Call it the Zeitgeist, call it the return of the repressed, but personal memoir, intellectual autobiography, or the mixture of literary and confessional writing defined by Nancy Miller as ‘narrative criticism’ is changing the tradition of feminist academic writing. In books such as Patricia Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (1991), Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons: A Memoir (1993) and Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames (1997), a generation of American feminist university teachers use their own experience to shed light on literary, linguistic, artistic, professional, pedagogic and academic issues; and use these categories to shed light on their own experience.
In talking about themselves, these writers are also talking about my generation, and its expectations of academic careers, the women’s movement and personal life. How should we evaluate the new hybrids? Is personal experience immune from criticism, or are there aesthetic and intellectual standards against which it can be measured? How successfully do literary theorists cross the line to more intimate first-person narrative styles? What are the possibilities and the pitfalls of the academic memoir as a genre? The three books by Gallop, Tompkins and Miller offer a cross-section of the feminist academic memoir as sensationalism, jeremiad and meditation, and present visions of the academic career as erotic gratification, terrified performance and philosophical consolation. Taken together, they provide a collective biography of feminist critical theorists who have turned to memoir in order to tell stories excluded from the formal discourse of their masters. Separately, they show how the academic memoir can be an embarrassment or an art form.
Jane Gallop’s streetwise voice in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment reminds me of the scene in The Mirror Has Two Faces when Barbra Streisand, playing a frumpy, unconditionally lovable Columbia University English professor, has a makeover and flaunts her cleavage before her astounded class. ‘Okay, so the teacher has breasts,’ she wisecracks to the gaping students. ‘Anything wrong with that?’ Well, no, so long as they don’t get caught in the slide projector; but perhaps the donor of the Streisand Chair in Women’s Studies at the University of Southern California has been reading Gallop’s essay ‘The Teacher’s Breasts’. In this essay, published in her collection Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation (1995), Gallop made a quasi-Kleinian distinction between ‘the breast – singular, symbolic and maternal’, an ‘imaginary organ of nurturance ... the good feminist teacher proffers to her daughter-students’ – and the breasts, plural, physical and sexual, which the ‘bad, sexual teacher brings into the discourse of feminist pedagogy’.
Like Streisand’s professor, Gallop both nurtures and tempts, bringing the roles of good girl and bad girl, cerebral theorist and voluptuous vamp, into the discourse of feminist critical theory and onto the conference circuit. She’s famous for wearing spike heels, fishnet stockings, Joan Crawford hats and a skirt made out of men’s ties – allegedly belonging to her ex-lovers – as well as for the witty double entendres of her densely Lacanian lectures and papers. Gallop has also made her sexuality a recurrent motif in her writing; in Thinking through the Body, for instance, she noted that in her twenties she had had ‘a series of affairs with 36-year-old men’, all married or unavailable; she dedicated Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Criticism to ‘My Students: The bright, hot, hip (young) women who fire my thoughts, my loins, my prose’. When Gallop quipped at a gay studies conference in 1991 that ‘graduate students are my sexual preference,’ the news quickly spread through the academic network. But the remark was for the most part taken as another example of her flamboyant sexual persona, an instance of studied exaggeration.
Academic eyebrows were raised, nonetheless, in 1993, when two women graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where Gallop is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, accused her of sexual harassment. The story made modest headlines, if not quite the tabloid extravaganza Duke University Press suggests in its catalogue, which carries a picture of a woman avidly reading a copy of the ‘National Exclaimer’ headlined ‘Sexual Banter with Students Gets Professor Disciplined’. Decorous silence is not Gallop’s way. In Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, she mounts a feisty defence of her behaviour and values, along with an account of her sexual coming of age as a feminist critic. ‘I was construed as a sexual harasser,’ she writes, ‘because I sexualise the atmosphere in which I work.’
