Literature and the Historical Understanding

This originally started out as a response to my dad, who is a professor of animal science and general enthusiast for things scientific, religious, and US-historical. That I got a PhD in medieval literature (after going through most of life as a serious math nerd), is a matter of great pride and amusement to him, and when I visit he often asks me questions trying to figure out what the similarities and differences are between teaching genetics and, say, Shakespeare.

My dad sent me a two word message, “Your thoughts?” with a link to Heather Mac Donald’s article. in the Wall Street Journal arguing that a curricular change at UCLA was emblematic of a loss of a historical understanding of literature in order to promote narcissistic area studies courses. The article has been blazing through the internet. I saw it linked by one of my undergraduate professors, and then a heap of my grad school friends linked to Natalia Cecire’s great defense of current methods in humanities and as I was going over my thoughts just now I see that Rebecca Schuman, taking a break from raking search committees over the coals, wrote her own take down of Mac Donald. I like both posts a lot. Schuman is at her finest eviscerating Mac Donald’s arguments and Cecire offers a rousing defense of expertise in current humanities research. But I also think they are incomplete.

You see, Mac Donald is definitely wrong and creates a straw-man that is fairly easy to knock down. But if you ignore everything she writes about UCLA then you’re left with a stirring defense of the humanistic study as practiced by tons of people today in universities today, including most of the people she is criticizing as narcissistic. Mac Donald writes eloquently about the value of Cicero, Quintilian, the Carolingians, Petrarch, Bracciolini, Rabelais, and others. Somewhat oddly, given that she is writing in defense of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, Mac Donald says next to nothing about them.

Mac Donald’s biggest sin by far is that she omits any mention of the fact that UCLA still has a historical breadth requirement. An overly trusting reader of her article would come away thinking that a UCLA undergraduate could get a degree entirely by taking classes on multicultural feminist and queer literature written in the last fifty years or, worse, that a student who wants to read great authors will be subjected to an unrelenting stream of contemporary mediocrities inappropriately elevated by left-wing ideologues who only teach authors who look like them. Both students are complete fictions. Every single English student has to take a medieval course, an early modern course, and an 18th/19th century course, and courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton are on offer every year as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for Beowulf and Old English. Seriously UCLA. What gives? Hire an Anglo-Saxonist already.

Mac Donald also misrepresents the area studies requirements she disparages, mostly because she just lists their names without exploring very deeply what they mean. The title of each category is stultifyingly wordy, in the way that things named by committee inevitably are. But Mac Donald uses this opacity to mislead her readers. The three offending categories are: 1) Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; 2) Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; 3) genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory.

Going in reverse order, three is the least offensive to the culturally conservative critic. Sure, you could fulfill it with a course on Marxist theory, but you could also fulfill it with a course on any literary genre of your choosing. You could fulfill it with a class on modern novels or Romantic poetry or Renaissance drama (because Shakespeare wasn’t the only game in town), none of which I assume is offensive to Mac Donald’s sensibilities.

Two is getting closer to Mac Donald’s chief complaint. But you know what? The English empire stretched across the entire globe, and there are plenty of brilliant writers in English who didn’t happen to be born in the US or England. There are authors from the Caribbean, Nigeria, South Africa, India, and other places who are fantastic writers who deserve study, and an English student who doesn’t spend any time at all exploring the richness of these traditions only has a narrow understanding of literature written in English. What’s more, these authors aren’t working complete independently of the Western tradition. Like Derek Walcott in Omeros, they’re drawing on it and reinterpreting it to fit their time and place, writing back to the literature they love in much the same way that Petrarch wrote back to Cicero. Literature is wonderful because it’s not static. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel” means something new to me each time I read it as my idea of home shifts from one city to the next. How wonderful it is to be able to see Homer through the eyes of a poet with mastery of a completely different idiom. Walcott isn’t a minor author, nor does the study of his work turn people off of literary study if the hundreds of people packed in to see him at the University of Toronto a few years ago are anything to go by. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that students take a course that will challenge them to conceive of English lit as a vibrant, transnational tradition. That’s not ahistorical at all.

And at last I come to category one. This is what earns the lion’s share of Mac Donald’s ire and when cultural conservatives gnash their teeth about English departments as the home of Marxists, anarchists, feminists, queers, pagans, and other malcontents, this category is what they are thinking of. I should say at the outset that I have friends who fit into every one of those categories. I also have friends in the humanities who are as conservative as the previous pope. Some of them are even friends with each other! What is annoying is that Mac Donald’s article (and others written in a similar vein) makes it seem like these areas are the only thing English majors do nowadays, when nothing could be further from the truth. Even at UCLA, students only have to take one class from any of the five areas of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. Not one of each or one that somehow combines all five (a class on Afro-Chicana queer ASL feminism?). One total that addresses any area. And sure, not every class will be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can’t choose one course you would enjoy out of the eight to ten options on offer every term (including apparently a course on Milton last spring), then you aren’t taking a historically informed approach to literature.

