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Columbia University Press
Literature: An Embattled Profession

Literature: An Embattled Profession

by Carl Woodring


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231115223
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 06/01/1999
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.85(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Carl Woodring is Woodberry Professor Emeritus of Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books, including Politics in English Romantic Poetry, Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, and Nature Into Art: Cultural Transformations in Nineteenth-Century Britain. He is the editor of Table Talk in the Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Columbia History of British Poetry, and, with James Shapiro, The Columbia Anthology of British Poetry.

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Chapter One

From Ancient Classics to Modern

To understand why literary study, not yet dying in a cave, has become a besieged baronial mansion, with parapets erected to make it equally fortress and prison, requires at least a cursory look into the past of the fortress, its outworks, and the surrounding territory—territory that has been a garden seemingly for meditation but with a fretwork of trenches occupied by sappers. Gibbon, in one of the less ironic sentences of his chapter 16 on Christianity, defined history as "that which undertakes to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of future, ages." Although few now believe history capable of instructing the future, all live in a present instructed by the past, and critics ignorant of the history of literary study since the 1860s may well, in Santayana's phrase, be condemned to repeat it.

    A useful beginning can be made with the world of change observed by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), who taught and translated at Harvard (after teaching at Bowdoin) from French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; a world observed also by the poet, essayist, and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), who succeeded Longfellow as Smith Professor of French and Spanish at Harvard.

    Through most of the nineteenth century, "literature" included all writings that conveyed knowledge as distinguished from information. "All the branches of polite literature," commended in George Washington's will, comprised knowledge (not merely informative) of life, feelings, art, stars, birds, rocks, whatever.Almanacs, instructions for beekeeping, cookbooks, and Euclid were not literature; Livy, Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hegel, Adam Smith, Malthus, Darwin, certainly Montaigne, uncertainly Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, and dubiously Sir Edward Coke's legal Reports and unfinished Institutes were literature. Literature included not only self-expression but also learning ordered and recorded as comprehensive but comprehensible—comprehendable—pedantry. Longfellow wrote to his father in 1837 that superintending students and instructors in four languages and hearing their recitations each month, with further responsibility for Anglo-Saxon and Swedish, would allow time for only one lecture a week in winter but in summer "two lectures per week in Belles-Lettres or Literary History." "Belles-Lettres" or literary history included lectures on the middle ages, literary fame, scientific writings of the poet Francesco Redi, and "the Italian Historians, Academics, and Novellieri of the sixteenth century." He did not regard lecturing to students either from notes or from a full script as an intellectual enterprise; among reasons for his resignation in 1854 he specified weariness from repeating his lectures, notably on Goethe and Dante. Students were memorably uplifted by his reading of "A Psalm of Life" at the end of a lecture, but English and American literature lay beyond his contract; he and the students had to go outside the college to hear lyceum lectures by Emerson on American subjects.

    Wearying to Longfellow his lectures may have been, but they belonged to a revolution. His Dante was not only the supreme Christian humanist who depicted graphically the ways of divine justice and practiced the public service he commended but also an innovative poet who had demonstrated with intense imagination in his Commedia, after an implicit defense of modern languages in De vulgari eloquentia, the power of the Florentine dialect for moral good. If Italian literature was worth teaching, why not English, why not American?

    Within the academic humanities, changes in method and content during the second half of the twentieth century have been substantial, but none have equaled the leaps in content and method throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Greek, Latin, the Bible, and Euclid had long been basic to admission and continuance at the colleges we call—without regard to the Catholic colleges established by the Spanish and French in the New World—the "earliest": Harvard (chartered 1636), William and Mary (opened 1694), Yale (1701 as Collegiate School of Connecticut), Columbia (1754 as King's College), Brown (1765 as Rhode Island College), and Rutgers (1766 as Queen's College). We can say that the college in North America survived for three centuries with Latin, Greek, mathematics, and at least a smattering of Hebrew at its core. McGill and Toronto began with similar subjects in the 1820s.

