Really Bad Coverage of the MLA (Error-Ridden Edition)


I'm second to none in my enjoyment and praise of the Washington Times, which is not only inexpensive (like $20 a year for home delivery) but always filled with offbeat, under-reported, and interesting stories. When it's not putting gay marriage in scare quotes and running crap like this.

And this post-Modern Language Association annual conference piece by columnist Suzanne Fields, who gulpingly (her concept, not mine) confesses to having earned a literature Ph.D. in a previous life, and then delivers a remarkably inane and under-informed gloss on the MLA and literary studies more generally. What's most interesting is that Fields' ostensibly conservative critique is no different than the one pushed by the ostensibly liberal New York Times. Both share a superficial familiarity with literary studies that borders on the anti-intellectual.

Apparently keying off my TCSDaily coverage and a few other sources, Dr. Fields runs through any number of cliches about the MLA (did you hear the one about "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"?!?!) and outright mistakes (Reason is "a publication of the Cato Institute"). But what's really annoying is the lack of familiarity with literary history, especially coming from a Ph.D.

So Fields bitches and moans about the "queering" of, among others, good old-fashioned Amurican authors such as Willa Cather. Here's a news flash: During her college days at Univ. of Nebraska, Cather dressed as a man for a while and even took to calling herself "William"; she also had several long-time intimate relationships with women. That sort of long-suppressed biography makes Cather a particularly strong candidate for reappraisal from a queer studies perspective. As important, Cather's treatment by queer studies critics represents the best hope that she will continue to be read.

Fields, like most conservatives, also sniffs at the politicization of literary studies. There's no question that can be overdone to death, but the insistence of Literature and its study as a politics-free zone leads to summations of John Milton like this one: "Anyone who reads John Milton quickly discovers that a mix of ideas engages and provokes the intellect toward wisdom." What the hell does that mean? God, is there any way to make poor Milton more boring and uninteresting than by invoking such blandishments? If Milton is staging a comeback (as Fields says–and I agree with her), it's precisely because critics over the past decade or so have been stressing his politics. This is a guy who not only wrote one of the earliest defenses of an unlicensed press, he was a regicide who wrote in favor of beheading Charles I; and he later served in Cromwell's government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues. His work becomes infinitely more interesting when read in light of his political activity and thought. Paradise Lost works better–or at least equally well–as a meditation on Cromwell's thirst for power as on Christ's redeeming power.

Then there's Fields' defense of William Faulkner. The campus PC clerics "all but evicted" the worst postal worker in the pre-David Berkowitz era from the college campus, she says:

Sneering at the white man fell particularly hard on William Faulkner, who was all but evicted from campus. When Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, he spoke of the importance of "the old verities and truths of the heart . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." Such qualities have since been strangers at MLA sessions. When the Faulkner Journal called for scholarly papers, they asked authors to consider "the whiteness of Faulkner himself." One paper was entitled, "Why Are You So Black? Faulkner's White-face Minstrels Primitivism and Perversion."

Yeah, it's really nuts to puzzle over Faulkner's "whiteness"–it's not like he never wrote about the South, the Civil War, the legacy of slavery, and race relations (just for starters, Fields might want to thumb through Light in August sometime). Btw, for those interested in "whiteness studies"–or the social construction of race and ethnicity, a topic of no small interest to the history of these United States–I can heartily recommend two books that Fields would no doubt proactively dismiss: A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic and Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White.

As important, she might want to recall that Faulkner's books had famously gone out of print by the mid-'40s and it was our oldest enemy the French who revived his reputation and put him on the path to the Nobel Prize. Half a century before he was "evicted" from campus (a statement belied by the absolutely mammoth bibliography of critical work on him), the American reading public had already told him to the corn cob from Sanctuary and stick it where the sun don't shine. So if you're a Faulkner fan, kiss a frog today.

Fields' whole col is here. Again, what's most interesting to me is how her critique mirrors that of many liberals.