Thursday, March 31, 2011

BRODHEAD: The Rogue Elephant in Anthony T. Kronman's Book


This is a passionate, personal book which every parent of a college-bound youth ought to read. It consists of philosophical arguments, so it's not easy reading. Here are the subject headings: "1. Humanities--Study and teaching (Higher)--United States. 2. Life. 3. Meaning (Philosophy)--Study and teacher (Higher)--United States. 4. Humanities--Philosophy. " You may not find a stronger, more straightforward description of how Political Correctness gained control of American higher education than Anthony T. Kronman offers here, nor a more convincing philosophical argument for the malignancy of Political Correctness. Kronman's desire to save higher education burns through the book even though his philosophical arguments are bolstered by few specific illustrations.

Kronman was Dean of the Law School at Yale while Richard Brodhead was Dean of Yale College, and Kronman now teaches in Yale College. Brodhead's name is not in Kronman's index and I don't see it anywhere in the book. One has to assume that Kronman's critique of political correctness in the humanities is derived in large part from what he saw going on in Yale College. The publication date of EDUCATION'S END is 25 September 2007, long after Richard Brodhead as President of Duke University had become the poster boy for Political Correctness gone wholly amuck during the false rape charges against three lacrosse players.

Three weeks earlier, on 4 September 2007, Stuart Taylor, Jr., and KC Johnson published what will stand as the definitive first-generation book on the Duke case: UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND THE SHAMEFUL INJUSTICES OF THE DUKE LACROSSE RAPE CASE. Brodhead's "moral meltdown" and his capitulation to the ferocious embodiments of Political Correctness, the Gang of 88, described powerfully here, was not news to bloggers and other followers of events at Duke. On 10 September 2007 NEWSWEEK described "a rush to judgment" in which "Brodhead and [rogue prosecutor] Nifong had an almost willful disregard for the facts." Brodhead's rushing to the wrong judgment in the name of Political Correctness had been public knowledge for many months.

Therefore Kronman's silence about Brodhead as Dean of Yale College and President of Duke University looks strategic, a decision in which collegiality trumps specificity, especially when the publisher is to be Yale University Press. Kronman's fine arguments would have been far more persuasive if he had admitted that there was an Elephant loose in his book, a rogue Elephant he never acknowledges, Richard Brodhead.

The weakest chapter in EDUCATION'S END is "The Research Ideal," and I have to assume that Kronman derived his opinions of the research ideal from what he saw around him at Yale College. He could hardly have had a worse place to start from if he wanted to understand what scholarship in the humanities once was, still ought to be, and perhaps still can be. Instead, working (without citing examples) from what he sees around him, he denounces "the research ideal," seeing it as something that "devalues the communion with past writers and artists to which secular humanism attached such importance."

Kronman thinks that the fixation on research in American universities has wantonly destroyed a valuable "set of beliefs" that "secular humanism" had preserved from "the old classicist belief in the possibility of conveying to each generation the (timeless) knowledge" one needs to meet "the question of life's meanings." The "modern research ideal," Kronman says, drained this set of beliefs "of their plausibility and appeal" by "championing a new set of values that contradict the values of recurrence, connection, and closure on which secular humanism was founded." "Secular humanism" was based on "unoriginality," he says, in "a stable repertoire of values that form a recurrent framework of choice in each generation."

Kronman is sure that the "research ideal" wrongly "elevates originality to a position of supreme importance." He holds that the research ideal "sharply devalues the communion with past writers and artists to which secular humanism attached such importance." He exalts the "notion of a timeless conversation in which the great voices of the past still speak with undiminished authority, that never concludes and never changes." He opposes that notion to the terrible loss he thinks is suffered by those who live under the research ideal. He thinks this because he sees the research ideal as being based on "the ethic of supersession." Each scholar supersedes the last and is in turn superseded, according to Kronman.

This whole chapter must seem baffling to anyone who does not know the history of "research" at Yale University and other great schools in the last half century and a little more—but particularly the history of “research” at Yale.

I think Kronman does not understand what has happened to "the research ideal" and the practice of research in the humanities at his own Yale. He does not understand that what has been passed off as "research" since the early 1950s is not genuine research. He does not understand that conversations with the writers of the past may be enlivened whenever your research can liberate something about their form and meaning that had been suppressed and lost. He does not understand research as a grand cooperative in which most often you triumph by augmenting the work of others rather than superseding their work.