This is where I find Mac Donald most incoherent, her loftiest hopes most at odds with her attack on UCLA. She laments the loss of a department which practiced “the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay,” but the two halves of this statement are fundamentally at odds. You can’t have historically informed study of great literature without an understanding of ideologies, those of the time in which the work was written and the time in which it is read. You would do considerable violence to Chaucer divorcing the Canterbury Tales from any discussion of gender and class, given that the entire thing is people of different occupations, social classes, and gender telling stories that differ according to those categories. What kind of discussions about Chaucer’s female characters like the Wife of Bath, Alisoun, Griselda, and May does Mac Donald imagine ensuing? She herself celebrates the “radical difference” of the past. Part of the good teaching of medieval literature involves explaining how these representations of different gender roles interact with ideas about class in terms of who tells the tales and what motivates them. The goal isn’t to establish Chaucer as some kind of time-traveling feminist from the 21st century, but if students appreciate it the radical difference of the past has the capacity to transform the present. If a student is capable of making connections between Chaucer’s depictions of class and gender and present day interactions, then I think that’s a powerful thing.

And Chaucer isn’t some isolated example. One of the very first things all Shakespeare students learn is that all of his actors were men. As a result, you get men pretending to be women, and since Shakespeare’s comedies often involve female characters disguising themselves as men, you get men pretending to be women pretending to be men. To misquote a line from, T.S. Eliot, O O O O that Shakespeherian Drag. Historically informed interpretation would have to discuss questions about women’s legal and social status in early modern England. And here’s the real kicker. Representations of gender on Shakespeare’s stage can never map onto contemporary audiences’ viewing of his plays. How cool is that? Neither same-gender nor mixed-gender productions of Shakespeare’s plays would capture what he was up to, because he was writing for a specific time and place that was different from ours, and the historically informed critic has to recognize that the interpretation of literature requires not just an understanding of past horizons, but of present ones too, and that the act of interpretation occurs in the continual meeting of these horizons that are never really separate to begin with. Every day and in everything we read we’re gaining understanding of different ideas, people, and cultures, and discovering something radically different in the past but also something that powerfully shapes our present. Lots of great literature may be old but it’s not inert. It stirs things up, and any attempt to bind it too closely contemporary ideologies without an understanding of its provenance is problematic. But the past isn’t an ideological vacuum giving birth periodically to great authors.

All these things considered, I can’t think of any approach that would be more ahistorical than reducing vast historical periods to single authors. Chaucer is great, but so is Beowulf, Marie de France, Pearl, Piers Plowman, and Julian of Norwich. I would think an undergraduate rather poorly read if they had read every one of Chaucer’s major works and not a single other piece of medieval literature. They’d have the words, but they wouldn’t have much of the context for interpretation. in the early modern period you’re missing out on metaphysical poets, all the other playwrights, The Faerie Queene, Queen Elizabeth, accounts of the first English journeys across the Atlantic, and Margaret Cavendish. It seems mind-boggling that Mac Donald is seriously asserting that the path to developing the ability to draw on a wide range of historical and literary sources consists of spending four courses reading only three authors.

When that’s the case, you end up making pretty narrow judgments about which authors get included, and these of necessity represent a contraction of your historical understanding and range of sources. In America generally an understanding of the African-American experience is crucial, and for Mac Donald’s sake there are also plenty of first rate African-American authors to choose from: Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and more. It should hardly be surprising if these authors have different ideological views from commentators who think black students are narcissistic for taking classes on black authors and black professors are trying to indoctrinate their students. But different viewpoints are good! How boring would literature be if everyone thought the same thing about it? And how on earth are the people who are giving tons of options that could appeal to people any ethnicity and gender the ones doing the indoctrinating when your option is literally to make everyone read the same books by the same set of authors? That’s not literature sans ideology, it’s literature with a rigid ideology stressed to near the breaking point. All you have to do is watch James Baldwin debate William F. Buckley in 1965 and it’s pretty easy to see whose ideological position became dated more quickly. When Phil Robertson described the lot of black men in Louisiana before the civil rights period as a time of uniform happiness, it was from a position of near inexplicable ignorance of Louisiana’s history of lynchings and literacy tests that made it a terrorist state for black people in the early 20th century. Slavery, segregation, and civil rights is one of the most significant historical arcs in US History, and it’s reflected in some of the greatest essayists and novelists we’ve had.

That’s of course just for America in general. It’s worth thinking about the context of California specifically. Los Angeles is 49.8% White, 9.6% African American, 48.5% Hispanic, and 11.3% Asian. If you look at enrollment data, UCLA has essentially equal numbers of Asian and White students, with large numbers of Black and Hispanic students as well. By offering classes in African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic literature, UCLA is serving both local and student constituencies, and charging them with narcissism for even offering classes in these areas seems quite strange or using them as the basis for asserting the decline of English seems quite strange. These communities make important contributions to literature in California. Why wouldn’t they appear as one way (of many) of fulfilling the area studies requirement.

I’ve rambled quite a lot. Basically, what it comes down to is that Heather Mac Donald wants English curricula that encourage deep and wide ranging interactions with literature, to which I say yay. She wants to do this by mandating very narrow requirements that cover a limited number of authors and limiting the number of acceptable ways of interpreting literature, to which I say huh? I’m in favor of flexible programs that give students chronological and cultural range to explore new literatures while also cultivating areas that they are passionate about. That’s what I think UCLA does.

PS. Though not without faults UCLA. Where’s your Anglo-Saxonist? And why couldn’t I find any disability courses? Is it only included in the rubric to be fashionable? It seems a sad kind of irony if disability courses are not actually accessible.


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