Here I am phone-banking for the San Diego Teacher’s Committee on Central America. Here I am attending a “Vigil for Peace and Justice in Central America.”
As an undergraduate, I studied the literature of England and America and fell in love with the charge of rhythmic language, the Anglo-Saxon drum of verse, the symphonic progress of prose. Entering graduate school many years and a few professions later, I hoped to rekindle that love. But I succumbed, like every other student I knew, to the doctrinaire theories of feminism, historicism, and Marxism, the great critical isms of the time, which tested the novels and poems I had so admired. These isms and the professors who intoned the jargon of literary theory so befuddled my mind, I was certain I’d never get out of academia.
Such is my recovered memory after finishing in 1986 the master’s program in American literature at the University of California, San Diego. As an M.A. candidate in the mid-’80s (I applied twice but was not accepted to the Ph.D. program, which that year took 5 out of 100 applicants), I wrote three seminar papers in four semesters to qualify for the harder task of finding an original topic to work on. It took a month to draft a coherent, three-paragraphed idea for a thesis, which I then submitted for approval to a committee of professors. Like most students, I knew nothing about a thesis. The professors had written them, so I assumed they would train me in the nuances of thesis-making, in turn insuring graduation. But many profs were elsewhere — on committees, on leave, at home Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays—or they were incommunicative, especially about practicalities. A few helped, and I stayed close to them. But despite the onus on me to learn, they were the gatekeepers, often disparaging my writing, which in counter-turn delayed graduation.
I liked the diversity of opinion around the seminar table when a class took apart a literary work. What I never liked — nor did anyone else — was my academic writing. My initial drafts produced unsubstantiated conclusions in prose convoluted by sophist thinking. This meant going back to the professor to ask for advice — but not directly; I couldn’t appear lost. I thought the other grad students had a knack for scholarship and wrote sober, sensitive analyses. I yearned for writerly guidance, but in class or conference I received instead the prof s specialty, his academic delight, her secure niche.
I believed that because professors were nestled in their niches, I had to find one for myself. After two years of open-sea rowing from ism to ism, I latched onto the great wave of interpreting literature politically. I planked together, with massive amounts of research, 40-page seminar papers and an overwrought thesis, my own Titanic of Marxist dogma.
Though I began college studying literature, I migrated from literature to music, first as a musician, then a composer. After graduating from the University of New Mexico, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program in music composition at UCSD in 1982. A tuition scholarship in tow, I moved to San Diego with wife and twin five-year-old sons. Within four months, she wanted a divorce, and though I fought it, I eventually agreed. We shared custody of the kids, but because of debts to her, I left with nothing. I was homeless for three months, sleeping in my van in a Del Mar suburb and driving to school at 6:00 a.m. Overwhelmed with these changes, I had no desire to write music. What I had penned was avant-garde gibberish: quarter-tone music for solo viola, music for brass quintet in uncountable rhythms, music for solo performance that required the artist scream at and assault a piano. One morning I woke up, decided to quit music altogether. To save myself I would return to my first love, reading literature. I ran to the UCSD literature department, where they took me into their master’s program.
My graduate studies began in 1984 when I enrolled in Professor Michael Davidson’s postmodern poetry class. Michael was a contemporary poet, but nothing like other poets I’d known who were eccentric and adolescent and profound. No alcoholic, cherub-cheeked Dylan Thomas, Michael—gentle, avuncular—belied the poet’s persona by possessing a scholar’s unselfishness. I remember how warmly he welcomed me and my interests to his class. I remember his excitement as we discussed a poem he’d handed out to shock or perturb us. It may have been by Jack Spicer or one of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, writers of grammatical puzzles and Kandinsky-like abstraction. The poem was nine-tenths indecipherable, so I commented that it appeared crafted as a rhetorical enigma. “You’d need to do a good bit of research on this baby,” I said.
Davidson tittered like a den mother. “Very good! This is where postmodern literature and analysis is headed. The poem as research project.” He was thrilled that one of his new students understood how confounding the new poetry could be! Once we had a guest speaker, a poet I would later learn was John Ashbery, the author of the most enigmatic American poetry. After introductions and information about Ashbery’s life, his publications, and his critical acclaim, Michael tried to provoke the class to talk with the poet about his writing. While we pondered Ashbery’s poems, Ashbery appeared as perplexed about the poems’ meaning as we did. Michael asked if anyone could comment on how (not what) his poems might mean. No one ventured a guess, not with the author in the room. The language was so enigmatic (“These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing / Into something forgetful, although angry with history”) it was enough just to listen and feel confounded, pleasurably or not.
From Ashbery’s visit, I took it that literary study was less about communication and rapture and more about the evasiveness, the coolness, of not getting it. Literature suddenly felt new and paradoxical: contrary and vague, deliberately unaesthetic.
