Interviews with Daniel R. Schwarz
"Interview with Dan Schwarz," (conducted by Dan Morris) for festschrift entitled Reading Texts, Reading Lives: Essays in the Tradition of Humanistic Cultural Criticism in Honor of Daniel R. Schwarz, eds. Helen Maxson and Dan Morris, co-published by Rowman and Littlefield (UK) and Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2012, 201-220.
Podcast interview with Jim Reith, WCNY.org (Syracuse) "Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009," May 7, 2012. http://www.wcny.org/reith
Interview with Tish Pearlman, "Out of Bounds," "Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009," WEOS-FM (Finger Lakes) May 30, 2012 and WSKG-FM (Binghamton) June 3, 2012. The shows also aired on WRNC-FM (Wisconsin and KKRN-FM (California)
A Conversation with Professor Daniel Schwarz, Conducted by Josh Mitrani about Endtimes? Crisis and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009
Professor Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. He is the author of more than fifteen books. His Endtimes? Crisis and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, has recently been published by SUNY Press.
CBR: Your new book, Endtimes? Crisis and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 comes out this December and roughly covers the last decade at the Times. How did the project come about?
DS: I started writing this book seven years ago. I knew after writing my book on Damon Runyon (Broadway Boogie Woogie: Damon Runyon and the Making of New York City Culture) that I wanted to do something on the Times and began to read as much as I could about it. I soon realized that I needed to get interviews. My first interview was with Dan Okrent, who was then Public Editor. He was a helpful bridge into the Times building, and I was able to interview quite early in the project Bill Keller, Executive Editor, and Jonathan Landman, Associate Managing Editor.
The book developed into a history of the Times between 1999 and 2009, with a stress on how the Times was changing and the crises and challenges it faced and is still facing. I have had more than forty-five interviews with past and current senior staff in addition to email correspondences and phone conversations with some of them. I was able to interview the publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., every living executive editor, all three public editors who served in that period, many of the past and present masthead figures, and quite a few section editors as well as reporters. I interviewed some people more than once, and had a few crucial repeat interviews in 2010. Thus I could integrate diverse views from those who intimately knew the Times from within with my outsider perspective and analysis.
In my book, I ask if there will be a New York Times in the future and address the challenge of the Internet. Even if the Times's senior luminaries aren't sure whether there will be a paper in a number of years, the senior editors and publisher are sure that there will be a Times news source.
CBR: What do you think are the biggest challenges confronting the Times?
DS: As one retired senior Times person observed, "Follow the money."
Right now the Times, with its twenty-six foreign news bureaus, is the only US paper or media outlet that still provides substantive foreign coverage. You may see Anderson Cooper on the tarmac, but the Times is the only US media source that covers in depth places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and keeps up with such hot spots as Iran, Israel, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Syria, and Libya. Doing foreign reporting at this level requires maintaining a great number of expensive resources. The Times spends money on highly trained reporters, indigenous reporters (some of whom need for safety purposes to remain unidentified), translators, electronic equipment, armored cars, security personnel, and secure buildings. Foreign news is exponentially more expensive than local news. One can send a cub reporter out to Iowa to interview Ron Paul.
One challenge: The Times needs to figure out how to charge other news media for providing foreign news since the major networks and cable stations as well as other newspapers and such blogs as the Huffington Post use the Times's foreign news without paying the Times or paying for it minimally through the Times's news Bureau.
The next big challenge, which all papers are facing, and confounds the Times as well, is how to profit from the Internet. In March 2011, the Times started charging those who don't subscribe to its print edition for its Internet site, nytimes.com. The Times is claiming great success in this experiment, but it is too early to tell, especially since the Times Company has a history of overestimation in its financial reports.
As online subscription fees go up, there is a danger that online advertising revenue will go down if the audience drops. Charging for online access is necessary but it does mean that each advertisement is seen by fewer people. This was one reason some years ago the Times abandoned an earlier version of the pay wall called TimesSelect. Also, internet advertising revenue doesn't compensate for lost print advertising, in part this is because the Times has to charge less to meet the competition, and in part because the paper has lost a lot of print advertising over the past decade. The department stores, which ran daily page and double-page ads, have either merged or closed, and those that survive run much less print advertising. Other major print advertising has left entirely or cut budget. The result of all the aforementioned factors is that print advertising hasn't been replaced in terms of a revenue stream.
Other Challenges: Your generation doesn't read the paper. I grew up in a world where reading the Sunday Times was a major Sunday activity; our family would read and discuss the Times Sunday morning and even throughout the day. But now there are many other leisure opportunities. In fact, younger people read news less—even including what news they read on the Internet.
CBR: What has the Times done in response to these challenges?
DS: Essentially, the Times is a news product that has become as much a magazine as a newspaper. Once it was the "Paper of Record," printing excerpts from if not complete historical documents, the names of cabinet members of important and not so important countries, and daily updates on congressional committees. The Internet, cable TV news channels, and 24-7 news radio have changed things. Major news stories and not so major ones are posted on line and on cable news, even if often the stories later need to be corrected and updated. We all know immediately or soon after when something happens; for example, anyone can follow sports or the stock market in almost real time. When I was growing up in the New York area, people would buy the afternoon newspaper for stock prices, sports scores, and updates. Now even New York City is without an afternoon paper.
No longer the source of breaking news, the Times in its printed newspaper focuses on a four-pronged approach. First, it is stressing analysis in sections such as the Sunday Review but also in the daily paper. Second, the Times provides major investigatory journalism, what it calls "enterprise journalism." The Times still has the resources to pay a reporter or a small group of reporters for months to do a story and the flexibility with its large reporter staff to assign stories that take time, while most papers and other media sources don't. Such a story was the expose that 100 per cent of retired conductors on the Long Island Railroad were retiring with huge disability payments. Third, it has ratcheted up its cultural coverage and extended it beyond New York City. Fourth, it has become more of a national newspaper, and with its Chicago, Texas and Bay Area editions begun to make the national edition more local.
Finally, the Times now does much more of what is called value-added journalism, which offers some benefit to the reader in terms of practical advice, whether it be about retirement, health, caring for elderly parents, charitable giving or any of thousands of aspects of everyday life. Such journalism teaches the reader how buy real estate and get good mortgages as well as how to invest in stocks and mutual funds; value-added material can include where to buy certain kinds clothing, where to shop for food and dine out, and how to go on vacation. In these ways, the Times has become more of what used to be thought of as a magazine.
CRB: It's interesting that you mention increased analysis and opinion; one common criticism the paper faces is that opinion sometimes seeps into news stories.
DS: Yes, that's a problem. Whenever you write a story there is considerable latitude. The journalist is required to interpret and arrange things in a certain way. I think the dotted line between opinion and fact has changed. This is due in part to what has been called the New Journalism with its emphasis on the human dimension and its focus on the experience of individuals affected by events. When you're not presenting the raw facts, answering such questions as "Who?" "What?" "When?" "Where?" and "How?" as newspapers used to do, the writer tends in his very selection and arrangement to impose an analytic order on events.
For example, in a story on the economic downturn focusing on one family's problems making ends meet, we may miss the larger picture. At times such human interest stories don't always get to the point or put the described experience in a larger context and, yes, they may reflect the author's point of view about whom to blame for the housing market's disaster. Another danger is that these stories sometimes become prolix and muddled and don't really have much of a point of view. They become what I call Timeslite.
Another issue: unattributed sourcing is also a big problem. Someone wishing not to be identified can give--or leak to-- a reporter skewed or biased information, because the person wants the reporter to have that supposed information. I think the Times needs to be more careful about leakers' motives. Sometimes, especially in Washington or New York, a political figure and a reporter are in the same social circle; they go to dinner together and their kids attend the same schools, and each can be manipulating his or her friend for a particular purpose in terms of getting out a story. So I think sources need to be identified more than they are unless the source is from an autocratic country where he is in physical danger.
CBR: What kind of financial state do you think the Times is in?
DS: The Times Company, which owns the Times as well as some other newspapers, has eliminated its stock dividends and seen it share price drop precipitously. Its financial reports these past several years have not been encouraging. Costs rise, revenues drop. The Times Company ended up selling the new Times building on Eighth Avenue building that the senior editors and business people are so proud of and leasing it back. The Times is desperate for revenue sources. The Times Company has the TimesTalk speaker program, it sponsors courses, it sells memorabilia, and it even has a wine club!
Over the years, there has been rather loose talk about the Times possibly being sold, but that seems unlikely, given the Sulzberger family Trust as well as the family's control of the B shares of the New York Times Company and the fact that those shares elect the majority of the Board of Directors. The A shares are publicly traded and elect the rest of the Board.
There have been other business models proposed, such as running the Times as a nonprofit. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, is essentially a nonprofit. Some people think that a possible model would be NPR (National Public Radio) or PBS (public television) but that comes with its own set of problems such as every political group scrambling for its share of a presence.
CBR: The last decade was a tumultuous one for the paper; what do you think are the important episodes?
DS: I discuss many of the scandals and difficulties that occurred from 1999 to 2009. For example, the Jayson Blair scandal (a reporter accused of plagiarism and fabrication) and the ensuing tumult resulting in Howell Raines's resignation. I talk in detail about the Judith Miller scandal and the fact that she and other colleagues reported WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) when there were none. The Times gave a plausible cover for some who were on the fence about going to war. I also discuss whether Executive Editor Bill Keller made the right decision in holding back information about government wiretapping before the 2004 election. I address the Duke lacrosse scandal, which the Times also helped propagate, as well as many other complex episodes and issues within the 1999-2009 period.
Nevertheless, given all of these challenges and the controversies the paper has faced, my conclusion echoes what Winston Churchill said about democracy: The Times is the worst newspaper in the world, except for the all the others.
CBR: What's your favorite section?
DS: The Tuesday Science section is wonderful weekly education for a layman like me, although my scientist friends think it can oversimplify. I admire the Friday Weekend section that focuses on visual arts; the writing is unexceptionally good without jargon and opens up, especially in the columns of Holland Cotter, the world of non Western art. But I find treasures in every day's printed Times and Internet site.
CBR: What's your earliest memory of the Times?
DS: I was taught to read on the Times; my father started me with the numbers in the sports and business sections. My father was not a great book reader, but he read the Times from cover to cover and was an ardent newspaper reader, often reading six or seven papers a day at a time when more newspapers existed and were crucial to being informed.
CBR: The future?
DS: While doing some cutting, The Times has retained a staff of 1100 plus in the newsroom—far more than any other US paper-- and has bet that while other news sources retrench, they will be able to produce a quality product. I agree.
