The Professor and the Profession

By Robert Bechtold Heilman | Go to book overview

16
Three Generations of English Studies
Impressions

Some three decades ago Douglas Knight, then a young Ph.D. in English (and later a university president), toyed with a theory of literary generations. The idea, as far as I grasped it, was that the birth of literary eminences got bunched in some way, and that the bunching was meaningful. There would be fertile and infertile decades, and the patterning of these would have some significance in literary history.

Whatever the merits of this theory, it suggests a pattern for the professional lives of professors of English born, say, between 1900 and 1920— a pattern that certainly differentiates them from their predecessors, and may differentiate them from their successors. If we of that generation lived long enough, we experienced three generations of English studies (roughly everything from classroom style to practices of learned journals). We grew up, so to speak, during the reign of old literary history; we spent our middle years coming to terms with (resisting, compromising with, being converted to, whatever) the loosely named “new criticism”; and the natural discomforts of later years were not eased by the insurgency of a new force sometimes called the “new new criticism.”

I have used, without planning to, political metaphors—“reign,” for example. One might speak, alternatively, of successive emphases, approaches, modes, or even fashions. One’s metaphor depends upon whether one thinks of a procedure in terms of its legitimacy, its power, or its transitoriness. One may sense in any mode an enduring convincingness, or a forceful but impermanent impact of novelty, surprise, and shock. I mean, however, to stick mainly to the biological metaphor, which works doubly. It applies both to the succession of practices as each goes through the cycle of growth, full season, and decline, and to the successive responses of the generation-by-years-of-birth to the three generations of dominant or at least

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