Professing Literature, Gerald Graff’s history of American English departments, has just been reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition (Chicago, $19). Published at the height of the culture wars–it came out a month before Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind–Graff’s book brought a cooling sense of historical perspective to the inflamed passions of the moment. We’d been having the same arguments, it turned out, since universities started teaching English literature in the middle of the nineteenth century. The positions may have changed, but the issues had not. Classicists had been deposed by humanists, humanists by historians, historians by critics and now critics by theorists, but across the barricades of each revolution, the same accusations were flung: obfuscation, esotericism and overspecialization; naïveté, dilettantism and reaction. Teaching versus research, humane values versus methodological rigor, “literature itself” versus historical context.
What’s happened since? Graff’s new preface reaffirms his belief that the answer to the mutual isolation of competing critical schools is to “teach the conflicts,” but it doesn’t tell us what’s happened in the past twenty years (which happen to be the twenty years since I decided to go to graduate school). Broadly speaking, the past two decades have seen a move back toward historicism from the purely rhetorical realms of deconstruction: postcolonialism, New Historicism, cultural studies, history of the book. But the uniqueness of Graff’s study was its attempt to offer, in the words of its subtitle, an “institutional history,” not merely a chronology of intellectual trends. What’s been going on there, at the more fundamental level of institutional structure and practice?
There’s no better way to take the profession’s temperature, it seems to me, than by scanning the Modern Language Association Job Information List, the quarterly catalog of faculty openings in American English departments. If you want to know where an institution is at, take a look at what it wants. The most striking fact about this year’s list is that the lion’s share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the “service” component of an English department’s role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you’ve got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.
That’s more than half the list, and we still haven’t gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature. Even more significant is the number of positions, again about a third, that call for particular expertise in literature of one or another identity group. “Subfields might include transnational, hemispheric, ethnic and queer literatures.” “Postcolonial emphasis” is “required.” “Additional expertise in African-American and/or ethnic American literature highly desirable.”
This is an old story, but let’s stop for a moment to consider what the many ads like the last one, for a tenure-track position in twentieth-/twenty-first-century American fiction, actually mean. They mean that you can be a brilliant young scholar, from a top program, but if you’re an expert in Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, or Malamud, Bellow and Roth, or Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, or all of them plus Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mailer, Salinger, Capote, Kerouac, Burroughs, Updike, Chandler, Cheever, Heller, Gore Vidal, Cormac McCarthy and God’s own novelist himself, Vladimir Nabokov, plus Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, but not in African-American or ethnic American fiction, then there are a lot of jobs you just aren’t going to get. And there weren’t that many jobs in American fiction to begin with. Graduate students aren’t stupid, not even in practical terms, not anymore. So nearly everyone is studying at least some minority literature, and everything else–not the totality of what’s valuable in twentieth-century American fiction but certainly the preponderance of it–is getting studied a lot less.