Morris: In your recent book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, you speak of the example of the legendary M.H. Abrams, and how he remains a vital figure into his 90s. In your early years at Cornell you also admired how the historian Walter LaFeber balanced teaching, research, and commitment to the Cornell community. As was clear from my experience as editor of a volume of essays in your honor, you have made a difference to generations of scholars, not only to those with Cornell PhDs or those teaching at elite universities, but to teacher/scholars who did their graduate work at other schools and who teach at schools with quite different profiles (and quite different scholarly expectations) than Cornell's. You seem to take pleasure in this extended model of mentoring even as it must take a good deal of your time to continue to build and maintain these mentoring relationships. Can you discuss the issue of mentoring younger colleagues and younger (and not so younger!) scholars? How important a responsibility is this role for you? Should the profession encourage more? How do you mentor while maintaining respect for the different career paths and life choices those you mentor have taken?
Schwarz: As academics, particularly in the humanities, we are both what we teach in terms of content and who we are when we teach. What mentoring—really another word for teaching—means is caring about the person with whom one comes into contact as teacher and advisor and in that role leaving something behind besides information. Mentoring means cultivating potential and helping students and sometimes colleagues discover who they are and who they might be.
Mentoring of our students is an extension of teaching. With doctorial students and NEH participants and younger colleagues, we need to open doors and windows of possibilities without imposing our own ideology. Mentoring means being the rich soil in which good crops grow rather than simply the harvester who picks only the prized fruit. This means we do not begin with preconceived ideas of what the final product should look like, but, rather, we create opportunities for students and younger colleagues.
Mentoring graduate students not only means taking an interest in them while they are at your university, but in their careers beyond graduation. It means being there when needed; it means offering advice when asked and helping students find new opportunities, especially in a dismal job market. Mentoring younger or less experienced teacher-scholars should not stop with tenure, although the relationship then becomes more collegial. Graduate and collegial mentoring]should also include teaching. At times I have been as much a continuing career mentor to TAs working with me in my lecture course as my own doctoral students.
Within departments, professional mentoring is essential and I think every assistant—and, yes, associate professor—should have a mentor with whom to discuss teaching and research strategies, and in some cases one for each.
We must not limit mentoring to graduates, fellow professionals, or Honors students thinking about entering our profession. Mentoring is important for undergraduates. Some professors at major research universities think only those undergraduates contemplating an advanced degree track need be mentored seriously, although I hope this is changing with the realization that in many fields, such as ours, the opportunities for joining the professoriate are limited. Still, colleagues at major research universities will go to receptions and events involving graduates but fail to attend events aimed at or put on by undergraduates.
I have dedicated much of my Cornell life to undergraduate education and to reminding anyone who would listen of its importance. For years I have taken as my guests students to Cornell theatre plays and have tried to open their eyes to resources—Cornell’s excellent Johnson Art museum, dance and classical concerts, films, lectures—beyond the classroom. I keep my undergraduates aware of cultural events in the cities where they spend their summers and vacations and encourage them to visit Manhattan, which is not so far away from Ithaca. When I was a visiting professor elsewhere, I have tried to raise awareness of available cultural resources.
We continually need to remind undergraduates to find, among their teachers, mentors who take a strong interest in them, mentors who will write recommendations, and who are available when needed after graduation. Each student should get to know one professor well each term and if they fulfill fifty per cent of that goal during their undergraduate career, they will have done well and have a variety of mentors.
I think In Defense of Reading is so helpful to ordinary readers as well as academicians because it "demystifies" not only the reading process, but also the Byzantine procedures of our profession. You are willing to "demystify" the profession by discussing such taboo issues as salaries, tenure procedures, and power relations. You take the reader by the hand and lead him or her through each step of the graduate school experience, from applying to exam taking to putting a committee together to picking a dissertation topic to interviewing for a job.
Can you reflect on the role of the critic/teacher/mentor as one of "demystification," rather than what has seemed to me the desire of many in our profession to mystify not only texts but also academic life.
The academy has treasured its secrecy, what I call its Rosicrucian practices. Without violating confidences we agree to keep, our mentoring role should be to open the doors and windows for younger and aspiring professors and to be sure that every process—from promotion reviews to salaries]and course and committee assignments-- is as fair as possible.
In the early 1960s if you were deemed worthy of entering the secret order of humanities professors it was whispered in your ear that you should apply to graduate school. Few women or Jews heard that whisper and virtually no Afro-Americans.
Open and frank discussion even at tenure meetings sometimes takes a back seat to discretion or an implicit I’ll-support-your-candidate-if you-support-mine.
We do not ask at tenure meetings as often as we should, “Is this good for the students, most notably our undergraduates?” In this job market, we can surely find teacher-scholars of great merit and potential distinction. One problem in making tenure decisions is that we once had a canon and something closer to agreed upon standards; tenured faculty could all read with some intelligence and judgment the material candidates for tenure submitted. Now especially in the case of worthy burgeoning fields and even some new methodologies English departments support work far beyond the borders of literary study and close reading. We as departments lack the tools to collectively evaluate some kinds of work.
Even now we do teaching evaluations without visiting classes, although our department is finally fixing that anomaly. We keep salaries and special arrangements secret, and ask few economically intelligent questions of chairs, deans, and provosts even in this time of retrenchment. College and University Deans make special arrangements with outside recruits and give them perks that those who have performed with distinction don’t have. Not only are salaries and perks a secret, but everyone is encouraged to believe he or she is doing better than the mean when in fact that is statistically impossible. One problem in encouraging institutional openness is that everyone thinks he/she better off in secrecy; another is that individuals at research universities today belong less to their departments and colleges than to the profession and are not very interested in how their home institutions work unless an issue applies directly to them.
An anecdote: At one time when I was in my first year as associate professor I and two colleagues realized that even within the humanities we were paid less than our Cornell peers. We went to the Chair. But he wouldn’t raise such a pedestrian “materialistic” matter with the Dean, so we went to the more empathetic Dean who did a study and we found that our associate professors for their years at rank were not only in the lowest quartile of humanists, but we constituted 100 per cent of the lowest quartile. That became one catalyst for raising department salaries throughout the next few decades.
Let’s stay on the issue of demystification. You have a knack for translating the work of forbidding narratologists and reception theorists such as Ricouer, Iser, and Todorov into terms beneficial to a non-specialist. You offer clarifying concepts such as the Doesness versus the Isness of a text. You distinguish between what is said within a text from what is meant.
A related comment is that I find you are able to "demystify" without losing sight of literature's x-factor, by which I mean the aesthetic dimension of great writing. As you mention in your discussion of Conrad's The Secret Agent, historicist knowledge of the bombing in London upon which Conrad based his novel can take us only so far in appreciating his use of imagination and form to translate that historical event into something other than a journalistic report on a terrorist act. How do you manage to demystify the text without reducing its literariness?
I think you are asking me how to approach Texts as a Reader, and especially how to balance Aesthetic and Representational Issues. Demystifying the aesthetic aspects of literature depends on having a flexible method and awareness that each text teaches us how to read it. My method depends on:
a) developing close reading skills;
b) applying my mantra, “Always the text; always historicize” and seeking something of a working balance between the two depending on the text. Note the absence of “Always Theorize.” (An example of necessary historicism: To understand fully Heart of Darkness one needs know about King Leopold II’s rapacity, but in the pure formalism of the 1960s and 1970s that and similar knowledge was often neglected;)
c) adhering to the Aristotelian standard, “What is your evidence?”
d) understanding the process by which a text develops and evolves from beginning to ending and how that process shapes a reading and rereading;
e) being aware of genre and how its formal prerequisites shape meaning;
f) asking how and what narratives teach us (Recall that I wrote a book entitled Narrative and Representation in Wallace Stevens, an unlikely and provocative subject at the high tide of deconstructing Stevens);
g) thinking about the significance of what is being represented in terms of historical and cultural contexts;
h) focusing on the inextricable relationship between form and content--that is, form discovers meaning;
i) considering how the author makes specific artistic decisions to shape the text and its effects on readers.
You call your recent book a "Defense" of reading, implying that reading literature today needs to be "defended" against those who might argue that because aesthetic values are contingent on cultural perspectives, such values are inherently ideologically driven, subjective, possibly tied to elitism, sexism, or other politically retrograde values, and hence should be treated with suspicion. Gerald Graff has recently written, "We assume that it's possible to wax intellectual about Plato, Shakespeare, the French Revolution, and nuclear fission, but not about cars, dating, clothing fashions, sports, TV, or video games. The trouble with this assumption is that no necessary connection has ever been established between any text or subject and the educational depth and weight of the discussion it can generate."
You have written on the High Modernists, but also on Damon Runyon, Holocaust narratives, and are now engaged in a project on The New York Times. I know you have expressed admiration for Sex and the City and The Sopranos.
How do we decide what is worthy of teaching, writing about, and thus transmitting to a new, younger generation of readers, teachers, and writers?
A second related question:
I recently read a stimulating essay by Satya P. Mohanty in which he makes a case for objective values in aesthetics in part based on a naturalistic account of beauty found in Dewey. Dewey's argument is that we as humans are drawn biologically to prefer "bilateral symmetry," for example, and thus on a deep level we can begin to notice certain objective criteria for aesthetic evaluation. I consider you one who has tried to defend literature as a space for the display of values, both ethical and aesthetic. Can you say more about how you have come to appreciate certain works of art and literature more than others, and how preferences are more than a matter of personal taste, even as personal taste may play a part in your preferences?
As a pluralist, I am skeptical about either-or dichotomies and that skepticism applies to aesthetic absolutes. The category of the aesthetic -- what is beautiful and pleasing in sensory terms-- comes into play when we find pleasure in comprehending and discussing organic unity, significant form, the relationship between form and content, the power of genre, how authors (and other artists) make choices to shape their readers' response, and the felicities of language in literature (and line and color in painting, movement in dance, etc.) that depend on mastery of style and technique. Perhaps the category of the aesthetic not only plays a role in high art but is one of its defining features. But that does not mean texts of popular culture --]whether it be Runyon or TV series like the Sopranos and Sex and the City--are without aesthetic values.
Aesthetics is not absolute but culturally defined, as we learn from any visit to a large art museum where we see different versions of beauty within the same culture from century to century and sometimes from decade to decade and where we see even greater differences among nations and continents. Western aesthetics, for example, has tended to separate the beautiful from the useful but the combination plays a large role in African art where, for example, masks and carved walking sticks not only integrate the useful and the beautiful but were conceived as links between the human and spiritual realms.
Are there objective criteria inherent in the human mind that draws us to certain binary oppositions or to the act of storytelling? Probably, and that is a subject for future neurological and anthropological studies. What we do know is that the aesthetic is a transaction between qualities inherent in an object and the perceiving individual's taste and judgment.
I am not sure one can divorce individual taste from supposed objective criteria. I am drawn to complex texts like Ulysses or Stevens's Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction and like to solve the puzzle of how they work in terms of unity and significant form; for me such texts--including Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon or Pamuk's My Name is Red or, to go back a few more decades, Lampedusa's The Leopard --are aesthetically pleasurable. Indeed, I write about these kinds of texts to understand them for myself as well as to open a dialogue with readers. In painting, I am drawn to complex canvasses, whether they are by Giotto, Velasquez, Manet, Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, and I have written about the last four.
