Leftward Whoa! The Academy

cross-posted from The Valve

Something positive about what is called the academic “new left” is that in some ways it is a multicultural continuation and advance from the best left/progressive work of the 20s and 30s, the time of strongest progressive advance in the past century. In other fundamental ways, it’s no advance at all. Especially with a prestige fixation on “theory” rather than an intellectual and normative commitment to socio-literary analysis of literature, English and other departments largely remove themselves from actual left/popular struggles and needed thought today. World Social Forum thinking certainly isn’t pervasive or “triumphantly” engaged within the academy. To the extent it does appear it is typically marginalized in myriad ways. In fact, neither the recent US Social Forum event in Atlanta nor much of its essential thought has even been broached here or in lit sites generally. Some “radical” “triumph”.

Michael Albert’s general overview and take on the event, “USSF – 2007 and After…”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=1&ItemID=13271

Key works in the liberation lit tradition aren’t even included in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. (And it’s true I believe that there never even was a Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism? So we can see here quite clearly where the emphasis of the establishment is: on “theory” – which is far more tolerable, far less threatening to the interests of the status quo than more normative and directly engaged literary analysis.) V.F. Calverton isn’t exactly a marginal literary historical figure; his best work isn’t exactly a peripheral achievement. That is, shouldn’t be. Not in reality. Though he surely is in the reality of the academic lit establishment today (and previous days). What percentage of the lit establishment has even heard of The Liberation of American Literature, let alone read it? 1 percent? Let alone Bernard Smith and Forces in American Criticism. Who has even heard of V.F. Calverton himself, editor of the Modern Quarterly for 17 years, from 1923 until his death in 1940. Just as Calverton was eventually marginalized in his own time, for ideological reasons as well, so have many central progressive literary concerns been marginalized by the academy. The pillars and defenders and enforcers of the status quo who largely control the academies (the boards of trustees and their minions, and the corporate-state governments) would be smart to proclaim as loudly as possible, and often do, that there is an irresponsible Sixties Triumphalism of a would be, if not already, socialist faculty. The notion is comically false in its fully intended sense (despite any extraordinarily limited and/or trivial accuracy to such proclamations). As for English departments being different: Leftward Ho! V.F. Calverton and American Radicalism, by Philip Abbott, was published in 1993 as part of Greenwood Press’s series Contributions in Political Science. This seems to be how a limited amount of work of some “radical” substance gets done in the academies. It can be easier to get it published in someone else’s field other than your own. Less threatening that way, I suppose. It’s a way to both marginalize yet produce valuable work. It’s a way for the university to breath a little, sometimes very little, yet still keep the lid on.


2 thoughts on “Leftward Whoa! The Academy”

  1. Well, I know Calverton’s work pretty well. As an editor and someone opposing the more sclerotic tendencies in the far left of his day, he was obviously an important figure, and his theory of “cultural compulsives” is interesting as a very rough and ready approximation of a Marxist sociology of knowledge.

    But Calverton’s writings on literary criticism and history have been forgotten for the simple reason that most of it was not very good. A satirical piece in the New Masses from the late 1920s portrayed the method of a critic everyone reading it knew was supposed to be Calverton. He sat down to prepare an essay on Marxism and Bulgarian literature despite not know Bulgarian or ever reading a single Bulgarian writer. Instead, he copied some facts about Bulgarian history out of an encyclopedia, added some thoughts on how the class struggle shapes literature, and voila! This was cruel — Calverton wasn’t quite that bad — but there was a reason why the satirist could expect readers to recognize his target.

    Calverton is worth studying in context. (There are much better things to read about him than Abbott’s book, by the way.) But if nobody much in English departments reads “The Liberation of American Literature” anymore, that is not proof that there is anything wrong with the English departments. It’s full of errors and is often crude in its interpretations.

    I wish this weren’t true. There is a lot to admire about Calverton, but even his friends were often aghast at how sloppy he could be.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful note. Of course I don’t state or intend that “if nobody much in English departments reads “The Liberation of American Literature” anymore, that is…proof that there is [something] wrong with the English departments.” The point is that the marginalization of TLOAL is indicative of the marginalization of the vitally important tendency of what I call liberation criticism of the time period and to a serious extent in English departments generally. And it’s not just liberation criticism that is marginalized but also liberation lit generally, liberation novels and so on (though as I’ve mentioned previously, repeatedly, good strides have been made in other areas, in particular in regard to multicultural issues, in realms sometimes known as “identity politics,” thought and experience). But consider, in how many courses next year and in these past several years have students a chance to read and consider an explicit investigative antiwar novel about the ongoing US invasion and occupation of Iraq, one of the greatest calamities of our time for which our country is responsible? The answer is none, apparently. And precious few if any such novels were written for the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and World War II. And where is the criticism of that lack? Again, this example by itself doesn’t prove anything but is indicative of a general great failing of literature departments and the literary establishment as a whole (i.e., publishers, reviewers, writers and so on), which I’ve written about at length elsewhere.

    I appreciate your comments but find them to be essentially beside the point, because while Calverton and some of his work can be easy targets for some of the reasons you mention, his book The Liberation of American Literature, along with Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart, and Bernard Smith’s Forces in American Criticism all emphasize and explore the tendency (or tradition, and lack thereof) of liberation literature far better – more thoroughly, incisively, and in greater context – despite flaws – than any other group of texts of the time period (though I would also add to this group a number of essays in Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form), and they remain unusually valuable, and buried. There is no sound intellectual reason for their neglect – quite the opposite – only the typical political ones, however often unconsciously held and otherwise enforced or cultivated, that one may expect to find and does find in establishment institutions like the universities and beyond.

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