1 BEING IN THE HUMANITIES: A BRIEF CAREER HISTORY Herbert Lindenberger (A talk delivered before a gathering of retired Stanford professors, November 10, 2009) I feel honored to be invited to speak to this group today. Having attended most of the preceding talks in this series, I am aware of how unpredictable, how circuitous are the paths that many of you have taken to find where you were going and to discover (sometimes almost accidentally) the insights central to your achievements. That has certainly been true of me as well perhaps even more so, for, despite the fact that I recently became an octogenarian, I still think longingly of paths I might have pursued. Indeed, during the last few years I have been afflicted with a degree of scientist envy to the point that I have sought out a good bit of recent neuroscience literature to see what experiments have been done on how the brain processes people s experience of the arts. Thus far, this has resulted in two papers. 1 My interest in this topic was fanned by the fact that my son-in-law spent some years as an NIH fellow working with a neuroscience group. When I saw what people were discovering about our brains in recent years, above all through the development of neuroimaging techniques, I began to wonder what might have happened if I had chosen a career in science rather than in the humanities. At this point of course there is no way I can do science. After all, I have long been acculturated within the world of humanities, and, 1 "Arts in the Brain: or, What Might Neuroscience Tell Us?," Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, ed. Frederick Luis Aldama (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), pp ; Opera and / Lyric, in Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming in 2010).
2 2 though I never fully bought into the theory of two incompatable cultures, science and humanities, that C. P. Snow enunciated exactly half a century ago, I recognize that there are crucial differences between the way a person in each of these fields pursues research and writes up the resulting findings. When I asked my son-in-law to read my first paper on neurosciences and the arts to correct any misunderstandings on my part, he remarked on how different a presentation in the humanities is from one in the sciences. He saw my paper as essentially an argument for a particular point of view about its material: I was seeking to argue, for instance, that an audience s reactions to drama, painting, and music do not need to be described in subjective terms ( I feel it in my gut ) but that these reactions can, by means of various procedures such as PET imaging and the fmri, be located within specific places in the brain. Even though I was basing my paper on a number of scientific papers, my mode of presentation was strikingly different, as my sonin-law quickly saw, from that of a scientist. For one thing I was trying to be virtually global in scope citing a large number of experiments in three different art forms and arguing that people in the humanities should not only be aware of what neuroscience can tell them about the phenomena they study but also to show how these recent insights confirm and revise the insights of earlier analysts of the arts such as Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci. By contrast the scientific articles I studied for this essay were infinitely more modest in scope and also, I might add, infinitely more rigorous. Each piece makes a single point for example, to cite one of these pieces, that when we listen to music a particular network of structures within the brain, all involved with reward processing, is
3 3 activated. 2 This research, though building on earlier studies, showed that through the use of the fmri certain brain areas such as the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area could be shown to be involved with music-processing; these earlier studies, which did not use the fmri, had not been able to uncover the role of these particular places within the brain. Since a scientific experiment of this sort must be replicatable, all the conditions surrounding the study are presented in detail: the characteristics of the subjects (that they are all right-handed nonmusicians, for instance), the relation of this experiment to earlier studies of musical affect, the precise degree of activation (including pictures of the brain) of each area affected. And as a means of setting up a control mechanism, the authors of this study found that when they scrambled the notes of the musical selections, the activity in these areas decreased from what it had been when the music was played normally. By contrast, nothing that I write, including the article in which I tried to argue the usefulness of neuroscience to a study of the arts, could be replicated. Our method in most areas of the humanities is to argue a point of view, a new way of looking at various cultural phenomena. In literary study this may mean presenting a new approach to some classic poem or play; or it may mean arguing the merits of a piece of avant-garde writing and showing how this new work is related or even unrelated to earlier literary traditions; or, to cite what a good bit of my own work has been about, trying to show how a particular genre or medium, in my own case historical drama and opera, fits into the history of culture. If my arguments succeed 2 Vinod Menon and Daniel J. Levitin, The Rewards of Music Listening: Response and Physiological Connectivity of the Mesolimbic System, NeuroImage 28 (2005),