    This heritage of subjects (not yet courses) had its genesis in the Jewish and Eastern Orthodox scholars who provided the Renaissance humanists with tools for textual criticism of Greek, Hebrew, and Greek-related Latin texts both classical and Christian. These were, in Milton's words, "the languages of those people who have at any time been most industrious after wisdom" languages and stellar works in those languages necessary for "a complete and generous education" that "fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war"—and necessary "to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright." Like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, the Americans would have the young take from Plutarch, Cicero, and the Bible nobility of style in speech and conduct. From Cicero they learned, besides stateliness of invective in oratory, the morality of friendship and such aspects of stoic submission to circumstances as the prudence of circumspection. From Plutarch, who was incidentally a stylist to emulate, they learned to discriminate among virtues: Plutarch's Brutus was purer in political motive than Plutarch's magnanimous Dion, but he acted in treachery; Dion, free from treachery even against a harsh tyrant, deserved censure for acting in anger over personal treatment. Classical study modified the Biblereader's categories of angelic and diabolic.

    In its earliest era Yale required mathematics only in the fourth year, but the Newtonian age demanded (in 1734) a telescope. King's College, neglecting neither its Anglican purpose nor the classical tradition from Erasmus and Colet but stressing knowledge "useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life," counted geography, history, natural philosophy, surveying, and navigation among subjects useful in a student's pursuit of happiness. Reopened after the Revolution as Columbia College, with allegiance to the Enlightenment, it appointed professors of natural history, economics, and French. Opponents of change that dilutes tradition today might note the paradox here. The college established to propagate conservative Anglican doctrine, curbing the dangerously liberal influence of Harvard and Yale, introduced subjects of practicality and did so significantly earlier than London University, which was founded to provide such subjects, free of the Anglican dogma of Oxford and Cambridge foundational for the college in New York. The founders of King's College saw that neither conservation nor reaction required all four feet to remain permanently planted. Bicultural education began when Greek, Latin, and mathematics allowed a little space for discrete sciences.

    The primary purpose of the earliest colleges, continued into the twentieth century in such ivied institutions as Harvard, Virginia, and William and Mary, was the education of future leaders for the improvement of government and land. Washington's will called for a university or other plan for "the youth of fortune and talents from all parts" to spread "systemic ideas through all parts of this rising Empire, thereby to do away local attachments and State prejudices ... from our National Councils." These young men of fortune were to gain knowledge in common and to form friendships in college so that members of Congress, judges, governors, and state legislators could debate amicably in the national interest.

    Harvard, in keeping perhaps with its loose theology, condescended to allow students the study of French under private, subsequently licensed, tutors. At Harvard also, alertness to the new could put dents in tradition, as shown by such episodes as one that anticipates modern librarianship: when a Harvard teacher moved to Allegheny College (opened 1816), he was allowed to take first editions of works by Priestley (and books from as early as John Harvard's original gift) because Harvard had acquired later editions.

    Lowly tutors, by assigning and reading daily themes, saw to it that students learned to write extemporaneously. Very early on, often with the encouragement of tutors, student leaders had formed literary societies, performed plays, and produced literary magazines. Undergraduate clubs, including Greek-letter fraternities, assembled libraries of magazines and current books. Students escaped into literary pursuits from the rigors of disciplined recitation. Their diaries and letters describe a life of chapel, prayer, social organizations, and adolescent mischief. Until the Civil War, students under stricter discipline than many prisons now practice unremittingly exploded in rebellion and mayhem against tutors and professors.

    Jefferson's vision in 1824 of students making free election among schools of ancient and modern languages, moral philosophy, law, anatomy and medicine, mathematics, natural history, and natural philosophy died in Virginia in 1831 and lay far ahead elsewhere. History did not need to be a separate program in Jefferson's scheme because the histories that had to be learned were of Greece and Rome. For all colleges of repute, Greek and Latin remained central for literature, languages, and history, with Latin crucial also for the sciences. Latin and Greek admitted inferiority only to the one subject, divinity, that neither the ordained minister as president nor his Christian board of overseers could allow a college to neglect.

    With implications only gradually realized, the persuasive argument of Sir William Jones (1746-1794) that Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit descended from a common ancestral language called into question the primacy of Greek and led to an increasingly systematic study of languages, eventually to be consolidated as linguistics. By the time of Longfellow's "Indian Edda," Hiawatha, roughly mid-century, comparative philology competed with Greek and mathematics as a desirably strenuous mental discipline. Sufficiently stern in method, comparative philology could provide also a rationale for the broadening of study within the humanities.

