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Is There Hope for English?

English in America: A Radical View of the Profession

by Richard Ohmann, with a chapter by Wallace Douglas
Oxford University Press, 344 pp., $4.50 (paper)

F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement

by Giles Gunn
University of Washington Press, 248 pp., $9.50

Richard Ohmann’s English in America: A Radical View is a very insistent book. It insists that the English teaching profession serves destructive capitalism and cannot do anything else unless “we teach politically with revolution as our end.” Wallace Douglas contributes a chapter on “Rhetoric for the Meritocracy” in which he describes the change from the small nineteenth-century college for the propertied class to the pluralistic, departmentalized modern university, along with the change from gentleman’s Latin and Greek to English. What Eliot created at the new Harvard in the 1870s was an institution to train organization men to serve property in the industrialized society. Ohmann argues that the modern English department grew fat in this situation primarily because it met the need to teach composition as a managerial skill. Literary studies were shaped by the need for English scholars to justify themselves as professionals by making “contributions to knowledge,” in competition with other specialized departments.

Ohmann has a retrospective essay on the boom in literary studies in the Fifties and Sixties, which uses the New Criticism to convict the profession of separating literature from politics. The university

is where the administrative class learns to think, where the scientific foundations of technology are laid, and where ideology is built to sanction the distribution of power and wealth. In this last task the American literary profession has cooperated, in part by insisting that the means to personal well-being and wholeness is through withdrawal from social action and the achievement of all-embracing states of mind. That is where the New Criticism pointed us, and where most of us, under the banner of humanism and the advancement of knowledge, gladly went.

Anything that the new apologists for literature (or the old, for that matter) say about its positive influence on individual lives or society Ohmann puts aside. The individual can only be “a comfortable man of letters within society” and “this has to mean society as it is.” “Now, against any substantial analysis of society, all of this is a parlor game, and the social pieties of the New Critics themselves are the sort of horn-tooting that you might indulge in while asking the National Endowment for the Humanities for some money.”

Ohmann is himself a very successful academic, with experience as a senior administrator at Wesleyan and as the very able editor of College English, in which he has published articles asking all sorts of hard questions. He is remorselessly determined not to let us off the hook of bad conscience. The hook is in us. To counter that we cannot be responsible for a world we never made will not do in a time when the mood of desperate protest about Vietnam is being succeeded by profound dismay about the huge organization for exploitation, at home and abroad, of which we become increasingly aware as its failure to function becomes more obvious. We do depend on that exploitation and, like it or not, contribute to it. But I think Ohmann is nevertheless very gravely mistaken, from his own radical standpoint, in writing off the profession of literature unless people in it make themselves over into professional revolutionaries.

One way to get at what seems to me his mistake is to consider the political weakness of his case, which goes with the impoverishment of sensibility to which his book bears witness. Granted that English in America is not about literature but only the professors of it. But it excludes almost all consideration of the radical potential of literature itself, which is mentioned chiefly in arguing that our “mystification…encysts it in our safe corner.” Ohmann’s own style, brisk, argumentative, witty, but never humorous, is likely to put off the very people whom he seeks to persuade (besides himself), for his chief audience must be other English professors. The insistent, monotonous voice comes to sound like those of the rationalist radicals in Dostoevsky whom there is no way to answer on their own terms.

Ohmann’s cogency is limited, too, by his never looking inside actual classrooms to see what happens there—especially in the years since Vietnam modified for many of us our relation to our students. A major section, “English 101 and the Military-Industrial Complex,” sets out to show that we teach students to do the “alienated” written work of business, the professions, and government, by training them in techniques for handling assignments in a situation insulated from their real concerns or a real audience. Ohmann’s procedure is to examine fifteen (15!) randomly selected Freshman English handbooks. The educational process which his acute analysis infers from them does indeed bear out his troubling diagnosis, though any experienced teacher is well aware that the authors of such handbooks are forced by the situation to be sophists, and that any teacher worth his salt works to counter unreality and depersonalization.

Then we look at the supposed results of composition, as taught in colleges, in a selection of what Ohmann calls “Writing, Out in the World.” The samples chosen are by futurists, Toffler et al., by liberal experts on foreign policy, and (one could have guessed it) by the memoranda writers in The Pentagon Papers. Ohmann, a specialist in applied linguistics, is skillful and amusing in hawking in on fudge words and syntax. “How to argue in liberal”: define the situation as a problem, find that it is complex, make it into data for theory. Here again his analysis is disquieting as he brings home the evasions of responsibility which impersonal styles abet. But the targets are, after all, sitting ducks.

