Article - Autumn 2020

Teach What You Love

A modest proposal for professors of literature

By Mark Edmundson | September 11, 2020
Detail of Samuel Johnson statue in the Strand, London (Gavin Rodgers/Alamy)
Detail of Samuel Johnson statue in the Strand, London (Gavin Rodgers/Alamy)

Word is out on the street: the study of literature is dying; English is breathing its last; no more Beowulf, no more Virginia Woolf either. Or not much of it. There are reasons to listen to the auguries. Most of the teaching in English departments now is done by adjuncts. The number of majors is tumbling. The profession’s on fire, and the deans, provosts, and presidents don’t hear the cries or smell the smoke.

Graduate students try the job market, once, twice, and three times. Finally they cop a visiting position, which runs for a year, maybe two. Then it’s back at it again, chasing another temporary gig. Or they end up in three adjunct positions at once, teaching six courses a term at soba-noodle wages. One member of their cadre snags a job with a two-two load, research money, a modest travel account, and the prospect of a life’s employment doing what she loves to do. So maybe I can too. Maybe if I just hold on for one more year, or a couple, the Magic Finger will point to me. Maybe.

Let’s say it’s as bad as the darkest auguries would have us think. Is there, truly, anything that can be done? I think so, though it seems possible that it’s too late and the problems have progressed too far. But there might be something, something, something.

Literature departments should be about literature. There. I’ve said it. My radical response to the current crisis is out and on the table. It won’t solve the problem tomorrow or even the day after. But in time, making English departments about literature—about novels, poems, plays, and the rest—could begin to deliver them from their impending dissolution.

I was in graduate school when the forces of the French Foreign Legion landed on the beach of English departments throughout America. Derrida, Lacan, Foucault: all found homes in these departments. I admire aspects of all three, but anyone who knows them understands that they are devoted overall to the negative, to demystification. Their work sets out to dispel what they take to be illusions. They attempt to show us that it is darker and more difficult out there (and in here) than it seems.

Lacan, Derrida, Foucault: they were read and taught and discussed in English departments, which became avant-garde departments of the humanities. Suddenly English was where the action was. The smartest graduate students showed up and began taking our courses. They couldn’t study Jacques Derrida in philosophy; philosophers held him in contempt. Michel Foucault had little place in departments of sociology or history. And certainly Anglo-American psychology departments had no place for Jacques Lacan, or for Freud either: their denizens were set on turning the discipline into a science, the harder the better. So English was where the intellectual action was.

In 1987, my colleague the philosopher Richard Rorty and I thought nothing of using an English department rubric to offer a course on Freud that included plentiful helpings of Derrida, Lacan, Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson—and even some Freud. There was no literature per se on the syllabus: no novels, no poems, no plays.

This absence didn’t strike me as the end of the world then, and it doesn’t now. Every five years or so, I still teach courses that feature the likes of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir. I treat those texts much as I do literary works—as complex, fascinating, and often illuminating reflections on life. But I do not feel the need to use them to measure and demean works of imagination. They are of interest in and of themselves.

Beginning about the time Rorty and I offered our course in postmodern Freud, the Legionnaires and their cohorts were not just taught. Professors and graduate students didn’t just do what we did: examine their works as pieces of, in our instance, philosophy. They did something else. Works of theory were applied. This is a seemingly small distinction that makes a great difference. Suddenly the master terms of criticism were coming from the Legion. Foucault induced professors to seek out dynamics of power. His acolytes worked to show how intellectual disciplines—including psychology, sociology, and even literary study—actively disciplined individuals, depriving them of righteous freedom.

Derrida dramatized what he took to be the hubris inherent in all Western discourse. Illusions of omniscience and stability were built into almost every act of speech and writing. Suddenly the word is had to be written with an X over it, sous rature, under erasure. Is was an illegitimate fiction. It suggested stasis and the power to know the world from the standpoint of eternity. Down with IS. One wonders if Bill Clinton while at Yale Law School might have caught a whiff of the devil’s discourse emanating from Harkness Tower and so, years down the line, posed his famous question during the Monica Lewinsky scandal: “That depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”

Lacan? Who really knows what Lacan is going on about most of the time? But in his authentically brilliant paper on the formation of the “I,” he suggests that the ego is a fictive structure created to defend us from perceiving the incoherence of our drives and emotions. The child sees a beautifully composed self-image in the glass and, voilà, takes it as an identity. In doing that, he or she denies the wildness of desires in constant ebb and flow within. So, the magus suggests, we may go through life trying to sustain the lie of coherence that began in a narcissistic moment early in life.