    In 1819 George Ticknor of Harvard, after study at Göttingen, became the first Smith Professor of French and Spanish. Chaucer and Spenser, first read in the evenings under tutelage, began to enter classrooms. Classical logic and rhetoric, earlier combined for sophistry in Latin, could now combine for sophistry in English. Yet for most of the nineteenth century, in colleges purporting to train leaders, the requirements for both matriculation and curriculum remained basically classical.

    When Charles W. Eliot began his campaign at Harvard in 1869 for the elective system deplored by most other college presidents, courses in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, French, elocution, and ethics, and a French history of Greece, were prescribed for freshmen. Sophomores took elocution, German, chemistry, physics, moral and economic philosophy drawn from the Enlightenment in Scotland, and late Roman history from Gibbon. They could choose eight or more hours a week from offerings in Anglo-Saxon, Italian, two classes (not yet organized as courses) in Greek, four in Latin, four in mathematics. After long struggle with alumni and faculty, Eliot replaced this regimen with choices among what the Rev. James McCosh, president of Princeton, called "dilettante's courses." Harvard no doubt took comfort from McCosh's complaint that Harvard required too many studies for admission: English, Greek, Latin, German, French, history, mathematics, physical science. Eliot's success in introducing electives may account for suddenly increased enrollments at the more conservative Yale, Princeton, and Williams; if so, assume also that it was the abolition in 1887 of the requirement of Greek for admission that increased the numbers willing to accept Harvard's intellectual anarchy. In the words of a historian of Yale College, "The literary professor saw a chance to escape the grammarian, and the scholar glimpsed emancipation from the schoolteacher and disciplinarian." Students achieved what was later called "consumer voice." The introduction of electives and the accompanying relaxation in rules and practice of discipline seem to have been followed almost everywhere by a reduction in adolescent mischief against presidents and faculties. Where electives had not yet superseded an authoritarian curriculum, the rowdiness of the 1820s arose again in the 1880s and 1890s as boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations at Dartmouth, Amherst, Bowdoin, Purdue, Union at Schenectady, Missouri, and Illinois. Rebellion at Amherst was led by Harlan Fiske Stone, later chief justice of the Supreme Court and trustee of Amherst. Only dictators seem to realize that strict discipline is counterproductive unless accompanied by annihilation.

    Philology as a scientific study of languages, the Ph.D., increased departmental autonomy, and such electives as English literature came in rapid succession. New institutions opened in what has been described as a transition from the cultivation of minds to the cultivation of useful science and practical skills: Cornell in 1868, Johns Hopkins in 1876, Clark in 1889, Stanford in 1891, Chicago in 1892. Typically, Yale College became Yale University in 1887. As the century wore on, knowledge found itself no longer centered in Isocrates, Aristotle, and the Roman historians. Medieval and modern history became respectable subjects in the undergraduate curriculum. By the end of the century, fine arts and music could boast of specialized historians applying their higher degrees in classrooms. Learning dissipated in many non-European directions and into many components of physical science, natural history (mother of biological sciences), and political economy (similarly destined to undergo progressive segmentation). In the newly founded University of Chicago, the department of biology dispersed in 1893 into zoology, botany, anatomy, neurology, and physiology. Euclid had come to need also Gauss and Helmholtz, and it seemed no longer of first importance that the presidents of Yale, Brown, and Columbia be ministers of the respective founding sects. Harvard, which had deliquesced from Congregationalist to Unitarian in 1806, found further dilution easy.

    By the 1830s new colleges of special purpose, such as Hampden-Sidney and the city college of New York, as well as older institutions, attempted to introduce separate literary-scientific programs without lowering the prestige of traditional classics. A century later the University of Houston could open with a B.S. degree lacking the language, mathematics, and science requirements for the B.A. The prestige of the Bachelor of Arts degree survives as the ghost of Greek and Latin.

    The "tradition" of requiring every student to read Shakespeare, spurred by the ubiquity of popular editions, appreciations, and theatrical successes, had a late inauguration, and it brought with it a scandalous reduction of requirements in Greek and Latin. To traditionalists of that time, only an ignorance bordering on illiteracy could have nourished the ousting of Shakespeare's moral Plutarch from the pantheon to make way for Shakespeare the unbridled playwright. The introduction of Chaucer, Spenser, Bacon, and Shakespeare in American colleges constitutes a plummeting cascade in the river of philological tradition. The admission of modern literatures into formal curricula, preceding petroleum-engineering and hotel-keeping, made the bicultural letters and sciences multicultural. Intellectual tailoring had fitted young gentlemen into Latin and Greek; a less trim population found more comfortable dress in modern literatures, and few saw Dante and Spenser as a hairshirt of penance. With these changes began the decline of Plutarch's moral authority over biographers.

