The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Louise Glück, for poetry, and nobody wins the guess-the-Laureate contest

October 8, 2020 • 6:30 am

Rarely does a poet receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bob Dylan was the most recent one), but we have one this year, the American poet Louise Glück. The Nobel Foundation’s Press release (very skimpy) is here, and her official Nobel biography is here. The award is ““for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. One excerpt from the biography:

The American poet Louise Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apart from her writing she is a professor of English at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014).

Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by a striving for clarity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings, is a thematic that has remained central with her. In her poems, the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting the illusions of the self. But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

Glück is much honored; she also won the National Humanities Medal, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen Prize.

I have to say that I’m not at all familiar with her work, and, given these encomiums, I should have been (my knowledge of American poetry stops with Sylvia Plath and of non-American poetry with Seamus Heaney). The Nobel Committee gave an excerpt from her work:

Louise Glück is not only engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life, she is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss. In one of her most lauded collections, The Wild Iris (1992), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she describes the miraculous return of life after winter in the poem ”Snowdrops”:

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring –

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

As of this writing there’s no video of the announcement, but I’ll post one when it appears.  Here’s Glück reading from her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, which won a National Book Award.

As for yesterday’s “Guess the Literature Prize” contest, it was again a miserable failure—nobody guessed Glück.  (The favorite seemed to be Margaret Atwood.) What a pity!

A consolation contest: guess the Nobel Prize for Literature

October 7, 2020 • 8:00 am

As I noted this morning, my Nobel Prize Contest was a miserable failure: nobody even came close to guessing any winners of the three science prizes. Ergo, nobody won.

Well, you get another chance. The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded tomorrow morning. Guess the winner and put your guess below.

Rules: One guess only, and best to give a single name. In the unlikely event that the prize is shared by more than one person, your guess is counted correct only if you name both people. Since you can win with just one name, best to suggest only one name.

The first person to guess the winner wins the prize, so if you have a likely candidate, best to post the name now.

The contest closes at 7 p.m. Chicago time today.

The Prize will be be a paperback copy of Faith Versus Fact, autographed, made out to you, and bearing an original PCC(E)-drawn animal cartoon with a pro-science and anti-faith message.

Let’s have some entries this time—this ain’t rocket science.

“Now October has come again”

October 1, 2020 • 6:00 am

I’ve put up the words of Thomas Wolfe several times on October 1 (he was born on October 3, 1900, and died of tuberculosis at just 37). This is a repost from exactly ten years ago. The prose is gorgeous and evocative, and of course appropriate to the day.


No writer has captured the color and feel of America better than Thomas Wolfe. From Of Time and the River:

Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands.  The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.  Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .

October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.  The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all:  the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.


Turning literature into ideology: Flannery O’Connor gets cancelled

August 23, 2020 • 1:00 pm

In June I reported that among the books I pried from the university library before it closed was the collected works of Flannery O’Connor, a writer who’s celebrated but whose work I hadn’t read.  After having worked my way through all her short stories and one of her novels, I decided she is indeed among the great anglophone writers of modern times, well worth reading. She’s right up there with Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and her southern confrère Carson McCullers.

Lately, however, as the article from Quillette shown below reports, O’Connor has assumed a bad odor,  (Charlotte Allen is a journalist and writer.) Why? For the same reason nearly everyone, including ornithologists, is getting canceled these days: they are deemed racist. In O’Connor’s case, though, that judgment is not straightforward. Yes, she made racist statements in her private letters, her novels are full of the n-word, and she once wrote (in a letter) that she didn’t like black people. On the other hand, her biographer Angela Alaimo O’Donnell says that her attitude towards blacks was ambiguous and complex—and you can certainly see that in her stories. (I recommend reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge”, which Allen dwells on toward the end of her essay.)

Click on the screenshot to read the piece.

O’Connor’s attitudes toward blacks have been discussed for decades, but what put paid to her reputation now appears to be this essay from the June 15 New Yorker (click on screenshot below), which bears a title similar to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The author, who had previously written worshipfully of O’Connor and her work, is now on a different tack, and the conclusion of the title question is “Pretty damn racist.” (I’ve read the essay.)

As Allen reports, within a few days after Elie’s New Yorker essay, students at Loyola University in Baltimore, a Jesuit school (O’Connor was a staunch Catholic), demanded that a dormitory named Flannery O’Conner Hall be renamed. The administration caved and renamed the dorm after a black Catholic nun, Thea Bowman.

So be it; this will keep happening and there’s nothing we can do about it. Racism is easy to find in white Southerners of her era and before, as well as in nearly every white person who lived before 1920, whether they lived in the North or South. The question remains and why I’m writing this:  “Well, what comes next?” The best part of Allen’s piece is her argument that the sussing out of bigotry in someone’s psyche should not involve canceling their art.

We already know that schools are very hesitant to teach books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, despite the fact that both books are anti-racist. (In both cases the n-word is used and racist attitudes are evinced by the unenlightened; but that’s apparently enough to doom a book. Racism, it seems, simply can’t be depicted at all.) It’s only a matter of time before people stop teaching Flannery O’Connor because she’s, well, “problematic.” And that would be a great shame, because she’s a terrific and unusual writer well worth your time.

