Professors Band Together to Fight the Politically Correct
Sep. 19, 1995
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ English professor Norman Fruman is fed up with the kind of literary criticism that reduces Shakespeare to an apologist for European hegemony and sees a lesbian subtext in every Emily Dickinson poem.
Fruman, a University of Minnesota English professor emeritus, just wants to read, analyze and talk about literature as art. He's sick of analyzing novels and poems for what they say about the politics of race, class and sex.
So Fruman and like-minded colleagues have formed an organization that aspires to promote literature as fine writing foremost.
The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics holds its first conference this weekend in Minneapolis. The group was formed in February 1994 and has more than 1,300 members.
``For those of us who entered teaching because we had fallen in love with literature, nothing is more urgent than a return to an open, rather than a closed, reading of stories and poems and plays that convey the very stuff of human life,'' Roger Shattuck of Boston University, a member of the association, wrote in a recent article about the group in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress.
Shattuck recalled a student in his sophomore humanities course who presented an Emily Dickinson poem on a bird hopping, feeding, pausing and taking flight as a metaphor for a lesbian sexual encounter. When asked about the versification and literal meaning, the student had nothing to add, he said.
Taught from a political point of view, Shakespeare is not the bard of Avon but a cheerleader for the British Empire, complained Professor John Ellis of the University of California at Santa Cruz, secretary-treasurer of ALSC.
Teachers ``think that's the most important thing you can say about Shakespeare, is that he was an apologist for European domination,'' Ellis said. ``Why would one bother to make statements about Shakespeare that you could make about any Elizabethan?''
Fruman said association members want to ``get back to the feeling about literature that made them readers in the first place.''
``If you take `Moby Dick' and spend a lot of time on why there are no women in the book, then you're talking politics and not the book,'' Fruman said.
``The question is a very interesting one in general, but once you've made the statement, how long does it take to deal with it?,'' he said. ``To make that a major issue might be appropriate in a course on sociology or social studies, but it's a perversion of literature to deal with such matters extensively.''
No so, say the editors of ``The Feminist Reader,'' Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore.
``For the feminist reader, there is no innocent or neutral approach to literature: all interpretation is political,'' they wrote in the book. ``Specific ways of reading inevitably militate for or against the process of change.''
Changes in the teaching of literature reflect changes in many other fields, said Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the 31,000-member Modern Language Association of America, the main professional organization representing college literature teachers.
She said questions of sexual orientation, for example, are widely discussed in society in relation to the armed forces, churches and the workplace.
``It's not totally surprising that they might come up in a literature class, but there's no evidence that that is a pervasive approach,'' Ms. Franklin said.
She sees all discussion as healthy and welcomes the new association: ``The more people who care about reading and writing and the way we talk and think about literature and writing, the better it is for the field.''
Poet Rosanna Warren, a Boston University professor who belongs to the MLA and is on the steering committee of the ALSC, said the new organization is in part a reaction to intolerance.
``Younger scholars are made to feel that unless they use literature as almost a case study for oppression that they won't succeed in their profession,'' said Miss Warren, daughter of author and poet Robert Penn Warren.
She hopes the association will help students who aren't comfortable with current literary trends.
``As a writer, I want a place where writing will be considered as writing,'' she said. ``And as a teacher, I want my students to have a place where they can become scholars themselves without subscribing to a dogma.''