    The three decades following the Civil War brought to higher education the state universities, the Ph.D., linguistic philology, the professionalization of disciplines, women, the teaching first of British and then of American literature, the agricultural and mechanical, and rapid steps toward elective curricula. The floodgates seemed to be open.

    Victory of the North in 1865, accompanied by the petrifaction of Jim Crow, made appropriate the founding of colleges for freed slaves. Fisk opened in 1866 and Howard opened to all qualified students in 1868; three full colleges and thirty with college work in 1915 would become seventy-seven in 1927 and more than one hundred, with generally increasing enrollments, in the 1970s, when admissions to other colleges also had become slightly more affirmative. The perseverance of racial prejudice, though greatly reduced, has required a continuing maintenance of these colleges.

    As an exciting departure for the humanities, the new philology, particularly etymology, provided an intellectually respectable field for research. Lovers of literature could undergo rigors of learning to obtain the Doctor of Philosophy degree imported in the 1870s, with modifications, from Europe. Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876, primarily for graduate research under two faculties, medicine and "philosophy" (comprising liberal arts and sciences).

    The maturing of comparative philology, the introduction of European—particularly German—methods of specialized learning, and the emergence of English literature and language as a reputable field of study had repercussions each for the other. In departments of literature and language, philology became the dominant mode of study. Candidates for the newly crowned Ph.D. degree with English as the major field attended and contemplated etymological detail. The continuation into graduate study of translation from and into Latin, as the required evidence of discipline, gave way to analysis of linguistic forms and the tracing of English or French words and their cognates to ancestral origins.

    The spirit of philological study at the doctoral level was a secularized, modern-language version of the eighteenth-century standard for admission to college: "ex tempore to read, construe and parse Tully, Virgil, or Such like common Classical Latin Authors; and to write true Latin in Prose, and to be Skill'd in making Latin verse, or at Least in the rules of Prosodia; and to read, construe and parse ordinary Greek, as in the New Testament, Isocrates, or such like, and decline the Paradigms of Greek Nouns, and Verbs." The philologists did not believe that literature is an autonomous concatenation of words, free of context, but that the comprehension of literary works requires the difficult knowledge of discoverable relationships among (verbal) languages.

    In the young manhood of higher education in North America, the M.A. as an earned degree was added in trepidation. In what was considered maturity, the Ph.D. spread from coast to coast. The Ph.D. created professionals in each discipline. The Modern Language Association was founded in 1883, just ahead of equivalent associations of historians and economists. Professionalization enlarged the degree of departmental autonomy; concurrently, the institution of departmental requirements for the major field of upperclassmen, amidst an increase in electives, made departments a source of recruitment for the teaching profession. This savage jungle had grown from the seed of regarding Cicero and Euclid as inadequate for learning "all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war."

    That the faculties of much-altered universities remained almost altogether a male preserve assured the continuance of graduate study as a primarily male activity. The land-grant provisions of the Morrill Act of 1862 enabled states, particularly in the Mid- and Far West, to open coeducational colleges that became by the 1890s major universities, with women advancing from undergraduate through doctoral programs. Multicultural diversity began to accelerate. In the East, Oberlin included "a Female Department" in its plans of 1833 and admitted four women in 1837, but coeducation was counted among the innovations at Cornell, opened in 1868. Vassar, chartered in 1861, opened in 1865, was followed in the 1870s and 1880s by other major independent colleges for women, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Goucher. Radcliffe, Barnard, Pembroke, and Newcomb emerged in the same years from a rib respectively of Harvard, Columbia, Brown, and Tulane. For fifteen years, from 1879, Radcliffe was the Harvard Annex for Women. The rapidity of initial steps elsewhere can be seen in statistics from the University of Michigan, with one woman in 1870 but 588 women challenging 745 men in 1898. Women perturbed the young University of Chicago in 1902 by making up 52 percent of the entering class. Through such conduits women began to inch toward the highest reaches of the academy. Discrimination in the society made segregated institutions slow to encourage black women into professions organized to select entrants on principles of exclusion. Humanities, however, seemed "feminine."

