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Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Twentieth Anniversary Edition

Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Twentieth Anniversary Edition

by Gerald Graff

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Widely considered the standard history of the profession of literary studies, Professing Literature unearths the long-forgotten ideas and debates that created the literature department as we know it today. In a readable and often-amusing narrative, Gerald Graff shows that the heated conflicts of our recent culture wars echo—and often


Widely considered the standard history of the profession of literary studies, Professing Literature unearths the long-forgotten ideas and debates that created the literature department as we know it today. In a readable and often-amusing narrative, Gerald Graff shows that the heated conflicts of our recent culture wars echo—and often recycle—controversies over how literature should be taught that began more than a century ago.

Updated with a new preface by the author that addresses many of the provocative arguments raised by its initial publication, Professing Literature remains an essential history of literary pedagogy and a critical classic.

“Graff’s history. . . is a pathbreaking investigation showing how our institutions shape literary thought and proposing how they might be changed.”— The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism

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Professing Literature

An Institutional History Twentieth Anniversary Edition

By Gerald Graff

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30525-7


Introduction: The Humanist Myth

When a sufficient number of specialists are assembled on a college faculty, the subject of which each knows only a small part is said to be covered, and the academic department to which they all belong is regarded as fully manned. In ancient Ireland, if legend is to be trusted, there was a tower so high that it took two persons to see to the top of it. One would begin at the bottom and look up as far as sight could reach, the other would begin where the first left off; and see the rest of the way.


It's hard to organize literature.


Professing Literature is a history of academic literary studies in the United States, roughly from the Yale Report of 1828, which assured the primacy of the classical over the vernacular languages in American colleges for another half-century, to the waning of the New Criticism in the 1960s and subsequent controversies over literary theory. Strictly speaking, there were no "academic literary studies" in America or anywhere else until the formation of language and literature departments in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But the use of literature as a vehicle of education goes back to ancient times, and in America since the Colonial era literary texts had been studied in college classes in Greek and Latin, English grammar, and rhetoric and elocution. These early practices assumed a theory of the social function of literature that affected the shape of literature departments when they finally emerged.

But the idea that literature could or should be taught—rather than simply enjoyed or absorbed as part of the normal upbringing of gentlefolk—was a novel one, and no precedents existed for organizing such an enterprise. To "organize literature" is difficult under any circumstances, but particularly when it means reconstituting as a curriculum under more or less democratic conditions something that had previously been part of the socialization of a particular class. My account suggests that this project was never thought through in all its ramifications, but, if anything, early educators were more alert to its difficulties than we are today, since they had the advantage of a historical perspective that was lost once academic literary studies became established and complacent and once it no longer could remember a preacademic literary culture for comparison.

Any single-volume treatment of so vast a subject must omit some matters and reduce others to schematic proportions. Though I refer generically to "academic literary studies" and "the literature department," most of my evidence is drawn from research-oriented departments of English at major universities, and I make only occasional attempts to distinguish patterns in English from those in other modern language departments or departments of comparative literature. Perhaps I ought to have subtitled the book "A History of English Studies," but I decided that essential traits have been similar enough to warrant the broader label.

My account does not do justice to the small-college experience, however. And I suspect that some of the conditions I treat as chronic dilemmas will be seen as grounds for envy in institutions where literature, as distinct from composition, has become a luxury. I deal only in passing with the teaching of composition, though the pioneer work of William Riley Parker, Wallace Douglas, and Richard Ohmann has shown that without that enterprise the teaching of literature could never have achieved its central status, and none of the issues I discuss would matter very much. I have made only occasional mention of British universities, despite the influence they exerted on native developments.

The aim of my concluding chapter is not to examine recent controversies over literary theory in detail—something outside the scope of this kind of book— but to point out how these controversies echo old ones as far back as the beginnings of the profession. My aim here is also to suggest that literary theory can help illuminate old and new conflicts in ways that might infuse some welcome self-consciousness into literary studies. As I use the term, there is a sense in which all teachers of literature are "theorists" and have a stake in theoretical disputes. For that matter, there is a sense in which a literature department (and curriculum) is itself a theory, though it has been largely an incoherent theory, and this incoherence strengthens the impression that the department has no theory.

