Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele are Dead

In parallel to my reading of ‘books about books’ aimed at non-specialist readers, I have been reading scholarly books that treat the development of English studies and/or academic criticism in historical as well as theoretical contexts. (Examples include John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society, and Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars. My notes on these have been largely maintained off-line, though my post on Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading comes out of the same line of research.) All of these books (and many more like them, of course) make explicit that what now appear to be the “givens” of professional literary criticism and the discipline of English studies are highly contingent and far from exempt from scrutiny, evaluation, or (presumably) further development.

McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books in this collection. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform” (11). The opening sections of the book look first at the express intentions of Addison and Steele as critics and men of letters, particularly at their desire to be popular, widely read, accessible, un-mysterious. The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs (e.g. 146); the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. (McCrea reports that the last PMLA essay on Addison or Steele appeared in 1957, and that Eighteenth-Century Studies, “the publication of choice for the best and brightest in the field,” published only two short pieces on them in 20 years.) (As an aside, I wonder if a similar argument could be made about Trollope, whose novels often seem difficult to handle using our usual critical tools.)

As he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field” (89):

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department. (92)

As McCrea tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism) this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors. (147)

While we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrea says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” [65]).

But why, McCrea goes on to consider, should we expect such cross-over between our work–our professional lives and discourse–and our personal lives? McCrea’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCrea’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it” (17). If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McCrea argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . . (213)

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive. (215)

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

1 Comment to Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele are Dead

  1. Gabriel's Gravatar Gabriel
    February 10, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    This is a very good summary of the book and the problem– thank you.

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