Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Academic Adventures

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Academic Adventures

Article excerpt

ACADEMIC ADVENTURES An Unexpected Life. By Joseph Blotner. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Pp 295. $29.95. The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir. By Marjorie Perloff. New York: New Directions, 2004. Pp 304. $15.95.

In recent years a new subgenre of autobiography has been born-memoirs by academic literary critics-and it seems to have every prospect of continued growth. The emergence of the academic memoir certainly reflects and extends the claim increasingly made by literary critics over the last thirty years that the critic is himself or herself an imaginative artist equal to the novelist or poet about whom he or she writes, for the critic continues and expands the process of creative discovery of the originating artist. The next step from this was obvious: the critic would become the originating artist. After all, the academic novel had been a wellestablished form since the 1950s. The academic memoir could easily follow in its path. Works by Alfred Kazin and Wallace Fowlie were early instances. Two examples from 2004 and 2005 are books by Joseph Blotner and Marjorie Perloff.

A basic problem that the academic memoirist must face is that (to adapt Tolstoy) academic lives are all alike-like each other as well as alike in themselves from week to week and year to year. Accounts of lives filled up by endless class periods and faculty meetings seldom make for high drama. Tales of lectures delivered about the country, appearances at large conferences, and inside exposures of life at scholars' retreats are better rendered in fiction than as documentaries. What, then, is the academic memoirist to do to seize the reader's attention in something of the way a novelist can?

For very different reasons, Blotner and Perloff give very much the same answer: write as scantily as possible about the quotidian character of their academic daily lives. The possibilities of joy lie quite outside the world of academic life in which each has spent the majority of his or her days. There is very little in either book-indeed, nothing in Perloff's-about the work of the teacher. But each manages to achieve guarded happiness in creative acts of finding "what will suffice." Each describes a life split between ordinary existence and worlds elsewhere. Blotner tells us in his memoir that he seeks to achieve a "double vision," reflecting his "dual identity," while Perloff writes of "the contradictions that have made my own sensibility what it is." Both Perloff and Blotner compose double narratives of imaginative liveliness pushing beyond mundane, repetitive life. In their discourses of doubleness each author follows the hint dropped by Charles Baudelaire in one of his best prose poems. The poet repeatedly asks his soul: Where might you discover contentment? He suggests several possible places, to which the discontented soul at last bursts forth in answer: "Anywhere, so long as it is out of this world." Blotner and Perloff both cry out: "Anywhere, so long as it is not in academia."

For Blotner three successive opportunities arose to take him out of the commonplace world of his childhood, when he grew up in a lower middle-class family in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. These early years are so insignificant for him that he barely refers to them. The book opens, instead, when he arrives as an adult at a U.S. Army Air Corps base in England. Here-"elsewhere," in Henry James's "country of the blue,"-his true life begins, as an officer and a bombardier in a B-17 "Flying Fortress," dropping five thousand pounds of explosives on German targets. This is, as his Jamesian first chapter title has it, "The Real Thing." The real thing, of course, is the opportunity for the heroic blossoming of imagination. Excitement certainly occurs as he experiences his first mission and becomes a combat veteran. But beyond that lies the heightened imagination: he sees himself as the Robert Taylor character in Waterloo Bridge. He is a war hero. On the sixth mission his plane is shot down. …

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