a new journal, "Literary Imagination," which incorporates the works of many nations and eras into a lively -- though safe -- blend of criticism and creative work. Professors in history and art history have recently followed their lead, launching analogous groups in their own departments.

The ALSC's growing popularity reflects a thaw in political relations -- one that goes right to the top. Postcolonial pioneer Edward Said is the current president of the Modern Language Association -- the 30,000 member literary "|bergroup" and the nation's primary clearinghouse of jobs in literature. With its sprawling annual conventions and leftist political bent, it has also been the target of many an ALSC polemic.

But Said, the firebrand who once derided the "rather empty standpoint of 'humanistic' scholarship" now places himself squarely in the humanist camp. "If you turn the classroom into a kind of substitute for political action," he told me, "then you're corrupting the whole system."

As the job market in literature tightens and multidisciplinary courses proliferate, more professors have been saying to cultural critics not, "You're wrong," but, "You've gone too far." One of the defining moments in this turnaround came in 1996, when erstwhile postmodernist and Duke University stalwart Frank Lentricchia confessed in the journal Lingua Franca that his fellow political theorists had become "mechanics."

"Tell me your theory," he wrote, "and I'll tell you in advance what you'll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven't read." Disgusted with the scene, he refused to teach graduate students for a few semesters. He now supports the ALSC, adding that "for the association to truly make its mark, which you understand I hope they do, they would need to gather in many more scholars and critics."

Two years ago, Michael Berubi was still in fighting mode. An ardent defender of cultural theory, he wrote a scathingly sarcastic response in the Chronicle of Higher Education to Frank Kermode's review of "Literature Lost," an attack on cultural studies written by ALSC co-founder John Ellis. In his piece, Berubi threw up his arms that yet another prominent critic was turning against his profession. He felt the same way about the ALSC -- at first.

"My initial reaction when they formed," Berubi says, "was that this was the revenge of the emeriti. These folks were all near retirement, and the way they phrased it was that the profession had been entirely politicized and no one talked about literature as literature anymore.

"Now I think that charge has a grain of truth to it," he says. "I was initially quite sanguine about what cultural studies would mean, and then it largely became an enterprise in which people could argue that bowling was actually much more counterhegemonic than people had imagined -- you know, finding subversion in every kind of mundane cultural form."

ALSC member Marjorie Perloff, a Stanford professor who teaches political avant-garde poetry and uses theory liberally, nevertheless believes "the kinds of things that go on today are completely untheoretical, just completely uninteresting. I was just reading that they're thinking of hiring someone here on 'wound culture.' And they say, 'Ours is a wound culture where people like to watch the spectacle of others' misery.' That's new? That was new in the 18th century? Would you call that theory?"

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Theory or not, it's just the latest turn in a cyclical progression no different from the ebb and flow of movements in art or politics. Ever since Oxford professor Edward Freeman insisted in 1887 that an autonomous literature department would degenerate into "mere chatter about Shelley," critical factions have wrangled over what makes literature worthy of a dissertation. Is it the examination of linguistic tropes, the study of cultural and historical influences or the application of the critic's own theories? Early on came the old historicists and symbolists, who were attacked in the '20s by the formalists and their pseudo-scientific methodology. The Marxists again prioritized history, and still later the New Critics reintroduced close text-based reading -- to be followed by the structuralists, the post-structuralists, the deconstructionists, the Marxists again, the new historicists and now the predominant strain of theorists who focus on political issues like race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

ALSC members know all this, and their theoretical baggage varies from critic to critic. Some members hope to swing the pendulum back to New Criticism. Many others want to avoid the pendulum entirely by using theory only where appropriate -- an approach that, at the conference, resulted in a delicate, sometimes comic balancing act. A paper given by an older Oxford don, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, on Goethe's love of the Greeks was followed by the younger Michael Valdez Moses' (rather political) critique of magical realism as the nostalgic yearning of a globalized, rationalist bourgeoisie for extinguished local myths. The next day another graying authority gave a painfully close reading of the full Spanish title of "Don Quixote."

Members at the conference occasionally grew restless with paper topics on the same old thing. When Tom Bertonneau, the new executive director, lectured on the inherent superiority of the written to the spoken word, critics lined up at the mike to challenge his rigid value judgments. "I prefer sharp distinctions and rigorous schemes and you prefer mitigation," was all he could say to one questioner. But maybe they just preferred debate to dogma.