Still with me?

This tour through now ancient texts, which could be elaborated and deepened considerably—I gave it a shot in a book called Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida—comes to one central point: certain master terms and master thinkers colonized the English department. These terms were skeptical, dark, almost Gothic in their valences. Poe would have loved them if he could have understood them. These thinkers stayed put. No one ever evicted them, and in time more came along.

Master terms for criticism were nothing new. The New Critics, who came before the Legion and, according to some, prepared the beachhead, had their own ways of talking. They went on about irony, and tension, and ambiguity, and holding disparate thoughts together in suspension. They wanted their poets to be mature, which some found too much in keeping with the deportment of an idealized WASP gentleman. Master terms: yes. But the crucial difference between the New Critics and their successors is that the New Critics were affirmative in their orientation. What they chose to affirm—form and irony and the rest—might have been far too restrictive, might have only truly fit the work of John Donne and a few well-wrought poems by Keats. Yet New Criticism said yes to literature.

Suddenly, the operative word was no. Literature professors became spirits that denied, like Goethe’s devil. And they did so not only by, say, seconding a perception by Foucault about how what had seemed to be a helpful field of terms—the medical or the psychoanalytical, perhaps—was actually shrinking human possibility. They also applied the master terms to existing works of literature. Guided by Foucault, guided by Derrida, they produced readings. I remember encountering D. A. Miller’s bravura piece on discipline in Dickens’s Bleak House, which suggested that Dickens not only depicted a punitive society, but also, rather subtly, endorsed it. “Discipline in Different Voices: Bureaucracy, Police, Family, and Bleak House” was an essay I read with no little admiration, but also with anxiety. The game was shifting. It wasn’t merely that pieces that aspired to demystify were being written—Marxist critics had been writing skeptical pieces about literature for decades. It was different now. Everyone was a debunker, or in training to become one.

Bust of Virginia Woolf in Tavistock Square, London (Martyn Williams/Alamy)


Why did this turn take place so comprehensively and apparently with no possibility of reversal? For soon no one who did not wish to be thought a fool could write a straight-up celebration of a work of literature, and particularly canonical literature. One approached the text as a sort of schoolroom detective, itching to find the defendant guilty. The terms of accusation differed from critic to critic. Foucauldian, deconstructive, feminist, critical race theoretical, cultural studies oriented: on they came in profusion. Sometimes they were lively and brilliant and actually revealing; mostly, reading them was a forced march through the mud with a stale crust for rations.

New works were introduced for celebration. Good! But the labor overall was negative. Proponents of the movement sometimes justified it, if they did, as a clearing of the ground. It was a destruction of an obsolete culture: disciplinary, masculinist, pivoting on unearned privilege. It had to go! And go it probably will.

That’s a cogent reason for the great shift, at least. I suspect most professors and aspiring profs jumped in because that’s what the hipper-seeming cadet in the office next door was doing and they didn’t want to be left out, jobless, alone, and afraid. Real reasons those, and I might have taken them seriously if I’d been faced with the narrowed possibilities extant 10 years after I left grad school. In 1985, it was okay to argue, as I did in my dissertation, the now outrageous case that the great poets know more than we do.

There is something easy and glib about the negative. It’s not hard to see that tiny chip of wood in your neighbor’s eye and get quite exercised about it all. (The log in your own eye—tough to discern. Or so the rabbi tells us.) It’s especially exhilarating when the object of your inquiry has been thought to be among the great and the good. One can’t rule out mere competitive rancor here. Has any literary-leaning child ever said: Yes, that’s what I want to be, a literary critic? No, imaginative children want to make gorgeous poems, tell epic tales, and concoct dramas that make mad the guilty, astound the free, and all the rest.

Disapproval is easy. Contempt, derision, condescension, looking down: they come to us as child’s play. Love’s a lot tougher. A profession, Samuel Johnson says, has got to be open to people who possess moderate abilities and the willingness to work hard. English became a profession, and those with energy and resolve found a way in by doing what they could do, which was often simply to deploy the negative. Yet lit crit at its best may be more art than craft, and we tend not to welcome people into the arts because they try very, very hard. “But I must be a poet,” the elderly ephebe says. “Look at the sheets I’ve inked, regard the hours spent—I’ve gone gray in the service of my muse.” Sorry, my friend, that doesn’t work.