4 4 with my readers, a lot has to do with my way of presenting them. I need to offer enough concrete evidence to keep from sounding as though I m just thinking out loud, and I also need to demonstrate the rhetorical skill to make my readers assent to my argument. But nobody expects me to set up any scientific controls like the scrambled versions of the music that failed to activate the same brain areas as the straight music. Moreover, the whole process of writing is different in the sciences from that in the humanities. When I m writing an argument, new ideas come to me as I go along, and I seek to incorporate them, sometimes even to modify ideas I had already set down. A scientist already his or her conclusions ready before writing them up, for the real work lies not in the writing but in gathering the data. Part of my envy of scientists has always been the group nature of their work. Although a few people in the humanities have sought to establish collaborative work in recent years, what the vast majority of us do and certainly what everybody in my generation did is to work as lone operators. And that s often a pretty lonely thing, especially when particularly in the early stages of a project you re not quite sure where you re going or if your ideas are even viable. Moreover, when your goal is to mount an argument based on some observations you have made, you often feel insecure about whether you ve got it right and also whether your prospective readers will assent to your premises, your interpretation of your observations, and the conclusion you reach. By contrast, the scientist has much more concrete data, and he or she can reach levels of proof that would be difficult at best to achieve in the sort of work that those of us in the humanities do. I always imagined that the insecurities we feel about our work would be fewer if we were part of a group endeavor and could discuss our work
5 5 with others in the lab as it proceeds though when I ve mentioned this to friends in the sciences, they remind me that half their time is spent raising the funds just to keep their labs going. And these friends have also reminded me of the frustrations they ve experienced when equipment has broken down, or when they see they ve been on the wrong track, or when a promising hunch just doesn t work out. To be sure, the contrast I m drawing between the humanities and the sciences is not absolute. Certain areas within linguistics and philosophy utilize the methods of science. And even within the study of the arts a degree of scientific method is necessary for particular endeavors. If, for instance, I want to prove that a well-known poem or painting was not created by the famous poet or artist usually credited with it, I need to assume the mind-set of a scientist and provide all the concrete evidence that a skeptical worker in the field would demand. There was a time, to be sure, when work within the humanities consciously sought to imitate what it took to be the method of the sciences. During the later nineteenth century, as science came to set the model for what was intellectually respectable in the university, the studies of the various arts mimicked what they saw as scientific in order to ensure their own academic respectability. The type of work that dominated literary study until well into the mid-twentieth century sought to limit itself to what could be proven in much the way that a scientist offered concrete proof about the natural phenomena under examination. Literary study before my own time in the profession and I might add art history and musicology until quite late in the twentieth century stressed such matters as the sources of a literary work in an earlier work, or the relation of a work to the biography of its author, or the need to establish an accurate text of a particular
6 6 work. This was all well and good, and the sort of activity that dominated literary study during this period certainly provided a lot of the basic historical information that later, less constrained scholars like me would need to build their own arguments. But if these limited methods tracing the sources and influences behind literary works, establishing texts, and the like was all one was permitted to do, I know that I should never have entered the field. Why not be a real scientist rather than a second-hand one who was likely to imitate what, by the time they reached the humanities part of campus, were already old-fashioned notions of what science was all about? In retrospect, I now realize I might have been a scientist as easily as I became a humanities specialist. In fact, as I look back, I recognize that my schooling and my subsequent career involved a whole series