“The Head Ach”

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.

8 thoughts on ““The Head Ach”

  1. I’m not against the canon per se, but sometimes blind adherence to it can be nitwitted. It’s easy to say George Orwell’s 1984 is great, but it takes a little more legwork for both the profs and students to put Homage To Catalonia on the syllabus and study it.

    That said, I was pretty pissed off when I realized I’d gotten an English degree, and had to read Frankenstein, The Stone Diaries, Jane Eyre, and The English Patient two or three times in two or three completely unrelated courses because of Can Con or general literary tokenism. Carol Shields making the cut, but Hemmingway not making the grade will be one of the all time mysteries at the University of Manitoba.

  2. (Or Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, or any of his essays. Unfortunately. Though I do know a prof who taught Killing an Elephant here, it seemed it was more to teach postcolonial thinking and how complicatedly bad England was back in the day.)

    Yeah, I don’t think Canadian content laws apply to education. Just broadcast regulations. :)

    It’s unfortunate you had to read those books multiple times for different courses. (Though I think, for example, Frankenstein can bear the load of more than one reading, students can reread it again themselves.) That sounds less like an issue of tokenism than an issue of poor coordination (and laziness) within the department, mind you.

    But as for literary tokenism, I should not I differentiate between that and teaching the literature of one’s own nation. I don’t think teaching Canadian lit should be privileged to the point that everything else is edged out, but I also think people should be aware of the literary tradition in their own country, if only because it gets edged out elsewhere. But I think (from experience) that you can catch more fish with Stephen Leacock than with W.O. Mitchell. Or, though I am not at all enamored of her work, Atwood, rather than Shields.

    And I should also note that I’m actually in favor of Canadian Content regulations, just not the ones we had when we lived there. Those were restrictive. Maybe that was the only way that would work back then, but it serves to mushroom the population — “keep it in the dark and feed it sh*t” — where it seems to me that now, what would be more feasible and worthwhile would be Canadian content policies that promote the opening of broadcast time (and the proliferation of semi-indepedent broadcasters) to create an environment where good stuff can actually bubble up to the level of national syndication. In other words, setting things up so that more worthwhile Canadian content gets generated and is made available, instead of trying to stem the tide of influx from foreign media and bolstering a few media moguls of yesteryear. Which will never really succeed: you can’t make cable TV or satellite TV illegal, after all, and a few media moguls can only create so much passable Canadian content (let alone great and engaging stuff), no matter what they do.

  3. Ultimately, I think it comes down to what Lex Luthor said in the first Superman movie. “Some peope can read War and Peace, and think it’s the greatest action novel ever written. Other people can read a chewing gum wrapper, and unlock the secrets of the universe.” It’s the quality of the intellect brought to the text, and not the actual book itself that matters.

  4. I understand that you are using your bad memories of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals as a peg on which to hang your thoughts on literary education, but I thought you might like to know that most of us who read Dorothy’s journals for fun (not because we are required to) do so because of her astounding ability to see and describe nature. It doesn’t surprise me, though, that you didn’t appreciate her as an undergraduate. It’s not the sort of thing most young people (I’m assuming you were 18-22 when you were an undergraduate) are prepared to grasp. It is something that some of them will grow into.

    Me, I hope one day to be able to write a sentence as rich as this:

    “It is a breathless, grey day, that leaves the golden woods of autumn quiet in their own tranquility, stately and beautiful in their decaying.”

    For a brilliant reading of this one sentence have a look at Guy Davenport’s story “The Kitchen Chair” collected in “A Table of Green Fields.” (The line between Davenport’s essays and stories is not always easy to draw.)

    And though, of course, there’s no reason to subject yourself to a text that gives you no pleasure, you may, one day, want to give Dorothy another try. You may find that the journals you read in middle-age are not at all the same as the ones you read as a callow youth.

  5. Mark,

    Um, yes, but not completely. I do think there are text that are worth the investment, and texts that can be left aside without much loss.

    Thank said, I’ve never actually read much Hemingway — certainly none of the major novels. I’m gonna get to Steinbeck first, though.


    Thank you, that’s really thoughtful feedback from someone I think I’ve never met before (online or off).

    I do remember there being occasionally interesting things in the Grasmere Journal. I thought, then and now, that some judicious editing could have put together the interesting entries of this and other journals into a single text. But I seem to remember a lot of wading through tooth-achs and beloved brother’s left-behind apple cores to get to the worthwhile bits. Maybe I’ll rethink when I have the book in my posession again and look it over, but I have so much else to read first. (Lots of other books that have splendid descriptions of the world but don’t hide them among pages of tooth-achs!)

    But I do hear you, and wish I could see the Davenport… another author that should have been foisted on me in school, yet somehow wasn’t.

  6. Also, David, I said I had one more thought. In my experience, most of the serious writers I know personally armed with a modicum of talent and a good chunk of experience can already produce relatively lovely descriptions of things, of a quality at least comparable to the line you quoted. I mean to say I can pull single lines from their work that are that beautiful.

    Maybe I’m still callow, but I find that the hard bit in writing isn’t the lovely bits, in my opinion. I’d guess many diaries have such gems buried amidst huge expanses of granite and clay. The thing serious writers I know is setting those gems in gold or in the walls of structures that show them off, without being garish about it. Writing beautifully and getting the tea tray into the room at the same time, while also minding the gun on the mantle and the bones under the floorboards, is the hard part.

    And I’ll note with some amusement that supposedly “beautiful” descriptive prose (for some value of beauty, and I’m not praising myself here or saying I kick Dorothy’s ass or anything stupid like that, I just mean carefully crafted, intensely evocative, and transcendently descriptive prose) has come more easily to me than anything else, which is funny because I rarely write things in quite that way now; too much prettiness in the descriptions often gets in the way of telling the kind of stories I usually feel compelled to tell, and I often have to excise so many lovelies that I often just save my energy to “beautify” the stuff I eventually end up keeping after one or two serious cut-and-bleed edits.

  7. Hi Gord:

    I’ve just reread my post and am pretty certain the world “lovely” does not appear in it. And I’m entirely certain that I didn’t allow myself to use the B-word, though I might as well come out of the closet and admit that I’m not as anti-beauty as we post-post-modernists are supposed to be.

    I think it all comes down to how one defines beauty. I suspect you and I would agree on what beauty is not: florid, perfume-scented, overwritten twaddle (prose that is perfumed and flowery for a good reason excepted). And you *might* agree with me that beauty often arises out of formal integrity (though truth be told, my experience with art tells me that beauty arises out of the damnedest, most unexpected, places), and that a writer’s prose style can be a big part of that integrity.

    I should confess I haven’t actually looked into DW’s journals in years, and I can’t seem to locate my copy anywhere. Just as I suggested that you may find, on your next reading of the journals, that they are entirely different than you remembered them, the same may hold true for me. You may be in for a pleasant surprise, I for a rude one.

    And a final confession. Perhaps I was predisposed to like Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals because I tend to enjoy literary diaries, journals, and letters, in general. Heck, I even like web-logs(gasp!), not least Eclexys, which is a fine example of the genre, and which, if memory serves, does include a few of the author’s tooth-achs and apple cores.

    The GD story is in the mail.

    Thanks for the good conversation.

  8. David — quick reply, must sleep.

    I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.

    I think we’d agree on a lot of things in theory. We might hold up different examples, though, what with me being all SFnal and you seeming more into mainstream literature. Also, yeah, I don’t care for diaries. Like many blogs (even my own sometimes), they’re mostly *yawn*.

    Thanks for the story! I’ll look out for it and post about it when I’ve had a look. (And email you to let you know!) And thank for the comments/conversation, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *