Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hoagies, pizzas, and English studies

Remember the culture wars? Here’s a reminder, from Joseph Berger’s article “U.S. Literature: Canon Under Siege” (The New York Times, January 6, 1988):

There are those who continue to uphold a traditional standard of literary quality, arguing that students should essentially read works whose merit has been established over the years. But there is a rising number who contend the idea of an enduring pantheon of writers and their works is an elitist one largely defined by white men who are Northeastern academics and critics.

Choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck, they hold, involves political and cultural distinctions more than esthetic ones.

“It’s no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza,” said Houston Baker, professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania. “I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.”¹
I, too, like hoagies and pizza. But in literary study, as at lunch, one is making choices, all the time. Houston Baker’s analogy establishes an equality of foodstuffs, or writers. It’s all good. But what if one is offered a choice between a mediocre hoagy and a terrific pizza? Between a hoagy and a Twinkie? Between a pizza and a jar of Fluff? Surely some foods are more nourishing and satisfying than others. And surely some writers are more deserving of attention than others.

Baker’s analogy becomes even more tenuous if we keep to a single food. Since Buck and Woolf are novelists, why not regard them both as hoagies, or both as pizzas? How then is one to choose? In the world of food, of course, such matters are the stuff of endless debate: deep-dish? thin crust? And whose crust? Who has the best crust in town? And why should anyone sneer at Papa John’s? It’s curious that in seeking to remove aesthetic differences as a basis for choice, Baker should offer an analogy from a realm in which aesthetic differences are always and everywhere crucial.

One reason for the general collapse of English studies in recent years is, I believe, the tacit, never argued-for assumption that Baker’s position is the correct one, that it is inappropriate to deem some works more deserving of attention than others, that all cultural productions are worthy material for the mill of critical practice. Thus departments drop requirements that students study x, y, and z, whichever names those variables might represent. What’s so often missing from English studies is a sense of reverence for necessary texts — “not,” as Diana Senechal writes, “the reverence of calling an author ‘great’ just because everyone else does, but the reverence of treating the work, for a little while, as the most important thing in the room and mind.” In the absence of reverence, the object of critical inquiry can serve only to allow its exegete a false feeling of mastery, as he or she dissolves binaries and exposes ideological assumptions and comes away (yet again) feeling smarter than that unsuspecting sap, the text.

A claim to offer entry to great works of the literary imagination (which need not mean “dead white men”) is English studies’ distinctive claim to a place in the endeavor of liberal learning. As far as I can see, it’s the only claim, the one thing that distinguishes English from “communications” and media studies. To return to the realm of food: when someone is in town for a few days and wants to know where to eat, we have to be able to reply with conviction: You must go here. You can’t pass up the chance.

Related posts
Moby-Dick at Harvard
Verlyn Klinkenborg on the English major

¹ In a 1992 interview with Michael Bérubé, Baker points out that the Woolf–Buck comparison was Berger’s:
in the homology that came out, the first two terms were his own terms. I never mentioned the names of those authors at all. He made those up.

“Hybridity in the Center: An Interview with Houston A. Baker, Jr.,” African American Review (1992).
So Berger must have posed a question with Buck and Woolf as examples, and Baker replied with hoagies and pizza. As Bérubé points out, the two foods suggest the course of Baker’s career (Yale, Penn). “Yes! I like that!” was Baker’s response.

comments: 1

Anonymous said...

When all is equal, nothing is because the measure has been eroded into pabulum and ground to a very fine albeit intellectual dust. I choose what I like, and oddly much of it comes from that "canon" which the closet fascist wishes destroyed. But always when asked for what standard should replace, the answer is usually some form of the word, me. Ah the dictates of the self are enemy to the dictators of taste, and in both directions.