of improvisations within which nothing could have been predicted in advance. But I closed off the possibilities of science because of a decision during high school to do two languages French and Spanish, it turned out instead of simply one. This meant that there was no way to get enough math and science, even though I was quite good at these. But not entirely good. I was a total klutz in chemistry lab, and after I spilled some sulphuric acid on my hand the teacher allowed me to have a fellow student do all the hands-on stuff, with the proviso that I tutor those in the class who were having a hard time. That suited me well, since I loved everything about chemistry except for the dangers of the lab. Since I assumed that my lab awkwardness would prevent my going on in science, I kept the languages going, which meant I was getting the preparation for eventually doing Comparative Literature. And I thought I was very good at the languages, which in those days were taught purely by the book--without oral participation. What I didn t realize until much later,
7 7 when I first went to Europe, was that I totally lacked any ear for language. Although I could learn the structure of a new language and read difficult texts from, say, the Spanish baroque and French Symbolism, my ear has steadfastly refused to process the torrent of words aimed at me when I speak to a native. It did no good to try Berlitz immersion, as I once did with French. Luckily my Germanspeaking parents saw to it that I was granted their language almost natively but then most any domestic animal learns to understand the language of the house. My high-school teachers told me I had to head for one of the Ivy League universities, and they added that being from Seattle would give me a better chance than students living near the Eastern universities had. What none of us realized was the rarely-talked-about Jewish quota system of the time. Today that once secretive system has been well researched and a long book ironically called The Chosen has shown in detail how it operated. 3 I smelled a rat when I faced a committee of Seattle Harvard alumni who were screening scholarship applicants. This committee was made up of a banker, a lawyer and some other pillar of society. Since my name and my appearance did not automatically give me away, the banker asked if I was related to somebody named Edith Lindenberger. She s my aunt, I said. He replied that at his bank he was handling the trust of her father, the late Mr. Rosenberg and then he threw a knowing look at the others in the room. Suddenly I realized that I had not passed the ethnic test. But two more tests were to come. First, the intellectual test. The Harvard admissions office had asked all candidates to list the 3 Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
8 8 books they had read during the preceding year and then chose two from my long list to have their local committee quiz me about. The two selected by the Harvard office were War and Peace and The Emperor Jones. None of the men, it turned out, was familiar with either work, and, with what I took to be a certain anti-intellectual bravura, they laughed about their ignorance. But one of the men then remembered that he had recently flown over the Caribbean and that the stewardess had pointed out the Emperor Jones s island. Name it, he said, as though this were a doctor s oral. It s not named in the play, I replied. He kept insisting that I name the island, which he finally told me was Santo Domingo. When I later consulted the play at home, I was able to confirm for myself that O Neill had never given the island s name. But it was too late, and I had flunked the intellectual test. But there was still another test, this one of a political nature, and it consisted of a single question, Whom did your family vote for last year? Roosevelt, I replied, and it was clear by now that I had flunked all three tests. The Princeton interview was far more civilized. Only one person interviewed me, and he turned out to be the father of a high-school classmate which also meant he knew about my ethnic background. Although he was supposedly interviewing me for a scholarship, he told me that poor boys like me did not belong at Princeton, that he himself had been a poor boy and it wasn t much fun. Let me add at this point that, much as I resented being the object of ethnic discrimination, I also recognized that these people s actions were in no way commensurate with what had just happened in Germany. In fact, they would never have noted any connection between their mode of discrimination and that of the Nazis. They simply felt it was their duty to maintain the traditional WASP culture that they saw as defining
