After the 1960's: Too Close Reading and the Limits of Postmodernism

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We all are born ata specific crossroad of history (both national and world) and literary history. The separate roads and the intersections are equally important. This confluence leaves its impression on us, and we impress ourselves upon this matrix, if I may use such abstract words about a process that feels quite concrete as we live through it.

Knowledge is a matter of accretion as well as revision, and if we are too willing to give up the strata of the generations, we may find that we're at the bottom of a landslide instead of standing on a firm foundation (to echo a United Nations song that we learned at P.S. 187 Manhattan just after WWII).

George Orwell says about the writer in "Why I Write" that "if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write" (315). His "altogether" leaves a lot of room, of course, for renovation and transformation as Orwell himself gave up his natal identity as Eric Blair to become "George Orwell."

Tension and balance are equally important in this equation, and I want to explore this relation with respect to my life and career as a writer and teacher - a writer who has worked in many forms and a teacher who has tried to keep up with the Txitgeist while not relinquishing certain fundamental commitments. In doing this, I hope I can speak, to some extent, for my generation.

I am tempted to begin at my beginning - the late Depression and the Big Band era, F.D.R. and Swing- but if I do, I doubt I'll ever get within a city block of my subject, "close reading" and its place, if it still has or should have one, in the contemporary study of literature at the college and university level. It is with reluctance that I shall pass over what it meant to grow up when America was fighting a war against Fascism and Glen Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" seemed to promise the lyrical uplift that would be waiting for us when the war was over, a war we believed, then, to be entirely just. But before I leave this early period behind, it occurs to me to say that actual "history" and "music" have been two of the missing elements in the literary criticism of recent decades.

Now to my history of books and reading in a format that is at once memoir, creative nonfiction, and literary history. I discovered books during the summer of 1951 when, before the start of my second year of high school, we were given a reading list in preparation for a literature course. The first year had been given to grammar and basic composition. I still refer to the text we used: the Horace Mann Handbook of English.

I can't recall if we all had to read the same novels or if we had a choice, but I remember some of the books that I read: W.H. Hudson's Green Mansions and Far Away and Long Ago, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

I read these books beneath a palm tree in Miami Beach where my mother, brother, and I had gone for the summer, and to this day I associate reading with light and movement, of the trees, of the sea, and occasionally the scent of a bagel lyricism and social realism, music and history.

Far from onerous, even for a kid who had grown up doing little else but playing various kinds of ball in the schoolyard, this summer of reading changed my life forever. By the end of the summer, I wanted to be, without warrant, some kind of American writer; and I believed that words and experience were inextricably intertwined for me in a new way.

I knew that words were one thing and experiences another (at least that seemed to be clear then), but they also seemed to be so interrelated that one couldn't separate them without doing injury to both. Or as Einstein says in another context: "There is no necessity to interpolate between the object and the act of vision anything which separates the object from the subject..." (Ideas and Opinions, 31). …