Eco, Chuckie D., who else?

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Thu Feb 13 00:50:08 EST 2003

I'm seriously ticked off now.  We had a power outage and I lost the big long
reply I'd been working on.  Now I am even more brain-dead than I was twenty
minutes ago and I'm sure that none of this will make sense.  (Jacob says,
"Didn't you save it?"  Well, NO, why would I stop writing to save it on the
off chance that the power will go out?)

On Tue, 11 Feb 2003 19:19:56 +0000, hallieod at wrote:

>>The funny thing is, it never occurred to me until now that I went all the
>>way through college without reading Dickens.  I wish I had noticed this at
>>the time, because I would have been in a better position to ask about how he
>>was perceived in the Establishment.
>Well, I wish you had too!  For the sake of our sharing of those 
>perceptions now.  FWIW, here's my extremely rough and ready take on 
>the literary view in unis over here.  For years, I'd say Dickens, 
>Hardy and even the Brontes were definitely considered second-raters, 
>by the likes of Leavis, but others too.  (Started in the 19th 
>Century, with James among others.)  Collins wasn't even considered. 
>After the Realism-bashers, the whole notion of genre was 
>reconsidered, and suddenly the elements of writing in Dickens, Hardy, 
>Charlotte Bronte that had been considered so inferior (melodrama, use 
>of popular cultural forms, Gothic etc,) were viewed much more 
>appreciatively.  And writers like Collins, Stoker, Mary Shelley were 
>being studied, right up there with the originally canonical ones like 
>Jane Austen and Henry James.

That's so strange to seems that Jane Austen hasn't really been canon
all that long over here.  But I could be wrong; it's not like I checked the
historical record or anything.  Besides, she deserves to be canon.  (Sorry,

What you describe about Dickens, Hardy and the Brontes sounds more like
what's happened recently with the push to include previously marginalized
writers in the canon.  Now when you study the above, it's done with no
implication that anything about their work is inferior or ever was.  Even
Mary Shelley gets her due within the mainstream of literary fiction.  But
there are a lot of other writers whose work is studied with almost an air of
apology, like "we know this is inferior but it's still valuable" or in other
cases "the canon's definition of superior is all wrong and we're going to
change it."

>>>I probably shouldn't even ask, but what do you think that finding
>>>Dickens relevant to today reveals?  I almost can't imagine anyone not
>>>finding a lot of what he writes relevant, though I can easily see
>>>disliking his style.
>>No, not relevant TO today, relevant TODAY.  As in, worth studying in itself
>>as you would any other literature.
>Why not??  Hope this doesn't cause you any flashbacks to the civil 
>war (wasn't your college the one at serious battle-stations over the 
>idea of the canon?). ;-) 

Yes, it was.  They seem to have resolved the issue now, most probably by
firing some of their staff.  :(  Recently on this Other List I'm on, a few
of us alumni of the English department were comparing our impressions of
what it was like.  The ones who came after I graduated talked about this
sense that the professors were afraid to even touch certain subjects, as
though they might be reprimanded for doing so.  That wasn't how it was when
I was there.

Anyway, about Dickens.  I'm not suggesting that if he isn't relevant, that
means he's irrelevant.  What I'm really talking about are two different
approaches to studying literature.  On the one hand you have the kind of
literary study that's usually applied to canonical texts, maybe a
traditional approach, maybe not, but with the understanding that there's
some inherent meaning to it.  I can't say it any better than that, so I hope
it makes sense.  The other approach would be what you'd do with, say,
obscure Victorian women novelists (this is a class Jacob took when I was
studying Virginia Woolf).  Those books were probably trite when they were
written and they almost certainly would be mocked out of existence if it was
suggested people read them for fun today.  But they have value because of
what they reveal about the era that produced them.

The truth is that I haven't read enough Dickens to actually judge how his
books ought to be studied, and I really hope my comments haven't implied the
opposite.  All I'm saying is, based on what I understand different people's
opinions of his work to be, is that I can easily imagine Dickens being
taught from either perspective.

> Where would you draw the line?  I know you 
>wouldn't really say that Dickens isn't worth studying because you 
>don't like him, but I can't even imagine the argument.   Would he be 
>rejected solely on the basis of his popularity or something else?