So I’ll give the money quotes from Allen’s essay, and hope that we can take them to heart.

The fact that this debate is taking place at all, however—whether or not Flannery O’Connor was a racist, how racist or not she might have been, whether she redeemed herself from her racism via her writing or grew past her racism morally—is exactly what has gone fearfully wrong. The primary evil of cancel culture isn’t toppled statues or renamed buildings or even destroyed livelihoods. It is that, once cancel culture has come for an artist, it becomes impossible to take that artist’s artistry seriously. In his New Yorker essay, Paul Elie complains that O’Connor’s admirers pass over the issue of her racism in order to focus on her literary gifts: “[I]t’s about protecting an author who is now as beloved as her stories.” Now, O’Connor’s admirers will be obliged to pass over her literary gifts in order to focus on the issue of her racism. Flannery O’Connor will forever have an asterisk next to her name, and that asterisk will be the Racism Question. Henceforth, it will be impossible to give a public lecture about O’Connor, teach a college class, write a critical essay, or adapt her fiction to stage or screen without appending a dreary prologue rehearsing all the arguments about her attitudes toward black people. And in the midst of such arguments, all nuance, humor, characterization, and subtlety in the works themselves gets flattened or lost. This is what cancel culture does: It reduces literature to ideology.

. . . To quote the New Testament, as O’Connor did so often in her fiction, the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. And there is nothing so literal in its after-effects as cancel culture, mowing down everything in its path in the name of anti-racism or whatever the ideology du jour might be. What cancel culture has just mown down isn’t simply Flannery O’Connor or her works, but our ability to view them through any other lens except that of doctrine.

The only problem with Allen’s essay is that she gets bogged down criticizing O’Connor’s detractors because they never explicitly define “racist.”  Well, you don’t really have to: you can look at her statements, her stories, her novels, and her letters, and judge what her attitudes towards blacks were. If nearly uniformly negative, yes, she’s a racist. O’Connor’s attitudes were apparently complex, and she was trying to wean herself of racism because it contravened her Catholicism (I haven’t read the biography or her letters.)  The stories and novel I have read do not show someone who’s an out-and-out racist. Racism is shown, but can we tell that it’s O’Connor’s, or simply the attitudes of the characters?

But, as Allen concludes (and I agree), we cannot allow the label of “racist” to remove someone from the canon of literature. Were that true, we’d have to give up a great deal of literature, and we’d be the worse for it. After all, it’s not like reading Flannery O’Connor, or Mark Twain, or Harper Lee, will turn people into racists.

Should we judge literature by its ideology and its author’s ethnicity?

April 30, 2020 • 11:00 am

I have to say that Quillette‘s articles are getting distressingly predictable. Although many of them I find ideologically compatible and useful, as they call out the woke and the excesses of the Left, all too often I can tell what’s going to be in a piece simply by looking at its title. I don’t like 100% predictability, and although nearly all websites have their biases, writers like Christopher Hitchens used to surprise us with his takes. You could never quite figure out where he was going to go in a piece, and that was a nice surprise—and made you think. I don’t find that unpredictability in Quillette.

That said, I still think it’s a site sui generis, and much needed. The article below, which complains about the ideological way books are now judged and rated, is a mix: I agree with a lot of it but disagree with some of the predictable parts.

Click on the screenshot below to read it. The author, Elena Shalneva, is identified as “a London-based journalist, writing about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint and City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is also guest lecturer at King’s College London.”

Shalneva has some valid complaints. One is that, increasingly, books seem to be judged and given prizes not on their literary merit, but on the ethnicity of their authors (minorities and women good, white bad) or on their subject matter (woke or Left-wing subjects good, other subjects bad). I think she has a point here, and one example is the awarding of the 2017 Royal Society Investment Insight Book Prize (a prestigious award for general science writing) to Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, a book I found tendentious, flawed, and inferior to some of its competitors. But it had the advantage, as did the 2019 book winner, of aiming to be a corrective of sexism and misogyny in science. Ed Yong’s fine book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, didn’t stand a chance against Fine’s book, for sexism trumps microbes.

I note that the 2019 winner is among these lines as well: Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (I haven’t read this one, and it did get good reviews). One could make the case that the prize has become ideologically slanted, with “woke” books having a greater chance of winning.  At least that’s what Shalneva says about one of the world’s most prestigious awards for fiction—the Man Booker Prize:

When I learned that the 2020 International Booker Prize was going ahead in spite of London’s lockdown, I rejoiced at the organisers’ resourcefulness and resilience. But then I began reading the posts about this year’s prize on the Booker website and my enthusiasm dwindled. Surveying press responses to publication of the shortlist, the organisers spotlighted the Guardian‘s observation that nominee Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is only 28 years old, “identifies as male and uses the pronouns they/them.” The New York Times, we are told, had noted that four of the six shortlisted nominees are women, and the Sydney Morning Herald had informed its readers that one of these women is a refugee who fled to Australia from Iran. A separate post made mention of “such enormous themes as intellectual freedom, sexual identity, political unrest, and loss.” I find it unfortunate that the literary industry, eager to advertise its diversity credentials, panders to the media’s obsession with secondary considerations such as choice of subject matter and author identity, rather than focusing on essential considerations such as talent and literary merit.

