Category Archives: literary history

principles of literary history

  • For literary history to fulfill some role beyond summary, it needs to reshape, reorganize, reintegrate existing literary histories, so that what is old and what is new make better sense together side by side.
  • The pursuit of greater complexity or comprehensiveness is never sufficient reason to justify a new literary history. Instead, these become the means by which we reach a new perspective on existing writing and its histories, while introducing new materials into our thinking about literature.
  • The value of a new approach, as opposed to a new thematics, is that it should entail a truly new and different way of thinking about the material.  So how do your methods and procedures lead to different ways of thinking? Why is this change important?
  • It’s not just about the value of a particular piece of writing, but about communicating that value to someone who has never considered the writing that way before. What do they need to know, to follow you in your valuation?

DM

Kathryn Temple, “The Ends of Cultural Studies in Curriculum”

 In the summer of 2010, I was asked to participate in a panel at our annual eighteenth-century studies conference called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.” The panel responded to the 2008 essay in Profession entitled “Stopping Cultural Studies” by William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin. Little did I know that the panel would come at the very moment the issue of the relationship between literary history and cultural studies would surface in our Department.

As new chair in 2009, the third in five years, I had walked into a cluster of problems known to most chairs in these years of economic crisis.  We’d lost faculty, lost budget, lost space. Thus I guess I can be excused for leaving curricular reform largely in the hands of the curriculum committee over the opening year of my chairship. But in December 2010, a coalition of senior faculty made curriculum my business by taking their concerns to the dean. Not present, I could only reconstruct this conversation from after-the-fact reports, but it seems that these colleagues were concerned about our department’s failure to teach literary history. What the dean took away was that our Department no longer taught literature or literary history, but had been “taken over” by cultural studies. My dean was understandably concerned. He responded by calling me in for an emergency meeting to discuss splitting the Department into three smaller departments: one for literary history “as it is traditionally taught,” one for cultural studies, one for writing. I explained to him that this would result in the death of traditional literary studies as only three or four of our remaining faculty would define themselves as doing “literary history in a traditional way.” (Ironically, of the three faculty who had met with him, not all were in that category.)  I predicted that the rest of the ordinary faculty were very likely to migrate to what he was calling “cultural studies” whether or not they really had that training, meanwhile leaving “writing” almost entirely to adjunct faculty. “Stopping cultural studies” as Bill Warner and Cliff Siskin call it, at least in my department, would not have led to a revival of literary studies under new terms but rather to a kind of fragmentation that (given the way small departments are being eliminated these days) could quite possibly spell the death of literary history (“as it is traditionally taught”) at Georgetown.

In response, I brought this issue to the Department at our next meeting. Other faculty were concerned: unused to such administrative scrutiny, they worried about our larger presence on the campus and about academic freedom. They pointed out that most of our course titles were indicative of literary history rather than cultural studies orientations and wondered what the dean’s intervention might mean. The issue of our lack of collegiality was raised: what had made our colleagues feel so unheard, so marginalized in the Department, that they now felt going to the administration their only option? Resulting discussions in the department addressed all of these issues. We opened up the curricular reform process through holding numerous focus group meetings, inviting each member of the faculty in for discussion. We invited the dean to a larger department meeting and then held more department meetings to discuss our findings and move forward with curricular reform. Meanwhile, in our hiring in seventeenth-century British literature and culture and twentieth-century American literature and culture we were especially alert to issues involving the teaching of literary history.

Our curricular work and hiring were eventually shaped by our discussions, by awareness of the issues raised in the provocative Profession essay, but also by an important essay by Jennifer Summit, “Literary History and the Curriculum,” published in the ADE Bulletin in 2010. There Summit discusses the problem of the literary history/cultural studies divide given that, as she says, “our students were asking for something that we no longer believed in: the arc of literary history no longer holds sway as a dominant mode” (49).  After cultural studies, Summit argues, there is no coherence to literary study, no accepted set of great works, no accepted periodization. The admonishment to “go beyond the literary!” that Warner and Siskin discuss and reject in their Profession essay has served its purpose: it has, in fact, destabilized the canon and accepted notions of literary history; agreement on what texts should be taught cannot be reached except in the very broadest terms while agreement on how texts should be taught is even less likely.