Is it possible that the negative turn of mind clung particularly well to those who had been alienated from all American culture, academic culture included, by the Vietnam war and surrounding events? Suddenly what was good was bad—and maybe what was bad was good. (Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF Is Gonna Win!) Maybe. Maybe political disillusionment made way for what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Human motivation is not easy to plumb. But a number of the hermeneuts of suspicion I encountered in grad school seemed to sustain more passion for their careers than for disinterested pursuit of truth. When they succeeded, they often embraced the bourgeois life their work implicitly condemned. Then intellectual subversion went on behind white picket fences.

“What we have loved others will love and we will teach them how”: that’s Wordsworth in The Prelude addressing his friend Coleridge. In saying so, I feel, Wordsworth is expressing the teacher’s true vocation. He’s a bit vaunting about it. The sentiment may need some gearing down. “We’ll try to teach them how” seems about right.

Why shouldn’t the teaching of literature be based on love, rather than on the skeptical approach or programmatic derision? Love is difficult to express well: there’s no doubt about that. And few are the critics who can convey it effectively. My own pantheon of affirmation includes Samuel Johnson, Northrop Frye, and Virginia Woolf. The love they express for writers is complex, grown up, and not without reservations. Johnson loves Shakespeare, but it’s far from a schoolboy crush. Frye’s book on William Blake is a miracle of perception and shrewd endorsement. Woolf’s essays and journals are sown with splendid perceptions about great and good writing.

When we describe individuals we love in life, assuming that the audience is grown-up and discreet, we don’t sink to platitudes. We don’t say: My beloved wife is the best this, the best that, the best this and that. No, we speak in a way that is detailed and precise, and if the company is right, we may add a word, and maybe more than a word, of qualification. “This is no book,” says Walt Whitman. “Who touches this touches a man.” The best books are men and women who have taken the time and often the deep trouble to concentrate what’s most revealing in their hearts and intellects and make it a gift to us.

What teacher of literature didn’t get into the profession from being touched by a book that was more than a book? They encountered this poet or that, and said, along with Emerson, “This is my music, this is myself.” Or they heard the music of another, divided by race or sexuality, geography or wealth, and something in them chimed richly in response. Think back to the time when you were smitten by a book. Was it different, so very different, from being smitten by a beautiful soul in the world?

What follows is often transformation: not always the dramatic, maybe over-dramatic change that Rilke describes in his poem on contemplating the bust of Apollo, which demands that the beholder change life in toto. No, it’s often subtler, quieter than that. We feel that there is more to being alive than we had previously imagined. Others felt, thought, talked in different ways. The world was full of customs and usages that defied our easy comprehension but led us on to a better way of life.

Much of this has been said before and probably better. But as Doctor Johnson told us, most people need to be reminded far more often than they need to be informed. The English major is succumbing every day to terms that feel most contemporary. Foucault’s sensibility still feels more current—more with it—than Doctor Johnson’s. It might seem that we need some fancy new terms for affirmation to counter the fancy new terms for dismissal. But I think not. We need simply to remind ourselves that literary love is what brought most of us into the game, and that if the game is to survive, we need to teach and write for the love of literature and its power to change people’s lives for the better.

This change is often slow. As Emerson says of his ideal scholar in the making: “Long must he stammer in his speech; often forgo the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept,—how often! poverty and solitude.” Is there time for this long foreground when, according to many, the world is on fire? We are beset, it’s said, by twin viruses, the virus of racism and the virus Covid-19. Who can stand by and think and read and learn while the flames leap?

When I was a student at the University of Massachusetts in 1971, some of my professors believed that we were in a state of emergency. The Vietnam war was topmost in their minds, but there was plenty more, including race relations and gender politics and, just beginning to be of account, environmental degradation. The professors who saw an emergency at hand suspended conventional classes and committed themselves to political work. You were welcome to come along if you wished. Generally, I didn’t, though I often respected their decisions. I was there to read and learn, and so I did.