Yes, she does have a point here.

Shalneva goes on to argue that while one’s life experience can inform a work of fiction (viz., Moby Dick, Youth), a book doesn’t achieve greatness by conveying the author’s experience alone. Nor is an author required to have “lived experience” related to a work of fiction (viz. anything by Cormac McCarthy, Pat Barker’s The Regeneration Trilogy, and so on—all these examples are mine). Her implicit message is that ethnicity or “lived experience” alone does not a great novel make. The problem of “author not of the right ethnicity to write” particularly plagues adult fiction, whose publishers now employ “sensitivity readers” to vet books for RightThink and cultural appropriation.

Shalneva highlights NickDeLano’s response to a tweet from Vox:

Shalneva also links to her own response to the Vox emission, as well as to that of advice columnist Amy Alkon:

There is a grain of truth in Shalneva’s reactions, but it sounds a bit harsh to me. For one thing, you could make a good case that Virginia Woolf, Mary Ann Evans (“George Eliot”), or Katherine Mansfield were better writers than Coetzee.  You don’t have to read just one writer to the exclusion of others.

As for reading more books by people of color, I’ve done just that, and precisely because I wanted to learn more about the black experience. I just finished Richard Wright’s Native Son, a work of fiction, but also his autobiography Black Boy, and it’s clear how much Wright’s own experience fed into that great novel. I don’t think any white writer could have written Native Son—or, for that matter, Ellison’s Invisible Man. Now those books aren’t great simply because their authors were black, but their author’s ethnicity was a prerequisite for their greatness. I believe there are some experiences that only a member of a certain group can have, and that, combined with the writer’s talent, produces a synergy that can yield great literature.

I’m sure you can think of others. Shalnevo argues that Oliver Twist doesn’t rest on “lived experience” because it “was not written by a Victorian orphan”, but is she aware that while Dickens’s father was in debtor’s prison, Dickens worked in a “blacking factory” ten hours a day, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish? Nobody has doubted that some of the themes of his work, and his sympathy for the downtrodden and abandoned child, came from this experience.  And during that period, Dickens was in fact an orphan. As the World History Project notes—correctly, I think:

For more than a half century, students of Dickens have emphasized the crucial importance of the traumatic period in his life when his parents suddenly removed him from school and their middle-class, more-or-less genteel environment, made him live apart from the family, and forced him to work at Warren’s Shoeblacking factory and warehouse. As Walter Allen points out, this experience had crucial influence on (1) the writer’s emphasis upon orphans and abandoned children, (2) the self-pity that permeates many of his works, and (3) their fairy-tale plots:

The blacking factory episode does not account for Dickens’s genius, but it does, I believe, explain some of the forms his genius took, and it throws light on much that is otherwise baffling both in his art and his life.

Again, you needn’t have worked as a child laborer to have written a book about it, but the greatest book about it just happens to have rested on such experience. That’s not a coincidence.

This is why I think that it’s the combination of artistic talent and “lived experience” that had made for some of the world’s greatest fiction. But although the former is required, the latter isn’t. But it helps! That’s why many writers do extensive research for their novels. In this light, I think Shalneva’s tweet about Coetzee appears mean-spirited and, implicitly, wrong. I chose to read Ellison and Wright because of the combination of their talent and their identity. I wanted to find out what it was like to be an African-American in the Chicago of the 1920s.

And surely there are many great works of literature about which we don’t know because they haven’t been translated into English. How many of those works will thrill us and change us because they acquaint us with what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes?

Finally, Shalneva suggests a fix for the tendency to rate books by the ethnicity or gender of their authors or by the ideological compatibility of their subject matter:

A writer capable of prose with this kind of elemental force should be rewarded and rewarded generously. A writer who isn’t, should not. Artistic vocation is a privilege, not a right, and handing prestigious awards to mediocre fiction is of benefit to no-one, irrespective of the author’s identity or the social importance of the themes they write about. It is therefore my firm belief that the Booker Prize (and all other major literary prizes) should be judged blindly. I am aware that this will create practical problems (and that it will ruffle some feathers). But overcoming such problems is surely within the capabilities of the clever people responsible for judging the Booker Prize. Admittedly, this won’t prevent authors being nominated for tackling fashionable subject matter. But if the panels wish to avoid accusations of bias, it would at least help to re-establish literary merit as the pre-eminent criterion of worth rather than privileging authors for their sex or race. And assessing merit is the reason such awards panels exist, after all. Isn’t it?

Well, in principle this is a good idea, but in practice how can already-published works be judged blind? (Perhaps editors for publishing houses can vet them blind.)

Yes, I agree that assessing merit is the reason awards panels exist, and they shouldn’t bias their awards by the genes of the author or the subject of their work. But in practice some works of great merit result from a stupendous talent transforming their own experience, and presenting it to us as another way of looking at the world. After all, isn’t one of the principle boons of literature that it helps us see the world from another person’s point of view?