After ten weeks on Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, and the later Ezra Pound, I wrote a seminar paper tracing the history of poetry as a performance form from the Renaissance to the present. This undertaking was inspired while in the music program, where I set several Theodore Roethke poems for speaker and small ensemble. Michael discussed the paper with me on several occasions and agreed to go over it a week after I handed it in.
I found Michael on the ninth floor of the UCSD main library, in the Library of New Poetry, a depository for the noncirculating study of any literary publication that is not prose. In his bare room, he let me have the first word — always a bad sign.
“Michael, I know this was a lot of reading for you, but I wanted this paper to do something no other seminar paper could do.”
“And what was that?”
“I wanted it to sing, to have a personal passion and style.”
He moaned. Not cruelly, ruefully. “You wanted it to be different from all other seminar papers ever written, right?”
“Well, it is different from all the other papers ever written, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Tom, you have to know something: I can’t understand what you’re writing. You’re using a language that tries to do the very thing I think you’re saying about music and text. You’re using language as though it were a music without the rules of diction or logic, and that doesn’t explain your point to me at all.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. And I didn’t. Why couldn’t I write a performance-art seminar paper, which I likened to that new art being presented at a place downtown called Sushi?
“Listen,” and he read from my work. “ ‘To begin, the precedence of one epoch is not necessarily that of its immediate precursor — psychologically maybe, yet the fashion of change casts for something deeper, more indicative, those unequivocal artistic, historical junctures.’ ” I could see that he had underlined this sentence and placed a big question mark in the margin. “Is it clear, Tom,” he said regretfully, “that this is fairly impenetrable language?”
“But that’s my point. To try and say something in a new way, like Ashbery’s poetry, maybe.”
“Poetry is different. This is prose. Or, worse, an academic paper. You can’t...I’m sorry. I can’t pass this.”
The phone rang. A reminder call for him to be somewhere else. He said he was late and still needed to finish 50 pages of a doctoral student’s dissertation in preparation for the student’s defense. He just couldn’t talk with me anymore. He had written his comments down and attached them to the rejected paper. I sensed that Michael didn’t want me to leave feeling dejected, so I perked up and told him it was okay, I’d work it out. “If my writing is as bad as you say it is,” I said, “I’ll just start over. And no, I won’t leap off the top of this building.”
At the community college where I teach today, I often admit to my writing students how bad that rejected seminar paper was. There I was, I tell them, at age 35, in graduate school no less, and I had written a paper my teacher termed impenetrable. I wished to be a writer, I explained, but I didn’t realize I was becoming a scholar. Becoming a scholar was not what I wanted to be. It was a means to an end: degree equals teaching certificate, which equals support for my sons. To accomplish all that, I had to buckle down. I resolved to buy a grammar manual (which I did) and read until my eyes bagged (which they did). I would adopt the language of clearly vague academic prose and not vaguely clear. I told myself I’d find a voice my teachers would accept. Teacher knows best.
Next I took a course from Roy Harvey Pearce, erstwhile campus radical and historical critic. Pearce had founded the UCSD graduate literature program in 1963. He was lured from Ohio State by UCSD’s founder, Roger Revelle, to launch the “softer” department of literary studies, which eventually expanded to include undergraduates. It was Revelle’s idea to mix the humanities, music, and literature with the theoretical sciences that had been the sole focus at the La Jolla campus. According to Nancy Scott Anderson’s history of UCSD, An Improbable Venture, the faculty at the time was politically conservative; Pearce surprised them in 1968 during the buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam by cowriting a letter with philosophy professor Richard Popkin that “congratulated] Japanese students who demonstrated against the visit of the U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise” in San Diego harbor. The letter created a political scandal on campus; it was countered by an even more condemnatory letter against Pearce and Popkin, “signed by some 70 faculty, staff, and students.” The precedent was established: such free-speech quid pro quo was the best method of disabling dissent at UCSD.
But Pearce’s radical days were long gone. By the late ’70s he’d become a world-renowned scholar on Nathaniel Hawthorne, the history of American poetry, and Mark Twain. It was Twain’s later, darker novels that constituted Pearce’s seminar, which I attended along with 15 other grad students. We’d prepared no assignment for our first meeting, and Pearce seemed unwilling to cancel the three-hour class, so he read us his own 25-year-old essay about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the last relatively light-hearted Twain works. Because the original essay was only 6000 words (short, I guess, by some standards), he added a new section.
