Monday, December 15, 2008

Pulling out a quotation from Cunningham

In his amused nod at my post on theory, which I discuss below, Mark Thwaite does say that he enjoyed the quotation that I “pull[ed] out” from J. V. Cunningham.

Two confessions. First, Cunningham was my teacher. When he was a visiting professor at Washington University in 1976, he gave a seminar on the history of literary criticism. On the first day of class, he was delighted to find that, on the student roster, the course was listed as “History of Literacy Criticism.” For what it is worth, Cunningham set my feet upon the career path that I continue to stalk. Only much later, though, did I realize how deeply he had penetrated all of my thinking about literature and literary scholarship. At the time, I believed that he had given me his blessing as a writer. One day in class he gave the assignment to fill the blank in this epigram by Sir Henry Wotton:

He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, _________, and died.
My classmates twisted themselves into elegant polysyllabic knots. Stumped, I wrote simply: “went to bed.”He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, went to bed, and died.
The correct answer, of course, is somewhat more distinguished:He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, liked it not, and died.
Still, “that is the best wrong answer I have ever received,” Cunningham said. And in some respects, I have been trying to supply him with good wrong answers ever since. My firm conviction that it is just as important to write well in scholarship as in fiction, and infinitely more needed, is straight Cunningham.

Second, I didn’t just pull the quotation out of a hat. From the beginning of my PhD studies in English, his words have served as my program. Cunningham defined an ideal that I measure myself against in every professional thing I do. I mention this, and I quoted his words in my theses on the history of literary theory, because that ideal has disappeared from graduate training in English. It is undeniable that the traditional disciplines of literary scholarship, which Cunningham lays out with such memorable exactitude and brevity, have been replaced by the need to acquire a theoretical “approach.”

The last time I taught a graduate seminar at Texas A&M—I won’t teach one again—I was contacted in advance by a student who wanted to know what my approach would be. “How do I decide?” I asked him. He did not enroll in the course. Another student, who did enroll, complained on the course evaluation that my approach was “atheoretical,” even though, in a seminar on Evil in the American Novel since 1940, we had read a pretty healthy dose of recent philosophical writing on the problem of evil. I can guess what the student meant. I had not located my ideas in relation to some currently dominant figure of thought. I had started over again, as if from scratch, with each novel on our syllabus. I was entirely unsuspicious in my hermeneutics. I actually believed that the novelists had something to say, and I was interested what it might be. Silly of me, I know.