Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Tenured Literature

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Writers who have been lucky enough to land these gigs are inclined to talk — when we aren’t grumbling — about their good fortune in sensible language, citing all that is sane, healthy, balanced and economically viable about their jobs. But another question is discussed less. What exactly does all this teaching do to our writing? And what, if anything, does it mean for a country to have a tenured literature? What exactly does all this teaching do to our writing? And what, if anything, does it mean for a country to have a tenured literature?

So asks David Gessner in the New York Times Magazine.

Consider that our first great national literary flowering constituted, in part, a rebellion against what was thought of as academic, effete and indoors-y in English writing. It slightly complicates things that this flowering was greatly influenced by an Englishman, Wordsworth, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that in the 1850s Melville published “Moby-Dick” (1851); Thoreau, “Walden” (1854); and Whitman, “Leaves of Grass” (1855), while at the same time Emily Dickinson began to hit her private stride and Emerson was still lecturing. Thoreau claimed to have never wasted a walk on another, and it’s hard to imagine him taking a break from one of his marathon strolls to waste three hours teaching a graduate workshop. Equally difficult is picturing Melville asking a group of undergrads, “What’s at stake in this story?” or Dickinson clapping a colleague on the back after a faculty meeting.

There was an essential fanaticism in all their efforts, the sense of an entire life thrown into the great project of creating works of art. Even if we grant that you can be as original within the university as up in your garret, we must concede the possibility that something is lost by living a divided life. Intensity perhaps. The ability to focus hard and long on big, ambitious projects. A great writer, after all, must travel daily to a mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it. It’s fine for writing teachers to talk in self-help jargon about how their lives require “balance” and “shifting gears” between teaching and writing, but below that civil language lurks the uncomfortable fact that the creation of literature requires a degree of monomania, and that it is, at least in part, an irrational enterprise. It’s hard to throw your whole self into something when that self has another job.

Written by gerrycanavan

September 23, 2008 at 5:53 pm

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