What we’re reading during lockdown

April 24, 2020 • 10:15 am

Here’s a thread to acquaint us all with what we’re reading to pass the interminable hours of quarantine. Indeed, since I can’t go out, except for walks, my routine is to watch the evening news on NBC, make dinner (garnished with a decent glass or two of wine) and then become recumbent and read until I fall asleep.

Unfortunately, like several people I’ve heard from, it’s hard for me to concentrate, and I find my attention wandering, having to go back and reread what I’ve read before. It thus goes slowly. (Matthew just told me that this is very common in these parlous times, and he’s suffering from the same thing.)

But here are three books I’ve just read.

Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945; Amazon site here). This is one of his two most famous books, the other being Native Son (1940) which I recently finished. It was the latter, a book of fiction, that made me want to read the former, because Native Son was so eloquent and moving in expressing the oppression of blacks in the North (in this case, the South Side of Chicago), that I wanted to read about the author’s own life. Black Boy is an autobiography in two parts, the first (“Southern Night”) detailing Wright’s life in the South, mostly in Mississippi. His memory is remarkable: he remembers in detail things that happened starting at age four. (It’s possible he made all this up, but other biographers have verified many of the details.)

And it was a horrible life. Wright clearly stood out from his peers, both in thoughtfulness and desire to read, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how he and other blacks around World War I (Wright was born in 1908) had to constantly cower before and truckle to whites. If you want to see post-bellum American racism at its worst, read the first part of this book.

Realizing that he had no hope in the South, Wright fled to the North when he was nineteen. The book’s second part (“The Horror and the Glory”) takes him to Chicago, young adulthood, and his flirtation with Communism. Even in the North he found himself denigrated and unfulfilled, but began the writing that made him famous.

When Black Boy was issued by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1945, it made Wright famous, but they also omitted part 2 in the reissue. I can see why, for the second part is far less descriptive and far more cerebral, with long analyses, which now seem dated, of the relationship between black Americans and Communism.

Black Boy and Native Son make a good pair, for the attitudes expressed by Bigger Thomas in the novel clearly came from Wright’s experiences in both the South and North. And it explains why, in the novel, Thomas committed the crime he did. I’d recommend both of them highly, though you might want to skip the Chicago section of Black Boy (many editions omit it as well).  I’d read the novel first, as it’s a real experience to read Wright’s fictionalization of the black experience, and then follow it up with his own autobiography.

HIGHLY recommended (mostly the first bit in the South)


The second book  was recommended by my editor at Penguin Random House when I told her I was reading Francine Proses’s two books on how and what to read if you want to learn to write (I wasn’t reading it for that—I just wanted to see what books she liked). She hadn’t read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but had heard it was the best of the “how to write” books.

In fact it wasn’t. I haven’t read anything by Stephen King, but you’d have to live under a rock to know that he writes horror/sci-fi/weird fiction about the numinous, and that genre simply doesn’t appeal to me. His book is a combination autobiography (written very informally and heavily larded with obscenities) and a discussion of how he creates a book. Because he’s not your usual writer, and has no pretentions to create great literature (he likes a good story, but one that is well crafted), his “advice” is of limited use to writers who aspire to more than creating something like Carrie. It’s not by any means useless, and his tips on editing (with an example at the end) are quite good. Further, there are plenty of anecdotes about his life, including his horrible accident when he was hit and smashed up by a distracted driver.

If you like Stephen King you might want to read this; otherwise I can’t really recommend it. If you want books about writing, I still like Strunk and White as well as Steve Pinker’s newer A Sense of Style.

No. Just no.

Okay, now please enlighten us with what you’re reading, and how you like it.

My favorite excerpts from English literature

March 29, 2020 • 10:00 am

I’ve been reading two books on great prose by—yes—author Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want To Write Them, and What to Read and Why. I am not reading them to learn how to write better, as they’re all about fiction, a genre I don’t dare to essay, but it’s fascinating to see what writing an accomplished writer loves most, and why. (She particularly likes Chekhov’s short stories, which I also love, but now want to read them all.)

I decided to put together my favorite bits of prose—those bits that are especially lovely—and post them here, though the post will be rather long. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of my favorites, but the excepts below are especially poetic, and some of them I can’t read without tearing up. These are selections only from literature written in English; I’ve left out, for example, my favorite Russian literature, as that has been translated.

I’d invite readers to submit their own selections, but that would make the comments too long. Instead, you might just tell us what work or what passage moves you in the way these pieces move me.  Here we go:


As I’ve said repeatedly, what I consider the most beautiful thing ever written in English is Joyce’s short story (or novella) The Dead, the last piece in his collection Dubliners.  It is perfect in every way, but the ending is both perfect and incomparably beautiful. It comes after an evening when the protagonist, Gabriel, has been to a Christmas party at his aunts’ house, and has been his usual self-absorbed and pretentious self. His wife Greta reacts strongly to a song that somebody sings at the party (“The Lass of Aughrim”), and when they go back to their Dublin hotel, Gabriel asks Greta why she reacted to the song that way. She tells him that it was sung to her when she was just a lass by her great love Michael Furey, who died after having come to her house in the rain when he was ill, a visit that caused his death. Gabriel learns at that point that his marriage has always been more or less a sham, for Greta loved Michael in a way that she could never love him. As Greta falls asleep, Gabriel ponders his tepid life and pompous demeanor in this beautiful ending, one of Joyce’s famous “epiphanies”. The last paragraph is pure poetry.