Do I find as much aesthetic pleasure in an article in the New York Times about Manhattan history or an episode of Sex in the City or a Broadway story of Damon Runyon as in Hamlet or Velasquez's Las Meninas? No, but that does mean that I can't enjoy those works for what they are and find some aesthetic pleasure in them.
Does the aesthetic need be set apart from daily experience? Probably not. Can the presence of a beautiful young woman and a handsome man holding hands in a city street be a kind of performative art? Do we not feel ourselves in the presence of beauty when we see a sunset on the water or slipping behind a mountain? Or, to cite a recent experience, from the fabulous coastal and mountain scenery as we drive from Split to Dubrovnik?
Can the aesthetic be divorced from historical knowledge? I recently was deeply moved by seeing the Sarajevo Haggadah, which survived the Nazis and the Balkan wars. Do we sometimes get aesthetic pleasure from awareness that some books are written out of intense historical and personal necessity and may lack some control over formal elements? Of course, and that is one of the appeals of Holocaust texts from Wiesel's Night to Spiegelman's Maus.
For me, Keneally's novel Schindler's List overcomes some cumbersome prose not only because of the intensity of the story but because of historical context. One might say the same about the somewhat confusing film The Thin Red Line, a fictional retelling of the Battle of Guadalcanal, a turning point for the Allies in the Pacific campaign.
Dan, you mention Gerald Graff ‘s contention that we can be equally intellectually pointed when discussing any subject, whether it be high art or aspects of popular culture, no matter how pedestrian: I think Graff, whose work I have admired for decades, is characteristically a tad hyperbolic. While some of us discuss the Manhattan phone book or the kinds of paint on streets signs in interesting ways as well as the contribution of Bo Diddley and Carl Perkins to American culture, the weight of a subject -- say, the Holocaust, the Civil War, King Lear-- does have a role in determining for many of us the stakes, intensity, and engagement of our interest.
Morris: Could you discuss the value of reading, a major focus subject of In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century?
Reading not only makes us aware of ethical choices, but also heightens our awareness of the ethical implications of human behavior. When we read:
a) We identify with the narrative voice or we distance ourselves from that voice be it a first person speaker or an omniscient narrator;
b) In much the same way, we identify with or distance characters;
c) Reading imaginative literature enhances our life experience by taking us into imagined worlds;
d) Reading imagined work increases our political and moral awareness;
e) Imagined works complement and often deepen our historical knowledge; paradoxically, this may happen even when the facts are not exactly accurate so long as the text speaks to the warp and woof of lived life at a particular time;
f) Imaginative literature is an important part of the history of ideas and enacts important philosophical visions;
g) We learn about authors’ psyches and values and the way they saw the world and why; and
h) Imaginative literature increases the pleasures of our travels and vice versa.
i) We learn from rereading and re-reading—and those second and third and more readings can be as satisfying if not more so than our first reading.
I have a question related to the chapter on “Towards A Community of Inquiry” in In Defense of Reading. As much as you focus on the individual student's progress as writer, reader, and thinker, in the second half of the essay you describe how you take on another role as a kind of community builder. You don't go overboard in terms of building community in and out of the class, but you have thought a lot (and acted upon) your insight that reading and writing about a common text does in fact lead to the development of a common ground in the world outside the text. You use newer technologies to achieve the sense of community, but you also include small amounts of class time to such things as having an end of semester meal, a pizza dinner the following semester, and exchanges about movies and other campus events. You mention that sometimes students stay in touch with you (and presumably each other) years and even decades after their freshman experience with you at Cornell. I know first hand how you build community (and maintain that community over the years) from my own participation with you in a NEH summer seminar for college teachers back in the early 1990s.
Please discuss your interest in teaching literature as a way to form community. Do you see your role as a teacher as having an ethical function in terms of offering a model of what a caring and well-functioning community can look like ? Can you reflect on your personal interest in and sense of ideal communities?
My answer is a qualified “yes” to all your first question: “ Do you see your role as a teacher as having an ethical function in terms of offering a model of what a caring and well-functioning community can look like? The qualification derives from a sense of humility about what any one person can do in forming young adults and the realization that no one is the ideal teacher for each student.
Although I do make the syllabus, assign and grade essays, and usually lead discussion, I do try to involve the students in all but my lecture course on Modern British Literature in taking turns making short reports—15 minutes max in upper class and honors seminars, 20 in graduate, five in freshman or lecture sections of a lecture course. On the days they report I ask them to play a larger role in the ensuing discussion. Such an approach is empowering to them and gives them an ownership stake in the class community. Also creating a sense of a flexible community are listserves to which they are required to make 2 to 4 substantive comments and where they are encouraged to introduce new points or disagree with aspects of other presentations in class.
Students learn more effectively and joyfully when we establish communities where they are committed to the course goals, the teacher, and each other. Community values carry over into their other courses and other campus activities (sports, drama, journalism) and to community contributions (tutoring in local schools, teaching adults how to read, working with the disabled or learning challenged.) Community values may even have an intangible role in creating citizens who will play an active role in their communities after graduation. I do not agree with Stanley Fish that our job is restricted to the subjects of the syllabus and the geographical location of our classroom.
Morris: In In Defense of Reading, you return to Conrad for examples, perhaps more so than any other author including Joyce and Woolf. You discuss Conrad in relation to post-colonial issues, Conrad in relation to cultural contexts such as visual modernism and Gauguin, and Conrad in relation to how a text in a sense changes as new approaches come to light such as the homoerotic subtext of “The Secret Sharer.”
Where you are something of a metaphorical traveler/adventurer through reading as well as literal traveler, Conrad was at least in the first part of his life an extraordinary adventurer: 16 years in the Merchant Navy, gunrunning, shipwrecks, trips to Australia, Bombay, Congo, and Venezuela. Where you have spent most of your life in and around New York State, Conrad was an orphaned exile from Poland (born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) who did not learn to speak fluent English until his 20s. Where I consider you to be someone who is quite emotionally balanced—inflected perhaps by your occasionally honest admissions of self-doubt in your early years and frustration with how things are in the academic world and beyond when they don’t seem fair and open-- Conrad suffered terrible fits of loneliness, depression, and a pessimism that included a failed suicide attempt in Marseille. Is it Conrad's otherness that has appealed to you over the decades?
Perhaps it is Conrad’s greatness as a stylist and moralist. As an artist, he famously aspired, in his preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel... before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand —and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."
So, in a nutshell, why Conrad?
Conrad found me as much as I Conrad. His work lives with me everyday, and my use of examples no doubt comes from his having been part of my intellectual life for almost 50 years.
I have always been fascinated with how Conrad addresses the problem of living in an amoral, indifferent cosmos that he defines as a remorseless process rather than, as most of his contemporaries and even more of his predecessors believed, a divinely ordered world. I am interested in how he shows us that, to live a meaningful life, each individual must transform that condition into a value and how he examines ways this is done and more often—as in the cases of Jim in Lord Jim and Nostromo in the book of that name—is not done.
I was and am also attracted to Conrad’s formal innovations: unreliable narrators, frame narrators, disrupted chronology, doublegangers, etc. And I have always been interested in the relationship between the personal and the community in Conrad’s political novels
As a Jew in a profession where there were few Jews in the 60s, I probably was attracted to outsiders—what you call “otherness”-- such as Conrad, a Pole in the English culture--especially when choosing a subject (Conrad’s political novels) for a College Honors thesis in 1962-3. When deciding on a dissertation subject, I returned to Conrad and his narrative strategies. (My attraction to outsiders and those in ambiguous circumstances continued in my writing my first book on Disraeli and my continuing lifelong fascination with Joyce and his Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom).
In reading and teaching, I have always identified with the outsider and underdog. In teaching, I have tried to open windows of opportunities for students who might be disadvantaged in terms of class, race, gender, social background, physical handicaps—blindness, deafness, etc-- or emotional difficulties.
In Defense of Reading you offer a thoughtful meditation on reading as a kind of travel. I know that literal travel continues to be a very important part of your intellectual and experiential journey towards greater understanding of self and other. In your book, you mention how a comment about post-colonial Africa by a tour guide informed your understanding of the limits of post-colonial critiques of Conrad. Recently you have taken an extended tour of India. Can you offer any insights into how that trip (or others) informed your understanding of the central texts you teach and write about? Does your interest in pluralist perspectives in part stem from travels that have enabled you to see the world through the eyes of others?
Life experience makes us better readers and the opportunity to travel widely has certainly taught me to realize that there is a world beyond the university. I do think some academics who limit their travel to conferences might step outside that world a tad if their economic situation allows it.
I have made a point of spending time in New York City to supplement my Ithaca life and taking visiting professorships at state universities to complement my experience in the Ivy League as well as to remind myself that if it were not for public education that allowed my father to attended CCNY (City College of New York), I might not have had the opportunities I have had.
Clearly, to know how people live—for what purposes and by what values—one needs to visit. And of course much of the world is concerned with the next meal on the table. A large percentage of the world is made of poor people eking out an existence in India, China, and Indonesia to say nothing of Africa and South America. Travel supplements reading and undermines simplistic ideological notions, sometimes written by people who do not know what is really happening in the world beyond [often one-dimensional ideological formulations}.
Visits to the kind of Malay villages Jim visited in Lord Jim are still possible and I pass around photos of such villages when I teach Lord Jim. African travel helped me to better understand Heart of Darkness as well as Chinua Achebe[, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee; visiting Turkey, particularly Istanbul, brings me closer to Orhan Pamuk’s world. After twice spending some time in India, I understand more deeply the social, ethnic, and class divisions in Forster’s masterwork A Passage to India as well as in Deepa Mehta’s films and Slumdog Millionaire. Before and while traveling, I do a great deal of reading—imaginative literature and non-fiction-- about the places I visit. Reading Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, while I was looking from my hotel at the site where the siege took place and visiting the actual site –and the city--intensified both my reading experience and Lisbon visit.
What exactly is reading but the journey of the mind to understand a world beyond itself? Our experience through a text is a kind of journey. With their complexities and traps, their seeming interpretive solutions undermined by further problems, their potential for leading us astray -- arresting our progress with puzzling moments-- and their capacity for opening our eyes, these journeys through texts are travel odysseys within our minds.
Your view of teaching undergraduates takes into account Gerald Graff's recent emphasis on teaching writing as argument in such books as Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Observes the Life of the Mind (2004) and "They Say/I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (2008). And yet I think you differ from Graff in your focus on helping students find themselves in terms of style, voice, and perspective. I mention this because reading In Defense of Reading, I was impressed by the fact that I could almost literally hear your voice in your text. There was something about the cadences, the turns of phrase, the humorous comparisons you make, the sensibility, that seemed uniquely your own.