    In English and related fields, by the middle of the twentieth century, the achievements of such women as Louise Pound of Nebraska, Fannie Ratchford of Texas, Helen White and Ruth Wallerstein of Wisconsin had reduced, if it did not silence, repetitions of such axioms as Samuel Johnson's equation of a woman preaching and a dog walking on its hind legs. Pound rebelliously concentrated on American literature and folklore. Marjorie Nicolson mentioned often her choice of Yale for graduate study because Harvard would not have permitted her to enter the stacks of Widener Library, and she frequently continued with anecdotes of seminar doors locked against her at Yale. Chairing the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia, she could limit the salaries of professors in Columbia College, but she could not make them let her teach a course there.

    Even these overachievers were careful not to follow the strides of the powerful Martha Carey Thomas (1857-1935), who had progressed from a Ph.D. at Zurich in 1882 to organizer, dean, and professor of English at Bryn Mawr from 1884 until she became its president in 1894, and as suffragette took presidential control of the National Collegiate Equal Suffrage League from 1906 to 1913. Within literary study, accomplished scholars counted as black, of whatever gender, were still pulling an exceptionally heavy sack of cotton in the effort to achieve recognition.

    For a Nicolson, Pound, or White success had been too hard a road for espousal of affirmative action that would give a woman privileges because she was a woman. When the head of the department at Wisconsin threatened White with dismissal from her instructorship unless she transferred her doctoral work from Radcliffe-Harvard to Wisconsin, it was not because she was a woman but because she was superior. And when the linguist, Byronist, and poet William Ellery Leonard chased her around a circuit of desks, there was no appeal to the courts. (She outran him.) Later, in the 1960s, it was difficult for a woman to achieve tenure in the English department at Wisconsin, because White, Wallerstein, and Madeleine Doran maintained higher standards for women than for men. They could not find evidence that the requirement of higher standards imposed on them had greatly diminished anywhere in academia. Under the strict nepotism rules, a superior woman without tenure who married another English teacher, of whatever rank, had made a choice that deprived her of academic promotion. Women could provide leadership but not yet a critical mass.

    Women admitted to graduate programs were expected not to demonstrate their presumed predilections for family, tender emotions, intuition, and unformularized beauty. The languages of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon had to be approached with euclidean rationality. The transformation from primarily classical to primarily modern languages had occurred without perceptible influence from women who had earned attention as novelists, poets, and editors of magazines. Those women influenced a different order of changes occurring outside academia.

    Linguistic philology hampered but did not prevent the inauguration of courses that included literature in English. By 1870 sixty-three colleges had a course in English literature, usually for seniors, and twenty-six "specified some American literature" in such courses. John Seely Hart taught the earliest known course in American literature at Princeton in 1872; the long-committed Americanist, Moses Coit Tyler, achieved one at Michigan in 1874. "In the four quarters of the globe," Sydney Smith had asked in 1824, "who reads an American book?"

    From the beginning, graduate studies culminating in the Ph.D. had the professional aim of scholarship alone, while "literature" was becoming only those writings lacking any hint of the professional. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, publishers' lists in Great Britain and North America began to segregate fiction, drama, poetry, and personal essays under the heading Belles Lettres. The personal essay was exactly what graduate study could not be. Fewer and fewer personal essays achieved the status of bound collections; in the United States the personal essay was on its way to a specialty of the New Yorker magazine. In Harper's, the Atlantic, and quarterlies, personal essays surrendered to articles, either baldly expository or arguing from empirical accumulations of fact. Even the little magazines took their purpose of opposing the general culture of market and commodity too seriously to welcome personal essays. Casual peculiarity had lost value when "American culture itself became a purchasable commodity."

    In the curriculum of English departments, although essays had not been banished from specialized anthologies of seventeenth-century or nineteenth-century literature, by 1940 Bacon, Hazlitt, "Elia," and Stevenson were on the brink of exclusion from introductory courses in composition. For the following three decades, "literature" as taught in English departments was scarcely distinguishable from "belles lettres," but the departments of that era (and after) wished to convince others that freshman composition courses served the expository needs of the social and natural sciences.