She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

As I posted recently, I much admire Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, but especially love the beginning, which limns the feel of India in just a few words, just as Karen Blixen does for Africa in the excerpt below. This is the beginning of the first of Scott’s four novels, The Jewel in the Crown:

The ending of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is justifiably famous, as Gatsby ponders the necessary but futile ambition that drives people to fulfill their dreams. He compares the green light on the dock belonging to the house of Daisy, his love, with the dreams of the sailors who first came to America:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitzgerald’s writing is also gorgeous in his largely unread book Tender is the Night.  The scene at the dinner party, for instance, when the table seems to rise with the fellow-feeling of the guests, is fantastic.

Although I love the writing of Thomas Wolfe, I must admit that at times it’s long-winded and pompous. Literature professors have repeatedly mocked my affection for his big books, regarding it as puerile. And yet he’s worth reading for the times when he hits his stride, as in his “poem to October” from Of Time and the River. (If you want to read a complete piece of Wolfe that stands on its own as great literature, read The Child by Tiger, a fictionalized account of a lynching that really happened in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.)

Nobody could evoke the feeling and weathers of America better than Wolfe, as he does here. Every word is essential and adds to the atmosphere.

Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands.  The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.  Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say where that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .

October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.  The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all:  the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.

Finally we have Karen Blixen, who published under the male name Isak Dinesen, and of course is famous for her autobiographical work Out of Africa. This is the only nonfiction here, but the writing is as good as anything in literature. It’s even more remarkable when you realize that her native language was not English but Danish. (It’s just as remarkable as Conrad’s great writing in English, his second language after Polish).
I have two excerpts from Out of Africa. The first is the opening when she describes her farm and its environs. You will have heard this. Some of it was recited by Meryl Streep at the beginning of the eponymous movie.

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet. like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt. like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails furled, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtles; in some places the scent was so strong that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found or plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs – only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it. was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.

And this piece, like the ending of The Dead, always makes me tear up, no matter how many times I read it. Blixen’s great love, Denys Finch Hatton, died in a plane crash during their romance in Africa. She was shattered, and they buried Finch Hatton in the hills overlooking the plain. Here she describes his grave and how the lions came to sit on it.  The last three sentences are a work of genius.

I often drove out to Denys’s grave. In a bee-line, it was not more than five miles from my house, but round by the road it was fifteen. The grave was a thousand feet higher up than my house, the air was different here, as clear as a glass of water; light sweet winds lifted your hair when you took off your hat; over the peaks of the hills, the clouds came wandering from the East, drew their live shadow over the wide undulating land, and were dissolved and disappeared over the Rift Valley.

I bought at the dhuka a yard of the white cloth which the Natives call Americani, and Farah and I raised three tall poles in the ground behind the grave, and nailed the cloth on to them, then from my house I could distinguish the exact spot of the grave, like a little white point in the green hill.

The long rains had been heavy, and I was afraid that the grass would grow up and cover the grave so that its place would be lost. Therefore one day we took up all the whitewashed stones along my drive, the same that Karomenya had had trouble in pulling up and carrying to the front door; we loaded them into my box-body car and drove them up into the hills. We cut down the grass round the grave, and set the stones in a square to mark it; now the place could always be found.

As I went so often to the grave, and took the children of my household with me, it became a familiar place to them; they could show the way out there to the people who came to see it. They built a small bower in the bush of the hill near it. In the course of the summer, Ali bin Salim, whose friend Denys had been, came from Mombasa to go out and lie on the grave and weep, in the Arab way.

One day I found Hugh Martin by the grave, and we sat in the grass and talked for a long time. Hugh Martin had taken Denys’s death much to heart. If any human being at all had held a place in his queer seclusive existence, it would have been Denys. An ideal is a strange thing, you would never have given Hugh credit for harbouring the idea of one, neither would you have thought that the loss of it would have affected him, like, somehow, the loss of a vital organ. But since Denys’s death he had aged and changed much, his face was blotched and drawn. All the same he preserved his placid, smiling likeness to a Chinese Idol, as if he knew of something exceedingly satisfactory, that was hidden to the general. He told me now that he had, in the night, suddenly struck upon the right epitaph for Denys. I think that he had got it from an ancient Greek author, he quoted it to me in Greek, then translated it in order that I should understand it. It went: “Though in death fire be mixed with my dust yet care I not. For with me now all is well.”

Later on, Denys’s brother, Lord Winchilsea, had an obelisk set on his grave, with an inscription out of “The Ancient Mariner,” which was a poem that Denys had much admired. I myself had never heard it until Denys quoted it to me,—the first time was, I remember, as we were going to Bilea’s wedding. I have not seen the obelisk; it was put up after I had left Africa.