Yale was once the leader in Melville scholarship, in particular. Melville was "revived" in the 1920s. The first hardbound biography appeared in 1921, a careless one by Raymond Weaver, and a "critical biography" by Lewis Mumford (relying on Weaver) followed in 1929. In the 1930s a few people tried to clarify details about Melville's life, but Weaver pretty much went unchallenged, even though he all but ignored whole decades of Melville’s life. Then the Yale Professor Stanley T. Williams, having completed a two-volume biography of Washington Irving, made a momentous decision. Seeing that no one had done rigorous biographical research on Melville, he decided that he would put any good graduate student who came along onto episodes in Melville's life or other topics such as Melville's reading of classical literature or the Bible. You wanted to work on Emerson's sermons? Tough.

The War intervened, but over the decade of the 1940s and just into the 1950s a remarkable cadre of young men and women got their PhDs at Yale with Melville dissertations under Williams. Their only peers were Wilson Heflin, who got his PhD at Vanderbilt, and the ineffable, magnificent film scholar Jay Leyda. The great Yale students of Williams include Walter E. Bezanson, Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Harrison Hayford, Elizabeth Foster, William H. Gilman, Nathalia Wright, Merrell Davis--people who did basic archival research but also people who worked intelligently with philosophical and historical ideas. Bezanson read CLAREL all by himself, 18,000 lines, and understood it so that anyone else has only added and clarified and adjusted his emphases. Sealts showed what classical philosophy meant to Melville. Harrison Hayford, at the simplest level, listed Melville's known meetings with Hawthorne and described their relationship. Gilman worked on Melville's early life in relation to his REDBURN--worked with family letters in the New York Public Library and other collections, worked more rigorously than anyone else has done since then. I inherited the box of his dissertation notes, and long after his death found in them information he had not published about something as important as Melville's purchase not of a house in NYC but of "an indenture of lease" on a house. Davis worked on Melville's third book, MARDI, mustering sources and describing Melville's shifting intentions for it. Davis's dissertation was published by Yale UP. Davis and Gilman collected Melville's letters for an edition. Elizabeth Foster read that difficult prose book, THE CONFIDENCE-MAN. Nathalia Wright worked on Melville and the Bible.

These scholars were magnificent. They had to work independently to some extent, holding cards close to the waistcoat, since anything that became widely known could not go to make up their dissertation (Kronman is right about "originality" in this sense), but once they had their PhDs in hand they cooperated even more than they had done before. Then they put their work on hold for a decade, through the mid and late 50s, as they established academic careers and sometimes families, though Davis and Gilman pushed on until their LETTERS appeared (Yale UP) in 1960 and Hayford and Sealts pushed on with the manuscript of the unfinished BILLY BUDD, SAILOR until they published it in 1962 (University of Chicago).

In the late 1940s a revolutionary new approach to literature, the New Criticism, invaded English departments all over the country and by the early to mid 1950s had triumphed. Reacting to careless and sentimental use of biography to explain literature, the New Critics decreed that biographical evidence was irrelevant to interpretation. Teachers were to teach "the text itself" (whatever that was, I finally asked). One of the leaders of the New Criticism, Cleanth Brooks, was brought to Yale (where he lived to insist rightly (in letters to me and surely to others) that his own training had been scholarly and that he did not recognize himself in what he was later blamed for).

The retirement of Stanley T. Williams from Yale in 1953 and his succession by Charles F. Feidelson as the chief teacher of nineteenth-century American Literature is emblematic of what happened to scholarship in English departments everywhere. Thereafter, through the 1950s and afterwards, critics of Melville talked about the unity of PIERRE and the unity of THE CONFIDENCE-MAN and gave "Readings" of this or that story. They wrote books on Melville's short stories in which they did not think of trying to ascertain the order in which the stories were written as distinguished from the order in which they were published (or rejected). They did almost nothing that I would call "work."

Yet generations of New Critics and their resurrections under new names have fostered the idea that they were doing "research" (even though they had repudiated scholarship) and Kronman buys into their terminology, even when he is skeptical of the results.