You mention in your book that finding one's own critical voice is hard won. It is a test of one's own confidence and belief that one has something important to say. You are critical of the herd mentality prevalent in many literary critical circles where the goal seems to be to learn a discourse so everyone sounds alike. Please comment on your own history as a stylist. How did you find the confidence to say what you felt even as critical winds at times have blown the other way? And please discuss your willingness to use humor, often to debunk the pretensions of the profession.
I have always been pleased when readers who have studied with me or have heard me talk speak about hearing my voice. You mention in your note: “I could almost literally hear your voice in your text. There was something about the cadences, the turns of phrase, the humorous comparisons you make, the sensibility, that seemed uniquely your own.”
Shouldn’t our writing voice represent who we are intellectually and, yes, ethically? As teachers shouldn’t one goal be to help students discover their potential as creative and engaged selves in their writing? As I argue in the first two chapters of In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, how we teach reading is pivotal in that enterprise.
In my writing, I think of myself as a teacher speaking to an audience beyond the classroom, but speaking always in both the classroom and beyond in the spirit of ”This is true, isn’t it?” Note, even though I am aware of the difference between the written and spoken word, that I use the work “speaking” because writers should, among other things, be talking to an imagined audience. Some academic writing has become introverted to the point of narcissistic, in part because some implicitly learn as graduate seminar students and dissertation writers to please audiences of one to three professors who are committed to a particular discourse. (I might add that the best of my colleagues here and elsewhere eschew this approach in their teaching.) The “Isn’t it” reflects my belief in both pluralism and in the openness of inquiry. I keep in mind that an impressive professor can be an oppressive professor and try in my classrooms and writing to keep open a spirit of inquiry. Clearly that is the reason I use the rhetorical questions that have been noticed as a characteristic of my style.
From my first book Disraeli’s Fiction, which in the UK at least had an appeal beyond the traditional academic audience and which was reviewed rather widely in English newspapers, I made a commitment to try to communicate with an audience beyond the academy and to do so I have emphasized clarity in my prose.
I believe our roles as public intellectuals have been severely reduced by our retreating into our own vocabularies and ideologies. Those who impose a one-reading-fits-all approach to texts we teach and write about have also reduced that role. We become a little like news sources –say Fox News--that only represent their own spin on events rather than letting texts teach us how to read them.
I swam against the stream when I believed it was right to do so. As something of an outsider to the social milieu—see my chapter “Eating Kosher Ivy,” In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century-- I couldn’t pretend to be a Main Line son and grandson of an Episcopal Exeter and Princeton graduate whose family took part in the American Revolution. So I decided to be who I am.
The glory of tenure is that it does mean that as I did in the 1970s and 1980s, one can take a skeptical view of trends without fearing loss of job. I did this most notably when I looked carefully at the work of Paul de Man following the revelation of his complicity with Nazis. But even well before that I was raising questions about Deconstruction, the then dominant ideology of reading, and about the tendency of some students to write Derridaspeak or Foucaultspeak—even though I learned from both seminal figures.
The problem of tenure, which I do favor, is that now that we are in a retrenchment period and--unlike on the non-academic side or in business--we cannot isolate and perhaps let go our unproductive scholars and/or undistinguished teachers.
As to developing confidence, that does get reinforced by success as a teacher and scholar, but it paradoxically comes from a) there is so much to be done in the very short life span one has and b) if one does the best one can as a teacher and a writer and a citizen, he/she might make a difference.
Although I worry as much as the next person, I have also been something of a moderate risk-taker and can live with the fact that everyone doesn’t agree with me. I have also been fortunate to live in a department where for the most part we generally respect one another and where the senior people are committed to maintaining community.
Our book is devoted to you as teacher and mentor. Could you say more about any teachers who were particularly important to you along the way? I believe you studied with Mark Spilka at Brown. Were there any teachers at Union College that turned you towards literature? Maybe even a high school teacher. What was for you special about them?
I have the sense that my best teachers pushed me to value a community of inquiry and hard work. They helped me grow in intellectual confidence to match my early curiosity and joy of learning. Certainly I was encouraged to write lucidly and speak articulately in high school and somewhere along the way I learned how to organize my time efficiently. In addition to what I learned from his scholarly texts, I learned work habits and how to balance work and life from Mike Abrams. I hold the Frederic J. Whiton chair, which he held when I arrived at Cornell. (Later Abrams held the 1916 chair, which my colleague Jonathan Culler now holds.)
As I tell my own students and NEH participants, one needs to learn from one's teachers but one must find one’s own voice and style.
I can mention a number of teachers who influenced me at various stages. I begin with my parents. My father emphasized the joys of reading, although his favorite text as an adult was the New York Times. My mother taught me it was ok to be myself, enjoy each day, and to be comfortable in my own skin. If I had a hard-charging Jewish mother who stressed excelling, it was my father who played that role. Both my parents set an example of enjoying other people.
Freshman year in high school I was taught by the district's first black teacher, Kenneth Jenkins, a charismatic, proud young Columbia graduate in an “advanced” English class that had an impact on me in terms of thinking clearly and writing well. He was also my 11th grade English teacher.
But most important in high school was my senior advanced class English teacher James Perrone, a well-read, somewhat contrarian and even slightly acerbic man soon to die of cancer who challenged his students every day with the highest of intellectual expectations in such a way that we wanted to win his approbation. He stressed clarity and precision in writing and speaking. He was also the advisor to the prize-winning high school newspaper for which I was Sports Editor.
One day when I opined that one poem we had been discussing wasn't so great he told me I was teaching the class the next day, and assigned me our next poem, “My Last Duchess." In those days there was no Internet and no books about Browning in the high school library. I had to figure out the poem for myself, something which took me hours. The class went well, he was impressed, and I gained confidence while enjoying the task. Perrone’s standards lifted the performance of his students and in this respect his example has been my model.
I was aware in high school that some of my classmates were bright and gifted; I know now that the best of the students were as bright and gifted as any group I have been with since. I learned from them, especially in my AP classes. When I hear about some of their accomplishments, I am not surprised.
I went to Union College under a special program sponsored by the Ford Foundation entitled the "Extendibles" (which we jokingly callused the "Expendables"). I had a strong pedagogical example in Carl Neimeyer who taught me a number of times and introduced me to Joyce's Ulysses. He balanced lecture and discussion in way I still remember and perhaps use as a model. As part of the Extendibles program, I had independent study opportunities, which I pursued with John Bradbury, whose field was literature of the American South and who wrote a few critical books -- not so common then; he was more a scholar than a teacher unless one was a committed student, in which case he gave generously of himself.
During my junior year abroad at Edinburgh, which at that time had an excellent English department assembled by Prof. John Butt, I had an exceptional tutorial teacher, Ian Gregor, who himself made a fine career as a critic-scholar and who pushed me by assigning me twice as many essays to present as the other students. He helped me realize that I could compete with the best junior year abroad students for the United States and the best UK students. I think I was the only American undergraduate who was part of the English Honors program there. Gregor remained a mentor and friend for many years; later, as my career evolved, he invited me several times to lecture at the University at Kent, Canterbury where he became a senior professor.
In graduate school, Park Honan, whose close reading skills and enthusiasm for making a seminar a joyous and intense classroom was a model for my own graduate teaching; Barbara Lewalski, whose Aristotelian method and high standards tempted me to turn towards the seventeenth century; and Mark Spilka, a psychoanalytic critic whose mentoring and attention to my Conrad project helped me to produce a respectable dissertation.
In addition to Lewalski and Honan, I have had a few important examples at combining teaching and writing at Cornell, most notably M.H. Abrams and the historian Walter LaFeber, but I could mention many others, too.
While I value my teachers, I think I learned as much or more from my students and NEH participants because in working with them, I thought about how to present material. The ensuing dialogue and responses modified and deepened my understanding of the texts about which I wrote.
I believe that working alone can be a collaborative form of learning if one thinks of writing for one's audience as part of a teacherly dialogue between author and student or colleague. As I begin my critical book on Reading the European Novel for the Reading the Novel series I am editing, I keep this in mind.
If you could take one book, one cd, one painting, and one video with you on a desert island, which would they be and why?
Books: Collected Works of Shakespeare or Joyce's Ulysses (1922)
Painting: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon or Matisse's The Red Studio
CDs: Mozart's The Magic Flute or Beethoven's Ninth
Videos: Casablanca (1942) or Chinatown (1974)
My choices have an aspect of personal history even as they show my eclectic interests. In some ways, they are a footnote to my comments on the aesthetic.
If I had my computer -- and the necessary provisions to eat and keep warm and sheltered-- I probably would do quite a bit of writing and would choose works that stimulated my imagination and memory. Even if I had only pen and paper, I would probably write poems, fiction, and essays. Writing is the way I make sense of texts, my life, my travels, and the world in which I live. I have kept a journal, especially when responding to important life events and when traveling for the past 35 or 40 years and almost every year since I was 13.
Rereading Shakespeare would occupy my mind and stimulate my own writing. It is a cliché to say his texts are a rich source of insight into the human psyche but it is true. And his language is remarkable. I find new pleasures every time I reread Ulysses; I empathize with Bloom's resilience, dignity, and generosity of spirit and the complexity of his being Jewish in an Irish world, and I appreciate Joyce's formal innovation, historical and political sweep, allusions to prior texts, redefinition of the epic, and the amazing unity he achieves. I would be tempted to include Moby Dick, another wonderful novel that is fresh on each rereading.
In Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship Between Modern Art and Modern Literature, I have written at length about Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) as a crucial work in understanding modernism. It is the first major cubist work and one that enacts the modernism view that there is more than one take on reality; in its multicultural group of women, and use of African and South Pacific masks the painting enacts the modernist view that others culture besides European matter. Enjoying the way new texts play with traditions established by older ones, I also like its references to prior works such as Manet’s Dejeuner sur l'herbe and Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
I admire how Matisse summarizes his own career to date in The Red Studio (1911) while moving away from traditional Western representational art by flattening the surface, playing with line, and using color decoratively.
With its story of love and sacrifice, its historical context, and its implied tale of resistance to the Nazis and to the Holocaust, Casablanca has always spoken to me. Based on the actual history of the California Water Wars, Chinatown, set in the 1930s, is a great noir epic about American innocence confronting American capitalism.
I have chosen classical cds I know reasonable well--I am a Mozart fan in all his genres-- and which move me on each listening, but I could have easily chosen a CD of great hits of Bob Dylan or BB King or Pete Seeger or Bob Marley. The protest songs of Pete Seeger and Bob Marley speak to my liking a mixture of the personal and the political. Some of Dylan's songs speak to me ("Forever Young"). I might sneak in a single of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed-Girl."