In England there is also a monument to Denys. His old schoolfellows, in memory of him, built a stone bridge over a small stream between two fields at Eton. On one of the balustrades is inscribed his name, and the dates of his stay at Eton, and on the other the words: “Famous in these fields and by his many friends much beloved.”

Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,—the surroundings swerved. The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.

After I had left Africa, Gustav Mohr wrote to me of a strange thing that had happened by Denys’ grave, the like of which I have never heard. “The Masai,” he wrote, “have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch-Hatton’s grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time. Some of the Indians who have passed the place in their lorries on the way to Kajado have also seen them. After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace, I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there they can have a view over the plain, and the cattle and game on it.”

It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.

George Packer gets Hitchens Prize for free expression, decries the Offense Culture as a detriment to writing and thinking

January 24, 2020 • 9:45 am

Although I thought the Atlantic was pretty Leftist, it also seems to be pretty reasonable, or at least anti-woke. The latest issue contains two such pieces, the first a long critique of the New York Times‘s “1619 Project” written by Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton and one of the signatories of a critical letter to the NYT that the paper’s editor slapped down. Note that there is pushback against Wilentz’s Atlantic piece already (see here and here). The arguments seem to revolve largely about historical details that seem inconsequential, but those details bear crucially on the Times‘s contention that this country was founded on slavery—in particular, that the American Revolution was an attempt by colonists both Northern and Southern to retain slavery—and that slavery’s sequelae are responsible for and highly visible in most modern American institutions. Read and judge for yourself.

But today’s post is about the second piece in the Atlantic, which isn’t as controversial—at least to readers on this site.  It’s by George Packer, a staff writer for the magazine, and is a transcript of his Hitchens Prize speech. What is the Hitchens Prize, you ask? I didn’t know about it either, but it’s been awarded for five years by the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation. The Foundation’s site says this:

The Hitchens Prize will be awarded annually by the Foundation to an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry,‭ ‬a range and depth of intellect,‭ ‬and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence. The Prize is named in honor of the late Christopher Hitchens,‭ ‬a writer whose career was a rare if not unique expression of those qualities.‭

Indeed: Hitch always said and wrote what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular (remember his excoriation because of his favoring the Iraq war?).

Besides Packer, the winners have been these folks:

2018 – Masha Gessen, Journalist and Author
2017 – Graydon Carter, Editor
2016 – Marty Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post
2015 – Alex Gibney, Documentary Filmmaker

I’m not sure why Packer, a journalist as well as a prolific writer specializing in history, nabbed the prize this year, but perhaps readers more familiar with his work can enlighten us. His essay below, however (click on screenshot), is “contrarian” in the sense that it pushes back against the increasing tendency of writers to temper what they say lest they offend those vociferous Pecksniffs on social media. We all know of this phenomenon: the worries about writing about ethnic groups different from yours, the demonization of writers (especially in “young adult fiction”) who aren’t ideologically pure, and, as Packer mentions, the shameful refusal of many PEN members to endorse the organization’s freedom-of-expression award to Charlie Hebdo in 2015  (see here and here). There’s no doubt that the Offense Culture is having a chilling effect on writers, as with Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir, which, after vicious attacks on Twitter about her “racial insensitivity,” she first canceled but then decided to publish. (Other examples are rife: see here and here for some recent cases.)

Anyway, I’ll give a few excerpts from Packer’s speech below the screenshot, so you can see the tenor of his remarks. Let’s hope that other candidates for the prize keep coming along, bucking the trend of “going along to get along.”

Excerpts. Note that Packer and Hitchens did have their differences, but that didn’t keep them from sharing libations. (Emphases in the statements below are mine.)

As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it? What are the enemies of writing today?

. . .  But this solidarity isn’t what I mean by belonging. I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique. The answer makes reading a lot simpler. It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it. Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.

. . . Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.

At a moment when democracy is under siege around the world, these scenes from our literary life sound pretty trivial. But if writers are afraid of the sound of their own voice, then honest, clear, original work is not going to flourish, and without it, the politicians and tech moguls and TV demagogues have less to worry about. It doesn’t matter if you hold impeccable views, or which side of the political divide you’re on: Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.

And indeed, those afraid to read what makes them uncomfortable are getting fewer and fewer.

Here’s an hourlong conversation between Hitchens and Packer, both Orwell lovers discussing their favorite author (Packer edited two volumes of Orwell’s essays).

h/t: cesar

Literary studies on the decline—but why? Scholars analyze the problem

January 12, 2020 • 11:00 am

A new supplement in the Chronicle of Higher Education (click on screenshot below) comprises a series of 14 shortish pieces about the decline in funding for and in the reputation of literary studies in American universities. Several of the authors (all professors) diagnose the problem, and some of them offer solutions, none of which seem viable in today’s climate. Towards the end, a few pieces adamantly try to buttress the prestige of humanities—and the right of professors to assert their elitism and expertise in the face of what they see as rampant student egalitarianism that they feel is destroying the humanities. (I agree in part: there are too many specialized nonsense courses catering to student desires.)

