Uncategorized

Literary Theory

The graduate program had a “foreign language” requirement, so during my first year I took elementary Spanish, which was taught by a vivacious female, a South American doctoral candidate.  The irony of Spanish as a “foreign language” in New Mexico was not lost on me.  For two-and-a-half years prior to entering UNM I had heard it spoken, surely not always with perfection, on the sidewalks of downtown Albuquerque and in the lumber yards of Española and Cuba, New Mexico.  During that time, I made an effort to properly pronounce the few words of Spanish I did understand―beyond those that had to do with Mexican food―although to this day I can’t roll an “r” down Mt. Everest.  Two additional semesters were spent taking a course in translating Spanish. 

Another first-year requirement was a course entitled “Introduction to Professional Study,” taught by an amiable long-time professor who had long, thinly-whiskered sideburns and particularly admired some ancient novel named Tristram Shandy.  Among other things, the course dealt with the rules for producing “scholarly” papers, including their proper documentation.  As monsters who had managed to wreak havoc for a dozen years, Nazis had fascinated me since adolescence, so my term paper for the course dealt with the early-1980’s hoax known as the “Hitler diaries.” 

The course also reintroduced me to 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 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 an upcoming mixer at a nearby women’s college.  As an undergraduate, 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 ending that allegedly required 40 drafts before Hem was satisfied―try that, Leslie Fiedler.) 

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 our side of the pond was difficult enough; now the Continental perspective, which had given the universe 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 compact disc, videocassette recorder, personal computer, and freestanding backpacking tent, now had to fathom the meaning of the “post-modern novel.” 

However, I was now among students who not only enjoyed good reads, but were prepared to churn out mind-numbing interpretations of them; 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 in front of a packed class.  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, wearing sandals, 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 Edward Abbey, but now the thought of creating a pile of murky articles―or, God forbid, an entire book on a single author―in order to have the hope of doing that dampened the 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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