Monday, January 10, 2011

academic genealogies

[Robert von Hallberg, eminent retiree]

The lastest Chicago Review is out, & as usual it's both a beautiful artifact and a fascinating read. Poetry by among others Rae Armantrout, Nathaniel Mackey, John Latta, & Kate Greenstreet; a review of Donald Revell's latest; and a lively mini-essay by Eirik Steinhoff on Marlowe's Ovid, beginning with perhaps the funniest description of sexual dysfunction in English poetry.

The heart of the issue, however, is a stack of essays in honor of Robert von Hallberg's retirement, by folks who were at one time or another his grad students. An impressive bunch: some excellent poets (Devin Johnston, Elizabeth Arnold, Peter O'Leary) and some critics whose work I prize very highly, among them Alan Golding, Lynn Keller, and Keith Tuma. Just the roll call of names makes clear that von Hallberg has left a valuable teaching legacy.

Of course, I've always valued von Hallberg's criticism. While I've differed with him on the evaluation of particular poets, he writes with a grace, clarity, and persuasiveness rarely found in academic criticism these days. Perhaps that's part of the legacy of doing one's PhD at Stanford, where the ferociously lucid Yvor Winters and Donald Davie held sway.

The whole shebang got me thinking about the business of teaching genealogies. The music director at the church I used to attend way back when (well, we called him the "song leader," in a gesture of ferocious iconoclastic Puritan leveling), once let slip that he was a 4th or 5th or some degree teaching descendant of Beethoven's – that is, his piano teacher's piano teacher's piano teacher's (etc.) piano teacher had taken piano lessons from Ludwig van himself. Was there some mysterious mojo that got passed down thru all those generations? And does it work the same way in the academy?

I guess I'm a teaching descendant of von Hallberg myself: my undergraduate mentor, Tom Gardner, did his dissertation at Madison under Lynn Keller, who studied with von Hallberg at Chicago. But it's a grand game – one of my own dissertation committee members worked with John Hollander & Geoffrey Hartman, who no doubt studied with some of the grand old men of their time. Indeed, my dissertation director was one of the last graduate students to work with Perry Miller, the great scholar of Puritanism and early American literature.

I'm afraid precious little of that mojo has come down to me. Or at least during graduate school. I'm afraid my greatest academic influences still remain those of my undergrad years: Tom's hard thinking about poems (was that the second-generation von Hallberg influence?) and Alison Sulloway's ferocious but always encouraging copy editing (she graded with four different colors of pen) of my papers – not to mention her relentless emphasis on the historical and cultural contexts of whatever we were reading.

Update: No, turns out it wasn't 2nd-generation von Hallberg, by way of Tom Gardner, who actually worked not under Lynn Keller but L. S. Dembo – the man who, I've argued elsewhere, had a huge hand in solidifying the "Objectivists" as the quartet LZ-Oppen-Rakosi-Reznikoff. Not sure whether that counts as intellectual "influence" or something more weirdly proleptic.


Archambeau said...

I used to own a little pamphlet from the early sixties called something like "A Guide to the New Criticism." It started with a chart linking the luminaries by just the kind of genealogy you describe. Wish I could dig it up -- we could start a site like and map the whole scene. Then we'd have to start another site like Foetry to chart all the old-boy nepostism.

Anonymous said...

the 'thing' about "the old boys"
that they knew their craft

I mean

Howard Nemrov COULD
turn a phrase...

Bill Stafford ... no 'slouch' either...

there is much more to this "game" than just a click-of-the-mouse!

Archambeau said...

"The" "thing" "about" "the" "Old" "Boys" "was" "the" "lack" "of" "scare" "quotes."

Kent Johnson said...

Just FYI, the essays by O'Leary and Tuma are now in PDF at the CR website.


Eddie Brennan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eddie Brennan said...

I really liked this post, and the concept of an academic genealogy. Like any good concept, it leaves you thinking 'wow, that's obvious, I just wouldn't ever have thought of it'.

I like the idea of teaching genealogies too but it seems that like real genealogies they will only ever be invoked when they confer symbolic power upon their owner. It seems a pity. We would all have a better understanding of our ideas and our approaches to teaching if we bothered to look at how we've learned, and who we've learned from, in a systematic way