I didn’t read all the pieces very carefully, but if you’re interested in this issue, they are all free for the reading. The problems are many: the rise of postmodernism and the decline of non-ideological literary criticism (i.e., the disappearance of “New Criticism”), the lack of employment for academic graduates in English (after all, there aren’t many jobs for English Ph.D.s outside of becoming professors), and the lack of funding for English and the humanities compared to the sciences, a disparity that erodes the humanities’ importance in money-hungry universities. But read the pieces, as their authors are much better informed than I.

Here, in larger type than in the screenshot below, is the introduction to the apocalyptic section, after which I’ve posted a few excerpts from some (but not all) of the articles. The last piece, Andrew Kay’s longer account of attending the infamous annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, is especially worth reading.

The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it. Preliminary data suggest that hiring is at an all-time low. Entire subfields (modernism, Victorian poetry) have essentially ceased to exist. In some years, top-tier departments are failing to place a single student in a tenure-track job. Aspirants to the field have almost no professorial prospects; practitioners, especially those who advise graduate students, must face the uneasy possibility that their professional function has evaporated. Befuddled and without purpose, they are, as one professor put it recently, like the Last Dinosaur described in an Italo Calvino story: “The world had changed: I couldn’t recognize the mountain any more, or the rivers, or the trees.”

At the Chronicle Review, members of the profession have been busy taking the measure of its demise – with pathos, with anger, with theory, and with love. We’ve supplemented this year’s collection with Chronicle news and advice reports on the state of hiring in endgame. Altogether, these essays and articles offer a comprehensive picture of an unfolding catastrophe.

Click on the screenshot to read the pieces:



At Columbia University, a poor job-placement record for Ph.D candidates in the English department created some “alarm” in the program, according to a letter that circulated there this year. The news was grim. Columbia University’s English department had failed to place a single current Ph.D. candidate into a tenure-track job this year. And 19 new doctoral students had accepted admission into the program, raising questions about why the cohort is so large when the job prospects aren’t plentiful. This had “given rise to some alarm,” concerned graduate students wrote in an April 30 letter to department leadership.


Graduate students mulling whether or not to enter a program would benefit from some sort of analysis of what its alumni have done with their degree. But institutions often fail to consistently track and publicly report this information. It’s a much-discussed shortcoming in higher-ed circles and was the impetus for a discipline-wide, interactive database for historians. Earlier this month, the Association of American Universities announced a grant-funded initiative to help a pilot cohort of eight institutions make more widely available data about the Ph.D. career paths of its students in certain disciplines, among other improvements to graduate education.


The graduate students in Columbia University’s English and comparative-literature department hit a tipping point late this past spring. After not a single one of its job candidates got a tenure-track position during the 2018-19 hiring cycle, they decided to complain.

Smarting from that disappointment, and worried about their own prospects, the students were further catalyzed by news that their program had offered admission to 35 students for 2019-20. Nineteen of them accepted and enrolled this fall. In April, the department’s graduate student council held a students-only meeting. By May, a group of students had drafted and sent a protest letter to the department administration.

Students complained in the letter about inadequate faculty advising and too little professional development. They also cited an overly competitive department culture in which large student cohorts were forced to battle each other for limited faculty time and teaching opportunities.


Are the humanities over? Are they facing an extinction event? There are certainly reasons to think so. It is widely believed that humanities graduates can’t easily find jobs; political support for them seems to be evaporating; enrollments in many subjects are down. As we all know.

Even if the situation turns out to be less than terminal, something remarkable is underway. Bewilderment and demoralization are everywhere. Centuries-old lineages and heritages are being broken. And so we are under pressure to come up with new ways of thinking that can take account of the profundity of what is happening. In this situation, we need to think big.

I want to propose that such big thinking might begin with the idea that, in the West, secularization has happened not once but twice. It happened first in relation to religion, and second, more recently, in relation to culture and the humanities. We all understand what religious secularization has been — the process by which religion, and especially Christianity, has been marginalized, so that today in the West, as Charles Taylor has famously put it, religion has become just one option among a smorgasbord of faith/no-faith choices available to individuals.

A similar process is underway in the humanities. Faith has been lost across two different zones: first, religion; then, high culture. The process that we associate with thinkers like Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, in which culture was consecrated in religion’s place, and that in more modest forms survived until quite recently, has finally been undone. We now live in a doubly secularized age, post-religious and postcanonical. The humanities have become merely a (rather eccentric) option for a small fraction of the population.


The humanities, we’re often told, are dying. And yet, even as traditional majors like English and history are indeed shrinking, the past decade has also seen the rise of a new kind of humanities, including a wave of hybrid fields such as the digital humanities, environmental humanities, energy humanities, global humanities, urban humanities, food humanities, medical humanities, legal humanities, and public humanities.  These new alloys emphasize commerce between other disciplines, particularly STEM or professional fields, and humanistic ways of thinking. And they’re not just adding new intellectual perspectives; a substantial institutional infrastructure has materialized to support them, yielding new journals, book series, conferences, courses, degrees, and (most importantly) jobs. All of this indicates that these new hybrids are not the products of some momentary fad: They’re here to stay

The rise of the new humanities belies a shift in the structure of the university that enables the applied disciplines to dominate.


