Academic journal article Style

Frank Lentricchia' S Critical Confession, or, the Traumas of Teaching Theory

Academic journal article Style

Frank Lentricchia' S Critical Confession, or, the Traumas of Teaching Theory

Article excerpt

Ours is a confessional age, as the popularity of Oprah Winfrey's and other television talk-shows testifies to. Recently, the confessional mode has made its way into what--for at least the first half of this century--aspired to be a relatively impartial, objective, and impersonal enterprise: literary studies. It is not only that the 1990s brought a surge of autobiographies in which well-known literary academics reveal all kinds of pungent details about their professional and private lives (see Alice Kaplan's French Lessons, Frank Lentricchia's Edge of Night, or Marianna Torgovnick's Crossing Ocean Parkway). More importantly, critical essays on literary texts and/or issues are spiced with references to the critics' private lives. [1] Indeed, David R. Shumway may be right when he claims that, "Personal matters, once regarded as extraneous to disciplinary discourse, have become central to it" (96).

What has prompted this entry of confession into literary studies? Some would say that it is our preoccupation with self-location, incited by the turn in theory that asks critics to specify their positionality as regards gender, class, race, and sexual preference. Others might speculate on the significance of the feminist claim that "the personal is political" in encouraging the confessional mode. Yet others may point to the postmodern trend to cross all kinds of boundaries and to mix genres and discourses. A few may even claim that academics resort to the personal narrative to liven up their otherwise dull and drab professional discourse. Be this as it may, what I find particularly fascinating a bout critical confessions is their role in forming the public image of the persona of an academic teacher.

A peak of sorts--or perhaps a nadir--in the confessional trend in literary criticism seems to have been reached recently with the publication of Lentricchia's article "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic," in the September/October 1996 issue of Lingua Franca. The article caused quite a commotion among American literary scholars. I was at Columbia University when Lentricchia's "Last Will" was published. Within a few days, everybody (or so it seemed to me) was talking about the article: each casual encounter between academics, each dinner party with more than one academic at the table, each graduate seminar provided an occasion to discuss Lentricchia's essay.

So what was it that Lentricchia wrote that caused such tremors in the academic world? In the article, this "Dirty Harry of contemporary critical theory," as a reviewer once called Lentricchia, [2] admits to having suffered for years from a kind of split-personality disorder. His secret "me-the-reader" kept experiencing "erotic transport" when reading books, while his public self, that of "an historian and polemicist of literary theory," was speaking about literature as a political instrument. His two selves, as he writes, were "unhappy with one another" (60).

Since this part of Lentricchia's article could be seen as an echo of the "two selves" confession made some ten years earlier by another academic at Duke University, Jane Tompkins, it offers nothing new. [3] Rather, it is what follows that made me and other literary critics and teachers raise our eyebrows. Lentricchia continues by announcing his conversion from a political critic and graduate mentor into a literary enthusiast. To explain his decision, he cites a number of classroom incidents in which graduate students have passed judgments on books from the position of self-righteousness and moral and political superiority. One of the climactic moments leading to Lentricchia's conversion was, he writes, a student's statement that "the first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist" (64). This comment, says Lentricchia, ignited his desire to communicate "how unspeakably stupid" he found such views. The views themselves, claims Lentricchia, are due to the corruption of students' minds by contemp orary literary theory. …

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