John Sutherland writes about the Condition of English question

  • Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture by Bernard Bergonzi
    Oxford, 240 pp, £25.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 19 812852 5
  • Professing Literature: An Institutional History by Gerald Graff
    Chicago, 315 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 226 30604 6

In March 1889 Edward Arber applied for the vacant chair of English Literature and Language at University College London. Arber’s career had been unusual. He began his working life at 17 as an Admiralty clerk, but was excited by Henry Morley’s extension lectures into spending all his spare time on the study of English literature. At the age of 42 he left the Civil Service, where he felt his life was being wasted, to take up his first academic post, a lectureship under Morley at UCL. Modelling himself on his indefatigable head of department, Arber soon made up for his late start. In 1881 he was appointed Professor of English at Mason College Birmingham – Birmingham University, as it was to become.

As was normal practice, Arber’s application to UCL was tendered as a printed pamphlet. Its eighty pages were divided into two main sections: ‘professional work’ and ‘literary work’. It is instructive to discover what professing literature entailed a hundred years ago. ‘Work’ is the right word. Arber ran his Birmingham department of 76 students single-handed. He gave 500 lectures a year, an average of 21 a week (six on Tuesdays and Thursdays) during term. ‘My health is good,’ the 53-year-old candidate informed the appointing committee. ‘I have never missed a single lecture on account of sickness, or for any other cause.’ Arber covered everything in his lectures from Anglo-Saxon to the living Tennyson and taught all levels from matriculation classes through BA honours to MA and PhD level. Examining was done externally by London University and during the eight years Arber had had charge at Birmingham there was not one failure in English.

The account of Arber’s ‘Literary Work’ – his publications – runs to 40 printed pages. He specialised in critical reprints of Tudor and Stuart literature, aiming to do for that period what Furnivall had done for early English with his Early English Texts Society. Arber’s referee, Henry Morley, calculated that his protégé had ‘already given wide currency to not fewer than 125 separate texts’. Another referee, David Masson, wrote that, ‘by his own unaided exertions’, Arber had ‘accomplished labours of editing and reprinting, such as might have tasked the united efforts of several Publishing Societies’. A surprising number of minor works are still only easily available in Arber’s ‘English Reprints’, ‘An English Garner’ or ‘English Scholar’s Library’s editions. But his outstanding scholarly achievement was his five-volume Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, a heroic feat of compilation, which began publication in 1875. In 1889 he had embarked on a new labour: ‘during the last three years,’ he told the committee, ‘every spare minute has been devoted to Bibliography, in the preparation of a Chronological Conspectus, year by year, of the Golden Age of our literature, from 1533 to 1640 AD, which should be to this branch of knowledge what a map of the stars is to Astronomy.’

Arber did not get the job at UCL. It went to W. P. Ker, a flier twenty years younger with a Balliol first and an All Souls fellowship behind him. The drudge could not compete with such glamour, even though Ker had published nothing between hard covers and would not do so until 1897 when Epic and Romance appeared. By then, a dispirited Arber had taken early retirement from Birmingham. He spent his remaining years as a ‘man of letters’ in London, until being knocked down fatally by a taxi in 1912. He never completed his great map of the literary stars. Nor has anyone else, as far as I know.

Hindsight – aware of Ker’s later distinction – would confirm that University College made the right choice. But whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision, Arber’s sheer productivity and professional competence look awesome to the modern eye. One could perhaps find contemporary academics who lecture as much (though for shorter periods than eight years on the trot) and probably find some who publish as much. But not both. How did he do it? One is tempted to think that his not being impeded by any sense that his subject was in crisis must have helped. Arber was secure in the unquestionable worthwhileness of what he was doing. He inherited from Morley the belief that the only problem about the teaching of English literature was that there was not enough of it. More colleges, more extension lectures, more primary texts, more literary-historical facts, were the things needed. Hard work could provide them. Sensibility and brilliance – with all their doubts and hesitations – could safely be left to the authors.

Bernard Bergonzi’s early career has some resemblances to Arber’s. Bergonzi left school before the age of 16 to work as a junior clerk in an obscure London publishing firm. He credits his recruitment as a mature, first-generation university student to extra-mural and WEA lecturers, direct descendants of ‘the first pioneers and missionaries, men such as Morley and Furnivall, who travelled all over the country to talk about English literature in adult education classes and working men’s clubs’. A series of happy accidents (chronic illness, a small legacy) enabled Bergonzi to enter Oxford. A good degree admitted him to ‘the institutional system of English literature’. Unlike those of his contemporaries whom he most envies (John Wain, Kingsley Amis), Bergonzi never managed to break out of the institution. As he admits, it was too comfortable. In the last thirty years he has taught at Manchester, then Warwick University, where he is now professor. True to his Morleyish origins, Bergonzi has been one of the most fluently productive scholars of his generation, bringing out a stream of books and journalism over the years. Perhaps, he thinks, he has written too much. Certainly he wishes much contemporary criticism unwritten. He used to greet the books of his colleagues with eager pleasure; now ‘the publishers’ catalogues arrive regularly, with their copious listings... I dutifully read through them with sinking feelings, and, sometimes, a touch of nausea.’ Why does he no longer feel comfortable in his work? By way of answer he offers Exploding English.