One of the things that people who know you comment upon is your ability to enjoy life and to take pleasure in various aspects of life, such as food, playing sports, dancing, conversation. We have mentioned already your love of travel and art museums, and your previous answer on aesthetics mentioned several times varieties of pleasure ranging from reading the New York Times to watching good TV shows to reading contemporary fiction. Can you talk about how you balance work and pleasure (which isn't to say work isn't itself a pleasure)? Have you set as one of your life goals to try to live this kind of balanced life-- including areas such as being a parent, husband, and son, which I haven't mentioned above -- and perhaps taken as one of your teacherly tasks to demonstrate such a life to students?
What do I like doing? Reading, writing, travel, museums, theatre, films, tennis, walking, beaches, nature, spending time with my wife, sons, and friends. Perhaps because I spend a great deal of time alone --writing is not a social activity-- I am socially gregarious and enjoy people.
Teaching, reading, and writing continue to be major life pleasures. I awake every day feeling lucky to have the opportunity to spend my time doing fulfilling work. Working with bright young people and having the time to write have been gifts. I am also grateful that my professional life and free time have given me an opportunity to travel all over the world. That is why, when asked about retirement as I begin my 42nd year on the Cornell faculty, I say I have nothing to retire from. As I write, I have been lucky in terms of health and that has also enabled me to exercise, play sports, and live fully. I like living in Ithaca with its balance of mental stimulation, physical activity, and natural beauty.
I have been part of a great university with supportive colleagues and wonderful students. Cornell was patient with me at tenure time because my colleagues believed that I had the Disraeli book and Conrad books well on their way, and they believed in their own judgment, complemented by testimony from senior scholars elsewhere, that this was the case.
As a young academic, one faces one's share of disappointments. Every article isn't accepted, every grant proposal isn't funded, and, in the humanities in particular, one may wait for recognition and external signs of success even after getting tenure at a top place. Writing my two-volume study of Conrad took a while and perhaps meant postponement of that kind of acknowledgement that a less ambitious project would have brought me.
Having a wide range of interests keeps one's life in balance, but also gives one a somewhat wider frame of reference when writing. Interest in culture, history, current affairs, philosophy, and even economics informs my teaching and writing. And I do believe travel helps one understand the world better. For example, I just returned from the Balkans where, speaking to people in Bosnia and Croatia, I saw first hand how people live in the aftermath of war and how ethnic turmoil still percolates under the surface.
Probably my resilience to disappointment and ability to bounce back are also important resources for whatever successes I have achieved. Life doesn't always bring what we want; when facing divorce or the death of parents or injuries that affect our ability to pursue certain activities, we need to remember that falling down and getting up should be one motion.
For me (and most others who write), time is not money but time is time, and time is the most precious commodity that I have always tried to use well. Despite my supposed productivity, I am a slow and meticulous writer. In fact, I do not watch much TV—and never a network series--and wished I had time to read more contemporary fiction.
I am good at organizing time (although not my desk surface), and organizing time has been crucial to whatever success I have achieved. I do not leave serious projects for the last minute; I carve out at least a little research work time virtually every day I am in Ithaca; I do keep track of how I spend my time each day. A few rules I live by: a) Work every day but not all day, b) No time period is too short to read or write, and sometimes knowing you have only twenty minutes can stimulate good work, c) Work on more than one project at once; if you get bogged down in a project or don't feel like working on one, turn to the other or a third, d) Keep lunches and coffee with colleagues to a necessary minimum.
I enjoy spending time alone, not withstanding my gregarious nature. I do like most people in all their variety and do enjoy occasional phone calls and frequent emails from friends as well as walks and talks with close friends. Although I start early in the morning-- now more like 7ish but earlier when I was younger -- I do not resent a reasonable number of brief work interruptions as the day progresses. Indeed, were I not spending so much time alone, I wonder if I would be quite as gregarious. Two practical matters that on occasion punctuate my workday: a CPA's son, I do not mind taking charge of family economics and, most of the time, find that a relaxing interlude.
Academic life gives us great flexibility and that has allowed me to exercise regularly. I also am able when playing tennis or swimming or going out to dinner or traveling to put work deadlines somewhat in the background. Nowadays when traveling, I usually take my computer with me. I often keep up with Cornell and other professional business via email and even write a little while away. Particularly if I am away more than a week, I find that keeping up with academic and professional business, including requests for recommendations -- which sometimes seems a component of my Collective Works, even though I very much enjoy helping students and colleagues-- makes the return far less hectic.
Spending time with family has always been important. In my parenting days I probably needed to organize my time even more rigorously than I do now. One way I enjoy life is trying new things and not worrying if I look a little foolish among experts. When, due to an injury, my almost daily running hobby became more of a less frequent slow jogging hobby, I learned how to swim and now swim (slowly) a mile of crawl at a time. I am not really a good dancer but don't look bad at weddings and bar mitzvahs as long as I move to the side when real dancers appear. My golf is about the same as my dancing but I enjoy playing a handful of times each year.
By demonstrating fair, responsible, and conscientious professional behavior (but of course acknowledging we are imperfectly human and having a sense of humor about our own quirks and idiosyncrasies), I believe as teachers we establish paradigms for our students. As a community, a classroom is, in some ways, a small test version of the larger world; the students have a responsibility to their fellow students and to the defined goals of learning about a particular area of study and the necessary skills to gain knowledge in that area. In some courses, like basic English classes, the skills themselves—reading perspicaciously, writing coherently and lucidly as well as arguing convincingly and logically from evidence, and speaking articulately--are the points of the course.
Part of our role to be models for our students, as long as that model includes some self-awareness in the form of a sense of humor about our own quirks and idiosyncrasies and awareness that we all have feet of clay. We also need be aware that no one is the ideal teacher for every student and that as teachers--no matter how grand our recognition, we will not please everyone. But doing our work with integrity, passion for our subject, diligence, good judgment, and concern for the growth of our students are values we need enact.
An Interview with Dan Schwarz Conducted by J. Robert Lennon (Published in English at Cornell, 13 (Fall 2010), 1-4
Dan Schwarz, the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, came to Cornell as an assistant professor in 1968.
JRL: In your more than four decades at Cornell, you have studied every conceivable subject that a scholar in your field might consider, and written about them in every imaginable form: modernist literature and narrative theory and practice, the Holocaust, New York, and American culture. What can you say about your broad range of interests?
DRS: I think my ruling passion is curiosity and the desire to know. I have worked on a range of projects, following my interests, but always motivated by the desire to share what I have learned. In my writing and teaching, I live by two contradictory mantras: "Always the text; Always historicize." I try to balance the two, all the while knowing some texts require more of one or more of the other.
JRL: You have described your critical approach as "humanistic," a term found in the titles of two of your books, The Humanistic Heritage: Critical Theories of the English Novel from James to Hillis Miller (1986) and The Case for a Humanistic Poetics (1991). Here's a quote from you on this subject: "Our role as humanists is to focus attention on what is special and distinct in the human enterprise . . . as a literature professor my focus is on creativity, and as a cultural historian my focus is on the historical and social contexts in which humans function." Can you talk a bit about your work in the context of this idea?
DRS: I have stressed that books are by humans, about humans, and for humans and that when reading, we respond to a human voice. Recent work in cognitive studies supports my bedrock belief that humans are defined in part by an urge for narratives that give shape and form to their experience.
JRL: Your recent book In Defense of Reading is a spirited manifesto celebrating the life of the mind. What initially made you think that reading required defending, and what did you learn while defending it?
DRS: In our visual and digital culture where the emphasis is on gathering information rapidly and communicating in text messages, serious, engaged reading of complex, sophisticated imaginative is an argument for why and how we read and why some of us have chosen to be readers and writers.
In the first chapters, I discuss the value of reading: (1) We identifywith the narrative voice or we distance ourselves from that voice, be it a first-person speaker or an omniscient narrator; (2) In much the same way, we identify with or distance characters; (3) Reading imaginative literature enhances our life experience by taking us into imagined worlds; (4) Reading imagined work increases our political and moral awareness; (5) Imagined works complement and often deepen our historical knowledge; paradoxically, this may happen even when the facts are not exactly accurate if the text speaks to the warp and woof of lived life at a particular time; (6) Imaginative literature is an important part of the history of ideas and enacts important philosophical visions; (7) We learn about authors' psyches and values and the way they saw the world and why; (8) Imaginative literature increases the pleasures of our travels and vice versa; and (9) Reading not only makes us aware of ethical choices, but also heightens our awareness of the ethical implications of human behavior.
JRL: In an age and culture that benefits from widespread Jewish- American intellectual achievement, it's difficult to conceive of a time when a Jewish professor was a rare thing. But this was the case in 1968, when you arrived at Cornell, a time you discuss at length in In Defense of Reading. Can you talk a bit about those early years?
DRS: The faculties of major English departments in the '60s and '70s, especially at the leading private universities, had a dearth of Jews. With few exceptions, the anti-Semitic ravings of Pound, as well as the equally objectionable if less strident version of anti-Semitism in Eliot, were either excused as the eccentricities of men of genius or dismissed as unsuitable matters of discussion. In graduate school, many of us, trained in formalist rubric of organic form, read without noticing, or pretended not to notice, anti-Semitic passages.
Teachers assumed that Jewish students were part of that imaginary audience of ideal readers on which the New Criticism and Aristotelian criticism depended. Furthermore, Jewish students and professors immersed ourselves in elaborate and arcane Christian theological debate to understand Milton or Hawthorne, without reflecting that we were part of a different tradition; perhaps some of us took secret satisfaction in learning that Milton knew Hebrew. Perhaps, too, we took pleasure in knowing that the exegetical tradition of literary criticism resembled the conversational and inquisitive mode of Talmudic studies, or what we—as assimilated Jews—imagined Talmudic study to be.
Figures like M. H. Abrams, Harry Levin, Lionel Trilling—those who found a place with the Ivy League—and an outsider like Leslie Fiedler, as well as New York intellectuals who made their mark, such as Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, became spiritual fathers to those Jews who took up English and American studies in the 1960s.
As something of an outsider to the social milieu of the 1960s, I couldn't pretend to be a Main Line son and grandson of an Episcopal Exeter and Princeton graduate whose family took part in the American Revolution. So I decided to be who I am: outspoken, straightforward, and somewhat of an innocent when it comes to disguising my feelings. I chose my subjects in terms of what interested me, because I knew that was where I would do my best work.
As a Jew in a profession where there were few Jews in the '60s, I probably was attracted to outsiders—such as Conrad, a Pole in the English culture. When deciding on a dissertation subject, I returned to Conrad—the subject of my college honors thesis—and his narrative strategies. I was also attracted to outsiders like Disraeli and Joyce and stressed Jewish themes in my books on those figures.
JRL: I was going to mention Conrad—you have probably written more about him than you have about any other writer, including the 2001 book Rereading Conrad. What initially fascinated you about this writer, and what keeps you returning to him after all these years?