It is possible to defend the infusion of theory into the curriculum on traditional grounds, namely, that students need theoretical concepts in order to be able to make sense of literature and talk about it intelligently. We shall see that until recently, in fact, the word "theory" was embraced by educational traditionalists, in reaction against the atomized empiricism of research and explication, which trusted that the accumulation of facts and interpretations about literature would somehow of itself add up to a coherent picture. This is not to deny that much current theory amounts to a radical attack on the premises and values of traditional literary humanism. But such attacks on traditional literary humanism raise the kinds of questions about the nature and cultural functions of literature that used to be the concern of traditional humanists, even as they reject the traditional humanistic answers to those questions as no longer sufficient. The real enemy of tradition is the kind of orthodox literary study that neglects theoretical questions about ends, values, and definitions in the hope that they will take care of themselves. It was the breakdown of agreement (or ostensible agreement) on these questions that inspired the current theory explosion and ensures, I think, that it will not be a passing fad.

When I first began this inquiry I vaguely assumed that the founders of academic literary studies must originally have had a shared idea of their rationale that had somehow got lost along the way. I imagined that this shared rationale had something to do with concepts like "humanism" and "cultural tradition," more or less in the sense associated with the name of Matthew Arnold. What I discovered, however, was that although the transmission of humanism and cultural tradition in the Matthew Arnold sense was indeed the official goal of the literature department, there were from the outset fundamental disagreements about how that goal should be pursued. Early educators who identified themselves with the Matthew Arnold view of literature and culture strenuously objected to the philological and historical literary scholarship that had qualified literary studies for departmental status in the new research university.

The union of Arnoldian humanism and scientific research which gave birth to academic literary studies was never free from strain. Traditional humanists argued that the compartmentalization of literature in narrowly specialized and disconnected "fields" and the glorification of quantitative "production" in research tended to undermine Arnold's ideal of broad general culture and his view of literature as a coherent criticism of life. The research fetish seemed only another example of that triumph of practical and technical "machinery" over ethical and cultural ends that Arnold had deplored in so many features of the modern world—and that seemed peculiarly unrestrained in the United States.

It is worth pondering that the kind of scholarship we now think of as traditionally humanistic was regarded as a subversive innovation by the traditionalists of an earlier era, whatever its roots may have been in the classical humanism of the Renaissance. It is also worth pondering that traditional humanists of the same era indicted research scholarship for many of the very same sins for which later traditionalists indicted the New Criticism and present day traditionalists indict literary theory: elevating esoteric, technocratic jargon over humanistic values, coming between literature itself and the student, turning literature into an elitist pastime for specialists. Whatever the sins of recent theory, those who blame the problems of the humanities on them—and on other post–1960 developments—only illustrate their own pet maxim that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. The solutions they propose—a return to a great tradition with no investigation of why that tradition has come to be questioned—figures only to send us yet one more time around what we will see has been an oft-repeated cycle.

Of course the research scholars who were the targets of the earliest criticism did not see matters the way their critics did. They too saw themselves as legitimate heirs of Matthew Arnold, and they dismissed their detractors as dilettantes and victims of mere nostalgia, as many of them were. Even so, a surprising number of these early research scholars could not help agreeing with their critics that there was a disturbing disparity between their traditional humanistic ideals and their professional practices. They spent much of their time at the early meetings of the Modern Language Association exhorting one another to do something about the disparity, though few of them went beyond ineffectual assertions, reiterated countless times by now, that teaching should be restored to equal importance with research, that the "general culture" of the undergraduate college should be reasserted against the specialization of the graduate school, and (above all) that literature itself should somehow be restored to primacy over scholarship and methodology. The very nature of this diagnosis led the critics of the profession to lapse into fatalism, blaming their problems on the inherent philistinism of American democracy, the inherent vulgarity of the modern age, or the incurable inferiority of their students.

The complaint that research and publication have displaced teaching has always resembled the parallel complaint that technology or bureaucracy has displaced more human or communal relations. Whatever its justifications, such a complaint leads nowhere, for it envisages no role for the professional interests of the scholar except to extinguish themselves. The diagnosis on which the complaint rests blames the problems of the institution on the process of professionalization itself, not distinguishing between professionalism as such and the specific forms professionalism has taken under the peculiar circumstances of the new university, forms which—it must be stressed—need not be the only forms possible. But however limited their value as present guides, these early critics can at least cure us of the delusion that academic literary studies at some point underwent a falling-away from genuine Arnoldian humanism.

