in which I make the case against tedious criticism (and for myself)

 

‘Two Letters from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy’

‘Theodore Dreiser in the US Communist Press’

‘Some Thoughts about Dreiser’

‘Shostakovich’

 

“I find current academic writing excruciatingly boring and pointless. It is completely cut off from reality.” — Arun Mukherjee

 

The following are some essays from the journal American Literary History — from the latest issue (fall 2021) and going back a few years. The titles of the essays presumably reflect the mindset of the editorial board in selecting articles. They must be “academic” (in principle to be expected, and de facto required, but here the definition of academic seems very narrow and, I would say, suffocating in terms of the final product) and they should preferably address topics (theoretical, that is) of current interest to academics:

Latinx Modernism and the Spirit of Latinoamericanismo

Diagnosing Desire: Mental Health and Modern American Literature, 1890–1955

Mapping Decolonial Environmental Imaginaries in Latinx Culture

Literature’s Vexed Democratization

Unspeakable Conventionality: The Perversity of the Kindle

“Dear Anglo”: Scrambling the Signs of Anglo-Modernity from New York to Lagos

Poetic Resistances and the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz

Groping Toward Perversion: From Queer Methods to Queer States in Recent Queer Criticism

Styles of Sovereignty: Parataxis, Settler–Indigenous Difference, and the Transnationalisms of the Great Basin

The Rise of Behavioral Economic Masculinity

Looking Behind the Screen: Genealogies of Poetic Technology

Who Are We? Feminist Ambivalence in  Contemporary Literary Criticism

The Pleasure of Its Company: Of One Blood and the Potentials of Plagiarism

Economics and American Literary Studies in the New Gilded Age, or Why Study the History of Bad Predictions and Worse Rationalizations?

The Economic Humanities and the History of Financial Advice

Money Mazes, Media Machines, and Banana Republic Realisms

The Cultural Economies of Digital Books

The Limits of Critique and the Affordances of Form: Literary Studies after the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

“We Gotta Get Out of this Place”: Literary Criticism in the Academic Workplace

Illuminating the Anthropocene: Ecopoetic Explorers at the Edge of the Naturecultures Abyss

The Exhaustion of Authenticity: Biopolitical Aural Regimes and American Popular Music

Imagination and Indigenous Sovereignty in the Trumpian Era

The Novel and WikiLeaks: Transparency and the Social Life of Privacy

Queer Sociality After the Antisocial Thesis

Archives of Ecocatastrophe; or, Vulnerable Reading Practices in the Anthropocene

Wily Ecologies: Comic Futures for American Environmentalism

Racialized Bodies and Asian American Literature

The New Reification, or Quotidian Materialism

Remediating the Latin@ Sixties

Maybe for Millions, Maybe for Nobody: Jewish American Writing and the Undecidability of World Literature

Lines and Circles: Transnationalizing American Poetry Studies

Cripping [sic] Consensus: Disability Studies at the Intersection

Essay titles worthy of a satire by Jonathan Swift. For me, they are soporific.

Such essays have little to do, I would suspect, with actual literature — with literature per se, with actual books (fiction, poetry, etc.) by actual writers. The titles, at any rate, are so rarified and abstruse that one can only guess what the articles are about. There is a heavy air of presentism, tendentiousness, and a predilection for social and political topics and isms in vogue on campuses nowadays.

There is Studies in American Naturalism, the journal of The International Theodore Dreiser Society, which publishes a few articles on Dreiser, but is not devoted to Dreiser. The articles tend to be theoretical.

In contrast, take the last issue of the Dreiser Society’s journal to be published before it was discontinued and replaced by Studies in American Naturalism — Dreiser Studies, spring 1987 — and something becomes apparent.. The issue contained essays by prominent Dreiser scholars:

“Double Quotes and Double Meanings in Jennie Gerhardt” by James L. W. West Ill

“Dreiser: Autobiographical Fragment, 1911” by Thomas P. Riggio

“The Revisionist Views of Sarah Schänäb Dreiser” by George H. Douglas

“A Note On Dreiser’s Use of the 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Car Strike” by Michael John McDonough

Such essays would not make it into Studies in American Naturalism. Yet these are titles which would be of immediate interest to Dreiserians, and which I could get my teeth into.

