first posted Thursday, December 14, 2017
The Winter 2017 Modern Language Association Newsletter announces that Paul Lauter has received the Francis Andrew March Award established by the ADE (Association of Departments of English) Executive Committee in 1981 "to honor exceptional service to the profession of English." I have been looking at the March 1994 issue of AMERICAN LITERATURE, a collection of essays which I thought had been designed to remove Melville from the classroom. I took part of it personally, as designed to prevent the publication of the biography people knew I was working on. The sentence that struck me hardest was this: "we already have full-scale biographies of Melville." Well, of course we did not have anything like a full-scale biography of Melville, no study at all based on the great NYPL trove of "Augusta's Papers."
The article that set the tone for the issue was written by Paul Lauder under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Called "Melville Climbs the Canon," it was cleverly designed to throw Melville back out of that canon. Lauter recounted his polling some 100 students as to "the names of five or perhaps ten American books or writers" they thought "an educated person should have read—'educated' being defined as having completed a B. A. degree." He reported that Melville was never listed—"left off—with not a single vote among the one hundred or more registered in" the poll. Lauter selected some comments meant as representative: "You really feel belittled when you're reading Melville." Lauter continued sympathetically (no one wants to feel belittled): "My students seemed actively to dislike Melville, to feel humiliated by the prose and ignorant before the dense web of Melville's allusive, syntactically intricate style and his convoluted plotting."
Melville, concluded Lauter, "had become for them" (his students) "a representative of what they hated about their academic training." He knew when this had come about—in the Melville Revival of the 1920s: "I want to argue that, in the main, 'Melville' was constructed in the 1920s as part of an ideological conflict which linked advocates of modernism and of traditional high cultural values—often connected to the academy—against a social and cultural 'other," generally, if ambiguously, portrayed as feminine, genteel, exotic, dark, foreign, and numerous. In this contest a distinctively masculine, Anglo-Saxon image of Melville was deployed as a lone and powerful artistic beacon against the dangers presented by the masses; creating such an image entailed overlooking issues of race, eroticism, democracy, and the like."
Lauter suggested "that much of Melville's appeal, especially in the critical period during which he was being established as a 'classic' writer, has precisely to do with the validation of boys' tastes in mens' criticisms." Masculinity (as the enemy of feminism) "was precisely part of Melville's appeal to twenties critics." Melville, in fact, was an oppressor of young, poor, minority students (including numbers of children of recent immigrants). Lauter explained his students' "distaste for Melville": "For them, the modernist preference for difficult, indeed obscure, texts is no virtue; it may, in fact, reflect a process deeply inflected by class standards, whose effect is to marginalize them culturally." No wonder Paul Lauter's students hated Melville! So well had the National Endowment for the Humanities spent our money! Down with anyone who marginalizes all students culturally!
This was the opening piece in a deeply distressing campaign to drive Melville out of the classroom. It did not happen very often. Most students, and not only white upper-class students, love Melville, given the chance. If you want evidence, look now almost weekly in Greg Lennes's Melville site at classroom projects where students are involved in reading and responding joyously to Melville. It seems to me that giving the ADE March award to Lauder is one of the indications that the ADE, like the Modern Language Association itself, has marginalized the very people who formed it, people, even some from lower classes, even back then, who have gained enough education to love great stories greatly told.