We are now 10 years into a jobs crisis that shows no sign of abating. I won’t belabor the numbers or the causes here. For my present purposes, it is enough to say that the implosion of the market colors everything — from the morale of students worried about their future to the habits of search committees enjoying a buyers’ market.

Discussion of that foundering labor market is now common currency for everyone interested in the present and future state of the humanities, but less often noticed are the broad cultural and institutional shifts that have accompanied the crisis. With the deepening crunch have come important changes in the timing and technology of hiring, the kinds of jobs that departments advertise for, and the structure through which early careers move. The jobs crisis, it seems, has been both brought on and shaped by a larger transformation in academic life.

Kramnick (second piece)

Where once job candidates had the first part of the fall semester to prepare their CVs, cover letters, and other materials, they now must put everything together in close to final form over the summer. Under the analog system, moreover, a sense that printing and mailing paper took time and money meant that search committees usually staggered their requests for materials. Ads often just asked for cover letters CVs, and letters of recommendation, leaving writing samples until after the first cull. With the full-scale turn to digital submission, almost everything now gets sent up front. So all of a candidate’s materials have to be in passable form soon after Labor Day and multiply revised, polished, and ready go by the start of October. The concatenating effects of technological progress and economic decline have meant, in other words, that the job market is experienced as a constant presence and pressure even as its actual contents have fallen off, a bitter irony.


Professors of the humanities make judgments about value. Art historians, literary scholars, musicologists, and classicists say to our students: These works are powerful, beautiful, surprising, strange, insightful. They are more worth your time and attention than others. Claims like this are implicit in choosing what to include on a syllabus.

Yet such judgment violates the principle of equality. So humanists have to pretend we’re not doing it. The entry on “Evaluation” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reads: “Evaluation was once considered a central task of criticism, but its place in criticism is now contested, having been supplanted to a large degree by interpretation.” Sam Rose, in his survey of recent work in aesthetics, describes a consensus among critics and philosophers against the “authoritarian,” “elitist” character of aesthetic judgment.

This eschewal of hierarchy appears eminently progressive. Who am I to say that one book is better than another? Why should I tell you what you should read? Everyone’s taste is equal. No one’s judgment is any better or worse than anyone else’s.

Thus, in a curious development, progressive English professors have come to join populist Fox News pundits in railing against the elitism of aesthetic judgment. This position looks better on Fox than it does in the classroom. The abdication of professional judgment throws all questions of value into the marketplace. The free market is where consumers, whose preferences are all accorded equal status, exercise their cultural choices.

The claim of an expert community’s judgments on nonexperts derives from the background knowledges, experimental procedures, norms of argument and evidence, and often-tacit skills that constitute expertise in a given field. Jerry Z. Muller has described how university administrators have fallen victim to the egalitarian fantasy that we can make the grounds of expert judgment accessible to just anyone. The dogmatic egalitarianism of what Muller calls “metrics fixation” conceals a struggle between administrators and a “professional ethos … based on mastery of a body of specialized knowledge acquired through an extended process of education and training.” Muller describes how the proponents of metrics understand professional judgment “as personal, subjective, and self-interested.” If you can’t immediately show me your reasons for your expert judgment, it must be because you have no reasons, or your reasons are bad ones. Perhaps you’re getting paid by the vaccine makers, or you own stock in wind turbines.

Literary expertise differs from scientific expertise in many respects. But in both cases we can distinguish professional judgment from mere private opinion. And, like scientific judgment, understanding the basis of expert literary judgment is a learning process.


All around them, the humanities burned. The number of jobs in English advertised on the annual MLA job list has declined by 55 percent since 2008; adjuncts now account for all but a quarter of college instructors generally. Whole departments are being extirpated by administrators with utilitarian visions; from 2013 to 2016, colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs. Meanwhile the number of English majors at most universities continues to swoon. None of this shows any sign of relenting. It has, in fact, all the trappings of an extinction event that will alter English — and the rest of the humanities — irrevocably, though no one knows what it will leave in its wake.

What’s certain is that the momentum impelling it is far past halting; behind that momentum lies the avarice of universities, but also the determination of politicians and pundits to discredit humanistic thinking, which plainly threatens them. They have brought on a tipping point: The stories they have told about these disciplines — of their pointlessness, of the hollowness of anything lacking entrepreneurial value — have won out over the stories the humanists themselves have told, or not told.

“Have I stayed too late at something that is over and done?” asked Sheila Liming, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. Owing to enormous state-budget cuts, Liming told me, tenured and tenure-track faculty in her own  department have lately been diminished by more than half. She likens herself and her colleagues to guests who have arrived at a party after last call. “That characterizes the morale of the people who come to this conference now. The project of academia might be over.”


Toni Morrison died

August 6, 2019 • 9:23 am

According to CNN, author and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has died at 88. I’ve read two of her books (Beloved and The Bluest Eye) and enjoyed them both. Besides her Nobel for literature, she won a Pulitzer Prize (for Beloved) and received the National Medal of Freedom from President Obama, shown in the photo below.

You can see the details, and a retrospective of her life, by clicking on the screenshot below.