The most visible gap at the ALSC is based on differing intellectual legacies. The ALSC's more innovative critics -- people like Perloff -- joined because they were tired of platitudes propagated by the postmodern true believers. But they're equally reluctant to swallow older orthodoxies. Perloff wrote one of the journal's most convincing essays -- a tightly reasoned refutation of Homi Bhabha's charge that Goethe had an overly simplistic view of nationhood. But she didn't come to the conference, because she didn't think it had anything to offer her.

"I'm really for the new, I'm really for radical work," explains Perloff, whose interests include multimedia performance art. "I think they're trying to reach out, and they have excellent sessions on the classics. But when it comes to the present, they don't really try to understand what's happening in the literary world. It's very conservative, and by that I don't mean conservative politically but aesthetically."

The group's incoming president, Mary Lefkowitz, is a classicist, as is Sarah Spence, the journal's editor. Where poetry appears in the journal (much of it new translations), it's often decades old, sometimes millennia old. Pressed to offer its most forward-thinking work, Spence suggests Clare Cavanagh's defense of lyric poetry via the dissident Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. But her argument -- that, unlike Marxism, poetry can critique a dominant culture without losing sight of its aesthetic achievements -- is neither new nor particularly complex.

Somewhere out of this cacophony, this tension between brand new and status quo, will something coherent emerge? "The question is," asks Berubi, "if the ALSC survives beyond the lifetime of its founders, what kind of organization will it be? Are people going to make good on this promise of theoretically informed formalism?"

They could take a lesson from one of this decade's most beleaguered English departments. One ALSC member who teaches at Duke University contrasts the group's generation gap to the one he believes nearly destroyed Duke's celebrated English department. According to his and other accounts, a department that in the late '80s sought to become the most innovative in the country instead became a war zone. A group of queer theorists attempted a coup against the established order on one hand and various factions of social scholarship on the other. The coup failed, the professor believes, because "the grandparents and the grandchildren banded together against the parents." It's very much the coalition he envisions in a utopian ALSC. "If the organization is going to have a long-term future, and it's going to keep moving," he says, "it really must bring in younger and newer people."

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Many young literature scholars -- the sort who, 20 years ago, might have studied English or history -- are opting for programs like American studies at New York University. The department head, Andrew Ross, got his own graduate degree in literature. But under the influence of '70s politics he and his contemporaries began teaching interdisciplinary courses, exploring the arts primarily as indicators of social change. Hired at Princeton as a specialist in poetry, he never taught it. He has no quarrel with professors like Andrew Delbanco, who recently wrote an article the New York Review of Books under the headline, "The Decline and Fall of Literature." Nor does he regret what has happened; he simply believes students can't afford to stay in "four-walled departments" that don't offer them jobs.

"You can ask questions in an ideal and abstracted way," he says, "but the truth is that there are economic underpinnings to academic work. People have to put food on the table. You sell people down the river if you disconnect these things."

At the conference's open-bar reception, held in the Marriott's grand Harvest Room, members mingled and offered toasts to Goethe in German. Meanwhile, in a small, bare conference room upstairs, Bertonneau met with the group's graduate students. Only five showed up. Awkward moments of silence loomed between two-minute introductions.

"It's actually a Quaker meeting we're having," Bertonneau laughed nervously. "These silences are actually divine transports."

"This organization has a critical interest in having something to offer to grad students in order to attract them for its own long-term benefit," says Peter Kavelos, a Teutonic-looking man writing his dissertation on Shakespeare, Bacon, persona and mask. During an incredibly tight job market, this means helping young scholars find work. But that's precisely the kind of politicized professionalism that ALSC is bent on avoiding.

"We don't have a job brokerage the way the MLA does," Bertonneau says, "and I can just tell you bluntly that the council doesn't want that. That's just not gonna happen."

But if the ALSC is not about jobs, and it's not about politics, and it's not about a specific literary movement, its mission may turn out to be too amorphous to mean anything specific to anyone.

At its general members' meeting the second night, the discussion shifts toward recruitment. There's talk of fliers in student mailboxes, ads in campus papers -- perhaps, at long last, a student e-mail list. Some attempts at visible advocacy are coming in the form of broad ALSC studies -- one on the state of American graduate schools, another on the explosion of composition courses. These may be steps toward attracting the kind of truly global critics who can study African literature with the same rigorous methods they apply to Don Quixoti. But they should move fast, because the grandparents in the ALSC cannot carry the torch much longer without losing sight of just why they should pass it on.

By Boris Kachka

Boris Kachka is a writer living in New York.

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