9 9 their schools. And they were surely right. A large number people like me going into the Ivy League would have destroyed that culture as it indeed has been during the intervening years. So I found myself with nowhere to go when I graduated from high school. I could easily have gone to the local state school, the University of Washington. But I did not want to be a college commuter, and I preferred a more stimulating atmosphere than a large state university could offer. So I took advantage of a small journalism scholarship I d been awarded for being a reporter on my high-school newspaper. It could be used at any journalism school, and I felt lucky that Northwestern was willing to take me in even though I didn t apply until early summer. Northwestern in those days was a profoundly non-intellectual place, and I got out after a year, leaving the scholarship behind. As luck would have it, I applied and got into the place that was just right for me, or rather the place that helped shape me in such a way that I soon recognized it was right. This was Antioch College, now, alas, defunct, but currently seeking to get re-established under new auspices. In those days Antioch was one of the most vital and also selective small colleges in the country. It had only about 800 students, with just half of them there at any one time, since we were expected to work half the year on jobs that the college found for us. For me it had everything going for it small classes, close interactions between faculty and students, and, at least as important, no Jewish quota. Something like a quarter of the students were Jews, and mainly from New York which meant I gained a sense of Jewish ethnicity that it was impossible to get in Seattle: like learning words such as chutzpah or schmuck, or finding the first roommate assigned
10 10 to me admitting he d demanded a Jewish roommate since he couldn t imagine sharing quarters with a non-jew. Above all, Antioch provided my first experience of what one might call an environment of intellectual excitement. Here were people taking ideas seriously whether or not these were actually viable. People argued with one another constantly: sin class, at meals, in their dorms, or on the lawn, and with a vehemence I had never seen something impossible at Northwestern, perhaps even in the Ivy League colleges that had turned me down. But the excitement came only minimally from the faculty. Yes, they were devoted teachers, most of them at least. But as in all too many liberal-arts colleges, at least to the extent that they did not encourage or require research, their serious engagement with their fields had ended when they left graduate school with the result that, especially with the older faculty members, the knowledge and the methods we were fed were a generation or more out of date. But that mattered little since many of the students knew how to ferret out what was going in the fields they were studying. In my literature classes we knew how to seek out the latest essays produced by the so-called New Critics and the New York Partisan Review group, who between them, created the paradigm dominating literary study in America from the late 1930s until the end of the 50s. Our literature teachers, by contrast, were still entrenched in the so-called positivist or philological model, that way of looking at literature which I cited earlier as basing itself on what it took to be hard-nosed science. At the end of a beautifully prepared but hopelessly old-fashioned course one of my fellow literature students said to me angrily, This field is absolutely dead, and promptly changed his major to philosophy, which still did not wholly satisfy him, after which he pursued
11 11 anthropology in graduate school and ended up transforming the field of cultural anthropology. Clifford Geertz, the student in question, was only one of many Antioch students who, within this small student body, went on to make major marks in the world. To cite two others among those I happened to know well, there was one in a creative-writing class in which we were both writing novels. He d briefly been a bantamweight fighter and liked to write about people from that world. Whereas I sought to imitate the stylistic advances of Joyce and other modernists, he was writing what I considered lowly pop stuff. Little could I have known that Rod Serling was preparing himself to shape what we now know as television drama with works such as Requiem for a Heavyweight and the great series Twilight Zone. Since the early 1940s Antioch had been raising funds to admit students by affirmative action, though that phrase had not yet been concocted. Among the African-American students I knew best was a woman from Alabama, who almost married a white fellow student who was also Jewish. We were often on double dates together since I was taking her roommate out, but we could dine out together only in the town of Yellow Springs, where Antioch was located, since if we had ventured any further this being southern Ohio all four of us would have been refused entrance to any restaurant. She vowed to me that she would never return to the South, and though I was not surprised that she did not marry the man she was then dating, I was stunned a few years later to hear that Cory Scott had married a still unknown black minister named Martin Luther King and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, to boot! The Antioch experience was only half on campus the rest consisted of going off on jobs in what they called the co-op program.