Bergonzi’s is a diagnosis and prescription book. It begins with symptoms: the quarrels that have made English studies a bad-tempered place in the Eighties. If nothing else, Exploding English is an entertaining chronicle of recent academic bitchery – the MacCabe affair, the Hough-Hawkes ‘piss off’ incident (‘these are robust times,’ Bergonzi urbanely notes), the Re-Reading English scandal (so-called), the Gardner-Kermode exchange of insults arising out of their successive Norton lectures. Bergonzi proceeds from this symptomatic ‘bitterness’ to a series of ruminations on the fashionability of Derrida, the unfashionability of Leavis, the bursting canon, theory and the untheoretic English, angst and the modern academic. No attempt is made to find coherence. There is none to find. Bergonzi’s belief is that English has always been a loose federation of activities. It is now breaking up in the irreconcilable disagreement of two large camps, ‘Cultural Studies’ and ‘English Studies’. The question is whether to try and hold things together, or let the more subversive element go its own way. Bergonzi’s mind wavers during the course of this book. But finally – in a mood that he terms ‘pessimistic but not despairing’ – he opts for secession: ‘for reasons which are much more pragmatic than ideological, I have come to think that a separation of Cultural Studies from English, though not easy, would be the least damaging way forward for both parties.’

The new department and degree of CS ‘would provide a more productive environment for the radical academics and rainbow coalitionists at present functioning in English Departments, who have conspicuous energy and intelligence, but little literary sensibility or aesthetic interests.’ Having got rid of these Morlocks, the Eloi of the English department would be left to ‘study, in detail, a single genre, poetry’. Bergonzi allows that his new degree in poetry might not have mass appeal and ‘would attract the automatic charge of “élitist” ’. But he sees a workable analogy in current departments of music – small, highly technical, respected, above all uncontentious academic units. It has its attractive points, but Bergonzi’s ‘pragmatism’ looks to me suspiciously like giving away the store for a bit of peace and quiet. Cultural Studies would make off with all the literary history, all the theory, all the politics, all the prose works, all the poetry it cared to use, most of the young scholars, all the agitational energy, most of the committee muscle. ‘Poetry’ would be left with the Oxford Book of English Verse, gentleman scholars and no students.

Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature is another Condition of English book, but one which comes out of a different system and reaches more pugnacious conclusions. How, Graff asks, did American literary studies get into its present mess? And how can it get out of it? Does it even know it is in a mess? As Graff points out, his colleagues have generally taken little interest in the origins, history or condition of their livelihood. Literature departments jog along in a state of Reaganesque ‘incoherence’ so ingrained that they no longer perceive it as such. In fact, Graff sees amnesia as the glue that now holds the whole rickety academic enterprise together. ‘A university,’ he writes, ‘is a curious accretion of historical conflicts that it has systematically forgotten.’

Unwilling to remember or confront the conflicts that fashioned it, the academic study of literature in America has adopted for its convenience the ‘field coverage system’. The rich wholeness of the subject is broken down into a patchwork of smallholdings (Shakespeare, Romanticism, African-American literature etc). Each is the sole property of one departmental member, or at best a small clique. Field coverage renders the modern educational machine ‘friction-free, for by making individuals functionally independent in the carrying out of their tasks it prevents conflicts from erupting which would otherwise have to be confronted, debated or worked through’. That Graff is correct in his general point is borne out by the field-categorised advertisements in every autumn’s MLA job list. It is also borne out by the standard opening question between strangers at winter conventions – ‘What’s your field?’ – to which the answer ‘English literature’ would be thought flippant and ‘late Wordsworth’ eminently normal.