Our faculty did agree on one thing: we needed to bring coherence to a curriculum that had long been a hodgepodge of courses, courses generated by our faculty research interests rather than by any effort to develop an overview of our field. Like Summit’s curriculum at Stanford, our curriculum offered no clear direction to our students. We had no literary survey courses, no introductions to the major, and no sets of courses meant to offer a sequential experience to our students. The conclusion was that our curriculum must cohere around something or at least must appear to cohere to students and parents and deans. The question became how to do this with a diversely trained and much diminished faculty in a departmental culture that has long valued as a sign of intellectual integrity the teaching of research interests rather than a set curriculum.

Although I supported the development of critical methods courses and literary history survey courses that held the promise of “coherence,” on another level talk of coherence worried me. The risk, as Warner and Siskin suggest, following Latour, is that explanations of complex systems that reduce them to one or two representative moves like “coherence” empty out complex chaotic reality. Historical coherence could result in a comforting lockstep progress through the literary periods as taught in the 1960s; theoretical coherence could result in an intro to methods course of the “teach three methods” variety. In seeking coherence, we could replace the rich but chaotic complexity of the English Department’s approach to culture with (as Latour has it) “some stuff” like historical coherence, presenting in the end something that looks nothing like the not always coherent world of intellectual possibilities that we wish to pursue in our scholarship or to teach our students.

In my struggle to negotiate “coherence,” I’ve been thinking hard about what our work means, both our scholarly work and our pedagogical work. I’ve been returning to the past, trying to recall (and to call up) what first excited me about literature and what first excited me about eighteenth-century studies. That excitement came not from any historical or theoretical coherence, but from complexity and a seemingly open-ended approach to problems of meaning. Indeed, what had frustrated me in literary study as an undergraduate was the efforts my professors made to maintain coherence. In the 70s, there were many who oversimplified the New Criticism, adhering to the coherence of a method of close reading that pretended to know only the literary work and, of course, only the literary works that counted as canonical. Others taught what I thought of as “clump and dump” courses, knowledge downloads of canned historical “truths” that students memorized and reproduced on exams. It was with a huge sense of relief that I encountered various approaches loosely reflective of cultural studies when I went back to school in the late 80s. Though I skated on the surface of understanding and it was years before I began to see the implications for my own work, I took full advantage of the liberty “cultural studies”–very broadly construed–afforded for reading outside the narrow confines of the canon and for interpreting outside the bounds of New Criticism. For me it opened up literary study to the world and the world to literary study. That said, because my graduate career coincided with a moment when cultural studies was already beginning to feel a little used up, I never had to embrace any particular version of it, never became a deconstructionist or a Marxist critic or even a feminist critic in the sense that many were. I had all the freedom and none of the responsibility.

To pursue a career based on this incoherent and under-theorized approach to theory may seem hopelessly naïve, and yet I have spent twenty years drawing on hybrid approaches from many different methodologies. Always a lumper, never a splitter, I would hate to see us turn away from cultural studies, from something that has offered so many rich ways of thinking about what we do. I would hate just as much to see us turn away from close reading and careful analysis or from nuanced understandings of literary history. But above all, I reject the narrow ideological biases that so often seem to drive English Department discussions. The risk of issuing a universal call to “Stop Cultural Studies” lies in its binary approach to what we do and in the possibility that various power groups will attempt to force one or the other of these binary poles (cultural studies OR literary history; close reading OR survey courses) on their peers. When “presentists” bash historicist approaches without having read the historical tradition and literary historians denounce theory without reading it, I feel that wonderful wide world of new ideas, approaches, texts shrinking.  So let’s not “stop” cultural studies, but rather embrace it, precisely for the reasons Siskin and Warner want to end it, precisely because it’s too broad, because it doesn’t focus on literature, because no one can really define it. Cultural studies perhaps more than any other change in the past thirty years has given us the freedom to craft careers that take us in new directions and allow us to reinvent ourselves.

