Stayed awake last night long enough to read the first chapter of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a book I’ve had on my TBR list (and my Kindle) ever since Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged his way through it in an excellent and moving series of posts in 2010. This passage about Grant’s mother made me laugh out loud:
“She still lives in Clermont County at this writing, October 5th, 1884, and is over ninety ears of age. Until her memory failed her, a few years ago, she thought the country ruined beyond recovery when the Democratic party lost control in 1860.”
Until her memory failed her a few years ago. Meaning up through and including her son’s two terms as President. Gee, Ma, thanks for the support.
This morning, during Rilla’s piano lesson, I returned to and finished Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s first lecture from On the Art of Writing, which I began on the heels of last month’s Helene Hanff kick. This is the book Helene took eleven years to rabbit-trail her way through, stopping to read up on the many books and thinkers “Q” references, and after Wikipediaing my own way through this one lecture, I can see (a month later) why it took her over a decade. I’m also enthralled by the snapshot of a pregnant moment in time: there’s Q in 1912, recently appointed to the brand-new Professorship of English Literature at Cambridge—let that sink in for a moment; there wasn’t one before 1911—addressing his students to explain his purpose and point of view in the position. He begins with a somewhat lofty exploration (in company with Plato) of the question of “What to do with the poets?” and then lays out his aims and principles. He won’t go so far as to say you can teach literature; he approves of the wording of his job description, which specifies “to promote the study of Literature.”
But that the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged—this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.
And then, in a move that fills me with gratitude, he spells out exactly where he stands as a reader and a critic:
For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended…
Authorial intent. Got it. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated (and maybe somewhat quixotic), that school of thought, especially for someone like me whose undergraduate experience in the late 80s was a muddle of competing theories, most of which I didn’t know were theories, nor in competition. There was the Freudian professor, but we were too green to know he was a Freudian; I only figured it out (and that it was a thing at all, an approach to literary analysis and not just a unit in Psych 101) after I got a work-study in the English department and was assigned the mind-numbing task of entering his copious footnotes into the MS-DOS file of his very, very, very lengthy Freudian interpretation of Ulysses. Suddenly I had context for his insistence that every single story written by every single student in his Creative Writing class contained hidden Oedipal longings, no matter how earnestly we proclaimed that no, that wasn’t what we’d meant at all. The context didn’t really help; he went on doing Freudian readings of our work no matter how much we protested—actually, the protests made him all the more gleeful—but at least I knew on what grounds to ignore him. I felt conned, actually, resenting that the course description had not been more forthright about professorial hobby-horses. I mean, if you took Linguistics at that college, you knew you were getting a fervently feminist take on the subject, and I really appreciated that transparency (and enjoyed the course). Only later did I begin to wonder what critical theory informed my other professors’ pedagogy. The more I learned about theory, the greater my retrospective indignation. If we’re looking through a particular lens, I’d like to know I’m what glasses I’m wearing. If I’m signing up for your cooking class, I’d like to know up front whether you’re a vegan or a molecular gastronomist.
And so I find Q’s transparency terribly endearing. And it’s fascinating, too, to see him poised there in 1912, at the advent of Modernism, just before all these new ideas about interpreting literature (and writing it) were to sweep across the field. This article by a Cambridge professor captures it quite poignantly:
“He was also acutely aware that he was teaching at a moment when the direction of Literature was taking a radical turn, the turn to modernism. He believed profoundly that the literature of the present day should be taught and that students should be taught (as I believe, too) how to read modern literature. Yet he knew that, temperamentally, his own love of literature and his own ear for language were steeped in the literature of the past, and that he had great difficulty in appreciating the TS Eliots and the Ezra Pounds who were beginning to steal his thunder…”
Before long would come the New Criticism that focused on close readings of the text alone, rather than authorial intent and biographical background—which would, in turn, be swept past by Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, and all sorts of other schools of literary theory about which I’m much fuzzier than I should be. I really don’t know where things stand at present. The lit profs whose blogs I read (and the ModPo crew I’m so fond of) seem to take the kind of historical, biographical approach that I myself most enjoy, looking closely at the cultural/historical context of a work of literature and the author’s life circumstances in addition to unpacking the text —and then I’d say, as well, there’s a lot of looking at various works through specific, clearly defined lenses. Of course it’s possible I read the blogs I do because they take an approach that appeals to me. For all I know, my old professor is out there happily blogging away about the Freudian underpinnings of Mad Men.
On an entirely different note, today is the day Rilla met Mary Lennox. She wasn’t ready, last year when I suggested reading the book. Today, after a sunny (in all respects) hour in the garden, the time felt right. It was. Very very happy sigh from this lifelong Secret Garden devotee. And—we saw our first wild lupines of the year on the roadside today! Which means, of course, it’s time for Miss Rumphius.
Book Notes: August
Guernsey Literary Society Open Thread
Book Quotes We Use a Lot