Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Defining Moment of my Academic Career

The Defining Moment of my Academic Career

         In the early summer of 1962 I met two Columbia graduate students who were writing PhD dissertations on Melville under Richard Chase. They had heard vaguely of Northwestern University and were amused that it was offering doctorates, not realizing, I decided, how badly the Northwest Territory needed some sort of regional school. They were fascinated that I could be writing a dissertation that required going to New York City. They were dumbstruck when I told them I went to the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society every day to copy out nineteenth century letters and diary entries about Melville and politics, or else read nineteenth-century newspapers looking for Melville's brother Gansevoort's speeches and reviews of Melville's works and other articles about Melville and his family. They had a great story to regale their fellow students and Chase with at Columbia, this skinny guy from the Midwest in a gray glen plaid wash-and-wear Baskin suit and a subdued rep tie going to the libraries every day and looking at old newspapers and manuscripts! In 1962, a graduate student going to the archives as if the New Criticism had never triumphed! Coming all the way to New York to do it! They were too polite to laugh outright, but the way they kept looking at each other showed they thought this was the quaintest damned thing they had ever heard. It probably was. They made it plain enough that the research required by my dissertation topic had pushed me out of step with my sprightly contemporaries. I just didn't know how far out of step I was. I keep coming back to this story now because as the years passed I realized that it predicted the resistance to historical scholarship, textual scholarship, biographical scholarship which would manifest itself in each succeeding decade.

1 comment:

  1. and from 1962 to 2011, nothing has changed, the attitude is still there.