Helping prop up this humanist myth, however, is the habit of thinking of institutions as if they were unmediated projections of the values, methods, and ideologies of major individuals and movements. This procedure is convenient and seems to accord with common sense, but it ignores, for one thing, the substantial changes that even the dominant critical values, methods, and ideologies may undergo when they become institutionalized in the form of scholarly fields, curricula, and pedagogy. "Professionalization" and "academicization" are not neutral principles of organization, but agents that transform the cultural and literary-critical "isms" fed into them, often to the point of subverting their original purpose, or so deflecting them that they become unrecognizable to outsiders. What goes in is not necessarily what comes out, and this is one reason why the things the institution seems self-evidently to stand for to insiders may scarcely register on outsiders.

In calling this book an institutional history, I mean to underscore that its concern is not only with particular scholarly and critical practices, but also with what has happened to those practices once they have become institutionalized in modern universities—in ways that are not the only possible ones. My emphasis, in other words, is not only on what "goes in" in the shape of individual scholarly accomplishments and trends, but on what "comes out" as an operational totality and how that totality is perceived, misperceived, or not perceived at all by outsiders. Most histories of criticism properly ignore such matters and concentrate on major figures and movements, but for this reason their results may not yield a safe basis for an institutional analysis. For even major figures and movements can fail to stamp their values on the institution as a whole. In large degree Arnoldian humanism has been the outlook of singular individuals, individuals who have exerted a powerful and still-present influence on students and followers, but who have repeatedly failed to make their values visibly characteristic of the totality. Without going into the complex history of the term, we can note that already by the turn of the century, "Humanist"—in its association with Irving Babbitt and his group—was the name of one particular professional faction, one "field" among many, more or less estranged from the established ones. It is no accident that many of the exemplary Arnoldian humanists from Babbitt to Walter Jackson Bate have ended up as bitter critics of the profession.

Their failure does not seem to me a state of affairs to be lamented, since it is after all the inability of their Arnoldian humanism to become an effective umbrella concept that has gradually opened academic literary studies to a variety of competing views of literature, scholarship, and culture. The discouraging thing is not that such institutional conflicts have gone unresolved—unresolved conflict being just the sort of thing a democratic educational system should thrive on—but how little of the potential educational value of such conflicts the professional system has been able to turn into part of what it studies and teaches, instead of a source of paralysis. Not all the conflicts of literary studies have been so esoteric as to lack potential interest to outsiders, and even those that have a large esoteric dimension (like the current cold war between theorists and humanists) have a surprising way of exemplifying cultural conflicts of potentially general interest. But educational-cultural battles tend at present to be fought out only behind the scenes, as it were, in specialized journals, technical vocabularies, and private faculty meetings. They are exemplified rather than foregrounded by the department and the curriculum and thus do not become part of the context of the average student's education or the average professor's professional life.

The pretense that humanism and the cultural tradition preside over the various dispersed activities of literary studies is one of the things which has permitted ideological conflicts to be kept out of public view. But another powerful cause lies in the field-coverage model of departmental organization, which has conceived literature departments as aggregates arranged to cover an array of historical and generic literary fields. The field-coverage principle accompanied the modernization and professionalization of education of the 1870s and 1880s, when schools and colleges organized themselves into departments corresponding to what were deemed to be the major subjects and research fields. For reasons having to do equally with ensuring humanistic breadth and facilitating specialized research, the literature department adopted the assumption that it would consider itself respectably staffed once it had amassed instructors competent to "cover" a more or less balanced spread of literary periods and genres, with a scattering of themes and special topics.

The field-coverage principle seems so innocuous as to be hardly worth looking at, and we have lived with it so long that we hardly even see it, but its consequences have been far reaching. Its great advantage was to make the department and the curriculum virtually self-regulating. By assigning each instructor a commonly understood role—to cover a predefined period or field—the principle created a system in which the job of instruction could proceed as if on automatic pilot, without the need for instructors to debate aims and methods. Assuming individual instructors were competently trained—and the system of graduate work which developed rapidly in America after the 1890's took care of that—instructors could be left on their own to get on with teaching and research, with little need for elaborate supervision and management.


Excerpted from Professing Literature by Gerald Graff. Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Gerald Graff is professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been elected to serve as the President of the Modern Language Association in 2008.

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