Thursday, November 10, 2011


So I'm slated to teach Our Fair Department's undergraduate "Intro to Literary Studies" course next year. It's got a bunch of formal requirements – introduce the students to the analysis of 3 different genres, expose them to 3 different schools of literary interpretation, etc. – but I keep thinking, what they really need is some basic study skills: Read the book. Read all of it. Read it as slowly as you need to. Write in your book. Make notes, outline chapters. Look up unfamiliar words. You know, all that shit you're supposed to pick up at least by grad school. Me, I've been turning over bales of Ruskin books & essays I read last summer, gisting articles into little abstracts, copying down useful quotations; stuff, ideally, I should have been doing as or immediately after I read 'em, when they were still fresh in my mind.

It's all tangled up with a bit of professional identity crisis, I must admit. Am I a critic?, I ask myself, looking over the pieces I've written for Parnassus & all the other belletristic reviews I've churned out over the years, or am I a scholar? For I do see those as rather different roles (not that they don't often overlap). Jerome McGann is a scholar who also does a fair bit of smart criticism, as was William Empson; Susan Sontag was mostly critic, but approached scholarhood in the way she worked up some of her essays; James Wood is nothing but critic.

And I've got this rather medieval, uncomfortably rigorous notion of what the scholar does (which someday I'll write up in a kind of list format): Read the book. Read all of it. Know what's in it, and what isn't. Read everything by the author at hand. Read who the author's read, and what his immediate contemporaries said about him, etc. (Followed of course by Know the important secondary texts on your author. Know all the secondary texts dealing with your immediate subject...)

I'm still deep in the process of trying to make myself a quasi-Victorian scholar-type, and it's not easy. The four courses on Victorian lit I took back in the day are gradually coming back to me, admittedly, but there's a tremendous amount of catch-up ball to be played here. Of course, anyone sensible would have tackled a more manageable figure than Ruskin. I'm maybe 3/5 thru the corpus, all 9 million words of it. And I've read a healthy stack of books on Ruskin. And around Ruskin. And about the Victorians.

But one thing's always leading to another. Arnold, at the moment. He's the key counter-Ruskin for much of JR's career. I've read bunches of the poems, most of the important essays, and Culture and Anarchy. But now I'm feeling the need to read more – to achieve a comfortable global knowledge of Arnold. And then there's Pater and Wilde, each of whom I'm deep into. Sigh – Morris and Rossetti still await, and after them no doubt there will be others.

The happy side of all this is that I've actually started writing, however tentatively. Maybe I'll have something ready for the centenary of the big man's birth – after all, it's 8 years away.

1 comment:

Archambeau said...

I know what you mean about not really fitting into categories, or suspecting that one doesn't. I never know what to call myself. Poet? I write poems, but at a Larkin pace, not an Auden pace, and I really try to avoid playing the PoBiz game. Critic? Sure. But there's a lot that I do that isn't really criticism. Scholar? I root around in old books and have a semi-systematic understanding of context, but I think I sure don't have a defined "field." I've been called an "intellectual historian" by an intellectual historian, but much of what I do isn't history, not really. I think the thing to do is just to just keep on doing what we want to do and not worry about labels. I mean, what is tenure for, right?