Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Bibliographing the ’sixties

You might say that my bibliography of ’sixties fiction has been a lifetime in the making. The first hardback book that I ever bought with my own money was Allen Drury’s 1968 novel Preserve and Protect, the fourth and last volume of the tetralogy about American politics that Drury had begun with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Advise and Consent. (Spoiler: Drury never duplicated the mastery of that first volume.)

By the next year I was bolting down Portnoy’s Complaint and writing a celebration of it for Ramona High School’s literary magazine. (The faculty adviser rejected it on the basis of its sensational subject matter and even more sensational language.) I came of age on the fiction of the ’sixties—Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Stanley Elkin, Wright Morris, Walker Percy, Peter De Vries, J. F. Powers, Mark Harris, Evan Connell, Thomas Berger, E. L. Doctorow, Maureen Howard, Wilfrid Sheed, R. V. Cassill, John Barth, Joan Didion, even Madison Jones. These were the writers who lined the bookshelves of my early self-education. I filled my head with useless details about publication order and publishing houses and copyright dates. Sitting down to compile my bibliography four decades later, I found myself doing much of the work from memory.

One reason I wanted to compile it was to leave a record, even a testament, to my useless literary learning. I am struggling against self-pity when I say that learning is no longer considered the sine qua non of the scholar, especially not in English departments. At one time, as J. V. Cunningham wrote in a 1964 Carleton Miscellany symposium on graduate education in English, bibliography was numbered among the specialized disciplines of literary study—that is, every literary scholar was assumed to be a capable hand at it, if not an adept. Now, however, what is prized in English departments is theoretical sophistication, interpretive cunning; being up to the minute, but not necessarily knowing “the impervious facts/ So well you can dispense with them” (to quote again from Cunningham), is what is sought in the bright young hires.

No one will ever again accuse me of being bright or young. As a dinosaur, though, perhaps I am in a good position to watch the meteor of an unsustainable economic model wipe out the last of my species. As Clay Shirky wrote in a brilliant essay last Wednesday, “The [university] faculty has stopped being a guild, divided into junior and senior members, and become a caste system, divided into haves and have-nots.” And nothing distinguishes the haves from the have-nots except for tenure—certainly not learning and not even theoretical sophistication. The idea that American society will go on indefinitely subsidizing an elite caste of low-responsibility intellectuals, who demand the leisure to teach advanced subjects while underpaid assistants perform the hard work of educating most of the undergraduate students in a university, is absurd.

Dedicated only to preserving its leisure and elite status, the university faculty has betrayed the ideal of learning. The “higher education bubble” (as Glenn Harlan Reynolds calls it) will burst. The university caste system will be swept away, along with the last subsidies for the last remaining scholars. At that point, scholarship will operate on the model of the blog—it will be a gift offered to an indifferent world in the hope that someone else might value it as highly as I myself, for example, value the fiction of the ’sixties.

5 comments:

srhcb said...

I guess you had to be there?

Wait!

I was!

R.T. said...

You say: "The idea that American society will go on indefinitely subsidizing an elite caste of low-responsibility intellectuals, who demand the leisure to teach advanced subjects while underpaid assistants perform the hard work of educating most of the undergraduate students in a university, is absurd."

I fear you are correct. All cultures evolve or disintegrate. The culture of higher education upon which we were weaned (i.e., I began as a freshman in 1963) is falling apart and the center will not hold.

If you call yourself a dinosaur waiting for the meteor shower, I must tell you that I am a kindred spirit with a similar fate.

In any case, David, over the last couple of years, your wisdom has kept me from worrying about the meteors. What will be will be.

And -- finally -- isn't is odd that our earliest encounters with literature are the most memorable? (I remember Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, George Orwell, Flannery O'Connor, and Hemingway most vividly. Now that is an eclectic mix!) It is almost like remembering the first time -- which we never forget.

Cheers!

jwthomas said...

No Bruce Jay Friedman? No Harvey Swados?

D. G. Myers said...

@jwthomas—

No, I didn’t read either Friedman or Swados with any real interest when I was younger, but both are in the bibliography.

Anonymous said...

I think the end will not be as cataclysmic as you suggest, for the caste model will actually apply to the schools themselves: the elite (I use the word as a description of ability) schools will survive but will probably serve much fewer students than the more ordinary schools, in which part-time profs take on increasing amounts of the work. Elite level schools will not be necessarily places of master teaching, but will possess large enough endowments and development programs to sustain what we all thought would last forever. That said, don't fall into the trap of thinking that part-time instruction will necessarily be poor instruction. Educators of all stripes are still people of strong intrinsic motivations, loving their subjects and caring that their students learn. Alas, they will struggle to sustain themselves, however. We are returning to the day when teaching guaranteed little but genteel poverty and our literary culture was preserved by an aristocracy that does something else for a living.