    Humane naturalists such as Rachel Carson, in succession to John Muir, occasionally illuminated in language of imagination and feeling the otherwise expository, often statistical, articles that served as models of organized thought in textbooks of composition. Examples of exposition for freshmen excluded such social critics of flair as Lewis Mumford and even the environmental essayist, drama critic, and professor of literature, Joseph Wood Krutch. Senior professors had allowed the contraction to empirical exposition for three reasons: a sense of obligation to less literary departments, an Imagistic-experiential preference for particulars over generalization, and indifference toward freshman composition. For graduate students, literature was something one learned, composition was something one taught.

    Etymology endured as a graduate subject. Well into the 1920s the "oral" examination for the Ph.D. in English at reputable universities had required a blackboard on which the candidate could draw the tree of cognates for words of Germanic origin in a sentence or line of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Bacon, or Milton—cognates in languages including Old Norse, Old High German, and the largely hypothetical Gothic. Chaucer's "Nat greveth us youre glorie and youre honour" called for a similar tree that included old and modern French as well as Latin. The inclusion of Sanskrit was generally left to more serious students of language than the candidate who was about to embark upon, or had successfully completed, a doctoral dissertation concerned with a work or works of literature in English.

    Procedures in graduate study were more etymologically stringent than those in college courses, but at Harvard in the 1920s four years of English for undergraduates meant Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, and Bacon (at Columbia, Milton instead of Bacon), in whose behalf the lecturer provided etymological cognates for each significant word in the fifty pages or so that could be analyzed in the nine months of one academic year. And then arrived the sophomore survey of English literature from Beowulf to a date somewhat near that of the anthology. For upperclassmen more diffuse courses, surveying literary developments and achievements in general or by genre or during particular periods, offered increasingly a wealth of choice lamented by philologists.

    Graduate students found pleasure in turning from dry memorization of Old Norse to the humanistic insight that alms is eleemosynary progressively shortened in casual speech (with Chaucer's almesse intermediate), or that holy child and silly brat are terms so related through selig and Old Irish for a cloak as to be twins all but identical. Here again superior pleasure came from knowing the linguistic process involved: the innocent are among the blessed because God cares for idiots; ergo, sely becomes, because it includes, silly. There was high fun in realizing that knowledge of linguistic change enabled George Lyman Kittredge to discover in the seafaring ballad of the "Amphord Wright" a lament for the sunken ship Amphitrite. Etymology survives in collegiate dictionaries available in every bookstore with as many books as T-shirts, and not merely as information but because pleasure accompanies learning that the word precocious referred first to early ripening food, from coquere, to cook.

    There was much besides derivation of words to be learned: competing explanations of changes in spelling, changing rules of grammar, changes since Quintilian in devices of rhetoric, common and uncommon figures of speech (e.g., epanalepsis), and figures of thought (synecdoche, irony), the evolution of genres, changing rules and practices of versification (meter, stanzaic patterns), and dates, dates, dates—birth, death, and changes of status of major authors—When was Rabelais in Rome?—monarchs, dynasties, revolutions, gunpowder plots, institutional and theological reformations.

    Conditions of preparation and defense were not altogether punitive. The earliest dissertations from the English department at the University of Wisconsin included three on living authors, Tennyson, Browning, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—none of the three expected to make further contributions of significance, but alive. As no burden from past doctorates imposed restrictions, dissertations in literature could be broad enough to encourage piquant illustration without any requirement of proof or conclusive demonstration: The Farmer in English Literature from Piers Plowman to Thomas Hardy; Pastoral Metaphors in English Poetry; Influence of the Ablative Absolute on Grammatical Constructions in English Drama.

    The underlying principle of originality required each candidate to propose a topic nobody else had adequately undertaken. Once the dissertation on parsons appeared in bibliographies, a second work on the same subject could not be thought original, but greater attention to detail could justify a doctoral study of the parson in fifteenth-century verse and subsequent studies of the parson in sixteenth-century drama, eighteenth-century fiction, and all the other pigeonholes from which parsons could be extracted. A doctoral candidate in comparative literature, in English, or in German could be assigned, as dissertation topic, views of Goethe expressed in English literature of the nineteenth century. Subsequent candidates could examine in fuller detail Goethe in English literature of the first half of the century, the second half, then 1832 (Goethe's death) to 1855 (biography by G. H. Lewes). The end of this line is "Views of Goethe in English-Language Studies of Thomas Mann, 1935-1955." Meanwhile, obviously enough, the requirement of originality forced every university to make available bibliographic lists of previous domestic and foreign dissertations, articles in scholarly journals, and recent books. A sense of originality that required no bibliographic search lay far ahead.