Ohmann says that a “chapter 6-1/2” of “empirical research” could show in sociological detail how English 101 does in fact inculcate these styles, but that it is missing because it would take ten or fifteen years to write. If such empirical research were possible—and I doubt it—it would have to include those who took Freshman English and wrote against the war by making Vietnam real in words, and many others—including Ohmann himself—who were put on the way to independent critical awareness of the abuse of language.

Ohmann is dead set against the idea that our arrangements can be reformed within the present social order: “I have no specific cure, no ingenious plan for English or the humanities, no project for the National Endowment. These solutions are precisely the ones that I have meant to make a case against, in this book. The one I do endorse will not surprise readers who have come this far. And if socialist revolution sounds like a cure incommensurate with the sickness itself,…I can only say: nevertheless, that’s where my argument leads.”

In fact, his argument does not lead to socialist revolution. Different economic and social structures and their possible consequences for culture are never considered. It is simply assumed that socialist revolution is necessary and would change in some undefined way the abuse of the humanities. The two big words are Ohmann’s way of committing, in his turn, “the fallacy of leaving-out-everything-in-between” which he attacks in Toffler and other futurists.

What his argument actually leads to is social revulsion. The revulsion embraces, indiscriminately, professional scholarship and criticism, which he dismisses as organization writing in his chapter on the Modern Language Association. This is a revised version of an article written shortly after the 1968 shake-up of the MLA when Louis Kampf was arrested and then elected vice-president. In describing that event, Ohmann quotes conservative fulminations at length. In fact, the conservative huffsnuffing had no effect whatever on what was done, and proved to be the response of a minority. The resolutions against the war, the draft, and the repression of writers passed by the militants who took over the business meeting were endorsed by a mail ballot of the whole membership.

Ohmann never considers whether this large group came out decisively against the war, in a time when few were doing so, because their sensibilities were shaped by literary studies. Those who in that time of crisis stimulated the political commitment of the larger group were also people, on the average younger, who cared about the humanities.

The MLA’s structure in the years since 1968 has become more open, indeed wide open, with an elected constituent assembly instead of the back-benchers’ business meeting. Elected committees now select the papers delivered, seminars take place on any topic fifteen members want to talk about (more than 300 were held at the last meeting in San Francisco), there are large meetings of the Radical Caucus of English and the Modern Languages. Ohmann plays down or ignores all this. He complains that the MLA returned to being chiefly concerned with literary studies. He reprints the table of contents of a 1970 PMLA with the comment that with one exception the “articles are all scholarly, and a list of their titles is instructive as to the Association’s channeling of its members’ energies.”

Ohmann wants a closed-corporation image of the MLA, and so emphasizes the fact that after the crisis well-known scholars mostly from major schools are still being elected to its executive committee. Counter to this is the fact that the essays in the “new” PMLA are frequently written by unknown and untenured people, and people from little-known places. Of sixty-three authors, twenty-six have been untenured, or students, or unaffiliated, as I happen to know because I am on the editorial board which is working to select articles of interest to the whole membership. But it is still undeniably channeling energies into literary study.

Ohmann speaks of the profession producing an ever-enlarging archive of unread articles and books. Of course he is half right. Too much is published, too much of it made-work, trivial or dull. There is not enough mind to go round; there never is. He describes the traumatic experience of reading over a hundred studies on “the modern period” for an omnibus review, and observes that no one ever again will read all those books together. But nobody should. No one normally reads scholarship or criticism in that way; you read it, discarding the chaff, when you need it because you are absorbed in what it is about. When you have no such need, it can all come to seem otiose and odious.

Reading as an editor, you have a reason to pay attention across the board. It can be discouraging, but more of the work than one assumes from outside does have something vital to say about literature. And often, therefore, about life, and therefore, implicitly or explicitly, about politics. A young scholar takes a new look at the social and psychological circumstances around the “rape” in Clarissa. A teacher at a predominantly black university reads Swift’s passionate protest in the Drapier’s Letters about the English making the Irish into brute animals, and asks whether in Gulliver’s Travels the Houyhnhnms are not shown turning the Yahoos into Yahoos.

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