- A Soft Look BackwardVol. 29, No. 7, April 1967
I was recently asked to come to a neighboring university and give a lecture on the function of literary criticism in the college curriculum today, or the relation of criticism to humanistic studies in general. At first this subject struck me as so obvious that I did not see how I could take up fifty minutes in talking about it. But then I began to try to formulate some questions that the people who had issued the invitation must have had in mind. How much of criticism, for example, comes into the teaching of literature, and what part of it, and how does it relate to the present character of the educational "establishment," to use that vexingly over-used word. It was at this point that I was reminded that the "establishment" today is a very different matter from what it was thirty years ago. Then, literary scholars were one thing, writers another. Today we must ask, "What distinguished writers are not now in academic life?"
Of critics I could think offhand only of Edmund Wilson, and he is occasionally susceptible to academic appointment. Of poets, of some older ones, like Marianne Moore, and of course, at the other extreme, most of the hippies, if there are poets among them. Of novelists, either the commercially very successful (but not all of those, by any means; the example of Robert Penn Warren comes immediately to mind) and again the far far out like William Burroughs (and he would be more useful in Home Economics, teaching the use of scissors and needles than in literature, teaching something about composition). Then, dramatiststs—they are probably the rarest writers in the academy today, probably because the teaching of dramatic composition is among the rarest of academic subjects. Then one remembers, at once, William Alfred, author of Hogarn's Goat, who teaches Anglo-Saxon at Harvard. And so it goes.
These preliminary reflections reminded me that the teaching of literary criticism is in itself a relatively new thing, and I was forced back to reconsider the character of my own academic training in literature, and the way the program has changed in the course of those same thirty-odd years.
"In those days," Alfred Kazin has written, "it was understood that scholarship was itself a trust, gravely presided over by men and women who were custodians of the best that had been thought and learned. Knowledge was seen historically; it consisted of a tradition, the tradition. It was not always possible to say where this tradition began, but so far as [End Page 164] literature was concerned, it ended at the cemetery." Which is to say that one did not write theses about people who were not yet dead. And was that such a dreadful proscription? My literary education was accomplished (if that is the word) in much the same tradition of scholarship as Alfred Kazin's, and I find myself grateful now to professors who discouraged me from spending hours in writing about certain writers I was then reading with passionate interest and in political zeal but have not now read for many years—John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Albert Maitz, someone named Clara Weatherwax! I am as grateful to those professors as I am to that one who, while he was uncritical enough to urge me to read the works of Arthur Machen, a name that to any young person today must be as unfamiliar as that of Clara Weatherwax, was nevertheless critical enough to urge me to stop wasting my time, after about page one hundred and fifty, on a novel I was trying to write. I think that most teachers of writing would agree with me that a teacher of writing cannot really teach very much about writing, but that there is one thing that he can certainly do: he can let you know that it is possible to become a writer without first being a damned fool.
But I digress.
Alfred Kazin's essay is called "The Writer and the University." "There is," he wrote, "no need to recall all the satire, scorn, and downright bitterness which...