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“Literary Theory”? I’m Outta Here, Mr. Chips!

The course also refreshed my understanding, begun at Hobart, of that thing known as “literary theory”: the various methods of interpreting, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, interpretations that are galaxies beyond what one understands upon merely reading Gatsby for enjoyment, escape, beauty, and perhaps a little edification.  Indeed, forget merely struggling to divine a “theme” in a Fitzgerald novel; that is so high school.  At Hobart, literary theory was the province of many-lettered men like Allen Tate, Northrop Frye, John Crowe Ransom, and M.H. Abrams; yet during classroom discussions of their stellar contributions to American literature my mind often wandered to the next pick-up basketball game, the sly observations of bluesman Lightning Hopkins, or the Dexedrine I planned to drop at the upcoming mixer at a nearby women’s college.  At Hobart, I found literary theory hopelessly dense.  Couldn’t the reader, I wondered, simply be moved by the haunting image of Hemingway’s bereaved Frederick Henry walking home alone from the hospital in the rain?  An appallingly sophomoric attitude, I now admit. 

At UNM, I was introduced to a whole new generation of literary string theorists who had entered the spotlight during my academic locust years, among them two French philosophers named Foucault and Derrida.  Grappling with ideas developed on my side of the Atlantic was difficult enough; now the Continental perspective, which had given us Being and Nothingness, had been stirred into the intellectual gruel.  The new theories included “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”  I, who was still familiarizing himself with the “modernity” of the CD, videocassette recorder, personal computer, and freestanding backpacking tent, now had to fathom the meaning of the “post-modern novel.” 

Yet I was now among students who not only enjoyed good reads, but were prepared to churn out mind-numbing interpretations of those reads; students, that is, who were pursuing their doctorates in English; PhD candidates nurturing dreams of a tenured professorship in a college or university.  They knew they had to publish these interpretations and plenty of them.  Indeed, the expression “publish or perish” had now entered my consciousness.  Yet, at least one of my early UNM professors seemed to acknowledge the folly of it all: “PhD?  Pshaw!  ‘Piled high and deep’!” he laughed.  I suspected he echoed the cynicism, if you will, of many another professor across America.  But, of course, he could afford to: he was a tenured Dickens scholar, and a very interesting and enjoyable one.  Before entering UNM, I often fantasized about one day turning “my students” on to Whitman or Hemingway, maybe even Abbey, but now the thought of creating a pile of arcane articles―or, God forbid, an entire book on a single author―that would be read by only a dozen members of yet another generation of anxious and exhausted PhD candidates dampened that fantasy.  After all, I merely wanted to write, and write well, about inspections of arroyos.[1] 


[1] Frank Waters about summed it up for me when, writing in the appendix of his marvelous book about the Colorado River, he stated: “To append a complete list of references consulted would be both needless and misleading. It would fall far short of being a complete bibliography on the Colorado . . . and it would imply, like most imposing lists, an academic interest in its history which I have never had.”    

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