The Dirty Linen of Literary Studies

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

“I don’t know about you,” said a doctoral candidate in one of my graduate classes (a fellow who openly broadcasts his embrace of a homosexual lifestyle), “but this really makes me feel excited.” The “this” in question was a large photograph of a classical statue of a naked boy. The “excitement” of the student was neither platonic nor pertinent to the conversation at hand.

Such is the state of mainstream literary studies today–perversely obsessed with sex, highly politicized, pompous, self-indulgent, and solipsistic. The situation is such that one professor could think fit to assign a piece of flagrant, graphic gay pornography to a class studying “The Culture of London.” I objected in class, announced my refusal to finish reading the short story, denounced it as graphically obscene and morally objectionable, and, most importantly, argued it was inappropriate–nay, appalling!–in academic discourse. Who argued with me? A squad of eager-faced young women who insisted I was not empathizing with the feelings and experiences of the narrator. From my brief acquaintance with the activities of the narrator, I will proudly proclaim my aversion to sharing in any of the fellow’s experiences.

A consideration of the problems within the discipline need not rely merely on anecdotal evidence. We have merely to glance in the direction of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. This touted literary biography–a book that supposedly accomplished things no scholar had ever even imagined possible–is nothing less than a disgusting, unscholarly mess of Greenblatt’s own perverted fantasies. Nary a page goes by without some distorted passion being ascribed to the Bard. That is not to say that all of Greenblatt’s reflections are without value; yet can it not be that so many rotten apples will turn even the most insightful thoughts into putrefaction?

This is not an exposé. What need for an exposé when mainstream modern literary studies are so obsessed with thrusting dirty linen in the faces of the public? If they could be persuaded not to expose themselves, it would be a wondrous step in the right direction. The established campaign to glorify and normalize sin stifles the potential for true intellectual achievement. Truly great scholarship is thus rarely attained within the confines of Academe.

And what of young students today? They eagerly take up polysyllabic, perpetually hyphenated, pseudo-Freudian phrases, but infrequently find their way to a valuable thought. Jargon is a useful tool, but it cannot serve as the primary basis for scholarship. There has to be insight, born of imagination and honed skill, and developed by careful and often laborious study into a comprehensive reflection on the literary work in question.

The failure of young students to soar on the wings of scholarly glory hangs over the heads of their professors. High grades rarely come to those who consider a subject other than sex or imperialism. Even while opinions are rank throughout the halls of the Academy–most young students feel passionately about something or other–freestanding opinion is certainly not welcome. Relativistic professors insist on the glorification of opinions . . . but only some opinions. This is visible on the level of complex scholarship (a colleague chid me soundly for having considered religion as a primary theme in Huysman’s À Rebours) and at the most primary level of literary interaction. Students are discouraged from having likes and dislikes.

Now, likes and dislikes are not at all the begin-all, end-all of scholarship; but they play an important role in directing one’s interests and serving as the overarching foundation for any foray into literary studies. These primordial opinions can change; I despised Great Expectations at the age of eleven, and even went so far as to write a book report entitled: “Why Great Expectations is the worst book ever written.” In retrospect, this early reaction indirectly begs a number of important foundational questions: What is a novel? What is romance (my chief complaint at the time being the absence of a satisfying clinch at the conclusion)? What is humor? Who is Dickens, and what should I expect from him? These are merely some of the building blocks of future scholarship, frequently impossible in the classroom environment where one feels the full bent of peer pressure to join the throngs in paying homage to James Joyce and finding fault with all Dickensian sentimentalism.

This development of cookie-cutter opinions stifles young minds. I despise Shelley and Swinburne with a passion almost unspeakable, and therefore enjoyed myself keenly any time these particular poets became the subject of study in a class. To argue persuasively, to plumb the depths of one’s subject and the perspective of one’s informal opponent, with the guiding hand of a teacher who mediates rather than serves as a political arbiter–this is meet food for the expansion of young minds. Frequently, passionate disagreements fuelled the most rewarding debates of my academic experience.

