Saturday, 25 November 2006

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Dull, Dry Historicism, Eminent Medievalists, Literary Journalism and Rank Despair, Laughed Away [A response to Luther Blissett's comment instead of a post. Why? Because minutiae oppress me, words fail me and with every day the odds of my future career in real estate increase ever so slightly.] Part of the problem with our profession is that wowing gets jobs, but people need to fill in the details. So, for example, David Wallace's Chaucerian Polity is a brilliant book, but one Wallace couldn't have written without much of the "drudge work" accomplished by "lesser" scholars in the pages of Speculum. The profession needs both, but only recognizes one. (Not so true in medieval studies or early modern studies, but you see my point.) At times, the historicist critic is afraid to venture out of the realm of brute facts, because of the Hayden White conundrum: the belief that all narrative forms are "fictions" and so are lies. Well, I wouldn't call them "lies" but "creative transformations." What I'm interested in is the way people take this body of scientific knowledge and transform it to conform with preexisting beliefs, other bodies of thought (aesthetic theory, romantic individualism, &c.). So I'm uninterested in narrating events, because that's the realm of the historian proper. I think many historicists are intellectual historians who focus on shifts in thought as reflected in literature, i.e. Menand focuses on the Civil War's effect on William James' thought in The Metaphysical Club, whereas I'd focus on its influence on brother Henry. (Not that I am, just making a point.) That said, I still want to ground my accounts of shifts in thought to the material I've dredged up. For example, at a talk I attended recently, someone asked the speaker "Wouldn't it be reeeeeeeeeally interesting if the person you're talking about was familiar with this particular strain of theory?" "Yes," the speaker replied, "but I have no evidence that she was." The questioner followed: "Maybe, but could you speculate about what it would mean if she had?" The speaker obliged, but sitting there in the audience, I couldn't help but feel there was something deeply wrong with whole performance—and that "something" has to do with the oddity of historicist projects in literature departments. I'm still thinking about how to frame this, though, because it seems like it should be part of some larger conversation about the profession. Right now, it's an anecdote and an uneasy feeling but little more. Let's remember that "the non-fiction novel" is just an awkward way of saying "history." And historians have successfully negotiated the need to balance truth and meaningfulness for several centuries. I'm not buying that definition of the non-fiction novel. History, as a profession, had moved away from the techniques of fiction employed by the New Journalism because they were considered "unprofessional." While it may be another mode of "historical" writing, the concomitant commitment to truth and the storytelling was innovative. You had both present, in differing degrees, in something like Hersey's Hiroshima or Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, only Hersey wasn't much...

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