What’s next, I believe, is the very period of questioning, rethinking, and remapping that we’re experiencing now. If, as Siskin and Warner say, the function of English Departments from their beginnings has been to mediate society’s relation to technologies of knowledge, then let’s explore the possibilities offered by what they call a retooling. This retooling need not mean that we toss out the old toolbox (indeed, the new toolbox wouldn’t have been possible without the old one), so much as add to it. I see exciting new directions indicated by new technologies but not confined by them: neuroscience offers us new ways of thinking about how our brains process text; affect theory allows us to re-examine what used to be called the age of reason; the overabundance of our current access to archives places ever greater importance not on what we know but on how we manage the knowledge in those archives. If this results in incoherence, if one thing seems to blur into another, then the task becomes the making of distinctions and the foregrounding, I believe, of why we make particular distinctions at particular times, not the truth value of those distinctions. In the end, if pressed to find some sort of curricular coherence, I’d ask us to focus on this foregrounding, to add to the call to “always historicize” the admonition to “always articulate,” to articulate what we are doing and why it matters, to our students and to ourselves. This, rather than some a manufactured “coherence” that shuts down possibilities, is our responsibility as teachers, as interpreters and transmitters of a literary and cultural history that is always, at every moment, being newly created.

Works Cited

Summit, Jennifer. “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What and Why.” ADE Bulletin No. 149, 2010. 46-52.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. 2008. 94-107.

Kathryn Temple, J.D., Ph.D.

Chair and Associate Professor

Department of English

Georgetown University

Cynthia Richards: Walking the Line at a Liberal Arts College

      I would like to tell three stories.  Two are set in a small liberal arts college and the third in an even more parochial setting, my daughter’s high school. I draw attention to these settings in part to draw attention to the limits of what I have to say about Cultural Studies. My interaction with Cultural Studies happens primarily at the level of its transmission to undergraduates. Yet I also draw attention to these settings because I think these settings, in turn, draw attention to the limits of Cultural Studies.

      For example, this essay considers “Stopping Cultural Studies,” as William Warner and Clifford Siskin argue we should, when I could argue that at a liberal arts college of limited means where I chair the English Department, Cultural Studies never really got started. I should clarify: in my department, Cultural Studies has shaped our curriculum, our preparation, our scholarly research, our syllabi, and even our sense of mission. It has also shaped our service: we are Directors of Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, and leaders in Film Studies. Yet in terms of student work—the types of tasks instructors can assign and then assume successful completion of—Cultural Studies has been of limited applicability. When Cultural Studies has been read as simply another way of saying the study of pop culture, our students have been quite willing to take on these tasks—although still the caveat about successful completion remains. But when Cultural Studies is defined more properly, as Warner and Siskin do, as requiring its practitioner to “Historicize!“ (97) and “Go Beyond the Literary!,” (98) successful completion cannot be assumed.  With a small library, limited access to databases, and absolutely no travel funds for student research, small “c” culture has proved a more precious commodity than its large “C” counterpart. Thus, in the setting of my liberal arts college, the hothouse politics of close reading proves a more egalitarian practice than the socially-expansive one of Cultural Studies: without equal access to the objects of study—even if those objects are themselves less rarefied —new hierarchies emerge. In other words, what and how we teach in my department is radically changed, but what we ask our students to do with that material is shockingly less so. So, I am both deeply appreciative of the questions raised by Warner and Siskin, particularly regarding the ends of Cultural Studies, and also a little nervous that just as digital archives are becoming more accessible and even our weakest undergraduates “hyper” sensitive to the catholic reading practices so integral to Cultural Studies that its usefulness and viability is being questioned.