DRS: Subjects find their authors. Conrad found me as much as I Conrad. His work lives with me every day, and my use of examples no doubt comes from his having been part of my intellectual life for almost 50 years. I have always been fascinated with how Conrad addresses the problem of living in an amoral, indifferent cosmos that he defines as a remorseless process rather than, as most of his contemporaries and even more of his predecessors believed, a divinely ordered world. I am especially interested in how Conrad shows us that, to live a meaningful life, each individual must transform that condition into a value, and how he examines ways this is done, and more often—as in the cases of Jim in Lord Jim and Nostromo in the book of that name—is not done.
I was and am also attracted to Conrad's formal innovations: unreliable narrators, frame narrators, disrupted chronology, character doubles, etc. And I have always been interested in the relationship between the personal and the community in Conrad's political novels.
JRL: How has the academic profession changed in the years since you came to Cornell in 1968?
DRS: When I began my career, one had to write critical and scholarly books on canonical writers in American or English literature for tenure and promotion in an English department. The rise of feminist, black, and queer studies, and other forms of cultural studies, has created greater latitude in the choice of subjects; if I had written Imagining the Holocaust in my assistant professor years, it might well have been my passport to obscurity, or at least a passport to a less prestigious university. And one could say the same thing about my forthcoming book on The New York Times.
JRL: You've had considerable success as a poet and travel writer, as well as a scholar, and I think it's fair to say that you're that rarest of creatures, a public intellectual. Is this part of a guiding scholarly philosophy, o or merely the byproduct of a life spent pursuing broad interests?
DRS: Yes, I have often chosen subjects—sometimes interdisciplinary—that have interest beyond the academy, and that at times has given me a crossover audience for my books and a chance to participate in forums beyond the traditional academic world.
I do try to reach a wider audience in some of my writing. I may have been responding to my New York–area upbringing, where we read and talked about ethics, economics, and politics. I was responding, too, to what I felt was an undesirable inward turning by academics in the 1970s and 1980s, when some theoretical discussion used a special and at times arcane vocabulary that became an intimidating weapon to those not in the cognoscenti. Critics spoke Yalespeak or Cornellspeak or fashionable theoryspeak.
I certainly am not a poet on the order of the department's creative giants. But I think it has been important to me to try my hand at different kinds of writing.
JRL: You mentioned your forthcoming book about The New York Times, which is years in the making. Your investigations into that august publication have coincided with a period of rapid change in the news media landscape. Can you talk a bit about the book, and what you've discovered about the Times' place in this confusing new reality?
DRS: Yes, I am excited to be bringing to a close six years of research on the book, tentatively entitled Crisis and Turmoil in The New York Times: 1999–2009. It will be published by the SUNY Press. I shall soon be submitting the final draft.
Past and present luminaries at the Times have been generous in giving me access, and I have over 40 taped one-on-one interviews, including interviews with the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and all the living executive editors, as well as other masthead figures and major section editors. Basically, I will be putting the Times in the context of the evolution of newspapers from print to digital, as well as taking account of the changing economic realities of the newspaper business. My book will present a history of the Times in those years, but a history grounded in the Times before 1999. This has been quite a project—easily the most complex I have undertaken—because the Times, as text, changes every day. And I needed to learn about digital media and business issues—and, no, I am even now far from an expert on all facets—and find what I hope is the right shape for this book, the longest I have ever written.
JRL: You were a pioneer in the now broadly appreciated dialogue between modern art and modern literature. What initially caused you to investigate the connections between the two, and how do you think the relationship of art to literature has changed over the past century?
DRS: I once had a fantasy of doing two Ph.D.s—one in literature and one in art history—but life interfered. I have spent countless hours in museums and I have kept up as much as I could with art in the high modern period, and that resulted in my Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relation between Modern Art and Modern Literature, a book anticipated by my discussing literature in relation to art in a number of essays and in some prior books, most notably Narrative and Representation in Wallace Stevens.
Cultural innovations in the arts are driven by historical circumstances and individual creativity. In the past century or so, the search for new forms to describe reality accelerated and cross-fertilized one another. So we see that Picasso had much in common with such writers as Joyce and Stevens in his search for multiple perspectives. High modernism is paradoxically both an ideology of possibility and hope—a positive response to difficult circumstances—and an ideology of despair—a response to excessive faith in industrialism, urbanization, so-called technological progress, and the Great War of 1914 to 1918, called for a time the "War to End All Wars." It is not too much to say that modernism is, in part, a response to cultural crisis created in part by Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), which questioned the Bible as revealed history.
JRL: Let me turn to your teaching and Cornell life. You have won Cornell's major teaching awards, and your former graduate students and NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) participants have put together a festschrift in your honor, Reading Texts, Reading Lives: Essays in the Tradition of Humanistic Cultural Criticism in Honor of Daniel R. Schwarz. Can you talk about your experiences as a teacher?
DRS: I am deeply touched by such generous recognition as a teacher. I try to convey to students respect for each of them as individuals; I think I convince most students that I have their interests at heart and want them all to succeed. My courses are challenging and students know that taking my classes means accepting the challenge to think creatively, to read carefully, and to have pride in their work. I am a passionate learner as well as teacher, and I think that helps motivate my students. They know what they say or write matters because they know my own positions are always open to discussion, modification, and reformulation.
I believe that, as teachers, we establish paradigms for our students. A classroom is, in some ways, a small test version of the larger world; the students have a responsibility to their fellow students and to the defined goals of learning about a particular area of study. In some courses, especially in the Knight Institute first-year seminars, the skills themselves—reading perspicaciously, writing coherently and lucidly as well as arguing convincingly and logically from evidence, and speaking articulately—are the points of the course. But honing those skills are always part of English courses.
I should add that no teacher is the best fit for every student.
JRL: Could you speak more about your philosophy of teaching?
DRS: I think of my classroom as a community of inquiry where we all learn from one another and where we are motivated by curiosity and a belief that knowing matters and verification is possible, even if we all don't need to agree on every detail of a reading. In a community of inquiry, each student understands learning as a process, takes responsibility for being prepared each day, takes assignments seriously, feels in each class as part of a functioning group, and writes assignments with a sense of pride in her or his work and her or his evolving writing voice. Of course, this is an ideal but reaching for the ideal helps create it.
Students learn more effectively and joyfully when we establish communities where they are committed to the course goals, the teacher, and each other. Furthermore, community values carry over into their other courses and other campus activities and community contributions, and in creating citizens who will play an active role in their communities after graduation. I do not agree with my friend Stanley Fish that our job is restricted to the subjects of the syllabus and the geographical location of our classroom.
As a sometime Aristotelian, I ask of students, colleagues, and, most importantly myself, "What is your evidence?" I teach in the spirit that there may be multiple ways of approaching an issue and propose my views in the spirit of "This is true, isn't it?" The "Isn't it" reflects my belief in both pluralism and in the openness of inquiry. I keep in mind that an impressive professor can be an oppressive professor, and try in my classrooms and writing to keep open a spirit of inquiry. As academics, particularly in the humanities, we are in large part who and what we teach. What mentoring—really another word for teaching—means is caring about the individual with whom one comes into contact as teacher and advisor, and in that role leaving something behind besides information. Mentoring means cultivating potential and helping students and sometimes colleagues discover who they are and who they might be.
Mentoring is an extension of teaching. With doctoral students, the 120 participants in NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) programs I have directed and younger colleagues, we need to open doors and windows of possibilities without imposing our own ideology.
JRL: Has your teaching changed over time?
DRS: We should grow and evolve in response to the world's changes, but I think my core values are the same. But the digital informational revolution—the Internet—has changed the way we teach and learn. The wall between the student's living space and the classroom has dissolved. I ask all my students to contribute to a course listserv—I stipulate a different number of substantive contributions, depending on the course, although many students choose to write far more. I write my students weekly letters about where we have been and where we are going, with a focus on study questions and bibliography.
To my sometimes chagrin, books and printed newspapers play a smaller role in education. Students depend on the Internet for information, and this cuts down, for better or worse, the time that they spend on research. Students spend quite a bit less time writing on a computer versus the process of typing and retyping and re-retyping papers.
JRL: Has the Cornell student body changed?
DRS: Certainly our student body has evolved over the years and has become diverse. I am now teaching to a much richer and more varied group where difference is respected. With these changes came changes in how we discuss reading assignments and the writing topics we assign. More than in my early years, I acknowledge the place of resistant reading perspectives—that is the perspective that resists the point of view that an author (or painter) thought he was expressing and built into his text. Often these resistant readings contribute rich feminist, gay, ecological, minority, and other multicultural perspectives that the author (and earlier generations of critics and teachers) ignored.
Today's students are competent, goal-oriented, and Internet savvy, and communicate by means of cell phone, email, Facebook, and MySpace. Activism tends to be less visible because Internet access is basically private, and students passionately debate issues and organize themselves online.
Students used to take pride in cutting the umbilical cord when they arrived at Cornell. Paradoxically, today they are often more intellectually and personally mature than in the past, but less independent, in part because they often think of parents as friends as much as authority figures and share their lives with them via text messaging and cell phones. Several students and parents with whom I have spoken in the last year or two feel that parents "are less restrictive" and that conforms to my impression.
What I see today are students who wish to contribute to their various communities, but who have a practical awareness of what can be accomplished. They are certainly much more conscious of the environment than earlier generations of students and are more likely to volunteer at programs aimed at educating prisoners or working with local disadvantaged schoolchildren and less likely to be involved in protests.
The current generation of students is focused on what happens next. They are more grade oriented than in the past, and more often take courses in which average grades are high, knowledge of which is now accessible on the Internet in a way that it wasn't to past student generations. Decisions about courses and summer jobs—now often non-paying internships—depend often on what is best preparation for graduate school applications and careers. Even though this may be less true for English majors, many of them hedge and double major, choosing for a second major a subject with a more practical bent such as economics.
But are today's students, as some have claimed, cynical careerists? Not in my experience. Yes, students are directed and concerned about a tight job market and, yes, many are more realistic about what they can contribute to saving the world, but I find a strong idealistic strand, too. On the whole, today's students use their time better and accomplish more than any group of students that I ever taught.
JRL: I am impressed by your ability, after more than 40 years, to remain open and available to students. I understand that you also keep in touch with hundreds of former students. As a relatively junior professor who adores his own students, I must confess that I find it a challenge to keep track even of a mere decade's worth. Can you talk about forming and maintaining these relationships?
DRS: It has given me great pleasure to follow my students—and see what they achieve and make of their opportunities. Of course, email now helps, but even before that telephone and snail mail enabled me to keep in touch, and students would—and still do—visit me during reunions or informal campus visits. On occasion, talks at Cornell clubs have helped me keep in touch. When I travel, I enjoying seeing my former undergraduates, especially those with whom I have worked closely on honors projects or taught a number of times.
