Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Round Three in The Centurions of High Culture Vs. Intellectual Nursing Homes

A friend pointed me towards the intellectual slap fest taking place between Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal and Benjamin Reiss, one of the authors of Cambridge History of the American Novel and writer at Slate.  Epstein charges that the book embodies all that is wrong with studying literature today--it's no longer about the novel, it's about the novel's place in history and the different schools of criticism.  He writes, "All that the book's editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others. But, then, this is a work of literary history, not of literary criticism."  (Ooooh burn!)

On the one hand, I agree with much of what Epstein is saying.  It's no longer enough to read and enjoy The Great Gatsby.  Now one must read it, dissect it, understand where it fits into Fitzgerald's biography, and understand where it fits into the American historical tapestry in a variety of contexts (socio-economic, race, gender, etc.).  The problem, though, is Epstein comes off as slightly stuffy (no big surprise from a writer at The Wall Street Journal, though, let's be honest).  For example (emphasis mine):
"'The Cambridge History of the American Novel' could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities."
Oh, hell no!  Not contemporary authors!  Who wants to read that shit?  If it's not Milton, I don't want to read it!  Epstein terms this "intelllectual nursing homes," where ideas that are rejected by other displines go to die.

Well, of course, Reiss isn't going to put up with any of that nonsense and writes a long "bsh, plz" at Slate:
"Simply recording our appreciation for the 'high truth quotient' (the measure Epstein wants) of a stream of canonical novels won't do. It's not clear what that 'quotient' is for Epstein, but anything that smacks of pop culture is by definition excluded. Yet novels were and remain a vital part of popular culture, and their emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries was greeted as an affront to the 'centurions of high culture' who appointed themselves to guard the gates before Epstein nominated himself for the job. Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of American novels published ever achieved—or even aspired to—the exalted status of high art."
This is where I agree with Reiss.  One of the most interesting sections of study from my American Literature class in college was the section on slave narratives and stories.  No one would argue that the slave stories were "high class," but they reveal so much about the human spirit: what do you tell your children when you're treated like chattel, when you live constantly under the fear that they will be sold away from you, when there's little-to-no-hope that the situation will change?  What can you say?  Read slave stories and listen to slave songs, and you'll find out, and you're more likely to get chills than you are from sitting down with an "improving" book.

And therein lies the problem: what the hell is the point of literature?  Epstein argues that the declining number of English majors in the country is due to "the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself."  Bingo. 

While I'd argue that the "human good" they're lacking is found in the form of cold, hard cash after graduation, the numbers of English majors are declining because literature struggles with context--why shouldn't I just read a book at home rather than paying thousands of dollars to study under an expert?  Literature professors would argue it's so that you can understand why the book was and continues to be important.  Reiss argues:
"In any kind of serious scholarship, it's easy to slip so far into analysis that we lose sight of what brought us into this business in the first place: our love of great writing. While our book is not really the place for P.D.A., evidence of this love should not be absent from our teaching for a moment. But love can't be confining. Sometimes it involves traveling to uncomfortable places, the area outside the fortress. If your love can't survive that, it'll never be safe—no matter how high the gates you build around it."
Fair enough, I guess, though that sounds pretty touchy-feely for someone who seems to be trying to strip the touchy-feely from the field.  All in all, I'd say this slapfest is a tie--mostly because there's no winner rather than because everyone's a winner, though.

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