   But that is only an example and this essay promises three stories. The first I am going to call “The Darkness Without,” partly for dramatic effect, partly because it opposes nicely the title of the course I will discuss shortly, and mostly because nothing so inspires thoughts of encroaching darkness and the comforts of one’s disciplinary home than a self-study and external review conducted during a time of economic crisis and under an administration resolved to cut costs. For all the drama of that introduction, this story is also the most predictable. For when I sat down to make my case, I found I had no home to protect. Despite our strong numbers in the major, administrators assumed that English was on its way out, soon to be made obsolete by digital delivery systems, the short attention spans of the students in our entering classes, and our own interdisciplinary proselytizing. Cultural Studies had allowed my department to expand its coverage and re-configure in creative ways its institutional responsibilities, but from an administrator’s point of view, it had also made us seem more permeable and open for realignment in ways that threatened our core values of teaching students to read, write, and think critically while introducing them to both high and low “L” literature.[1] It also meant that quick fixes to the college’s economic woes could be easily grafted onto our diminishing base. More specifically, a position in Medieval Literature and Shakespeare could become one in Journalism and Film Studies, two areas of interest that consistently showed up on prospective students’ checklists as desirable majors. Moreover, the expansiveness of our interests made it more difficult for us to argue for any one area of expertise as essential.  They were all important, and hence none were.  Happily, after our reviewers’ visit, we have assurances that administrators will be reminded of our core contributions toward reading, writing, and critical thinking and that interdisciplinarity, in the current state of academia and the world, is a strength rather than a weakness.  Of course, what we don’t know yet is how all of this will end.

     More interesting was my department’s local response not only to these administrative pressures, but also to a perceived neediness on the part of our students. With so much to be covered in English, our students felt knowledge was eluding them, and they wanted something concrete they could point to, like a list, for example. So we created a list, actually we called it “The List”, and asked each member of the department to offer five entries. We avoided the word “canon”, openly acknowledged the list’s idiosyncratic nature, and adopted a mechanism for social change. Anyone who completes all 70 books gets to add one to the list and future students will have to read that book to complete the list. The response was enthusiastic, to put it mildly.  It has inspired an annual colloquium series, quite a few aspirants, and a geology major nearly to complete it. We suspect his entry to the list will be truly interdisciplinary.

    The second story relates to a general education honors course I teach entitled “The Darkness Within.” The course begins with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and ends with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. These Irish bookends notwithstanding, the course is comprehensive in its range, but singular in its purpose: it is my evangelical course where I sell our best and brightest on the value of readings that theorize, historicize, look beyond the literary, and even lead to personal and societal change.[2] Of course, what I encounter in that classroom is a lot more prosaic: a room full of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology majors who have invested their capital in the temples of science—mixed metaphor intended—and see little value in literature. For a while I took a defensive posture, but more lately, I have taken another tack. I have found that by letting go even more, by letting one of my assignments be fully interdisciplinary, I have regained some of that space. In an assignment that functions as the centerpiece of the course, I allow my students to apply the methods of their chosen majors to diagnose the so-called “darkness” within a literary text. Hence, they have applied chemical equations to the incendiary plot of Wieland, and run computer programs in order to finally pin down the true monster in Frankenstein. And remarkably, rather than the value of the literary being diluted through this process, it has been multiplied. In seeing the text transform as read through different cultural and disciplinary frameworks, they have been persuaded by the core value of the text in question. In other words, what they can do with the text makes it contents all the more impressive. In some ways, this tactic reminds me of what Warner and Siskin identify as the “Literature and … “approach(103),  necessarily requiring the policing of literary borders to work.  In this case, however, I have found that by not policing the borders of literature, I have become more secure in my classroom. 

