Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Slough of Despond

    In his PMLA article “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983,” fittingly published in the centennial issue of the “industry” journal for the study of literature, Karl Kroeber attempts to describe changes in literary study since the university model brought about its systematization.  He distinguishes between scholarship in literature (the study of texts and their histories) and literary intellect (the “timeless” theory and criticism about texts), and discusses how these two approaches to literary study are somewhat at odds.  Criticism is the approach most valued by university hiring committees since the 1980s, despite its lack of practical value when compared with our ever-evolving, ever-improving scholarly tools.  Kroeber advocates placing a higher value on literary study such as textual studies and biographical studies, arguing that even the most robust theories may be passing fads, while excellent scholarship will always give us some ground to stand on, no matter our critical approach.

    From the start, Kroeber’s approach to his subject reveals his sense of humor, and he acknowledges that his attempt at painting the picture of the last hundred years of literary study will be mediocre at best.  As a teacher of mostly undergraduate courses who mostly writes about Wordsworth, he doesn’t consider himself a member of the higher echelons of the literary studies club, or of any trendy theory crowd.  He wonders why the MLA approached him to write such a history for their hundredth-year issue.  “I was appalled by the invitation to write this essay,” is how the essay begins (326).  He has set the tone.

     Kroeber prefaces his discussion of what goes on in literary study by calling the MLA (and the profession of studying literature) a bureaucracy, and he equates it with other types of bureaucracies, such as those found in the medical professions.  In order for the bureaucracy to function, it needs a hierarchy.  He spends a few paragraphs on unflattering descriptions and analogies (in PMLA no less!) about the functioning of this bureaucracy, and calls on members of it to recognize “how increasingly we function as a profession only bureaucratically” (327).  Specialized interests are commoditized by forums and panels, all exacting dues and hiring out for speakers in tangential topics.  Kroeber laments what the study of literature becomes under this bureaucratic system -- in the era of professionalization, “power, prestige, and professional virtuosity disguise the professional's persistent trivializing of human experience” (327).  All these things we do with literature (in 1984 anyway) are causing us to lose focus on the literature itself, and making the work we do less and less approachable by scholars or students of any other specialization.  Who wants to read PMLA?  Kroeber doesn’t. (Neither do I.)

    Next Kroeber makes his distinction (which is a pretty widely recognized distinction) between scholarship in literature and literary criticism.  The first, he says, is evolving all the time, always building upon past work, always discovering more about history, and always bringing about good revisions to the canon.  Because of literary scholarship we have Blake as one of our Romantic “big six,” and we have moved Swinburne to the margins.  As this scholarship piles up, we start to “take for granted a vast apparatus of bibliographies, compendia of criticism, checklists, catalogs of library holdings, reference works, and many scrupulously edited texts”(328)  that make continued scholarship much easier than it was a century ago.  As more and more is discovered, histories and biographies become more accurate, fueling new discoveries.  Textual scholarship (which “real” critics treat as “a slough of despond” [329]) keeps step with scholarship on literature, and studies of the book fuel debates on everything from editorial copy-text to authorial intention.  After expounding the virtues and successes of modern literary scholarship, Kroeber turns to the problem: “Young Ph.D.’s” as he calls them, are not trained to be scholars.  They are trained to be critics – specialized critics.  So despite scholarship’s steady march forward, “our discipline now decays intellectually.”  We have the mounds of scholarship, and no one wants to work with them. 

    Those young Ph.D.’s who do want to work with scholarly materials lack the skills, and instead write heaps of criticism without actually consulting much of anything literary except the primary texts themselves.  Kroeber claims that we have impoverished our critical vocabulary by reaching out to various only tangentially related disciplines – sociology, linguistics, psychology – and critics now borrow so much from the sciences, all the while claiming to be doing something “creative,” that the criticism (or, theory) they produce ultimately has little to do with “literary study.”  So, his practical concern about where literary study has ended up by 1984 is that there will soon be no jobs for the young Ph.D.’s.  They are either incompetent at actually studying literature, or if they have managed to focus on their literary scholarship, they will not get hired by the committee looking for the latest theory buzzwords (or, to update this, cultural criticism buzzwords) on the C.V.

    While Kroeber brings his argument about scholarship vs. criticism to bear on a very practical issue (and a vital one, if we all wish to continue to have jobs and a department of our own), he does so within a framework of discussing how literary study has gotten where it is today, even if part of the “study” is in a sad state.  That’s what PMLA wanted him to do – a history of literary study.  But Kroeber is limited by his own knowledge of the subject, his lack of involvement in any of the “new” types of literary study, and the time period the PMLA team wants him to cover – the hundred years that the MLA has existed!  It is telling that they did not ask him to delve further into literary history.  No literary study existed before it was sanctioned by the MLA?  This limitation is noted in the title of the article, and can’t be blamed on Kroeber.  He gives the dates he is covering: 1883-1983.  That is all that is required really.  Like any good bibliographer does, you have to put a cap on the thing somewhere, or it will not fit between the covers of a book, much less a journal.  The other limitations that stem from Kroeber’s lack of specialized knowledge about literary history are his own limitations, but for some reason the MLA chose him to write this. 

Perhaps Kroeber was chosen precisely because he is an outsider on the history of literary study.  He can give a broader picture of what it looks like from someone who does it in the way most professors do it: teaching undergraduates, and writing on a period of canonical literature. Kroeber does well to call attention to the limitations of the article, calling it an “amateurish foray” into literary study (336), and ultimately brings his argument home to advocate for teaching literature to small classes as the saving grace of the English department.  If we try not to “fret” about the bureaucracy in which we must teach and write, and if we try not to jump on every theoretical bandwagon, we will get back to teaching literature in that way that supposedly helps our students' critical thinking, and all those other brain functions that can be magically turned on by reading a book – the reason the other departments send all their majors over here for at least a class or two. 

    So while Kroeber ends up in a very specific place at the end of his essay, and fails to give a sweeping overview of, or a definite shape to, the century he is supposed to be describing, he at least gives the PMLA reader something to think about when it comes to dealing with the legacies of that century, and deciding whether to turn away from them, embrace them, or count them as irrelevant to the very practical work we do in classrooms, and as scholars of texts.

Work Cited
Kroeber, Karl. “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983.” PMLA 99.3 (1984): 326-39. Print.

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