12 12 Antioch had kept a number of these jobs for years with a new student replacing another at the end of each of our brief terms. My own four jobs were vastly different from one another, each of them affording an opening to a new world: first, a stint as page-boy at NBC in Rockefeller Center, with assignments such as being told to hold down Tennessee Williams if he arrived drunk (he seemed sober enough so that I could simply make conversation with him) or attending a season of Toscanini concerts in uniform and holding smelling salts ready in case some lady fainted (nobody fainted). The second job was as a copyboy in the Washington, DC, United Press office, where my boss was an Antioch alumnus, Rod Serling s older brother, who saw to it that my menial duties, like ordering and picking up lunch for a still unknown Helen Thomas, were supplemented by such more stimulating opportunities as going to watch key congressional debates and attending Harry Truman s and George Marshall s press conferences. After that I was lodged in an American Friends Service Committee project in south Philadelphia, where, together with students from various colleges, I was to learn about industrial relations by creating my own job in a factory with the result that I not only found myself manning a conveyor belt in the Fels Naphtha soap plant but also decided to help organize the plant for the CIO--unsuccessfully, to be sure, for the wily old Mr. Fels suddenly granted everybody huge pay raises to stop the organizing, and he succeeded, for the workers were too naïve to understand how they were being tricked. And finally, in my senior year, I got one of Antioch s prize jobs, as a reporter for an uncommonly intelligent small-town newspaper in northern West Virginia, where I covered most of the local news plus the federal court and also witnessed at first hand John L. Lewis s last
13 13 great coal strike, but since the strike news was going out nationally they assigned a senior reporter, alas for me, to this ongoing story. All of this left me unsure where I was to go from there law school perhaps? Journalism? Continue with my novel writing? But most of the people I knew at Antioch were heading for graduate school, so, in view of the languages I had accumulated, I duly applied for fellowships in Comparative Literature only to find I had the same bad luck as when I d applied to colleges four years before. Nobody would take me and for reasons I ve never figured out since there was surely no Jewish quota at the graduate level and my whole Jewish cohort, in fact, was getting into the best graduate schools. But then I determined it was just as well: I d go to New York and get any old job to give me time to finish my novel, which was about a Jewish family in Seattle (but since I was too reticent to depict myself, I refused to include an autobiographical hero). Hardly had I made these plans when the Korean War broke out, so I desperately looked for any graduate program willing to take me without fellowship so that I could be eligible for a draft deferment. To my surprise, as I consulted catalogues that summer while working as a camp counselor on a lake in Indiana, I found that the University of Washington, in my very home town, was just starting a Comp. Lit. program, which meant I could share my parents small apartment without expense and, as a state resident, enjoy free tuition as well.. I determined to finish the degree as fast as possible, or at least as long as I needed the deferment and, hopefully, finish my novel, which, it turned out, nobody cared to publish: Jewish novels, indeed ethnical novels in general, were not yet in fashion. The war ended, and I managed to be out of graduate school in four years, including a year as a Fulbright in Austria, where I found my dissertation topic in
14 14 the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, who, though still little known at the time, intrigued me with the difficult modernistic techniques he had employed to create a powerfully oracular style. I felt no compunction about writing a quickee dissertation that I felt I d never need to publish. When, over a decade later, I was invited to write a volume on Trakl for a series, 4 I thought I could salvage my early effort, only to find that there was only one sentence I was willing to keep, and this a sentence about metrics; I concluded that in one s early twenties one isn t ready to think about literature in an original way but that one s ear for poetic language matures before the rest of the brain. Since I took myself to be in graduate school by default, it hardly mattered where I went from there. As I observed where new Ph.Ds from the University of Washington ended up, it was clear to me that if I got an academic job and most of my colleagues didn t even get any I could at best hope for something like Idaho State or Montana State or Oregon State and not even at the main state university in those places. Something like Stanford was beyond my imagination, since I assumed (quite rightly, as it turned out) that its searches did not extend to places like the University of Washington, and its English Department, I might add, already had its one token Jew on board as well as its one token Catholic, who also happens to be present at this talk. Looking over the whole situation, I determined not to waste my life in a place where there d be little intellectual stimulation, so the only solution at that point seemed law school. Yet before I could send for applications, a good job fell into my lap without my even applying. A new branch of the University of California was about to open in Riverside, and a historian assigned to 4 Georg Trakl, in Twayne World Authors Series (New York: Twayne [now G.K. Hall], 1971).