    My final story will be brief.  I would like to say it is called “the light bit of light at the end of all that darkness,” but that would be stretching it. I do think it is an interesting story, but that may be for personal reasons—as will soon become apparent. My daughter attends a high school where disciplinary excellence—and its borders—are heavily monitored. There is honors biology, honors algebra, honors chemistry, each course requiring an exam for entry—except of course, in English where there are no honors courses, and also no exceptions to viewing English as an egalitarian enterprise. We will not all be chemists, but we will all read and write. I get this philosophy—it follows from the radical roots of Cultural Studies—but my daughter didn’t.[3] She studied a little harder, she loved language just a little more, and in a weekly vocabulary game where no one is ever supposed to win, she won.  Now, even a proud mother knows that is not an interesting story, but what happens next could be. She won the game, and as a result, the school stopped playing it all together. Once she won, there was no longer room for the give and take of a game predicated on the assumption that excellence in English will always be elusive and determined by the social moment. Put in these terms, it is easy to see how this story can point to the limits of Cultural Studies: it is troubling that at my daughter’s high school, English emerges as a discipline reluctant to set value, or establish functional borders. My daughter needed an honors English class. But I also think this story points to the limits of stopping cultural studies. The game being played in my daughter’s high school English class—and in many undergraduate institutions like my own—is a good one. It is engaging to students, flexible in assigning merit, inclusive in scope, and attentive to its social and historical moment, and I doubt over time my daughter would have remained the only winner. The benefits of the game are many:  it should not have been stopped.

    Social change comes in lots of forms, mostly unexpected ones—geology majors being the first to complete literary lists, chemistry providing a surprisingly coherent framework for reading Wieland, the expansive move toward interdisciplinarity eroding the territory of an English department at a liberal arts college. When we consider the beginnings and ends of a field, we can’t predict what will change, only name what shouldn’t: that what matters is what our students can do with what we teach them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Warner and Siskin  make this distinction between small “l” and large “L” literature in “Stopping Cultural Studies,“ pointing to a historical shift in the definition of literature as meaning “all kinds of writing” (104) to meaning “only certain texts within certain genres” (104.).  I am also indebted to Warner and Siskin’s essay for the title of my essay, both of which play off the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line.”

[2] Warner and Siskin identify these moves are three of the pillars of Cultural Studies. The fourth is the “power of” culture;” in my text, this move is translated as “personal and societal change.”

[3] See Michael Bérubé’s “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies? for an excellent discussion of those radical roots as well as a poignant farewell to his more idealistic aspirations for the field.

 

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael, ‘What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” The Chronicle of Higher Education

       56.4 (2009): 9-11.Print.  

Brown, Charles Brocken. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Jan

     Fliegelman.NewYork: Penguin, 1991.Print.

McDonagh, Martin. The Pillowman. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert de Maria. New York: Penguin, 2001, 2003. Print.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. New York:

      MLA, 2008. 94-107. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New

       York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.

 

The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.

 

Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.

if we read literary histories, why should we be afraid of machine-reading?

After reading D.G. Myers and the Little Professor on the timeliness of literary history, especially in light of Mark Bauerlein’s discussion of the “diminishing returns” of literary criticism as performance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way literary scholars read each other’s books.  And one of the things that struck me was the (obvious?) fact that scholars routinely read literary histories about books we’ve never read before, because we want to learn more about them, and possibly read them ourselves.  Not so, I suspect, with the conventional close readings of literary critical monographs, which I’m assuming are pretty well useless with authors or works we are unfamiliar with or uninterested in.  Am I wrong about this?  Because my intuition tells me that close-reading monographs are books that are only useful for those who are already committed to the value and interest of the works studied.  And this might account for the decline of such single author books, in the absence of a clear consensus about which books to focus on.

Although I usually disagree with Bauerlein, I think he has a point about the overproduction of literary criticism, and think that LP and Myers are probably correct to focus on literary history.  (That’s why I’m writing one myself)  But while I was mulling over this, I realized that I’d just read an entire series of exchanges on EMOB and on this blog about the allure of “machine reading” books for literary criticism.   And I myself get nervous about being led through a huge database without reading everything myself, and allowing the machine to do the searching for me.  But then I realized that we often read literary histories for exactly this kind of searching/sorting through of possible leads for our own research.  So why not use such “finding aids,” especially when we have an entire category of scholarship devoted to producing such “aids”?  Or is this too deflating a description of our own scholarship?

DM

in lieu of an Ossian post . . . .

ossian1_large

[“Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes”
1802 by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson; image from Bits of News]

I suppose I’m one of the few people who could spend a week researching eighteenth-century writers in Scotland, and come home and feel fired up to write a series of posts about Hans Gumbrecht’s book on 1926.  But that’s how it worked out.  I actually have a few more thoughts about Gumbrecht and temporality that I might try out at some point, but more on that some other time.

