Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Crises" in Criticism, the New Historicism, and Jay Martin on the "New Ignorance"

In the late 1980s one of the rising stars of "criticism," the author of one of the new books on a "crisis" in education, not quite a leader in theory but making a place for himself by linking "criticism" and the "profession," reviewed my Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons. What he said was fuzzy to the point of irrelevance, although I knew that a former student of mine had tried hard to give him basic tutoring in the relation of literary theory to textual and creativity theory, matters utterly alien to him. At a conference early in 1987 this critic came up to me, flustered, suppressing his outrage that in my talk I had mentioned that the writer of a new book on Melville ought to have consulted a mass of archival material highly relevant to his topic. Did I really think, he sputtered, that "there really could be unused information" that his friend might have found?

I jotted down those words as soon as I could, and that night in my diary I commented: "Breaks my heart--no sense of what it is to be a scholar." Making some fragmentary satirical notes about the "New Ignorants" who were getting mid-level and upper-level jobs in Ivy League schools, I hastily elaborated a theory of the economics of literary theory to account for yuppies of the arbitrage generation who did not themselves produce anything of value but who merely traded in pre-existent products. They were growing rich, comparatively, without producing a worthy product, I decided. From my point of view they were inhumane because they showed no awareness of the historical labor force, the genuine scholars who had toiled in the known archives in previous decades and who sometimes had discovered new caches of documents.

My appalled "New Ignorants" was a recollection of a review by Jay Martin's in the January 1981 American Literature. Today, groused Martin, "our scholars" (he should have said would-be critics) "go to Paris to deconstruct their American educations, and then to behave scandalously at home." As he thought about the situation he worked himself up to this denunciation:

In order to write about the nineteenth-century American imagination of authority and genealogy, would it be necessary or even desirable to become acquainted with the major American intellectual historians of the period, or to know accurately the character and condition of family life, or law, or social relations on the East coast, or to become acquainted with the sociologists of American community and the anthropological investigations of American mores? Ach du lieber! C'est une idée très nouvelle! ¶ What must be called nothing less than the new ignorance is fully displayed in Eric J. Sundquist's Home As Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Anyone who reads this book seriously must be dazzled by the extraordinary display of intelligence and the dexterity of imaginative insight evident in it. . . . What a shame, then, to see him willingly giving over his capacity to fashion.

In his fashionable game Sundquist had claimed that "Melville centrally embodies 'the nightmare of self-generation . . . in a bizarre / parodic and patricidal / incest fantasy"--a claim Martin dismissed as a caricature dashed off "not only unhesitatingly but with completely unreflexive self-assurance," where the Frenchified critic was fusing "insight with blindness."

Martin himself might have said that along with the sociologists and the anthropologists the scholar-critic might have done better to start with knowing the history of the composition and publication of the Melville texts he cited and might even have gone far, far, beyond the published American authorities, into the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection in the New York Public Library or the Shaw Papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society or other repositories. Martin brilliantly identified what was wrong with what turned out to be an academic generation but he did not see that a turn to textual scholarship and biographical scholarship might have led to true breakthroughs for these critics who so wasted their brilliance and thrived while wasting it.

In the next years as I witnessed egregious examples of this New Ignorance in many of the latest publications on Melville I came to see the writers more and more as like the money-changers in the Temple, taking their cut as they transferred a transformed version of history into the New Historicism but contributed nothing new to the stock of knowledge. Later Richard B. Schwartz in his 1997 After the Death of Literature described these "crises" proclaimed by the critics as factitious battles "between straw men, carefully constructed by the combatants to sustain a pattern of polarization that could be exploited to provide continuing professional advancement."

By the late 1980s a few up and coming young academics saw that, after all, there was some strategic self-promotional value in acknowledging things historical and even things biographical. A very few of these younger academics began going to the archives, with dubious results as they attempted to read documents and even to transcribe them without having been taught such a forbidden skill, as is clear in my posts about Neal Tolchin, who at least deserves credit for trying, as so few of his peers did.

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