The worst thing about the field coverage system for Graff is that it works so damnably well. But it works at the cost of cutting professors off from co-ordination across specialisms and from any nourishing sense of the historical dimension and dialectical procedures of their subject. And because it works so well and makes for such an easy life, he guesses that field coverage will be very hard to dislodge. The system is cunning as well as strong. ‘Theory,’ for instance, has had a powerful impact on American departments of literature and has generated some valuable conflict. But Graff gloomily predicts that ‘if history runs true to form once more, then we can expect literary theory to be defused not by being repressed but by being accepted and quietly assimilated or relegated to the margin where it ceases to be a bother.’ Theorists will be hired to ‘form a new ghetto alongside those occupied by the black studies person hired several years ago and the women’s studies person hired yesterday.’

Professing Literature has polemical first and last chapters. Its body comprises a historical account of the growth of American literary studies over the last hundred and fifty years. It starts with the massively reactionary Yale Report of 1828 which reasserted the primacy of Classical over vernacular studies. The subsequent evolution of the discipline is portrayed as a series of conflicts, within the institution but principally within the department. In quarrelling over the rightness or wrongness of these critical doctrines, the profession has missed the point that it is the clash, not the ideas, that matters. Or as Graff puts it, ‘these controversies have seemed to me to possess a greater richness and vitality than any of the conclusions they led to about the nature of literary studies [or] literature.’ Others have seen it as the weakness of literary studies that it has no axiomatic base, no historical consensus on principles, so that one generation of students is taught something quite different from the previous generation (and often taught to sneer at the previous generation in the process). For Graff, the never-ending argy-bargy is the subject’s energy source. The task, as he sees it, is to make the profession aware of the present and past conflict – not as a cycle of sterile feuding but as the reason for the subject’s being.

Graff’s prescription is pleasantly homeopathic. Theory is manifestly a problem for today’s literary academics. It disturbs them. The remedy is more of the same. Theory universally and generously applied will rescue us from the dreary repetition of past error – so long as we see theory for what it really is (which may not be how all theorists see it). ‘As I use the term here’, Graff states, literary theory is not ‘a set of systematic principles, necessarily, or a founding philosophy but simply an inquiry into assumptions, premises, and legitimising principles and concepts.’

Thus glossed, theory is reborn as Arnold’s free play of mind. And one must assume that all this theory-driven inquiry into assumptions will generate something not unlike the old amnesiac ‘incoherence’ about which Graff is so snotty elsewhere. But there is, it emerges, one cohesive element to be found in theory’s medley: ‘if there is any point of agreement among deconstructionists, structuralists, reader-response critics, pragmatists, phenomenologists, speech-act theorists and theoretically-minded humanists, it is on the principle that the meaning of any text in itself depends for its comprehension on other texts and textualised frames of reference.’ Just as all the warring sects of Christianity are united in combating the Devil, so all the diverse theories are united against the heresies of New Criticism – the orthodoxy in which the young Graff was trained in the Sixties.

This minimal ground of theory – its opposition to the idea of the isolated text – leads Graff to blueprint an ‘ideal course’ for English studies. It involves a careful teeing-up of the literary object. First, ‘in order to teach the interpretation of a literary text, we must be prepared to teach the cultural text as well.’ This looks like the Geertzian cultural studies born at Princeton as a hybridisation of History and Anthropology. But Graff adds a twist: ‘teaching the cultural text requires a university aware of the history of its own self divisions.’ We need to teach not just the book, but also how we come to be teaching the book, how the teacher came to be a teacher, how the student came to be a student, how the room-cleaner who cleaned the blackboard that morning came to be neither a teacher nor a student.

Prudently, Graff does not go far into the detail of how his ideal course would work out in classroom practice. I reckon it would involve at least a quadrupling of the pedagogic load. Take, for example, a routine Victorian fiction course. First the students would read a novel – say, Middlemarch – with the normal care. Then they would contemplate the cultural text – Victorian England, Victorian publishing, the condition of the author in the world of Victorian letters, all spiced up with some Geertzian analysis of the Warwickshire cock fight. It would be necessary to resume the up-and-down history of Middlemarch’s reputation. To top it all, you would have to offer a brief run-down on how young Americans (of, say, Chicano, African-American or Vietnamese descent) come to be reading a story of English provincial life of the 1820s in the 1990s. How, one wonders, would the class ever get on to Great Expectations?

Graff’s solution to the woes of English studies makes optimistic gestures but looks wholly unworkable. The structure of the discipline is not elastic or tough enough to contain all that he would stuff into it. Bergonzi’s solution is simply to walk away from everything that Graff calls English studies with ‘Poetry’ in his knapsack. Since Graff would see Bergonzi’s new degree course as so much New Criticism, it would be a case of good riddance. But neither Exploding English nor Professing Literature is valuable for its blueprints. One can be reasonably sure that the English department of the American and British future will not be what Graff and Bergonzi project. What one takes away from their books is the gloomy presentiment that English studies may not have a future at all.