Feminist Accused fleshes out this generalisation in some detail. Beginning with her introduction to the women’s liberation movement as a Cornell undergraduate in 1971, Gallop recalls that she not only became a better student, but improved her sex life by reading Simone de Beauvoir (‘I ... learned that women could masturbate, and had my first orgasm’); she danced bare-breasted with other students, and began to ‘fantasise teacher-student sex alongside other brave new possibilities’. In graduate school she seduced two of her dissertation advisers, to the further advantage of her intellectual life: ‘screwing these guys definitely did not keep me from taking myself seriously as a student. In fact, it seemed to make it somewhat easier for me to write.’ Richard Klein, now the celebrated author of Cigarettes Are Sublime, was one of the guys. Approached by Duke for a quote, he wrote: ‘For decades I have felt guilt and shame for having performed toward her in a way that was unprofessional, exploitative, and lousy in bed. Her book has convinced me, with the cogency of its feminist arguments and the persuasiveness of her personal testimony, that she, on her side, feels only gratitude and admiration for my performance.’ (Duke rejected the quote.)
Moving on to her first job at Miami University in Ohio, Gallop had affairs with male and female undergraduate and graduate students: Scott, for example, was a ‘cute kid’ who thoughtfully dropped by on Gallop’s birthday ‘to make sure I got laid’. Although her affairs with students ended in 1982, when she met her present partner, Gallop continues to believe that the erotic subtext is what makes teaching powerful. In her view, therefore, French-kissing one of her graduate advisees at a post-conference party in 1991 was ‘very much part of the conference, a sort of advance commentary on her paper the next day ... To my mind, our student-teacher kiss enacted a fantasy of lesbian pedagogy: women together tasting from the forbidden tree of knowledge.’ Alas, the student charged her with sexual harassment, and the university found Gallop to have violated a policy against ‘consensual amorous relationships’ between students and faculty.
The merits of sexual-harassment regulations are still in dispute, but Gallop’s defence – to her apparent surprise – has not won her much critical support. ‘I want to shock people,’ she is reported as saying, ‘and I want them to love me for shocking them. I want them to see that I’m right. Does that seem so crazy?’ Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to épater les bourgeois as it used to be, what with Dennis Rodman, Ellen De-Generes, Howard Stern and other American mass-media provocateurs. Moreover, professional shocksters like Stern or Prof Streisand get away with outrageous behaviour by portraying themselves as traumatised ex-geeks or adorable social failures who can’t help blurting out what they think. It’s comic self-deprecation that makes the outrageous lovable. But Gallop takes herself very seriously, and her image as a femme fatale is not made more persuasive by the gratitude she shows towards friendly passers-by like Scott, while her indignation (‘I worried that the university could stifle my scholarly writing’) at the students’ demand that she not use the case ‘as an object of intellectual inquiry’ seems absurdly inflated.
Jane Tompkins’s A Life in School is far braver and tougher-minded than anything Gallop has written about herself. Stylish, funny and searching, A Life traces the process (including her marriage to the star critical theorist Stanley Fish) by which Tompkins became a well-known professor of American literature at Duke University, and then the process of her disillusionment at the lack of community and humanity in higher education. ‘At the age of 49,’ she begins, ‘having spent most of my conscious years inside the walls of academic institutions, I realised I no longer had much use for the things I learned at school.’
The first half of the book, which takes Jane from schoolgirl anxieties through college (Bryn Mawr, where we lived in the same dorm in the early Sixties) and graduate school (Yale), offers artful but familiar complaints about social pressure, distant professors, and endless competition to succeed. It’s when Tompkins starts to write about ‘making it’, that the book takes off into a new genre, something between a New Age manual, a first-person novel and a critique of the dysfunctional academic community. Tompkins sometimes sounds like Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar (‘I left my husband and moved to Hartford. As I drove up I-91 with my suitcase in my trunk, I felt I was acting for the first time in my life. It felt pure’) and sometimes like a guru at Esalen:
I would have written you a letter instead of a postcard, but I didn’t have time.