15 15 create a humanities division was touring the country interviewing for the whole range of positions. He thought he wanted somebody in that new-fangled field called Comparative Literature the sort of person who he said could be a utility infielder and I was ordered by one of the department chairs participating in my program to appear at an interview at a specific time and place. The academic-job situation at the time was about as bad as it s ever been, but somehow the interview went well enough for me to beat out the candidates applying from the various schools that had rejected me for graduate work in the first place. So that should have been the end of my law-school fantasies. But not quite. For my first two years in what counted as a prized tenure-track position, I considered chucking academia and, now that I was a California resident, trying to get into Boalt. The reason was that I found myself bored. UC Riverside was founded idealistically as what was to be a small liberal-arts college within a larger public-university system. But that also meant teaching mainly beginning courses on what seemed an unusually heavy schedule. I was assigned courses in freshman English, sometimes even bonehead, as well as beginning German. Doing real literature courses proved the exception rather than the rule, and I felt powerfully understimulated. But going back to being a student when I was earning what then counted as a high academic salary four thousand five hundred a year! was also a deterrent. The only way to make my peace with academia was to find a research project that could motivate me to stick it out. I found this project in Wordsworth s great autobiographical long poem The Prelude. Wordsworth and all the English Romantic poets except for Keats were much out of fashion during the 1950s, and for two connected reasons: Romanticism was disapproved of by the great
16 16 modernist writers, above all, T.S. Eliot, and the period did not lend itself easily to analysis according to the reigning academic interpretive paradigm, namely, the New Criticism, which itself was a product of Modernist poetics. When I told friends I was going to work on Wordsworth, they treated me with pity how could I do anything so out of date? Instead, I should be analyzing some modernist writer (which after all I d already done in my dissertation), a writer such as Joyce or Faulkner, they suggested, or perhaps go back to some thenfashionable Renaissance poet such as John Donne. I replied that I would show there were ways of approaching Wordsworth and Romantic poetry that would likely cause them to reconsider their biases. Since I automatically act stubbornly to pressures such as these, I determined to go firmly against the grain and spent the next half dozen years thinking out and writing the book on The Prelude. 5 But as soon as I got going I realized that I couldn t do it using the customary methods of the New Criticism. It would only make me sound defensive and ultimately never demonstrate what I sought to do. For years I had been reading widely in Continental literary theory, social theory, and philosophy, above all, Wittgenstein, whose recently (and posthumously) published Philosophical Investigations I spent the summer of 1956 reading through at the same time that I kept rereading The Prelude. Wittgenstein provided some wonderful tools to clear the mind of all the cant that claims to be common knowledge. I was so full of diverse and not necessarily compatible perspectives that I hardly knew how to impose any unity on my book. There was no single argument I could mount to bring everything I was thinking about together. So unity be damned, I decided. The book 5 On Wordsworth's 'Prelude' (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).
17 17 ended up being a series of essays, each using a distinct critical perspective though everything was directed to illuminating Wordsworth s great long poem. I sought, for instance, to place it within a historical moment in which the epic tradition gives way to lyric. And I tried to show how the poem created a new way of embodying the consciousness of time in poetic language. And I sought as well to demonstrate how its obsession with the poet s self (what Keats called Wordsworth s cultivation of the egotistical sublime ) represented a social statement in its own right something one could relate, as Wordsworth explicitly did in the poem, to the aftermath of the French Revolution. To justify the lack of a unified argument, I jokingly spoke of the book in the introduction as Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Prelude, alluding here to Wallace Stevens s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Still, I could not imagine a decent academic publisher taking the manuscript. To my surprise I got one of the best presses of the day to do it, with the result that my career was soon established in ways I had not foreseen. I even discovered that soon after its appearance the book became required reading in seminars within graduate programs that had not admitted me a few years before. Since I had a sabbatical coming, I tried for a teaching Fulbright in Europe, but after being turned down, I decided to enjoy Rome for a year and write a second, less ambitious book, this one on the dramatist Georg Büchner, 6 who had only one thing in common with Wordsworth: they had both written about the French Revolution, a topic that has always obsessed me. And having a second book under my belt, even though less ambitious than my earlier or my later ones, 6 Georg Büchner, in Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques series (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964).
