Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Praise for the Foremothers

This is how it works: men and women do things - write books, build institutions, start movements - that change your life forever, and the men get into the history books. The women mysteriously fall out of the story, over and over. How many times have you heard or read the words, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to be free"? How many of you can name the writer off the top of your head? That's what I'm talking about. As Virginia Woolf put it, "Anonymous was a woman." Men learn to make their debts to other men public, to make a virtue of acknowledging what they owe their forefathers, and to forget what they owe women.

I like to think of myself as pro-feminist, and I was raised by a woman who had a badge and a gun. But when I list the writers and teachers who have been influences on me, the women somehow get left out. I don't do it on purpose, or know that I am doing it. No one is ever explicitly taught to do that, but somehow in our time and place it keeps happening.

If you asked me which teachers in college had been the greatest influence on me, I would have named two younger men, early in their teaching careers. That is true as far as it goes. Those teachers were obvious role models for me, and bits of their old teaching personae still show up in my classroom. If you asked me who my senior role model was when I was an undergraduate, I would have named a particular eminent man, a beloved and revered figure who was nearing retirement. But while I still think of that professor with affection and reverence, his influence on my own teaching is virtually non-existent. There is no trace of his pedagogy in my classroom. When I was nineteen, under the spell of his charisma, I thought that I would follow his particular specialty myself, but that has not been the case. I stopped studying his field even before I had graduated.

On the other hand, until about five years ago I would not have singled out the influence of the very senior female professor, the person I have blogged about as "Professor V.", who taught the introductory lecture classes for the major. It wasn't until I had finished a PhD, found a job, written a book, and achieved tenure that I began to reckon with her deep and pervasive influence on my scholarly practice. I use some intellectual tools and approaches that Vendler herself seems to think of with dislike or indifference, but there remains a baseline of critical practice that Vendler herself laid down, a bright thread of her influence that runs through the way I read poetry no matter how many other, less Vendleresque, threads I weave. And that level of influence is only more striking because Vendler only taught me intro in a lecture class with hundreds of people. She has never known me as anything but an 18-year-old face in a 10-am crowd. But even her lessons for beginners had an influence I will likely never shake off.

But to be honest with myself, Vendler was not the first woman to have an intellectual influence on me. It is only that, like many other men, I have unconsciously dropped the female influences from my intellectual autobiography. The first book of literary criticism I ever bought, which I bought for myself as a high school student, was written by a woman. The first scholarly book I ever bought, the first book with footnotes, was written by a woman, too. It was Jane Ellen Harrison's Mythology (bought, I think, in the gift shop of the Boston Museum of Science), a book that was probably too erudite to be on the kid's shelf where I found it, but I doggedly read that book and the endnotes too. Partly because Harrison got to me so early, before there was even any intellectual radar to get under, I still have a soft spot for her particular approach to Greek mythology, the so-called Cambridge Ritualist school.

If my childhood interest in mythology led me to Harrison's scholarship, my teenaged interest in science fiction led me to my first book of essays about literature. It was Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night. Like the Harrison book, it turned up randomly in a gift shop aimed at the young, offered among books it only superficially resembled. Maybe because those books dealt with fantasy or fairy tales, and maybe also because they were written by women, they were offered to young people without much thought given to how challenging those books might be. Le Guin, like Harrison, slipped through the lines because she was being underestimated.

I no longer know how many times I have read The Language of the Night. And while it was not the full-dress academic literary criticism that is part of my job today, it was my first example of how to write an essay about a piece of fiction. More importantly, it was my first model of an essayist's prose, and I could not have had a better. Le Guin's prose, lucid and evocative, as clear and as complex as running water, still gives me my sense of what a paragraph or a sentence ought to be.

I am occasionally complimented by other academics for the clarity of my academic prose. That of course is just what people say when they are being nice to me, and we are still talking about academic prose. I can never really know how clear my own writing seems to other people. But clear writing is, at least, something I value. The most obvious influence on my scholarly writing is my main scholarly mentor, my famous doctoral advisor and his own famously clear and jargonless prose. That is certainly true in itself. He is a great influence on me, and I became his student because I valued many things his work embodies. But I did not meet that mentor until late in my twenties, when I already had a degree in creative writing from another university. Other influences had shaped my writing long before I met Stephen. If I had asked about those influences even a few years ago, the first name I likely would have said is Orwell's, and that's not untrue either. Orwell's essays, and perhaps especially his newspaper columns, have been important. But until the last few months I think I would not have mentioned Le Guin, and she may be the most important influence of all.

I was all too slow to be aware of it, but this is the truth: I am trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. I am always trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. This is no less so because I do it without thinking of it; it is only more so. Her style is the ideal against which I am measured in my own judgment. She is the essayist I wanted to be when I grew up, and she is the stylist whom I, having grown up, would like to be. My fiction shows less of her influence, and is the poorer for it. But as an essayist I am and remain her apprentice. She has never met me, nor I her. But she has left her mark on everything I write. Her influence has only grown stronger, further from the surface and deeper in the structure, as my writing has matured. In the middle of my life, better late than never, I am obliged and honored to acknowledge her as my master.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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