    A dissertation on the parson in all of English literature needed only to classify the views discovered and quoted. When the parson is studied in literature of a limited period, fictional and poetic representations were seen to need comparison and contrast with data concerning actual parsons in surviving documents or with summaries of the evidence by historians who had consulted factual documents. If the sharpest students of 1880-1910 were expected to make linguistic discoveries and the second sharpest to make etymological analyses of the language in particular literary works, others could be encouraged to place the works of a major writer within biographical or social contexts. A candidate thought unimaginative could be allowed to offer as dissertation an annotated bibliographic list only if accompanied by an introduction containing intellectual analysis. Philological knowledge, or information, was required of all; a candidate who quoted the Encyclopædia Britannica should know how to spell it, and why.

    The Ph.D. degree in North America proclaimed mastery of research; it prescribed training in approved methods for research in a particular field. To emulate the precision of natural sciences, evidences of discipline had to be maintained: for social studies, statistics; for the humanities, language. The author of a dissertation on Samuel Johnson's religious views had undergone training for linguistic analysis before individual research into Anglican doctrine and competing sects in eighteenth-century England—and had reached a concluding generalization believed to be original.

    Even when not subversive of discipline by including living authors, the doctoral dissertation was a liberalizing force within graduate programs in the humanities. In theory, the dissertation came from a man—and why should a theory not assume that it came in that period from a man—so trained as to bring new knowledge to all other students and professors of either (a) sciences or (b) humanities. In 1930 it could be assumed of the Ph.D. degree that "persons who have had a genuine university education will emerge with disciplined minds, well stored with knowledge, possessing a critical, not a pedantic edge," and that "such persons may thereafter for the most part be safely left to their own devices."

    The land of the free left it to Russia and other retrograde nations to require the nailing of theses to an oak door for defense in a public square, but in American universities professors from outside the candidate's department judged the work, and faculty and students from other fields were invited by announcement of place and time to listen or to challenge. More to the point, they were expected to find that the candidate had made both the subject and the findings of the widest interest the subject could support.

    The requirement in some universities that a dissertation be published before the degree was awarded, and in most that the examiners judged the dissertation to be publishable, came in part from desire within the academy to reach a wider audience. This particular test of quality could be settled by a candidate possessing the funds to subsidize publication, but a dissertation committee could require that the topic, however narrow, be presented in language accessible to the widest audience capable of interest in its addition to knowledge. The presence of judges from outside the candidate's specialty not only kept a department from falling below the standards of fellow departments but also encouraged the virtue of accessibility. (Of late, the arrangement may lead to a transfer of esoteric language into an external judge's own department.)

    In theory, the holder of a doctorate had learned methods of research applicable in any field of scholarship. The title of Doctor called upon the medieval tradition of honoring minds so superior they could master and teach any subject: initially, the Doctors of the Latin Church, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Jerome. The model for "Doctor" is an Aristotle or Pascal.

    Compartmentalization early on led from the original recognition of universal wisdom to earned doctorates in law and in divinity (twelfth century) and in medicine (fourteenth century). By the eighteenth century, "the Age of Reason," a doctorate could be earned in almost any subject taught in colleges. A sense of honoring wisdom remained, and the intellectual discrepancy between medical theory and practice by physicians in England and Scotland led the College of Surgeons to emphasize the distinction between surgeons ("Mr.") and physicians ("Dr."). A similar suspicion of "Dr." could have spread further without great harm. In descent from St. Augustine, the honorary doctorate has progressively passed to Samuel Johnson, Thomas Alva Edison, prominent actresses, and a donor who adds substantially to the endowment of a university.