I belong to the Samuel Johnson and George Gissing societies. I doubt that either author is taught that much in English courses here. Yet both societies publish journals developed solely to the author: papers on all aspects of their work, new findings and publications, etc.

 

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I read good literature and am deeply steeped in it. If I get to into an author, I want to read all the works that I can manage to (not just the acknowledged classics) and to learn all I can about the writer. This includes reading criticism to an extent. To illustrate what I mean with specifics, take Walt Whitman. I have read Leaves of Grass many times over, and it is the poetry and the person who interest me above all. I have read several Whitman biographies. And I have not completely neglected critical studies such as C. Carroll Hollis’s brilliant Language and Style in Leaves of Grass, Harold Aspiz’s Whitman and the Body Beautiful and Aspiz’s So Long! Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death, and the writings of Whitman Scholar Ed Folsom. Or William Blake, whom I took an outstanding course on in college with the late Allen Grossman. It’s the Poetical Sketches, Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the prophetic books which I immersed myself in. But then a year or two later I read E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake, a monograph which illuminated so much concerning the composition of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

 

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Not to brag, but I happen to be knowledgeable also about music. My father was a professional pianist, piano teacher, church organist and choir director; and a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in music. I never attained proficiency in music and I can’t, unlike my father, who took a course in composition with the composer Irving Fine in college, did arrangements professionally, and composed an original score on a religious theme for performance by a theater group, read music. Yet my father acknowledged and respected my wide ranging knowledge of music as a listener. In other words, his musical knowledge was that of a professional with musical education, while mine was acquired experientially, so to speak.

Yet I write about classical music. See my essay on Shostakovich (posted here), for example.

 

*****************************************************

 

To conclude, note the following essays of mine, posted on my Dreiser site (and above):

Two Letters from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser in the US Communist Press

Some Thoughts About Dreiser: What a Close Acquaintance With His Life and Works Reveals (This article was based on a presentation by me to the Comparative Literature Department, Institute for Philology and History, Russian State University for the Humanities on March 19, 2001.)

All three were rejected for publication.

“Two Letters from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy” was submitted to Studies in. American Naturalism “over the transom.” The other two essays were assigned to me. I submitted a proposal in each case that was accepted. The fact that the articles were lengthy was not, a priori, a problem. The editors and I discussed word length. Only after the articles were submitted did the editors decide that the content did not fit their requirements. I had described content and approach fully in the proposals I sent them.

I am grateful that some scholars found my work to be of value. For example, Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas wrote me recently, commenting on my essay “Some Thoughts About Dreiser”;

I’ve read your interview with the Russians and am amazed at the sharpness of their questions and —more—with the breadth of your answers. You are now the repository of Dreiser fact. It’s time for you to write a book, on which organizes all this data into a real intellectual biography. You have rediscovered the author and the man.

Enough said. There is a place and a need for writings purely about Dreiser, his works, the circumstances of their composition, relevant details from his own life, his biography, and so forth. They don’t have to be bloodless and “fashionable” with respect to current issues. And by the way, my essays are not only meticulously researched and documented (often drawing upon archival and primary sources), but also consistently well written, with an absence of academic argot.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    November 2021

1 thought on “in which I make the case against tedious criticism (and for myself)

  1. Arun Mukherjee

    Dear Roger:
    Your critique of pale blooded academic writing is absolutely just. The titles you have chosen tell a bleak story about how dull and boring most academic criticism these days is. I am sorry to hear that your essay on Dreiser was rejected by the Moscow conference as I, too, like Prof Emeritus Thomas Kranidas found your answers to the Russian students very very interesting. Perhaps the essay could have been revised and tightened a bit, but I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for doing very important work via your web site. I find the things you dig up fascinating despite not have read any Dreiser for over three decades now.

    Like

    Reply

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