[Kronman:] "In some fields, such as history, scholarly research has produced valuable results--an accumulation of discoveries that has deepened our understanding of events and personalities. But in other fields, like literary criticism, it is not at all clear that the sequence of interpretations championed by scholars of succeeding generations constitutes a similarly progressive body of knowledge," what "a skeptic might describe as the product of fashion or fad."

Yet Kronman talks about the practitioners of this literary criticism as "scholars" when he says that their work "fails to accumulate in the same incremental and progressive way" that research in the sciences can do, but instead merely moves "around in a circle." He does not acknowledge the difference between scholarship, which adds grains to the heap of knowledge, and criticism, which toys with information. What he thinks is scholarship is merely criticism. There has been too little scholarship in the Yale English Department in the last half century for him to recognize it or even to take note of its absence.

The repudiation of biographical information by the New Critics in the 1940s and 1950s and their successors through the New Historicists in the 1980s and 1990s, after half a century and more (when a New Critic teacher at Yale, say, might teach his own successor at Yale), led to a professoriate which far too often not only did not know how to conduct archival research responsibly but was skeptical that any new information could ever be gained from archival research. In the 1950's, critics considered biographical evidence irrelevant to interpretation; by the 1990s their heirs--direct heirs, their students or the students of their students--behaved as if no new discoveries could come from biographical research. Because of Yale's incestuous policy of hiring its own, students at Yale like Brodhead in ensuing decades were further and further from scholarship.

In 2002 Brodhead (by saying in the New York TIMES that only I surmised the existence of Melville's volume of poems in 1860) made it clear that he did not believe anything could be learned from archival research in the distant past (almost all the now known documents about the 1860 POEMS were printed in 1922) and certainly did not believe I could have learned anything new for the biography by transcribing old letters. Assistant, associate, and full professors wasted their time, and some even wasted brilliant minds, over decades, while defending airy but airless theoretical constructs. (After suffering painfully in silence for five years I published an account of Brodhead's trashing my reputation as a scholar; see Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 62 [June 2007], 29-47.)

The Yale graduate Paul Lauter is the father of the HEATH ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, the ultimate in diversity (taking priority over quality) and general Political Correctness. I sought him out in the early 1980s because he was talking about reading widely in American literature, about wanting to see what was there out by a great variety of writers rather than hunting up one more neglected novel by a "major" writer to teach. I was with him when boxes of his RECONSTRUCTING AMERICAN LITERATURE arrived in the dark bowels of the Americana, and I possess the first inscribed copy of it. We parted company--over the issue of respecting quality (I want to spend most of my time on great writers); over the issue of politicizing literature (making Melville, for example, just exactly as up-to-date on racial issues as the latest critic thinks he or she is); and over the Politically Correct insistence on celebrating victimization . As part Cherokee and part Choctaw I refuse to say that reading a weak poem by a part Cherokee raises my self-esteem; no one has suggested yet that I should feel better about myself after reading a conventional poem by someone who is part Choctaw.

But Lauter told me a great story which he later put into print. In 1953 Yale students showed up for the American Literature class with notes on history, biography, and bibliography from Williams's old courses and found the notes were useless. That day Charles Feidelson talked about cloud imagery in Emerson or some other New Critical fetish. From that date, American literary scholarship was dead at Yale. Feidelson's students, I assume among them Richard Brodhead, never learned the basic aims and methods of scholarship, as opposed to criticism. Brodhead did not learn those aims and methods from his teacher R. W. B. Lewis, who (defying the dominant literary approach) wrote a biography of Edith Wharton.

I took a course from Hayford at Northwestern University in 1961 and in 1962 decided to do a dissertation on the politics of Melville and his family. As it turned out, my archival work on Melville and politics, and then my archival work on Melville in later decades, made me a belated member of the whole Yale group scholars who in the 1940s had set out to discover what could be known factually about Herman Melville (made me academic nephew to Williams's Yale students, but also a younger colleague of Wilson Heflin and ultimately the literary heir of Jay Leyda). I was uniquely positioned to understand how Yale (and by extension the Ivy League and all the imitative schools) changed from the 1940s beginning in the early 1950s up to the present.

