William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy’s diaries have been published. They are none too interesting. I had to read on in undergrad, perhaps because we were reading William Wordsworth, it was a Nineteenth-Century Life Writing course, and the idea of a diary (by a woman, no less) filled in slots in the course both in terms of gender representation, and genres of life writing. But I would rather have read something interesting by a female writer of the time.
Not to disparage my professors in that class — Harding and Vargo were great, and most of their other choices were great. (I even got a chance to blow apart some of the patronizing theory about white male identities and black female ones being different in textual “fragmentation,” by showing just how textually fragmented Wordsworth’s was over drafts of The Prelude… and my attack on a selected piece of theory wasn’t just slapped shut like I saw in some other classes!) I just didn’t see much value in Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary. For every bit where she discussed something interesting — invariably her relationship to her brother, or his going out to work on something — she had several pages of complaining about “the tooth-ach” and her dreadful “head-ach” and so on.
The experience made me skeptical about political choices in reading material in a literary education. Don’t get me wrong, I think women writers are an important part of literature, and ought to be read and studied too. I am so very glad that I had a chance to look into Christine da Pisan and even Margery of Kempe back in my undergrad class on medieval lit, “Chaucer and his Age.”
But I think our politics is a silly one if it does not also have room for a sensible evaluation of time spent. Reading diaries from some famous guy’s sister — and in essence, that was what Dorothy Wordsworth was before I read her diary, and at least for me remained afterward — was somewhat of a waste of time. This isn’t a question of canonicity, really, as much as a case of foundations. As a student trying to get a good solid foundation in literature, reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal gave me very little, no matter how dressed up in academic theory it was. If the professors could not find some other life-writing composed by a female author, they would havedone me greater service by devoting that weerk’s reading to a major work of life-writing by a 19th-century male author, because regardless of issues of representation, some texts simply cannot bear the weight of prolonged study. A diary that was never meant to be published — and very likely not even seriously edited by the writer, even if she was a major poet’s sister — surely does fall somewhere under the rubric of literature, but to me, it fell somewhere between grocery lists and revision notes: not anywhere near the huge, vast array of books by authors of all genders and races which deserve to have time spent seriously on them.
My feeling, though, is that any suggestion that we can differentiate between books which classroom time, and those that arguably are less deserving, is that I risk being labeled as some kind of fascist white male. This is interesting, since I think your average white male today is hungry for new perspectives. The voice of the white male in literature is kind of, well, all too familiar, all too dominant. I find diversity appealing.
Maybe it’s just my vague sense that common sense — not the kind we learn socially, but the deeper common sense that time is precious and scarce, and that undergraduate study should provide people with skill-foundations, and not just reparative socialization reprogramming — has been banished from the academy. That divide between how literature specialists talk about literature when they’re trying to sound clever, and when they’re saying what they actually feel about the books they love, is so great now that it’s a little terrifying. What are professors to do? To profess their knowledge and cleverness, or to profess a passion we should share with them?
(Especially when that knowledge is so obvious. I remember reading academic summaries of philosophy regarding language learning. It was only in 1985 that someone noted “comprehensible input” was needed in order to learn language — that you can’t really learn a language if you can’t understand any of it — and a full decade later, it was noted that, indeed, you cannot master a language if you’re never required to produce any communication in it that has to be sensible to others [“comprehensible output”]. I’m sure the debates are deeper than that, but the summary, in the literature review of a paper I was editing, blew me away. How could anyone who ever taught a foreign language not realized these two things at the same time?)
It seems to me that, in terms of the long view, at this moment literature professors are standing with their back to the wall. Modern language departments have been cut all over, and maybe sociology or anthropology will go next, since English grads fill the workforce. But unless they can find some way of making their “work” worthwhile to society, they’re not going to make the cut in the long run. Too many people think (and maybe rightly) that they’re able to read and question texts on their own, without some scientific illiterate telling them the neat details anyone can look up online these days. The profusion of book clubs seems to reinforce that sense — it’s like a Protestant revolution to the “Catholic” style of the academic literary discipline: in the vernacular thatv so many lit professors eschew, grassroots, and a profound threat to the literary establishment’s relevance. Just like the Church, despite some odd views on science
the many lit professors are more rigorous, more systematic, more intellectual, and probably have things to say that are worth thinking about… but if they’re discredited into irrelevance, thereafter nothing at all that they can do will ever repair their (already dwindling) status.