I honestly couldn't say, because, again, I don't have enough experience to
make that judgment.  My knowledge is the more general understanding I have
of how courses are sometimes shaped and what the Battle for the Canon is
like.  Even in the courses that are required by the university, the end
result is that classes are profoundly shaped by the intent and the expertise
of the instructor.  One of the most bizarre experiences I had in college was
taking a big survey course...American Lit, I think...from an avowed feminist
who later became my thesis advisor.  There were three large courses like
this; the other two were Early English Lit and Not So Early English lit.  (I
don't know.  One of them had Beowulf and the other had Tennyson.)  I'd
already had the other two, which were taught by older professors, one of
whom was heavily steeped in traditional formalist criticism, like a really
old tea bag.  This woman was very different.  I happen to know that she
selected most of the texts for our course, and while she stayed within the
bounds of what we were required to learn, she picked a lot of unusual stuff
I'm pretty sure was never taught again--obscure women writers of the 19th
century, lots of African-American poetry, some Latino stuff.  (What was
bizarre was not the texts, but the reactions of the class.  It was the first
time I realized that although she was open about her feminist bias, she was
not at all open about the way she was slanting the discussion.  She was one
of the first to be fired--a great pity, but probably not unexpected.)

Anyway, one of the greatest influences on shaping a literature course is a
professor who's committed to a certain point of view.  That's the beauty of
contemporary criticism; there's always another way to look at things.

>And what would you do with all the big-name lit crits who've written 
>about him?

That's the easiest part.  You find critics who support what you're saying
and you never mention the other guys.  Of course, the really great
discourses happen when you give your students two well-argued points of view
and let them make up their minds.

>>I mean that I can imagine reading
>>Dickens in a university setting and taking him as seriously as, say, my pal
>>Thomas Hardy, but I can also imagine someone taking the "he was a hack, but
>>let's look at what made him so popular and compare it to the hacks of today"
>But they said that about Hardy too!  Actually with fairly good 
>reason, IF you consider there's good reason to say Dickens was a 
>hack.  Admittedly, the person who wrote the section of our course on 
>Hardy had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about the way Hardy had been 
>dismissed - he also edited our Critical Reader so he managed to 
>siphon the more critical (in the nasty sense) material our way.  But 
>in terms of 19th C. novelists striving to satisfy audiences , and 
>tailoring their work to a market, you could find evidence for many of 
>them doing it, and certainly for Hardy as much as Dickens.

The way Hardy is lionized here, I can't imagine him ever having been
dismissed.  (And that's not my bias talking.)  I would imagine that some of
the reason that Hardy gets more respect is that he was so pilloried for his
writing.  Tortured Genius sounds better than Popular Success.  :)

>:-)  We studied _Dombey and Son_ last year, and the death of little 
>Paul had exactly the same impact on the world as the death of Nell.

See?  To me, this is far more interesting than reading the books on their
own merits!  I mean, everybody is all gaga about the success of J.K. Rowling
as though she were the first author ever to make this kind of splash.  What
about the influence of Dickensian melodrama on the popular novelists of
today?  What about length as a factor in keeping the public's interest?  Or
the structuring of the serial form, ditto?  I'm probably more impressed by
Dickens's ability to manipulate suspense than I am by the actual books.  :)
>One of my favourite stories was of Thackeray, who had _Vanity Fair_ 
>being serialised at the same time as D&S.  He apparently stormed into 
>the Punch office, and flung down the issue of the novel which had the 
>death scene, and said that it was impossible to write against "such 
>power as this - one has no chance!... It is stupendous."

And the poor guy is still taking second place as far as modern readers are
concerned.  :)  I haven't even read ANY of Thackeray's books, and I did read
two (three if you count _A Christmas Carol_) of Dickens's.

>Oh, ow ow ow.  (Forgot to moan about my cough.)  And I woke up at 3 
>this morning feeling awful and thinking about Dickens.  Have you 
>Proffitts ever thought of bottling "essence of Melissa" as a 
>stimulant?  ;-)  (Cara came in at 3:30 feeling terrible again, so the 
>night time sleep loss wasn't all your fault.)

Oh, right, blame me for your illness and loss of sleep.  Right now I am so
tired I can't even fall asleep, I'm emotionally overwrought by making final
decisions on this award thing, and I just realized that this conference in
two weeks is going to be a logistical nightmare, since Friday is free but
Saturday is not.  I did, however, receive a very happy acceptance notice
from one of the award winners, which went a long way toward making me feel
better.  That and Dove Dark Chocolates.

Melissa Proffitt

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