When I went to the archives, starting in 1962, I found, repeatedly, that no one had asked to see certain documents since the 1940s. I should have realized what was happening in 1962, when I met two candidates for the PhD at Columbia. They were amused that Northwestern University was offering doctorates. They were curious about what kind of dissertation I was writing that would involve going to New York City. When I told them I was going to the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society every day to read nineteenth-century newspapers and copy out nineteenth century letters about Melville and politics they were dumbstruck. They saw they had a great story to regale their fellow students and Richard Chase with at Columbia, this guy from the Midwest 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 and rolling their eyes showed they thought this was the quaintest damned thing they had ever heard. It probably was. The research required by my dissertation topic pushed me out of step with my sprightly contemporaries. I just didn't know how far out of step I was. I was too happy working in the archives to worry about how unfashionable I was, but over the next decades I sat next to fewer and fewer academics at the microfilm readers and more and more bookies and genealogists.

Kronman had no example in hand of how scholarship really works when he insisted that any good scholar always supersedes earlier scholars (wholly supersedes, he seemed to think). What really happens in scholarship is described in the article in Nineteenth-Century Literature cited above. There I expose Brodhead's sly insinuation that I invented THE ISLE OF THE CROSS (1853) and his outright lie that only I "surmised" the existence of POEMS (1860). These slurs, as I say in the article, were repeated even more viciously by Andrew Delbanco and Elizabeth Schultz, two other critics who had never done archival work on Melville.

In fact, everyone had known about POEMS since 1922, when Meade Minnigerode published almost all the documents. I built, in the discussion of both THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS, on earlier scholarship. Hayford in 1946 had shown from old and newly discovered letters that Melville had started a book based on the Agatha Hatch story and that in April 1853 his mother had said he was far along with it. Hayford had no way of being sure Melville had finished it. In 1960 Davis and Gilman had Melville's letter to the Harpers in November 1853 which referred to the book he had been prevented from publishing earlier that year. Sealts in the 1980s worked with Leyda's documents to narrow the completion of the book to May and Melville's carrying it to New York from Pittsfield to June 1853. (All four of these scholars, I remind you, were Yale PhDs from the 1940s.)

In 1987 I found the title THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and the day of completion, May 22. Leyda was in his prolonged miserable dying when I found the title, but I telephoned Hayford, then Sealts. Can you imagine their joy at my discovery? And can you imagine my joy at their being alive and alert to hear what I had found? That's what scholarship is, the building upon the work of your predecessors. Did I supersede Hayford, Davis and Gilman, and Sealts, not to mention Minnigerode and Willard Thorp and Leyda and others? NO, no, no. I vindicated them. You could have asked Hayford and Sealts, back then. They did not declare themselves superseded. Instead, they felt triumphant. This is the real "research ideal" in action.

In real scholarship when you add a valuable piece to a structure, even when you add, in Melville's terms, the capstone to an edifice, you are collaborating with great scholars of the past, you are not superseding them. It's just that very few people now do real research. And all of the great Yale Melville scholars of the 1940s are dead now, even Bezanson, in 2011: the heroic exercise of reading CLAREL did him great good.

Kronman is misled by what passes for scholarship. What he sees around him at Yale is not scholarship, and of course he was in no position to know the weaknesses in the one book where Richard Brodhead purports to be doing something scholarly, the 1986 THE SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE. This book begins with a strangely convoluted excuse for the obvious Political Incorrectness of limiting the students of Hawthorne to famous male writers. Brodhead never asked, "Who attended the School of Hawthorne?" If he had, he would have found interesting women to write about as well as other men he did not know were in the same class at the school of Hawthorne. Brodhead wrote the book without doing the basic research--without reading widely in American fiction of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. This is not a case where you need to start with working through boxes of holograph letters in archives: first you just need to read a lot of novels by a lot of people, not just writers designated now as the greatest. The books were right there in Sterling Memorial Library.

You can see why Kronman would have been confused at Yale by what passes for scholarship and "the research ideal." To my mind "The Research Ideal" (Chapter 3) weakens the book, but the rest is so good that I urge everyone to read the whole thing. Kronman makes a powerful contribution to the study of the origins and the malignity of Political Correctness. May the next person to write on Political Correctness learn from EDUCATION'S END, amplify it, correct it, and not supersede it.

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