I’ve been thinking about Ossian for a while, though, and have been trying to come to terms with teaching “him,” since I’m beginning to feel that Ossianic epic is the third leg of the stool, when we’re talking about literary culture in late 18c Scotland (the other two legs being Mackenzie-style anglophilia in prose, and the emerging scots vernacular in Fergusson’s poetry).  (And if others have additional legs, er, suggestions, I’d welcome hearing about them)

In fact, I’d had some weird moments teaching Ossian last term, because my students picked up on the fact that at some level the whole Ossian phenomenon embarasses me, probably because I respond to it all too easily.

The fraudulence and bluster of Macpherson, the overcompensation in the Scots’ martial fantasies, the funny names, the entire package makes me uncomfortably aware of, uh, the hours I spent in junior high and high school, listening to dreamy-sounding prog-rock bands, looking at Roger Dean posters,  and reading Tolkein.  To me, the whole thing is an amusement-park ride of vulnerable teenage guy  melancholic fantasy.  Except that historically  it wasn’t:  it captivated and persisted in Scottish and European literary culture for decades, traveled all over the world, inspired writers on the order of Blake and Goethe. In the meantime, its “translator”  Macpherson was left behind to enjoy a splendid lifestyle and an annihilated public reputation.

So Ossian represents a series of texts whose value has fluctuated widely over the years, while I myself have never been able to make up my mind about its actual quality.  What’s more, the whole pathetic story of Macpherson’s truncated career, told very well in Buchan’s Crowded with Genius, gives me a bad case of Imposter-syndrome anxiety, and puts me in mind of the relation of parasite to host: Ossian simply incubated in the body of James Macpherson, and flew away when it was done.

For me, the whole story of Ossian’s origins in authorial fraud, its uncritical reception by the most authoritative  Scots critics (Blair etc.), and then its abandonment of its creator, seems to summon up a worst-case scenario of literature and all its institutions and instruments of validation, so that author, critic, and audience all seem to be equally discredited by the tale.  And yet something of it persists, ghostlike, to continue embarassing the pretensions of literary critics and literary history, for some time to come.

DM

authors and their simplifiers

While we’re on the subject of Kant, Mikhail Emelianov at Perverse Egalitarianism has a nice post about “Simplifying Kant,” where he talks about Kant’s relations with his commentators Reinhold and Fichte, whose works on this philosopher helped to establish their careers along with his philosophical reputation:

Then there is, of course, Fichte who travels to Konigsberg in 1791 to meet the great master and finds the encounter to be rather disappointing – Kant appears sleepy and receives him without “special attention.” Fichte sticks around determined to impress the great philosopher (writes what will become An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation), ends up writing him a letter asking for money to return home to Saxony. Kant is sketchy on the money but finds young Fichte a job. Fichte’s Attempt is published without an author’s name, everyone thinks it’s Kant’s new work on religion, Fichte is suddenly thrust into the spotlight (or a spot-torch, maybe) and a village youngster is now a 30-year old protege of Kant himself. Eventually, in 1794 Goethe, impressed by Fichte’s Attempt, helps him get a professorship at Jena. Reinhold got his professorship at Jena based on his Letters on Kantian Philosophy – therefore, the lesson is clear: hang out with the big shots and get professorships.

Literary critics have often downplayed this authorial role as popularizing stand-in (or explainer) for more difficult authors, because we tend to regard an author’s reputation as the product of a single writer’s intentions.  Yet if we look more closely at the details of literary careers, what we find are authorial networks, partnerships, tit for tat exchanges, logrolling, competition, friendly or otherwise–interactions like these are much more prevalent, though, the more closely we examine questions of reputation and publicity.

I’ve always suspected that Boswell’s loving depiction of Johnson was a huge factor in getting Johnson read and enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, once his cultural authority was dissipated.  But never underestimate the power of the popularizer in literary (or philosophical) history.

DM