In the wake of all of this unsolicited yet well-deserved criticism, it might be asked, “Is there any value in this discipline at all?” The answer is an emphatic “yes!” Considered with a practical eye, literary studies (formally or informally taken up) hone analytical skills and sharpen powers of composition. These are assets in any business. Beyond this utilitarian assessment, there is the issue of the humanities as a whole. The past–historical, literary, spiritual–is a treasure trove of human endeavor, expression, and understanding. Literary studies allow a specialized concentration on one branch of our antecedents, glorious and inglorious. It is precisely because of the value of this branch that the abuse rampant in academia is so unforgivable.

There are many who pass through the furnace and survive–some embittered, some nervous, and many filled with passionate devotion to the cause of true scholarship. At some few well-beloved moments in my life I have stumbled across true scholarship. Such a meeting has occurred but rarely in the midst of mainstream literary studies, and not always as the work of tenured professors. A middle-aged librarian, meditating on the multifarious editions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam she happened to be cataloging, shared her reflections with me. Her ideas massed together to form a strong collection of insights of greater worth than all the advances made by the “gender studies” branch of the English department. A young Philosophy student, encountering the world of literary studies for the first time, nervously communicated to me her ideas regarding Arthurian romance. Intimidated by jargon, yet motivated by a vigorous desire for knowledge, she produced a remarkably articulate and intriguing close reading. Each of these scholars (for I do believe that scholarship is a way of life, not necessarily the thing one does for four or more years for the sake of a sheet of paper certifying one’s intelligence by virtue of mere academic achievements) relied upon the one characteristic that is essential to any attempt at understanding something–a loving desire for knowledge, unadulterated by a personal political agenda. That is what is missing in mainstream literary studies today.

My life, immediately post-graduation, might be deemed a peculiar kind of literary journey. I have embarked on a course of re-reading, an effort to reclaim the beloved works of great literature and thereby to purge my memory of a modern academic taint. I glory in the charm and deep feeling of Dombey and Son, and, when the sour comments of fellow graduate students about “incest” come to mind, I merely chuckle like Mr. Toots and say, “It’s of no consequence at all.” I bury myself in Jane Eyre, snort derisively at feminist critiques of Rochester and dismiss utterly allegations of homoerotic undercurrents. I am childishly delighted in The Taming of the Shrew and think exceedingly lofty thoughts about the intricacies of character (and not a whit about chauvinist oppression). And, yes, I return to Huysmans and feel truly confident in the validity of my interpretation of the religious struggle articulated throughout the text.

My academic degrees are not framed, nor will they ever be. This is not merely a gesture towards the Academy; the bally things are of absurd proportions and would, if displayed, waste an inordinate amount of wall space that would be better employed in housing bookshelves. As I look back on the labor of those degrees, my attitude towards the all-too-familiar English department remains as comically conflicted as that of young Frederick towards piracy:

Individually, I love [some of you] with affection unspeakable; but, collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation. Oh! pity me, my beloved friends, for such is my sense of duty that, once out of my indentures, I shall feel myself bound to devote myself heart and soul to your extermination! 1

I can scarcely hope that, at the end of the play, the “pirates” of the Academy will cast off their dirty linen and reveal themselves as “noblemen who have gone wrong.” 2 Even so, I often dream of what can and ought to be. At such moments I return to yet another familiar text–Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, the book that I facetiously consider the true reason for my pursuance of a Master’s degree–and am a touch pensive:

The University is a Paradise. Rivers of Knowledge are there. Arts and Sciences flow from thence. Counsell Tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles) Gardens that are walled in, and they are Fontes signati, Wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable Counsels there. 3

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, a Dappled Things assistant editor and a UVa alumna (M.A., English ‘07), works as a freelance writer and editor based out of Charlottesville, VA. Her writing has also appeared in The Saint Austin Review. More of her work is available at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.


1. [W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance (Milwaukee: G. Schirmer, Inc.), 20.]

2. [Gilbert and Sullivan, 204.]

3. [John Donne, qtd. Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), v.]