Pearce read. And he read and he read and he read. Since he had asked us to hold our “queries” until he’d finished, we had no chance to engage him. After an hour and a half, we were exhausted — intimidated, really — by his persuasive eloquence. When he asked if there were any questions, we were as still as a raft drifting down a moonlit river. He concluded that many scholars saw Mr. Clemens’s great opus in ways different than he, Pearce, did, and he reeled off several names. He said that it was up to us to discover for ourselves how they differed from his. The assignment: read Twain’s later novels — a novel a week for the ten-week quarter — then alone or in small teams, report on one of them.
I knew Pearce read to exemplify how a scholar quotes, finds meaning, backs up his analysis — the practicalities he expected of us. But he also read to show us that his own scholarship of Twain was an explication of one core idea: Huck was a passive, socially uncommitted boy who, as his adolescent flight shows, had “no sense of his own history... [and] no future.” For Pearce, Twain’s most famous character was just a role-playing, conscienceless self. But he was a powerful self and absolutely honest. Pearce loved Huck for his unawareness but more, I think, for his confessional voice. In conclusion, Pearce wanted his own interpretation (“New Critical” and “Freudian” was how he defined it) to be clear so that in making our presentations we would, I assumed, accommodate his view.
At the next class, a boxy-faced woman, who wore the same forest-green Pendleton to every class, asked if we’d be discussing other literary approaches to Mark Twain.
“Such as?” Pearce asked.
Marxist, structuralist, Jungian, Lacanian, deconstructionist. I didn’t know these terms or the many ways to approach Twain. Her enumeration, like a list of criminal charges, made the master twitch.
“In so far as you understand these theories,” he said, “it will be your duty to educate the group as well as me. You know my position.”
“I don’t think, with due respect, that your method is the only method with which to interpret Twain’s growing loss of moral purpose.”
“So you don’t,” Pearce replied. “So you don’t.”
This woman’s gallantry inspired me. I hoped others would challenge Pearce. Wasn’t that why we were there? But as the quarter clocked along, each team rehashed Pearce’s ideas in their reports and Pearce approved. When the boxy-faced woman discussed feminism in The Prince and the Pauper, Pearce stifled yawns and tongued his teeth clean. For my turn, I grabbed a few articles on the feminist position, gauged their intent, and tried a woman-centered reading of Puddn’head Wilson. This was Twain’s sardonic slave-era novel with its improbable Roxy, a woman who is “almost white” but whose miscegenation keeps her a “sullied” one-thirty-second black. Using Angela Davis’s article, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves” (The Black Scholar, December 1971), I pummeled the notion that slave women were just victims. I proposed the idea that Twain’s sarcasm about slavery and the Southern aristocracy hurt women more than Mr. Clemens could ever know. I felt good about my idea until I read Pearce’s end-of-the-quarter evaluation.
Mr. Larson has a way of overpowering his subject instead of expounding it, both in writing and in oral presentation. He demands of writers (at least he demanded of Mark Twain) a kind of total cultural awareness, which in my opinion is impossible. Thus, in a most interesting paper, he over-interpreted Pudd'nhead Wilson. This surely is better than under-interpreting. But I think that Mr. Larson should seek more balance, use his scholarship and his researches as means of getting into a text, not overwhelming it. He is altogether capable of learning.
Uh-oh. Not only could I offer little more than performance-art prose or the take-no-prisoners literary polemic, but worse, I didn’t have what my teachers had—postmodernism in poetry, psychology in Mark Twain — that is, an ism to guide me. I sensed Pearce was right; I was capable. But what exactly I was capable of I had yet to show anyone, including myself.
My failure to articulate my own literary direction was the first of many surprises. After two quarters in the lit department, I was aghast to find that UC grad students who have chosen their specialization do not devote themselves to the “primary” literature — a poem, a novel, or a genre—but to the “secondary” literature. They read what is written critically about the literary niche they are studying. It may seem strange not to read, say, Upton Sinclair or Edith Wharton, as one’s focus. But the UCSD lit department assumed that its students had read the primary work (or if not, we needed to) and were now concentrating on specific analysis.
Beyond our duty to concentrate on the critics was the headier problem of knowing which theory—historicist, New Critical, feminist — had the most value for the literary work we were studying. The doppelganger nature of literature didn’t help. On the one hand, a literary work is apparently “finished.” Our job in studying it is to apply certain theories that aid our understanding of what is on the page. On the other hand, literature’s gloss has about it a level hidden or unsaid, like the Freudian repressed consciousness, which was far more intriguing to my postmodern generation than anything visible in the work itself. Right when you think you’ve critically mastered a text, you realize another level you’ve missed. In grad school, you don’t congratulate yourself for seeing what’s there. You beat yourself up for not seeing what isn’t there.
