Lament. . .sort of
When I began teaching at the college where I am, this day, still correcting papers--that's now more than thirty years ago--American Lit was a required course for all students. In that golden age, I'd walk powerfully into class and face as many as sixty or seventy students. Times have changed.
Today, I sit in a circle reminiscent of ye olde wagon trains. I don't pump my arms when I lecture, I barely use the blackboard, which, today is white.
Today--literally today--my American Lit I class will dutifully write their semester exam, and there will be just a dozen in the room. We've come a long way, baby.
Why the precipitous decline? Let me count the ways.
First, the course is no longer required; the powers-that-be determined years ago already that we'd fashioned our curriculum too much after the pattern of an ancient "liberal arts" model. Higher education was becoming more pre-professional with the addition of academic programs in business, agriculture, and engineering. And, after all, American Lit was something our students "had" or "did" in high school. American Lit became an elective, something, maybe of a luxury.
But there are ever so many more reasons why things are changing. I once had visions of being a writer because, romantically, I'd bought into something akin to the Emersonian notion of the writer as prophet. I honestly believed that a writer could shape culture--as Hemingway likely did, after a fashion; as Mailer and Updike and Roth did also into the early Sixties. That's the era, of course, when I came of age, an era when Time magazine still did substantial book reviews. I thought the writer was a seer, translator of the eternal and yet voice of the age.
Today, my students don't begin to understand Emerson's admiration for "the Poet." They think him odd. Of course, other than maybe Maya Angelou, they know no poets at all because poetry is something they encounter only on Trivial Pursuit cards.
Today, "literature" is dying at the hands of formidable and visual foes, one of which didn't even exist in the Sixties. Television made us all more visually oriented, and the internet (and the information age) has democratized print journalism into immense scatterings, and literary culture into a curious sideshow. It's no wonder we have so few English majors; lit is slip-sliding away--or at least into the discipline of history. "Literature" has become as unique as, say, opera.
I got hoodwinked. Basically, what I've lived for has mouldered away beneath me.
I should be angry, but, somehow, I'm not. The fact is, I don't read as much as I should--novels or imaginative literature, that is. The fact is, I spend far more time before a screen like this one than I do before an open book. If there are culprits here, if there are villians, I am one, just as much as I am a victim. The fact is, I listen to more books than I read, and I do so, inevitably, when I'm doing something else: working out.
Not long ago I read a review of a book I wanted, Radical Hope, by Jonathan Lear. I went to Amazon and bought it, got it in the mail, and it's been lying here now for three weeks. Ever since it arrived, I looked at it and told myself it wouldn't be long before I could actually sit somewhere and read it. My life has been so busy that I can't afford time to read.
That's a lie I tell myself. The fact is, I have spent countless hours in front of this cathode ray tube since that book arrived. I've made a choice I don't remember deliberating upon, and that species of choice is the most devastating because, since I don't even think about making it, it may be most clearly revelatory of my own values. The fact is, I've sat here in the basement, pumping out the blog posts and doing a thousand other things. I've spent hours on photography. Had I read Radical Hope instead, Lear would have been tucked into the shelves of my library. But I didn't. I sat in front of this computer. My priorities are showing.
Just like everyone else's, my own choices are imperiling "literature," something I once almost worshipped. What do I mean, almost?--something I did. Today, "literature" (I hate giving it quotation marks, but it's come to that) is rapidly becoming, as some say, "an increasingly arcane hobby."
But then, even within the field, literary theorists have been saying for years that literature itself is simply "text," that it has no more intrinsic value than television ads. When it does climb above the mundane, it's normally little more than fancy power politics created by dead white males.
In the world in which I operate, the world of higher education, the need for certain skills will not diminish--one of which is writing. Thus, there will always be a need for an English department. The cause of science in this culture isn't suffering, save for the fact that fewer and fewer students wander into the labs. The need for history is a constant. Foreign languages may well be more important than they ever were.
Art departments are going like gang-busters, but their swelling numbers have less to do with the glories of the Louvre than the advent of graphics software and--guess what?--computer technology. In what we've called since the Renaissance "the Humanities," we're all suffering somewhat; but I dare so none so baldly as we are, in the world of "literature."
I'll be happy if someone points me at a discipline that is as deeply imperiled as mine. Please do.
It's not sweet Christmas fare, but should you be interested, have a look at Caleb Crain's article in a recent New Yorker:
A good friend put me on to it, the Chair of an English Department, and he reminds me that very bright people have looked woefully upon the demise of literature for hundreds of years, Wordsworth, for one. Hawthorne, for another. Melville, too.
Besides, I'm thinking that the loss of "literature" may well be sustainable by the culture of the information age.
But I'm not so sure about the diminution of reading skills. That loss is nothing to shake a stick at.
And that problem--if indeed it is one--belongs to more of us than simply those who inhabit English departments.
Be of good cheer.