    The aura of the "highest degree" survived into the 1940s. James B. Conant, as president of Harvard, conferred by formula such lesser degrees as bachelor, master, engineering, law, and medicine. Then as Dr. Conant he invited all candidates for the degree of doctor of philosophy who might (voluntarily) be present, to gather near him for welcoming into the fellowship of scholars. The conferring without other formula of that "highest degree" implied that the recipients, even if there was something they did not know, could learn anything needful without further institutional training. The procedure implied, what was then still practiced, that a person could earn only one "highest degree." Reality, probably tinctured with greed, soon led universities to confer successively on one person an indeterminate number of doctoral degrees in jurisprudence, law, English, comparative literature, molecular biology, social work, whatever.

    My Harvard diploma of MDCCCCXXXXVIIII, signed by Jacobus Bryant Conant, elevated me "ad gradum Philosophiae Doctoris" because of my diligent study of Philologia, specifically Philologia Anglica, but the linguistic requirements had shrunk to Old English and translation in mild tests from Latin, German, and French, with little expectation that the average recipient would be able to read the diploma.

    Intellectual respectability had come to require the principle that any high school graduate could understand grammatical usage in works subsequent to the Renaissance; a graduate in English needed therefore to learn what changes had occurred in the language up to and including Milton. Spenser required linguistic analysis; Tennyson hardly at all. Old English and the history of the language, from before the earliest documents through the Renaissance, remained staples of graduate study in English. In most universities Beowulf was taught, not as a literary composition but as a wordhoard, a storage bin of Anglo-Saxon linguistic traits.

    Most graduate schools grudgingly allowed dissertations on living authors, but the rule of linguistic analysis created a scale of respectability. Beowulf conferred the greatest dignity; Gower (d. 1408) was sufficiently forbidding; Henry James was safely dead and usefully ironic; the living Forster and Faulkner were tainted possibilities. At Johns Hopkins a dissertation could be written on Wordsworth, born in 1770, but not one on an author as recent as Keats, born in 1795. About 1955 Merritt Y. Hughes, Miltonist, could question the respectability of writing on the illiterate Faulkner. The sense that recent centuries provided only unscholarly subjects, absent at the origin of the Ph.D. in literature, had reached arteriosclerosis within the division of humanities in many graduate schools. The professor who taught the history of the English language saw little reason for lecturing on changes after 1660 (or 1674), but he or the unlikely she could foresee disastrous decline elsewhere in the department. As the number of dissertations increased, it became convenient for the professors of literature to grant that Gibbon and Samuel Johnson constructed sentences in ways not common after 1800, and who could deny that Carlyle's way with language in Sartor Resartus (1833-1834) invited analysis?

    From its inception as a degree for researchers, the Ph.D. had evoked dissent from committed teachers. Near the turn of the century the department of English at Columbia University, besides a forced return of comparative literature, held in uneasy harness three divisions: philology, literature, and rhetoric, later to be called composition. The rebels who argued for the study of literature, not language, insisted on values. If the sciences claimed to be value free, let it be so; literature belonged to a universe of values. Rebels who had earned the philological Ph.D. now declared that course of study free equally of values and of interest. The presence of such rebels at Columbia and elsewhere probably accounts in part for the discrepancy early on between linguistic discipline and the humane laxness of dissertations on broad subjects. Leonard, at Wisconsin, was Anglo-Saxonist, poet, and Byronist. World War I created a patriotic interest in things American, including literature. It could now be studied professionally without apology.

    The strength that proponents of value had contrived to collect at the turn of the century fell far short of toppling emphasis on language. The sciences had replaced reading with finding out and doing; the need of scientists for time to conduct experiments soon gave results from research precedence over teaching, priority over acclaim from students for making even Pilgrim's Progress interesting. Teachers who had hoped to revive pleasure in intrinsic study of individual works would soon be driven to achieve the status of researcher by immersing works into contexts. The study of contexts would be, they thought, not linguistic study, but literary.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE From Ancient Classics to Modern1
CHAPTER TWO From Language to Context21
CHAPTER THREE The Growth of Care in Method36
CHAPTER FOUR Disruption, Deconstruction, and Diaspora58
CHAPTER FIVE The Surround98
CHAPTER SIX Now and Tomorrow130
CHAPTER SEVEN Teaching: What and How153
APPENDIX Examples of Management189

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A wry and spirited commentary on literary study in America—its history, its recent controversies, its tenuous future. Woodring engagingly provokes his readers to confront and argue the issues—whether or not they end up agreeing with the bold solutions he proposes.

Elaine Showalter

A hard-hitting and eloquent account of the way we teach now.

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