“At Yale, when we arrived, all was calm; it was as if the ’60s never happened. The students had only one agenda–to get an education–and one of the things they wanted to learn was how to write clearly. During the permissive ’60s their high school teachers had urged them to ‘let it all hang out,’ regardless of grammar or syntax. Now they found they had been deprived of knowing how to express themselves: how to harness the world they lived in. My course looked like salvation in the desert.
The students’ cry for help wasn’t lost on Yale’s English Department. At that time the department was the epicenter of ‘deconstruction’ and other faddish studies in the clinical analysis of texts. Its emphasis was not on how to write but on how to dissect what other people had written. The great writers on the Yale faculty weren’t the English professors; they were the history professors–robust stylists like Edmund S. Morgan, C. Vann Woodward, George Pierson, Jonathan Spence and John Morton Blum….”
-William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, p. 129
Tim Schoettle says
I respectfully disagree with the characterization of the Yale English department in the days of deconstruction. There was a reverence for Milton, Shakespeare, Freud, and other great writers and thinkers. There was also a sense, which I find sadly lacking today, that reading is difficult, that it matters greatly, and that it takes a lifetime to learn how to do it well. It is said that Harold Bloom, who was a central figure at Yale in the 1980's, could recite all of Paradise Lost by heart. I don't know if this is true but it is typical of the devotion that was shown to great works of literature. I can remember reading books multiple times for a single class to try to better understand them and finding that I got more out of the 4th reading than out of the 3rd. The emphasis was on close reading. What does it mean for this to be a “clinical analylsis of texts”? “A reverential devotion to texts” is a better description. It is far too early to pass judgment on the significance of the application of philosophy to literature as it appeared at Yale in the 70's and 80's. Please give us time to work out the implications before delaring our work to be faddish. A good idea can take 100 years or even 1,000 years to develop properly. It is far too soon to dismiss the Yale Critics (e.g. de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, and other professors of literature). New Historicism was just one small part of what was happening in the Yale English department.
John Fea says
Fair enough, Tim. You were there.