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Patrick Mccarthy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 15 Mar 2002 09:50:54 -0800
TEXT/PLAIN (90 lines)
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 11:15:35 -0500
From: Joyce Huff <[log in to unmask]>
To: Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: #4 When Did Literature Professors Stop Knowing Dickens? (fwd)

I don't wish to offend anyone, but I think this conversation has become a
bit side-tracked. The original question revolved around whether or not
literature professors still knew and taught Dickens; a question of some
relevance to a Dickensian listserv. But the last few posts have involved a
debate on theory, in which Dickens's name does not appear.

To return to the original question, I might speculate that Gates's lack of
specific knowledge of individual passages in Dickens's works may have
something to do with a pressure to specialize. (Isn't Gates an Americanist?
Specifically, an African-Amercanist?) Even undergraduate majors in my
department are asked to choose between English and American literature quite
early and I think that this is typical of many departments. It certainly
happened at the school where I did my undergraduate work in the 1980's. I
was only required to take one American lit survey - half of a two part
series - before plunging into upper division courses on the British
Victorian novel. In graduate school, the pressure to acquire depth, not
breadth, only increased.

Anyone looking at my syllabi now would be prompted to ask the question,
"Don't literature professors teach Mark Twain any more?" Of course, Twain is
missing from my syllabi because he is an American writer, while I teach a
British literature survey and a nineteenth-century British novel course -
that is the way in which my department organizes the teaching of literature
and I suspect that this is fairly typical (though I do see the occasional
"Dickens and Twain" course and the occasional job listing for a specialist
in transatlantic literature).

Because of these institutional constraints on my training and my teaching, I
would venture that if a British writer borrowed from Twain, I might not
catch it. I've read all of Twain's novels (except for The Personal
Recollections of Joan of Arc), but the fact is that I haven't read them in
years. It's not that I've been lazy or that I've read too much theory
(though I have been reading theory). Rather, I've been reading more obscure
British texts, including popular and non-fiction works such as sensation
novels and etiquette manuals (and I admit I've also indulged myself by
reading Pickwick over and over and over).

I'm not bemoaning specialization nor am I praising it. My own training has
had advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I feel that the intense
focus on one place has given me a sense of the historical influences. For
example, reading important works of Elizabethan prose fiction, like George
Gascoigne's "Adventures of Master F.J.," has given me a real feel for the
development of British prose and thus for Dickens's roots as a British
writer. But specialization has obscured other important connections, like
the strong mutual influences between Dickens and prominent American writers.

 My point is that I doubt Gates would have made the same mistake if the
passage had been taken from Twain or from another canonical American writer.

- Joyce

----- Original Message -----
From: Patrick Mccarthy <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Friday, March 15, 2002 12:39 AM
Subject: #4 When Did Literature Professors Stop Knowing Dickens? (fwd)

> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
> Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 18:52:13 EST
> From: [log in to unmask]
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: Re: #3 When Did Literature Professors Stop Knowing Dickens?
> Interest in literary theory and interest in poems, plays and novels are
> things not necessarily in conflict.  But in practice too often they are.
> Professors take theory trips at the expense of teaching their students
> the basic texts.
> Nor is there anything wrong with an interest in literary theory.  What's
> wrong is too much interest in it.  It somehow or other reflects the
> and, since it does, should I suppose be taught.  But much of it's not very
> good.  Much of it shouldn't be taken seriously by anyone capable of
> considering ideas critically.  Much of it, frankly, amounts to little more
> than a licence to talk self-indulgent nonsense.
> You got that, I grant you, when professors just marvelled about deathless
> bits of poetry and prose.  But not as much, I'm inclined to think.
> David Parker