If you think this moment truly counts as an emergency, then probably it is a good idea to abandon the slow, conventional arts of peace and jump into the fray. But on this score it is easy to be fooled and to let one’s passions, or one’s hunger for self-dramatization, take control. In his famous lecture “The American Scholar,” Emerson instructs the student not to “quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.” I do not say that the current eruptions amount to nothing but the sounding of popguns, only that one must think very hard before abandoning one’s commitments to the slow, rewarding, difficult work of teaching and learning. Even so, the true scholar does not abandon his or her belief that an emergency, when it arises, is an emergency and a call to action. It took Emerson time to throw himself into the fight against slavery and the fugitive slave laws, but when he did, he let his personal concerns dwindle, sacrificed a measure of his solitude, and went to work.

All too often, literary study now is what might be called prophylactic. The skeptical professor does all she can to help the student avoid being co-opted by the contents of the book’s vision. We celebrate critical thinking, which often boils down to learning how to assume a rejectionist posture for anything that comes across our radar. The idea that a student might be influenced by a canonical work of literature is deeply problematic (a favorite term of art) for the average English professor.

Harold Bloom might be right that significant poets suffer from the anxiety of influence. Though my inclination is to think that the poets who truly matter look with supreme gratitude at those who’ve brought them to life as artists. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Walt Whitman says. “Emerson brought me to a boil.” How many other writers have been brought to an inspired boil by reading the right artist at the right moment?

Against influence? Teachers of literature ought to teach students how to be open to influence. The crucial question to ask of a work after the hard work of interpretation is done is a simple one. How could this experience of reading make you better than you are? How could it enlarge your powers of intellect, your reservoirs of compassion, your capacities to be brave?

We might consider Bloom’s theory of influence from the point of view not of the poet but of readers, and see it all in joyous terms, rather than in Bloom’s darker ones. Yes, I bought Milton up to this point or that—all fine. But then I needed to turn away in the direction of my own values and passions. Bloom had a curious name for this sort of phenomenon: he called it clinamen, or swerving.  Or one might say: The other day I found myself talking in the very language, thinking the very thoughts, of the Toni Morrison I so much admired as a young person, then moved away from. Bloom’s term here would be apophrades, the return of the departed.

This is not to say that there are no bad influences—our mothers and fathers warned us against them, and they were right to do so. But to be closed to every influence, to think that every revered author is a figure in a trench coat with a bag of candy in his hand and the passenger door of his busted-down Chevy flung wide: that’s a serious mistake. What did you come to literature for if not to learn from it?

But, says the professor of recent mint, do you want me to jettison all my methods? Do you want me to come at the texts I discuss completely unarmed? And if all the extant methods are debunking or aspire to be, what am I to do?

The best method, T. S. Eliot said, is to be very intelligent. I say if you’ve made it through college and ended up in grad school and now sit at the head of the table, you probably are. Trust yourself. Use your developed intelligence and your experience of life to describe and interpret your text. When you meet a new and appealing person at a party, you do not generally pause and think whether the person at hand ought to be submitted to Foucault-inspired analysis, or interrogated (a favorite lit-crit buzzword with less-than-charming associations) by way of terms you’ve acquired from Slavoj Žižek. You ask your new acquaintance a few kindly questions and listen, so as to learn. You use your experience of life, your sensitivity and intelligence, and you use your experience of people—who, really, does he remind me of? Bloom once told a seminar I was in that he used to ask people he’d just met what was the worst thing that ever happened to them. Cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? I’m more inclined to ask about the best. In short, trust yourself as a teacher: you’re older, have seen more, know more.  And if you are fortunately composed, you are in the habit of trying to understand what you encounter in life and of working hard to turn your critical experiences, including literary experiences, into words, your words. Bloom said this too: There is no method except yourself. But what is that self except nature’s bequest, and all that you have learned from others?

Putting an embargo on the use of fancy debunking terms and coming at the game freestyle may constitute a blow to our self-esteem. We can’t think of ourselves as wizards of esoteric discursivity, possessors and judicious promulgators of arcane wisdom. We lose our specialness. Perhaps we diminish our claims to cultural authority, though I suspect this will be temporary. But I would rather lose my ersatz specialness than my very real job, or my hopes for one.

Bloom tells us that once upon a time he was in conversation with an esteemed literary group that included Robert Penn Warren and William Styron. They were talking about where Warren ought to put his remaining literary efforts. Bloom said that Warren’s poetry had grown stronger as he’d aged and that he ought to stick with it. Apparently Styron turned to Bloom and said something like this: What the hell do you know—you’re nothing but a schoolteacher. How Bloom reacted to this at the moment of delivery I don’t know. (The critic Michael Dirda remarked that calling Bloom a schoolteacher is a little like calling Ahab a fishing boat captain.)

