American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 44
The Humanist on Campus:
Continuity and Change
Copyright © 1998, Denis Donoghue
In My Time
Henry James Professor of English and American Letters
and University Professor, New York University
Thirty-five years ago or thereabouts I was a young man doing his best to get along in the world. I had a solid job-tenured, pensionable, not munificently paid but not at starvation wages eitheran assistant lectureship in the English Department at University College, Dublin. Someone told me about the ACLS. More immediately to the point, I heard that the Council made available to foreign scholars a number of fellowships to come to the United States for a year. (I gather that the program has now been discontinued.) I applied, telling the Council the truth, that I wanted to write a book on nineteenth and twentieth century American poetry and needed the resources of a good library in American literature and history. I was interviewed by Richard Downer, awarded a fellowship, and assigned to the University of Pennsylvania as a Visiting Scholar. Penn was chosen because the dean of American literary scholarship, Robert Spiller, was there. So we set off and spent the year in a splendid housedesigned by Stanford White, if rumor is to be creditedin Germantown, Pennsylvania. I had no teaching duties, and I was freesubject to my getting on with the book, Connoisseurs of Chaosto accept any lecture invitations that came along. I lectured in several places that year and made some indelible friendships.
Back in Dublin, I took part in establishing or developing programs in American Studies. I became the first Chairman of the Irish Association of American Studies, and met regularly with my colleagues in the British Association of American Studies (of which Marcus Cunliffe and Harry Allen were the senior members) and the European Association of American Studies. We received a great deal of support and an adequate supply of money from the Cultural Sections of the various American embassies. Those were lively days. We felt that we were doing something fresh, and while we knew that we were still lagging behind our American colleaguesHenry Nash Smith at Berkeley, to cite a distinguished examplewe were not intimidated by that consideration.
Not that our relations with the "Big Shots" were uniformly sweet. I recall a meeting of the European Association of American Studies in Salzburg, at which Gordon Wood was the keynote speaker. He had hardly got into his stride when the English writer Andrew Sinclair made a noisy exit in protest. He thought that Professor Wood was uttering propaganda for the State Department. Generally, though, our proceedings were cordial. Whatever we thought of American foreign policy, we believed that American literature and history were worth talking about. Besides, America was the future, so we knew we had better come to terms with its culture.
Time passed. About twenty years ago I was offeredand I acceptedappointment to the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University, on the departure of its first occupant, Leon Edel, to Hawaii. I still taught American literature, and wrote about it, but I thought of myself as a generalist, so I arranged to teach English, Irish, and American literature, venturing into each field when I felt inclined and wherever I thought I might be useful. It was all genial, and it still is. My claim to the status of a not-entirely-ignorant tourist in these three fields has not been audibly challenged. But of course, the conditions in our profession at large have changed.
I didn't really take part in the Culture Wars, mainly because I regarded them as an American issue and thus removed from me. In Ferocious Alphabets and a few review-essays in The New York Review of Books, I grumbled about Deconstruction and aimed a few blows at Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, but I thought the particular occasions of dispute were cosmopolitan rather than American. I have never been a student, undergraduate or graduate, at an American university: my knowledge of the forces at work in American institutions is second-hand and insecure. I felt I could step into a quarrel only when it was a strict question of Theory, independent of local circumstances. But I could not be completely detached. As a matter of policy, I minded my own business, fairly narrowly construed, but I could not help being aware of a certain darkening or thickening of the atmosphere. Two or three years ago I read an essay by my colleague Jim Tuttleton on our part-time associate Derridahe visits the English Department for a few weeks in the Falland I knew I needed to stay out of the war zones.
So, in a fashion, I have survived: no major bones broken, no loss of blood worth mentioning. It is my impression that the Culture Warriors have made inconclusive pacts. Or rather: they have withdrawn to establish local affiliations, groups of like-minded colleagues united on ideological grounds. Feminists speak to feminists, post-Marxists to post-Marxists, gays and lesbians to gays and lesbians, bourgeois liberals to bourgeois liberals. We are in a milder phase of combat, when members of each constituency dispute among themselves on issues of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, good faith and bad, loyalty and treachery. Each constituency has its own bureaucratic arrangements: journals, conferences, mutual reviewing and back-scratching, occasional eruptions of civil war. Outsiders are not invited to take part in these family quarrels; insiders are preoccupied with their immediate cause, occasionally directing hostile glances at people outside the compound who played a sinister part, they recall, in the big war.
I am so far from these battlegrounds that I now confine myself to a single issue, the question of reading. Arguing about theoretical matters seems to me a waste of time and spirit, unless they have irrefutable bearing on the following question: How do I read a poem or a novel, and if I know the answer to that question, how do I teach students to read? The centrality of literary criticism must be re-asserted, now that so much ostensibly literary activity has drifted off into the soft felicity of politics, sociology, and Cultural Studies. In my new book, The Practice of Reading, I suggest that it may be wise to start over and teach the literatures of English as if English were a foreign or second languagewhich it is for many of our students. In my view, the only questions worth fighting about are these: What should we be reading, given that life is short and libraries are vast? What does reading a novel entail, if it doesn'tand I would argue that it doesn'tentail extracting an ideological moral from the story? What is involved in reading, say, Geoffrey Hill's new poem, "The Triumph of Love" with the seriousness it requires and deserves? What are the uses of literacy? Have we learnt anything from the experiments-in-reading engaged in by I. A. Richards, William Empson, F. R. Leavis, D. W. Harding, Cleanth Brooks, and their associates? Or can we (securely, glibly, stupidly) regard such work as blood-under-the-bridge? What can we teachers in English Departments do that is not done far better by men and women trained in philosophy, religion, politics, sociology, linguistics, psychology, and law?
Still, I wouldn't want to contribute bullets to yet another cultural skirmish. The humanities are already sufficiently depressed: there are not enough tenure-track jobs or, indeed, jobs of any kind in which young PhDs can teach the literature they want to teach, and far too many jobs are confined to Expository Writing programs in which literature is deemed a damned nuisance. The conditions don't make for civil relations. A few years ago Frank Kermode wrote that, since the fall semester of 1974, there has been "a drastic lowering of the standard of civility." I don't recall precisely what happened in fall 1974, either in the United States or in the United Kingdom, where Kermode has done most of his teaching. Perhaps it was the setting up of the School of Criticism and Theory at UC Irvine. Surely Kermode is right. These days, we keep a civil tongue in our heads mainly by staying well away from the notorious boors and cranks. We talk only to our friends.