JRL: On a personal note, I am always impressed by your continued engagement with all things Cornell. You are a strong and passionate voice both in the classroom and in administrative matters as well, and when I started here in 2006, you were the first senior professor to pull me into your office and offer to show me the ropes—a gesture for which I am still grateful. All this at a time when you'd be more than justified in resting on your laurels and letting other people worry about things. What fuels your tireless commitment to this department and institution? And can you characterize some of the changes our department and institution have undergone during your 42 years here?
DRS: Universities are by nature conservative structurally, even while they are intellectual agents of change. In the face of the financial crises of 2008–09, many policy decisions—such as cutting the Cornell Theatre production budget—have more of an economic component than they once did. But policy decisions, including curricula decisions, probably have more of a political component and an eye to the world beyond the university than they did 50 years ago. That may well be a good thing.
Decision-making continues to move to the central administration. Decisions once made in the college are made in Day Hall; decisions once made in departments are made by college deans, and decisions once made by professors about what they might be teaching are made by department chairs.
To an extent, the curriculum—at least in the humanities—has moved more to a buyer's market, by which I mean we offer courses the students as clients want rather than simply what the faculty as sellers wanted to teach, even if enrollments were tiny.
But on the whole, our department has nurtured a spirit of tolerance and generosity and respect for others. To the extent that I can be helpful, I want to maintain those values.
I have been honored to be a colleague of M. H. Abrams, and see him as a model, not only as a scholar but also as a Cornell citizen. Among my own contemporaries, I have admired the exceptional leadership of Laura Brown and Jonathan Culler in maintaining the department's health.
We have right now a terrific younger faculty of assistant professors and recently tenured associate professors, and that makes me extremely optimistic about the future. When I came there were no tenured women or tenured creative writers, to say nothing of black and Asian scholars. With pleasure, I have watched the department evolve to a much more diversified group.
In the end, my participation speaks to my sense of commitment to my students and our community. Our English department—and Cornell University and the College of Arts and Sciences—has given me the opportunity, pleasure, and privilege to teach and write in a wonderfully supportive and intellectually stimulating atmosphere.
An Interview with Dan Schwarz, Conducted by Professor Helen Maxson, About His Poetry (Published in Westview26:1 [Spring/Summer 2007], 11-14)
Note: All the poems referred to below that are not in this issue or prior issues of Westview have been published elsewhere and most are accessible on Daniel R. Schwarz's web page: http://www.courses.cit.cornell.edu/drs6/
Helen: Why do you write poetry?
I think most writers--and I include myself--write primarily when we need to delve into our psyches and discover who we are and, secondarily but still importantly, when we need share the results of that process with others. I use words to understand myself and the world I live in. I have kept a diary most of my life, briefly recording events and my responses daily. Poetry is a way I come to terms with my feelings in a disciplined form. My poems respond to events and experiences about which I need to say something to myself.
Life's serious events evoke in me a need to put my thoughts into form, and that form on occasion becomes poetry. May I quote a 2002 poem?
Are my mind's mirror,
editing what I see of self and world;
transforming brine in which ideas soak:
Imagination's amanuensis and muse,
giving shape to what might be.
Are nets in which I try to catch
swimming ephemera of my life;
while I have woven them tight,
from filaments of experience,
I do not always know how to set the nets
to catch tortured thoughts, tender feelings.
Are closets and drawers where I put my things,
ordering tentatively life's disorder;
honing tools to shape inchoate thoughts;
putty to fill insignificant gaps
where tiny drafts penetrate;
are whetstones to sharpen memory;
intricate mosaics shaped by experience
into elaborate patterns.
Are memory's archaeology
by which I excavate my past;
recall or create lost visions of childhood,
capture evanescent dreams;
nocturnal fictions of fulfillment,
undoing day's fantasies;
are soul's music, tongue's plaything,
mind's geometry and poetry.
Or as Stevens put it in "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" (1949), "The poem is the cry of the occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it, / the poet speaks the poem as it is/Not as it was . . . . [The] words of the world are the life of the world"
My subjects often, but by no means always, take their inspiration from my personal life: the aging and recent death of my parents--my mother died in 2005 and my father in 2004-- my sometimes difficult relations with my father, the evolution of my two sons' lives, my divorce and remarriage, family love and even some strife, romantic and marital love and Jewish themes. My poems balance carpe diem or seize the day with a deep sense of mortality that takes the form of awareness, fear, and reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of aging ("My Father's 84th Birthday"), illness, disability, death. Elegy echoes in many poems whether it be the premature death of friends' children ("Elegy for Elizabeth Rose Lane Galloway," "Cindy at Schroon Lake") or the accidental death of a colleague ("The Garden of Our Saying: Elegy for George"). Sometimes elegy intersects with nostalgia ("Vermont: Family Thanksgiving, 2006," "Generations," "On Seeing a Family Friend for the Last Time"). My poems often express my love of nature as I contemplate nature's wonders, including seasonal changes contemplating nature I often relate its movements to human rhythms, I am interested in cultural differences within America ("Lobsterman at Porpoise Cove," "House Razing," "Jim Thorpe's Daughter") and the world ("Utz," "Banquet Delicacy: Beijing, 1993"). Finally, in the spirit of Stevens's "It can never be satisfied, the mind, never" ("Asides on the Oboe"), my poems respect the power of the human mind.
The scope or corpus of my fifty or so published poems takes into account a good deal of my life and interests--art, travel, nature, food, literature, teaching, writing, and, of course, family-- I address illness, aging, loss, loneliness and death as if one could exorcise these demons by writing about them. Writing does have therapeutic value, but alas, those fears that we all share are part of living.
Helen: Why did you begin writing poetry in your 50s?
I had a creative impulse that was re--channeled by graduate school and the demands of teaching and publishing. I would like to think that creativity found an outlet in scholarship and criticism, but clearly my imaginative impulse needed other expression. I started writing creatively in my later 40s after a painful divorce and began a novel, which is still in draft but from which I published a short story that was later anthologized.
I think writing my book on Wallace Stevens concentrated my attention on poetry and sharpened my powers of observation, my auditory sensitivity to words, and my desire to distill experience into a succinct form. When I first began writing poems, I also had some valuable help and encouragement from two experienced poet friends, Lynne Knight and Rob Morgan, who was an accomplished poet before becoming a novelist and the author of Gap Creek.
Helen: What do you see as your recurring themes?
I write as a humanist who believes that in our relatively brief time on earth we can make a difference to those we care about, including family, friends, and, yes, students. Playing on the theme time is money, I counsel that time is time and really all we have.
A major theme is that we can learn from experience, whether it be confronting the illness of loved ones, observing the patterns of nature, unexpected encounters in travel, or reading literature and visiting art museums. Other themes are the need for resilience when confronting difficult times in life; belief that sharing a life in a day-to-day relationship, with all its special small moments, is a source of pleasure; and stress on family continuity and, on occasion, discontinuity and conflict.
Throughout my poems is a strong consciousness of mortality combined with a sense that life is to be lived and enjoyed fully. I have written a fair number of elegiac poems about times past and lives ended. But ended does not mean lost. For example, "Mother in Hospice, April, 2005" is an encomium to a great lady whose life gained value from what she passed on. "Performance " reflects on my student Christopher Reeve's tragic accident, and who he really was separate from his role as Superman. Related to the elegiac mode is often nostalgia for what we imagine as simpler times, even while we know--as I indicate in the poems--that we reconstruct the past according to our dimly acknowledged needs. In my poems, nostalgia goes hand in hand with a sense that we do learn from experience and that even in my 60s there is much life to be lived if luck holds out. And I have written lov poems about the joys of falling in love and remarrying--"Garden of Intimacy" and "Remarriage"-- and poems about a relationship that didn't quite make it ("Talk"). My passion for travel often informs my poems, whether directly ("Banquet Delicacy: Beijing, 1993," "Travel," "Charleston Lake, Ontario, August 1996 ") or indirectly ("Utz," "Tapestries," "Spring Sounds").
Helen: What do you see as the salient features of your poetry?
In terms of form, a salient feature is a small story--often derived from a simple observation-- and narrative shifts back and forth from present to past and often back again. Thematically, a crucial feature in my poetry is the place of memory even while understanding that there is always a distinction between what happened and what we remember happened and a second distinction between what we remember happened and how we select and arrange that memory into words. My poems often focus on the presence of the past; as George Eliot put it in Middlemarch: "A man's past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present . . . . It is a still quivering part of himself." Rhetorically a major feature is a belief in language and a belief that if we can only find the right words, we can communicate. Thus I respect the audience and I strive to be lucid. I think of the epigraph to E.M. Forster's Howard's End: "Only Connect." Like Forster, I believe in personal relationships as a cornerstone to the building of a life. I believe in the capacity of the human mind to understand, and, believe, despite all our failings, that we need others--family, friends, community.
My belief in language even carries over to my naively optimistic belief in communication through language as a way to solve larger misunderstandings between different political visions, although I do not often address in my poems explicitly political themes. If we can only talk about a problem, I believe we have a chance to solve it.
Helen: Do you see continuity between your role as one of the leading humanistic literary critics and your poetry?
I think we overestimate the distinction between reader and writer. I think an active, passionate, imaginative reader responds to words with joy, and it is not surprising that many of our great writers--Borges, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Joyce--are also perspicacious readers. To be sure, compared to the aforementioned writers, my poetry is only a drop in the literary ocean, but I do feel that write as a reader. Joyce understood the continuity with reading and writing when he has the jejune Stephen Dedalus think in the opening line of the third chapter of Ulysses, "Signatures of all things I am here to read."
A serious reader is a person for whom literature--imaginative and serious non-fiction--matter, and for whom literature is not simply something to be skimmed as a pretext for finding ideas for essays and conversations but rather as an opportunity to enter empathetically into--depending on the text--the author's imagination, memory, value system, historical milieu, indeed, way of being present at a particular time and place.
Reading is a kind of travel, an imaginative voyage while sitting still. Reading is immersion; reading is reflection. Reading takes us elsewhere, away from where we live to other places. We read to satisfy our curiosity about other times and places, to garner information about what is happening in the world beyond our lives, to gather the courage to try new things even while considering admonitions not to try dangerous ones, to learn about experiences we might try in the future and to help formulate narratives--of personal hopes, plans, putative triumphs--that help us understand our past and make proposals for our future. As Stevens put it in "The Idea of Order at Key West," words enable us to discover "ourselves and our origins" and perhaps to experience "ghostlier demarcations" and "keener sounds" than we may find in our own lives.
We do read to supplement our life experience, and that surely includes reconfiguring the values we are taught. W e also read to delight ourselves, to recuse ourselves from the painful, sad and lonely world we at times live in--a world that can be fraught with political and personal problems. We read not only to alleviate pain but also for amusement. Reading, we must not forget, is a kind of play. We read to enjoy the pleasure of words, their sensuality and materiality, the smells and tastes and visions they evoke, the desires they elicit, the laughter as well as the tears and even physical disgust and pain they arouse.
