What Are We Doing Here?

Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Alexis de Tocqueville; portrait by Théodore Chassériau, 1850

I have been reading lately about the rise of humanism in Europe. The old scholars often described themselves as “ravished” by one of the books newly made available to them by the press, perhaps also by translation. Their lives were usually short, never comfortable. I think about what it would have been like to read by the light of an oil lamp, to write with a goose quill. It used to seem to me that an unimaginable self-discipline must account for their meticulous learnedness. I assumed that the rigors and austerities of their early training had made their discomforts too familiar to be noticed. Now increasingly I think they were held to their work by a degree of fascination, of sober delight, that we can no longer imagine.

John Milton said, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book.” He was arguing, unsuccessfully, against licensing, the suppression or censoring of books before publication. This was usual in the premodern and early modern world, of course. How many good books were killed outright by these means we will never know, even granting the labors of printers who defied the threat of hair-raising punishments to publish unlicensed work, which others risked hair-raising penalties to own or to read.

To put books into English, the vulgar tongue, the language of the masses, was once radical. Teaching literature written in English is a recent innovation, historically speaking, and was long regarded in the more renowned institutions as a lowering of standards. It is still the case in some countries that the work of living writers is excluded from the curriculum, perhaps a sign of lingering prejudice against the vernacular, against what people say and think now, in the always disparaged present. In America this scruple is gone and forgotten. Writers not yet dead, in many cases only emerging, are read and pondered, usually under a rubric of some kind that makes them representative of gender or ethnicity or region, therefore instances of some perspective or trend often of greater interest to the professor than to any of the writers.

These categories, woman or black or immigrant, can be encumbrances from the writers’ point of view, obstacles to the reading of their work as something more than sociological data. If there are courses explicitly attentive to white men as a subgroup I have never heard of any. Male and white is still the default where literature is concerned, in the academy, at least. This is not the fault of any of these men, and they should not be undervalued or misread on this account. But knowing what a book costs any writer, in years not least, I hope for the day when all good books can be read as speaking in as broad…


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