But I note that in one of his last interviews, Bloom proudly referred to himself as a schoolteacher, nothing more and nothing less. Said Bloom: “I would like to be remembered as a teacher. Essentially I am a schoolteacher. I do not know whether I have developed or just unfolded. It seems to me dubious that any of my writings will survive. They were extensions of my teaching. Insofar as they have taught strangers, they have done their work.”

I have myself taught every grade from preschool to grad school and beyond, and have always thought of myself as a teacher. My dozen books and platoons of essays make me no more and no less. A schoolteacher.

Try the title on, see if it fits. In time you may come to like it.

Bust of William Wordsworth in Cockermouth, Cumbria, England (Robert Douglas/Alamy)


What we have loved, others will love. I am persuaded that the first step in the renovation of our discipline is a return to what we have loved and a commitment to share that love with others, in an open, generous way that is always ready to take No for an answer. And then is willing to come back and try again. We have succumbed too smoothly to the trance of the negative. It’s become standard issue clothing for the professoriate, like tweeds and brogans once were. But the current model is full of holes. The work it produces by way of scholarship often shows signs of brilliance, but it is sterile. No one reads it to enlarge one’s spirit. Scholarly books now are not so much read and savored as they are positioned one atop the other for the aspirant to climb in order to write his or her own volume and gain position and preferment—though given the state of the art, these emoluments will be had by few, and fewer all the time.

How long, really, will we draw any students at all, if what we do is mock the meat that feeds us and has for so long? Says Emerson in “The Conservative,” “The past has baked your loaf and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven.” Not so fast, my dear friends. Not so fast. When I reflect on our situation, I sometimes think: “It’s as though some people might go into the study of astronomy because certain planets actively annoyed them.” If we continue to judge literature as a waste site teeming with toxins, how long before the students will simply say, “I think I’ll avoid that locale altogether and do my business elsewhere”? Indeed, they are already doing so.

You say: close attention to the toxins in the old books helps reveal their presence in the current atmosphere. I might say anyone can smell rot in the air. Anyone can see the pollutant clouds roiling the cultural sky. What’s needed is the air of promise, the new start, the freshness that enters the world best in art, to move us to new and renovating exertions in our lives.

But, you might say, you cannot form an academic discipline on love, mere love.

True, you can’t form an academic discipline on simpleminded love, barely articulated infatuation, just as you cannot found a marriage on mesmerizing attraction. Love in all its forms needs words to give it body, shape, and staying power. We literature professors need to drop the pretense of belonging to an academic discipline like the rest, defined by paradigms and discourses, aspiring to scientific knowledge, invested in notions of linear progress. That pretense smuggled literary study in the university door. But now we’ve worn the disguise so long that we cannot distinguish it from who we are and what business we should be about. Literary study is a spiritual discipline, or should be.

It should be based on knowledge, sometimes deep knowledge of a historical and linguistic kind. But to stop with knowledge is not enough. The great use of literature is that it can inspire; it offers new ways of seeing the world and living within it, new appreciation for others, new hopes for one’s own future life and the life of one’s community.

Insofar as it’s permitted to you, teach what you love. If what you love is written in English (or American), then all the better: for we also teach the arts of expression. And there is no better school for acquiring the powers of the word than the best that has been thought and written. We may dislike Milton in this phase or that. But where can we learn more about the power of words than Paradise Lost?

The paradise of literary study is not a lost one. I have no wish to move back in time to a better day that never was. The operative slogan isn’t Make Literature Great Again. The best that we can find in the past are intimations, hints, suggestions, which sometimes come compressed in simple titles: Kenneth Burke’s “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Frye’s The Secular Scripture, and more recently my colleague Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique.

Teach out of love, and the students will return. They are locked in a conformist world in which there is only one way, the standard way—the SAT, internship, recommendations way—to thrive. They need more options. They require more, and more various, visions of the good life. They don’t need to hear again what the good life isn’t. They need affirmations, coaxed from the great writers, of what it might be. Give them that, with conviction, humor, modesty, and maybe a little brio, and let us see what happens. The sun rises every day, a beautiful morning star. Why not, once at least, see if we might not try rising with it?

Teach literature. Teach the literature you love.

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