- Business Cards and Unions1
A stray thought while reading this fascinating collection of essays: how to explain the disappearance of Festschrift? Has this category of publication been driven out by the financial pressures faced by all academic publishers? (Nothing very compelling or sexy about a loosely conceived collection of essays.) Has the simple attempt of colleagues to honor a distinguished scholar been rendered somehow politically suspect (as if the scholar was some sort of “star”)? Or has scholarship—just scholarship—now become a bankrupt ideal, a species of esoteric activity possible to engage in only by precious few at elite universities?
Certainly, it is with good reason that in their introduction, the editors caution as follows: “Neither a Festschrift nor a tribute, this book uses Nelson’s career as a focal point for a consideration of the politics of the academy” (3). If the first prospect would have been too narrow, the second might have been too embarrassing—never mind the imposing figure of Cary Nelson himself, who of course is still very much alive, as knowing about the profession as any man alive, and arguably less solicitous of any sort of personal celebration.
Nonetheless, something very close to a Festschrift shapes these pages. The subtitle of the book was—we are told—the title of a special conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The two co-editors teach there. Most of the contributors have either studied there or still teach there. Furthermore, many have either professionally collaborated with Nelson (most notably Stephen Watt) or have studied under him. More than once, a reader can be forgiven for having the impression of a group of people who have spoken to each other many times before.
The original Illinois conference was subtitled “A Tribute.” Such origins persist in the book, where several contributors go to some length to avoid seemingly to pay personal tribute to Nelson by instead remarking on how difficult he is (Paula Treichler receives a special acknowledgment by the editors for her “hard-earned skills in managing Cary”) or how variously [End Page 343] daunting. One of his former students confesses himself once “unnerved” by the Nelsonian presence (“and the stakes”). Another cites a friend in reply to a question about the man’s appearance: “He’s about six-feet, five-inches tall and looks like a cross between Karl Marx and Santa Claus.”
Like Marx, the student continues, Nelson’s words will prove of revolutionary import, and, like Santa, his “paternal benevolence…knows no bounds” (207). For a tribute, this is pretty good, and all of a piece with praiseworthy bits and pieces scattered throughout out these pages, such as the moment during his MLA job interview when Michael Bérubé recalls Nelson asking him whether general literary history could still be written. Exactly what sort of question was this?
Bérubé later learns that Nelson had just completed Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (1989). Was his question merely an older scholar’s way of seeking a younger ally or something more prepossessing, more devious?
Bérubé doesn’t inquire further so much as venture forth with a few words about the “dialogue” (now that he realizes it) of his work with Nelson’s, before returning to the primal scene of that MLA interview, where Nelson offered the young Bérubé a cup of coffee. He took it. Nelson remarks in italics about the acceptance. Bérubé is immediately smitten with his humor—and the rest is history, not only literary history but personal history; Bérubé writes as a friend who admires Nelson’s professional savvy, moral outrage, and organizational skill. The essay, entitled “The Organizational Man,” is not very probing. But it strikes me as precisely the sort of broadly anecdotal essay that used to appear in Festschrift volumes, where one colleague is pleased to pay tribute to another (and the reader is pleased to be a member of the same profession as both).
Has one casualty of the struggle characterized in the title of this volume already been the loss of older, more venerable discursive styles? It appears...