I wanted to tell you about what’s happening in my life, but I didn’t have time.
I would have invited you to dinner, but I didn’t have time.
I would have done more reading before writing this paper, but I didn’t have time.
We never got to cover the end of the novel because we ran out of time.
I would have read your article more carefully, but I didn’t have time.
I didn’t have time to read your article.
I wanted to call you, but I was afraid it would take too much time.
Tompkins vividly describes two of the academic epiphanies which made her reject her ‘formation as a professional literary scholar’. One was teaching an experimental graduate seminar called ‘American Literature Unbound’, in which students studied Moby-Dick and Beloved during a term punctuated by communal outings to Ocracoke, a barrier island off the North Carolina coast, and Somerset Place Plantation near Edenton, North Carolina. Tompkins was thrilled by the sense of immediacy, intimacy and improvisation – ‘For me the course had been a wondrous series of events’ – and cried for days after the students criticised aspects of the class. Moreover, ‘teaching as I did, so that the class became a temporary community, woke me up to the kind of community I was living in.’ Walking down the corridors near her university office, she suddenly experienced the emptiness and loneliness of her workplace, ‘an absence of social and emotional housekeeping’.
Tompkins’s observations, and her efforts to create some feeling of community among the academic careerists, rang some mighty loud bells for me, and her longing for a form of higher education that would deal with the inner as well as the mental life, should strike a chord in most academic souls. But what makes A Life in School more ambiguous, more like a novel than a tract, is its running subtext about Tompkins’s personal life – her three marriages, her migraines, her unsuccessful efforts to become pregnant, her relationship with the exciting, pugnacious, workaholic Fish, who gave her ‘the chance to enter the literary profession as a player’. Can the workplace become a family, a haven in a heartless world? Should the parental transference of teaching, like the erotic transference that is inevitably latent in the teacher-student relationship, be acknowledged but resisted and transcended? Tompkins does not confront these questions, but their unstated presence makes this memoir disturbing and important.
Bequest and Betrayal is Nancy Miller’s memoir of the death of her parents, a mixture of first-person reminiscence and literary analysis of memoirists – among them, Beauvoir, Barthes, Philip Roth, Carolyn Steedman, Susan Cheever, Art Spiegelman and Blake Morrison. But she is primarily concerned with the childless child. ‘What happens to our idea of self,’ Miller asks in her prologue, ‘when there is no generation to follow, when we are childless? What happens to the idea of mourning and legacy when the plot of generations ends with us?’ For Miller, the mourning process is a rereading of her memories of her parents through the lens of other memoirs of a parent’s death. At the end of her book, she revisits the family plot where her parents and grandparents are buried, and makes up her mind: ‘No child of mine will come to stand in front of my grave. I don’t want to be buried here. I decide, then and there, to sell my plot.’
Miller had already sold her plot in her earlier book, Getting Personal, by writing about her own coming of age as a feminist intellectual; she called the shift from theoretical to personal narrative ‘the writing of my fifties’. Just as Gallop found it easier to write her dissertation after she had seduced her advisers, and Tompkins found it possible to become a literary player once she had married her mentor, so Miller freed herself from the burden of Columbia University and French critical theory by betraying the academic fathers and allying herself to feminism. A ‘recovering Francophile’ (she is now a professor of English at Cuny Graduate Center), she abandoned the tricky mannerisms of Derridean prose for a more flexible narrative style influenced by her reading of Jane Tompkins, among others.
Bequest and Betrayal is not directly about university teaching, but it reflects a process of maturity that has gone beyond good-girl anger at parents and teachers, bad-girl rebellion against sterile, sexist institutions, and disappointed expectations of students, to an unsentimental acceptance of the best a university career can offer – a lifelong partnership with writers and books. Miller’s use of the memoir form offers a new model of serious criticism, and a way of imagining community through ‘bonds of paper’ as well as ‘bonds of blood’.