As reader, critic, teacher, and poet, I would subscribe to James Wood's idealistic view of the implicit contract between artist and reader: "[W]hat I am most interested in is what we might nebulously call human truth--a true account of the world, as we experience it, and of the full difficulty of being in that world. Creating living characters, and writing fiction expressing what Henry James called 'the present palpable intimate' entails, for me at least, some kind of morality. Requiring readers to put themselves into the minds of many different kinds of other people as a moral action on the part of the author" (D3, " Ideas & Books," Boston Sunday Globe, Aug. 15, 2004). I would extend Wood's remark to apply to poetry, drama, and perhaps even serious non-fiction.
Helen: How have your writing and teaching about literature affected your poetry?
I am a humanist as teacher, critic, scholar, and poet, and that means I place a strong emphasis on how humans live. Even in the high tide of theory I have--without sacrificing attention to the formal aspects of literature as well as the need to understand historical contexts-- focused on literature as artistic works by humans, about humans, and for humans. Humanistic criticism believes that the doing--technique, structure, and style--is important because it reveals or discusses the meaning inherent in the subject. Our goal should be an empathetic reading of a text to discover the conscious and unconscious patterns of language that the author built into a text; those patterns usually convey a vision of how humans live. We should read literature as an imagined representation of historical events and human behavior. Human behavior is central to most works and should be the major concern of analysis. Thus our interest as readers is in how fictional people behave--what they fear, desire, doubt, need--and fictional includes poetry and drama as well as novels and stories. . Although modes of characterization differ, the psychology and morality of characters need to be understood as if they were real people; for understanding others like ourselves helps us to understand ourselves. Even the seeming exceptions prove the rule: complex plots enact and represent human actions; descriptive poems reflect the perspective of an observer.
When I write a poem I descend into myself, but the words are not only for myself but others whom I hope respond to them. As the 2006 Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk puts it, "[O]nce we have shut ourselves away we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other people's stories, other people's books--the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself " (Orhan Pamuk, "My Father's Suitcase," The New Yorker, Dec-25, 2006-Jan. 1, 2007, 88).
Among other things, I am--like all of us--in part what I have read. We are what we experience, and for me reading and visiting museums are central to my experience since I have spent much of my life engaged in these activities. As your fine essays shows, I have studied the modernist literary tradition, which I teach and write about, especially the English and Irish tradition--Joyce, Hopkins, Stevens, Auden--as well as such painters as Picasso and Cezanne. My poetry has been influenced by my study of the relationship between Modern Art and Modern Literature entitled Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship between Modern Art and Modern Literature (1997). Examples of the influence of art can be found in the following of my poems: " Picasso's Women" (Westview, 23:2), "Cornucopia," "Still Life: Raspberries, Apples, and a Sheet of Paper," "Pentimento," and "Cezanne in Philadelphia, 1996."
To return to literary influences, I have been influenced by Hopkins in terms of my use of phonics and in dramatizing confrontation with nature; "I caught at dawn", in my "Charleston Lake, Ontario August 1996" echoes the opening of Hopkins's great sonnet "The Windhover." "Reading Texts, Reading Lives" and "Ocean Pleasures" show my familiarity with Stevens. It is hardly surprising since I am a Joyce scholar that "Snowbound" begins with an epigraph from Joyce's "The Dead" and that I have written a poem entitled "Reading Joyce's Ulysses." I have also been influenced by the American tradition as my epigraphs from Hawthorne ("Depression's Visions") and Emerson show ("The American Scholar")--and with Emerson I have even borrowed the title of one his best known essays.
Helen: Does your narrative focus derive from your interest in teaching narrative?
I think the uses of multiple time frames and the desire to tell a small story come from my interest in narrative, but also from my sense that stories--even anecdotes--enact values. Narrative is both the representation of external events and the telling of those events. My interest in narrative derives from my belief that we make sense of our lives by ordering them and giving them shape. The stories we tell ourselves provide continuity among the concatenation of diverse episodes in our lives. Each of us is continually writing and rewriting in our minds the texts of our lives, revising our memories and hopes, proposing plans, filtering disappointments through our defenses and rationalizations, making adjustments in the way we present ourselves to ourselves and to others.
Furthermore, the emphases on a dramatizing a distinct voice within my poems comes from both my interest in lyric and in strong fictional characters--including reliable and unreliable narrators--who reveals their psyches and values, their personalities, with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, in their speaking voices. Of course, the dramatized speaking voice changes with the subject, and sometimes the voice is a dramatized version of my response to a particular moment, other times more of a persona as in "The American Scholar" or "The Muse Returns."
My strengths are the efficiently told tale rather than the striking image, although I occasionally hit the mark with the latter as in "Remarriage." I think I am at my best as an observer; opportunities to travel have afforded me opportunities for observation of nature and people, whether it be a refugee from the Holocaust or a lobsterman in Maine. I would say lucidity, succinctness, the ability to control multiple time frames within a brief poem to represent a small but illustrative story are my strengths and maybe the failure to find the most original way of saying is a weakness. Nor do I do much with rhyme although I do often write in regular lines.
Helen: Is the persona yourself, as seems evident often when you write about family issues, or is it a dramatized person?
Certainly, in "The American Scholar" and "The Muse Returns," the voice is that of a comic persona who is trying to find his voice. But even when the voice originates within myself, it forms within the ontology of the poem another self speaking. As Palmuk explains: "For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge that the secret wounds that we carry inside us, wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, own them, and make them a conscious part of our spirit and our writing." (Orhan Pamuk, "My Father's Suitcase," The New Yorker, Dec. 25, 2006-Jan 1, 2007, 90). Writing poetry discovers the deeply buried self--the fixations and obsessions, the dark memories, the pain we barely recognize--what Palmuk calls the "secret wounds" and creates a persona different from our every day social self. For a poem about secret wounds, I would cite my "To My Only Brother: A Letter" ( Westview, 24:2). The speaking voice in my poetry is not the everyday self who gets up, brushes his teeth, has breakfast and drives off to work but an intensified and particularized self whose words are carefully chosen and refined with an imagined audience in mind. The voice exists within the imagined ontology of the formal poem.
Helen: How do you compose? Can you take us through the creative process?
I begin a poem when I feel strongly about something I have felt or seen. I write something down in my computer or in a notebook or on a slip of paper if the computer isn't there. At a later time--hours, days, weeks, and months-- I might sketch a draft of a poem, and revise it and play with words. I might let it rest for days or weeks, returning every so often to fine tune it and tighten it and omit unnecessary words, especially articles. The need to communicate to the imagined audience enters more prominently into the creative process at the time of revision. Sometimes, I fine-tune for months and years, and then suddenly I think, "Yes, it is ready." Even after submitting a poem, I may notice a place where fine-tuning is necessary or an editor may makes a valuable suggestion for revision. When I begin to like it I show it to my wife, Marcia, a retired professor and perhaps to another reader I respect. I might add that I find computers help me immeasurably; I think now with frustration of the experience of retyping of my earlier scholarly writing. It takes little effort to change a word when in the past an entire retyping was necessary.
Helen: Has your feel for nature been affected by living in rural upstate New York?
I grew up in what we thought was country in suburban Long Island, and remember even then having a favorite birch tree in a yard, enjoying the still beauty of a snowy day, and my family nurturing baby rabbits abandoned by their mother. Living near the ocean helped me appreciate the seasonal effects on the sea and marine life, and a handful of my published poems reflect that (" Lobsterman at Porpoise Cove," "Perkins Cove, Ogonquit" and "Ocean Pleasures"). But certainly living in Ithaca for 39 years (excluding a few visiting professorships) and as I do now, in the country with a home overlooking a pond--albeit within a mile of Cornell--has deepened my appreciation of seasonal rhythms. I enjoy bird watching and snorkeling. I revel in the process of nature--freezing and thawing, snow and sunshine, suns rises and sunsets--and the variety of birds (" Blue Heron," Westview 24:2) and the observable differences in plants virtually every day ("Predetermined Patterns," my first published poem in 1993). That appreciation carries over to my response to nature wherever I am. Writing poetry helps me see and hear the natural world--as in "Spring Sounds"---but seeing and hearing the natural world also helps me write poetry.
Helen: How has your poetry evolved?
Since I often return to and revise poems begun years ago, it is hard to see an evolution or teleology. I have learned to omit irrelevant words--partly under the tutelage of Rob Morgan--and write a sparer line. I have experimented a bit with haiku in recent years and that has helped me be more efficient. And I have done more with regular lines. My travels influence me, too. Visiting Japan and its gardens, which accentuate the sound of water over rocks, certainly influenced "Spring Sounds." For the past several years, I have been in general writing more regular lines, and I am now writing about a larger range of subjects, such as "Bethe at Cornell," Westview, 25:2.
Helen: Does your Jewish background play a role in your poetry?
I am a secular Jew with respect for Jewish traditions and history but without a certainty of God's presence. I when I ask myself, "Where was God during the Holocaust or the killing fields in Cambodia or during black enslavement here and elsewhere and why is there is so much individual and collective suffering in the world?" I have problems. Yet I was Bar-Mitzvahed and so were my children. I have been married twice by a rabbi in Jewish wedding ceremonies, and have belonged to a temple for decades. So clearly the Jewish tradition is important to me.
I have published several poems on Jewish history ("The Sarajevo Haggadah"), the Holocaust ("The Shape of Memory in Prague," "Utz"), Jewish rituals ("Tishah b'Ab"), Jewish holidays ("Rosh Hashanah") and the Old Testament ("Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin"). Certainly writing my book Imagining the Holocaust (1999) brought some of these themes to the forefront of my thinking.
Helen: Is there a spiritual dimension to your poetry?
I do not believe in an active intervening God, but I do believe in human energy, imagination, intelligence, and passion. How these qualities transcend the hum and buzz of everyday life when they connect with the natural world and human experience and when they become creative forces are my version of the spiritual. Much of modern literature derives from our anxiety and dubiety when it comes to believing in an omniscient and omnipotent God as well as our recognition of the limits of a single perspective. F. H Bradley wrote a century ago: "My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside . . . . In brief . . . the whole world for each is peculiar to that soul." (Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay). Our writing is an effort to break out of that closed circle and find, if only for a moment, an empathetic other. In the midst of what seems to many of us a chaotic universe, where senseless killing goes on in battlefields across the world, and we frequently read of local violence in our newspapers, we have the potential to create community, intimacy and art. Is there not a spiritual dimension in believing in the magic of language, in sharing with Stevens the faith that language communicates if we can find the right words, and that our private worlds can be made into efficacious--even transcendent-- words?
Helen: Thank you, Dan