A Mild & Messy Rant, inspired by John Jay

Thank you, John Jay, for the post below. I started a comment & kept ranting, so made it into a messy post. It remains more a thrown out comment than coherent response. And, of course, mostly I think you are quite right.

Nonetheless, I think Mencken got it really wrong and is an irritating forefather of some of the worst about our culture today – especially his emphasis upon cynicism and his lack of gratitude for the rich tradition we have been given. His belief we need aristocrats is characteristic of his misanthropy which seemed to come from a narrow & bitchy soul. I remember picking up his essays to read on break & feeling physically ill – the pages seened strewn with spittle & venom. You have shown, however, that he did have both a sense of humor and common sense.

Sure post modernism is impenetrable because it is idiotic�being impenetrable is a power play for one thing. This is the same device that the theorists want to be called philosophers & contend they are discussing philosophy. Well, they are writing impenetrable prose about quite abstract, counterintuitive, and often just weird ideas. That doesn�t make it deep.

Another factor: Respect for clear prose was lost when academics stopped teaching freshman comp & tech writing – they associate the plain style with the plebes. (And clear thinking, too, is suspect.) The kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart might understand it.

This is what happens when people write to impress others rather than to communicate. They are irate if any administrative type mentions “service.” Hell, no. Those students get in the way – what the faculty really wants to do is impress each other. Students can learn to write somewhere else – why doesn’t the engineering department, for instance, hire some people to teach tech writing – that isn’t really, well, English.

But I love what I’m doing & do think it is purposeful. Writing clearly & reading widely helps us understand ourselves & others, helps us communicate what we know & think. And teachers do (or at least should) know more – more about history, context, biography, as well as the work. I’m not a scholar nor does a junior college claim to be offering scholars in the classrooms – we are good, but we don�t have time for publishing & most of us have made choices that have precluded the ivory tower life.

Nonetheless, when I teach The Scarlet Letter, I’m rereading it for the twelfth or so time; I’ve read Hawthorne’s other novels; I’ve read multiple Hawthorne biographies & multiple books & essays on Hawthorne. It’s a junior college & it’s a survey course – but they are still getting someone who wrote a chapter of a dissertation on Hawthorne, wrote half a dozen papers on him over the years. They�re getting someone that has read widely in the period. I’m not a scholar but I know more than they do – I have something to give.

I assume I’ve told this anecdote before, but will retell it: For two years, I took no grad classes, but worked in Chicago & hitchhiked through Europe. During that period, I found I loved the seventeenth century poets – especially, of course, Donne. When I came back to grad school (let in, as I now realize, by the immense kindness of my old teachers), I signed up for what were a series of courses in that area. One teacher (in a Milton seminar) set us in a circle; one guy dominated discussion each day by reading the list of war dead (this was during Viet Nam) & adding editorial comments. When an older woman remarked that she had signed up to hear what the critics had to say, he said that a cold shiver went down his spine at her calculated & intellectual approach to what we should see warmly. The teacher said nothing. So I dropped the class.

Then I took one in the poetry. That teacher divided us into groups & stopped coming to class, he feared giving the – right – interpretation and influencing us. This would be pretty stupid with Ferlinghetti & Ginsberg; with Marvel & Donne it was preposterous. So, yes, some teachers a good deal more scholarly than I am assume they have nothing to teach. But they are wrong. I didn’t sit beside the road, pulling out Donne while I was hitchhiking around Europe because I wanted to come back & enter a program where I could hear myself talk. I could do that in the hostels of France. I came back to learn.

And we have writing to teach as well. There are plenty of creative tinkerers out there whose ideas have been lost because they wrote poorly & spoke poorly. Writing well isn’t easy. And it generally comes from years of reading good writing, thinking about why it is good, noting the art.

True, modern scholarship starts such muddling of prose & thought early. They are truly revolutionary – seeing no merit in the old ways or the old lit, feeling little gratitude for a long & rich tradition. Some might call this hubris. I always use the House on the Prairie books as examples of beautiful plain style when teaching Puritan lit; I asked our kiddie lit specialist how they are viewed & he said, well, he hadn’t read them. His teacher had told him they were racist. He’s a really nice guy – but I think that set of books has much that is good to give my children. (That teacher, by the way, is one of the most gentle & modest men I know – I really do feel lucky in my colleagues. He’s just wrong about Laura Ingalls Wilder – or at least disproportional.) (By the way, the courses here – both at our school & the big one – use Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English.).

As many of us intuited (& Bettelheim wrote), the traditional tales were not about sexist gender roles but about our desire for attachment, our desire to walk through the world with another. They were about perseverance & honesty & love & belonging. Children’s longings & needs are ones the tales addressed.

Note: I have heard of the great controversies over Bettelheim that the book reviews mention, but don�t know enough to put them into context. All I can say is that, like many of the reviewers, whatever faults Bettelheim may have and whatever parts are not his, the book gave me many �aha� moments; he, of course, senses that beneath the literature we (& our children) love are universals.

Second note: Speaking of sneering at autodidacts, did any of you see the Book-TV discussion by a bunch of book buyers; one described Victor Davis Hanson as this farmer that could miraculously write well, being an autodidact and all. I lost my breath. The establishment is here & it doesn’t have to do with degrees – it’s a way of looking at the world. This guy with few of Hanson’s credentials & fewer by far his publications, sees him as an autodidact because, well, why? Because he isn’t urban, isn’t east coast, isn’t liberal, isn’t – what? As John Jay observes, Mencken’s elite is in place, but it hasn’t made for a healthy intellectual life.

5 thoughts on “A Mild & Messy Rant, inspired by John Jay”

  1. Just last night, a friend of mine asked me how to write well.

    I told him to start by having a good and clear idea — to have something worth writing about.

    It surprised him.

  2. “a bunch of book buyers”…does “book buyers” mean people who work for bookstore chains and make decisions on which books to carry, or just ordinary retail customers?

  3. This was a few years ago & my memory isn’t that certain – but they had early copies of books coming out in the next season & were predicting what would do well. Besides retail chain buyers, I think some wrote reviews for industry magazines aimed at libraries and retailers. Since it was C-span Booktv, it was generally aimed at the history & political non-fiction market.

  4. If they were indeed in the profession of buying books, and made decisions based on the kind of elitism indicated in the guy’s comment on VDH, then I would argue that they are failing to perform their obligations to their employers and the the shareholders of their employers.

    I think there’s a lot of this going on in the publishing industry.

  5. “being impenetrable is a power play”

    I have long been amused that those postmodernists who attack traditional (i.e., honest) scholarship as “logocentric” (because it is supposedly over-reliant on words) are themselves using words to tell lies about the literature they critique and about the scholars they disagree with.

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