At University College we had a lively debate whether or not “contemporary” novels and poetry should be part of the curriculum. (We were willing to accept any plausible notion of “contemporary,” whether works since the last war or works expressing some new attitude. We agreed, of course, that the great majority of recent works were essentially old and conventional.)
On one side, two professors of English and I claimed that the contemporary should not be part of the curriculum, since an academic treatment of it would effectually steal from the young their “own” literature, as well as presuming to decide prematurely what was important and as if canonic. We did not mean that the professor must not be concerned with such works. The right attitude toward them, rather, should be either passionate advocacy or rejection (including indifference); and the teacher ought to share these feelings with his students, either in class or in the coffee-shop, and if pressed be willing to reason about his feelings; but not presume to teach these feelings to students, as if he had authority.
On the other side, another professor of English and a professor of political science claimed that it was the essential idea of a modern university (as opposed to Oxford 1900) to be open to and to open up for the student the ongoing present in society, bringing to bear on it whatever learning and methods were academically available. Our attitude, they claimed, meant one of two things: either, like many shut-in scholars, we regarded new writing as really trivial, as against the “classics” which deserved earnest attention; or contrariwise, we had a cynical view of academic learning as really dull and merely honorific, and therefore deadly to the alive and meaningful. (They granted, of course, that the usual college teaching could kill interest in any subject, but that applied to Milton as well as Mailer, or to Mailer as well as Milton.)
A young woman, senior in English, did not like a new work to be “sanctioned” by being part of the curriculum. One had the impression that she regarded the fans of it as an underground conspiracy. I could not tell whether she felt excluded from the conspiracy and was afraid of it, or was a part of it and was defiant. Maybe both.
The professor of political science, who wanted the new writing in the curriculum, pointed out that we assumed that the young people in fact read these writers, looked at new painting, etc. But he had asked his (political science) class about Henry Miller and found that only two out of eighty had ever heard of him; therefore it was the duty of the University to direct the student to what was going on, and so forth. (My own guess is that in New York City the number would be considerably higher—who in the devil buys all those copies of Ferlinghetti and Kerouac if not these callow youths?)
A professor from our side, fresh from Oxford, said that it was the duty of enthusiasts of new writers to do something for them, not study them, to organize readings, invite the poets, run a magazine. Contemporary literature was precisely the extra-curricular life of the university, certainly as important as the curricular, but entirely free of administrative interference or tutelage
My position in the discussion was a corollary of Coleridge’s principle, which I believe: “Act spontaneously, not with reflection; but it is your duty to study, inform yourself, and reflect so that you progressively become the kind of person whose spontaneous action is wise.” The apparatus of criticism—structural analysis, history, and linguistics—that an academic applies to the important works of the past is our way of informing ourselves and reflecting, refining our taste and improving our characters. (Let me say that with very rare exceptions, the past works that have entered the stream of tradition are excellent; as Sam Johnson said, if a work has lasted a hundred years, it has outlived fads and phony prestige and must be humanly important. But, of course, the tradition itself has fluctuations and fads—Byron or Tennyson up or down; and sometimes new discoveries of the neglected—Hopkins, Donne.) To lovers of literature, this critical process has the curious effect of making the past works precisely, passionately present; the more they are read in their own terms and as different from our works, the more they are found to be about something, meeting a crisis, and often weird. For myself, Milton and Hawthorne are closer personal friends than any living writers I know.
But contemporary writing evokes a very different spontaneous response: it sends me—because it beautifully solves my pressing problem, how to be in the modern world, and then I am a proud partisan of the author. Or I reject it in a fighting mood—because it is another case of attitudes and the world that are stifling and poisoning me and my friends. Or, I indifferently neglect it, as trivial and conventional, although perhaps “quite good.” (A poem, as Horace said , is great or it is nothing; if it does not give me a new hypothesis or in fact transport me out of myself, why bother?) One last possibility is that the new work confuses and fascinates me, so I return to it again and again.
“Put it this way,” I said to the political scientist, “to teach a contemporary poem is like making a sociological analysis of a present issue which ought to be confronted politically. Where there is an injustice in society, the professor must simply try to remedy it and urge his students to; it is in this context that he might, subsidiarily, study the history, sociology, and political science of the problem, to get orientation and find means. But if he first ‘studies’ the injustice, the students come to be knowing cynics; they smirk, like Yalees, at the devices by which our governors gain public office, rather than throwing the rascals out.”
Reconsidering, I see there is a contrary possibility. In teaching sociology, William Biddle and Sol Tax have insisted, one must start with a moral commitment to solve a real social problem, to remedy an injustice, to revive an impoverished area, etc. Then one learns sociology pragmatically by working in that field, using whatever relevant methods and knowledge one has.
In literature, book reviewing is active in the same way. It copes with the new that impinges on one, that rouses response, that must be coped with and reasonably integrated. It seems to me that book reviewing would be an admissible means for contemporary work to be treated by an academic class. The purpose of a review is to launch a work among my fellows, if it has moved me; or to counteract its influence if I hate it; or to consign it quickly to oblivion. Students should review what they spontaneously come to read. By analyzing the review, a teacher might help the student to understand himself and literature better.
The danger in this is that a teacher might unwittingly talk the student out of his live response; rather than deepening and sharpening his response; but the student’s live response is always, in its way, right. A good teacher who disagrees with the student’s estimate of a new work will both help the student sharpen his estimate and at the same time combat it, ad hominem, with his own: my values against your values. Naturally the older and more experienced man will generally beat down his student opponent, but that’s just tough for the youth; let him learn to fight better for his writer and grow up.