18 18 meant I would be in a good position to move, which I felt I needed to do as I watched thes UC Riverside faculty and student body decline as a result of the competition offered by the three newer campuses that the University of California, during the early 1960s, was building along the ocean. I ended up briefly at Washington University, where, soon after, I got a Guggenheim to do a book about selected early nineteenthcentury literary texts from Britain across Europe. It was supposed to be a way of defining Romanticism through a close study of these diverse texts and the project seemed to follow naturally from my books on Wordsworth and Büchner. But as soon as I got to work on it, I balked. It seemed boring just analyzing a bunch of texts: that was the way the New Criticism had done it, and that seemed old-fashioned to me. And I had no faith that these analyses would add up to a larger picture of the period. But that s how you get Guggenheims, I suppose give an intriguing new twist to an already familiar methodology. But there was another problem. This was the spring of 1968, and the whole world seemed to be ripping apart. Again I began to wonder if I was right to have gone into academia though it had at least got me a draft deferment when I needed one. Yet I now had a family, and I could not forego a regular academic salary. I spent the first summer of the Guggenheim reading widely in everything except literature and literary criticism lots of history, sociology, Frankfurt school social thought. I told myself I needed to engage in what I call promiscuous reading. And between all this reading and my engaged observations of the world around me the tense presidential campaign, the unending war in Viet Nam, the campus riots a new idea for a book emerged. Since we were all watching what we knew to
19 19 be significant history all around us, I decided to write a book about historical drama. 7 How did the great dramatists of the past, from the Greeks through Shakespeare and Büchner to Bertolt Brecht, view the historical past? And how did they translate the crises they saw around them into historical allegories about their own present day? This would be a big bite to chew, but at least I could provide a view of a significant genre that nobody had really mapped out before. There was no room for close analyses of individual works that would have bored anybody looking for the larger picture and bored me as well! I determined to use my earlier book on Wordsworth as an organizing model and write a series of essays, each using a somewhat different method or approach and each focusing on a different aspect of historical drama. But whereas the earlier project had used diverse perspectives on a single long poem, this one would focus on an unwieldy gathering of plays from many different periods and cultures that had little in common with one another. A nineteenth-century scholar wanting to deal with the topic would simply have done a chronological history of history plays, but that would have impossible in this day and age. My approach allowed me to deal with a number of topics that fascinated me for example, how history plays give you a different image of history than works in other genres and media, for example, the historical novel or history painting; or, as my distinguished late colleague Gordon Craig suggested, how history plays enact the processes by which people and forces gain and lose power; or, as I discovered while watching the Watergate hearings as I neared the end of my first draft, how a medium such as television allows a vast 7 Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l975).
20 20 audience to witness a historical drama in the process of its being written and enacted, and without anybody being able to predict how it s going to end. It was so exciting a project over the years I worked at it that I was dumb-founded to find that none of the three academic presses I submitted it to wanted to print it. So here I was, now a senior Stanford professor, brought here to found an ambitious program in Comparative Literature, and unable to publish his best project thus far. The problem was that the referees who read it wanted me to write the sort of the book they would have written. Thus, a referee belonging to what I saw as the old-fashioned New Critical persuasion lamented my not doing the close analyses that he or she said the great plays I was discussing demanded. A Marxist professor, whose statement on my manuscript was not sent to me because the prospective press found it too embarrassing, attacked the project for the liberal bourgeois ideology that supposedly underlay it. I realized I was paying the price for moving from field to field since the people judging me likely had no idea of what I d done before. And, unlike most scholars, I had never bothered creating a network among other literary scholars who could make the necessary contacts that would have helped me get through. Yes, I finally got a publisher, the fourth one I sent the manuscript to, though I had to beg this one for a third (and luckily positive) reading to make it. After all that trouble somehow the book caught on. It was widely reviewed, usually quite flatteringly, though I got another Marxist jab from some passionate academic who found that my bourgeois stance would make me end up, as he put it, fellating with the Kronkites, Walter Cronkite s name being spelled with the Nazi K. It took me a while to figure that one out. Three years after publication a journal even asked me to write an essay
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