And the goal of such critical contention? To subject our Beloved Text—UC people call any book, story, poem, or essay a “text” — to enough examination that we break down our assumptions, the most basic being our attachment to it as a Beloved Text. Why were we so attached? Because of class, gender, and race. Because the aesthetic doctrine we’d imbibed made us too sure of literature’s meaning, too possessive of its magic. Because we weren’t critical enough of texts.
Sound simple? It was exhausting. I tired of evenings spent underlining every other sentence in 15-page lit-crit-theory articles. I heard of one teacher who insisted on reading the primary stuff, so I enrolled in Sherley Anne Williams’s class on Afro-American literature.
Sherley was a stately woman with a standoffish feminist elegance that I found refreshingly honest. She had none of the self-effacement particular to the romance-obsessed female lit majors I’d known in the ’60s. Sherley had a living relationship to the literature she taught. A poet and novelist as well as a critic, she was in the tradition, not a mouthpiece for it. She still seemed nervous standing in front of ten students, all white, upper-middle class, and in debt to our degrees. She initiated us to the writings of Phillis Wheatley, the great African-born American poet of the colonial era; Charles Chesnutt; lames Weldon Johnson; Ralph Ellison; and my favorite, Richard Wright. In class she played tapes of blues and hollers and work songs, jazz and ragtime. She spoke with a lusty connection to this literature— her literature — which often enraptured her blood and bones, she said, because of “racial memory.”
When she introduced Zora Neale Hurston and that magical book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sherley, like Michael Davidson on the postmodern poem, became evangelical. She adored reading Hurston’s tropic-blush prose, especially that passage about Janie falling in love with Tea Cake. Sherley got personal, too: as a black woman herself, she said, she admired Janie’s choice: Tea Cake was a fine man because he asked her if she wanted to sleep with him (an urge he did not assume she held) and he had a nice flat stomach (Janie’s three previous husbands had been old black or white men with basketball bellies). “Mayor Starks [Janie’s last husband] hadn’t been dead but nine months and here she goes sashaying off to a picnic in pink linen. Done quit attending church, like she used to. Gone off to Sanford in a car with Tea Cake and her all dressed in blue! It was a shame. Done took to high heel slippers and a ten dollar hat! Looking like some young girl, always in blue because Tea Cake told her to wear it.”
Here was a text I could taste, and texts of hot, sweaty love enthralled me. Not only did Sherley come alive as she read Hurston’s sassy words aloud, but she let us leave the race question behind and touch this universal desire for intimacy that Janie so deserved, so much wanted, and which we, Hurston’s readers, believed we deserved too.
Though passionate in class, privately Sherley maintained her distance. I did independent study with her, where we talked about the novels I was reading every three weeks. But our contact always felt circumscribed by unspoken factors of gender and race and the gulf between student and teacher. Her devotion to her own writing (she was about to publish her first novel) meant she wasn’t around much. I understood her aloofness but felt awkward.
Only once did we connect personally. One day when I was in her office, she got a phone call from her son. The call was brief and changed her mood. She had a portrait of a smiling 20-year-old on her desk. Malcolm. (I figured he was named for Malcolm X, whom Sherley often quoted.) I mentioned my sons having to travel back and forth between Encinitas and my apartment on campus, young boys already shaken by their parents’ divorce. I was barely managing. She nodded and looked at me with eyes half pleading, half confused, and said, “Malcolm doesn’t want any of this. What I have.” She meant her professorship, her writer’s life, her move from Fresno sharecropper’s daughter to tenured professor. “He wants to learn a trade, go to vocational school. Not everybody goes to college.” She didn’t say his lack of academic desire was disappointing, but I felt it was. She often lamented in class the void of black men in the academy. Here was another who wouldn’t go. That was as close as we got, a glimpse into our mutual struggles as parents, sharing hopes for our children.
I did get a center from Sherley. The feminist critique of literature and society anchored me for a time. I began to feel less alone when I hung out with grad-school women. Argumentative, boastful, secretive, they outnumbered men four to one. I loved these women, with their attaché cases and cut-offs, huddled in coffee Hatches, applying Freud to their husbands or lovers, Jung to their fathers and teachers, Chomsky to their children and students. I took a course from Page Dubois called Literature of the Body, where I was the lone male with eight women. As we focused on the skewed view of women in male-authored literature, the women reminded me that women were absent from UC professorships as much as they were missing or misrepresented in the canon of literature.
Roy Harvey Pearce had little to say about race, class, or gender. He believed that the psychology of individual character eclipsed those extra-literary associations. Famous American literary characters such as Hester Prynne, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, and Holden Caulfield change nothing in the world, according to Pearce—not their readers and not themselves. People’s lives evolve. Characters and their characters are bound to the cultural moment and the events that produced that character. Their moral choices are neither universal nor transferable. Literature merely dramatizes those choices for its readers to feel. To argue literature’s duty to instruct its characters, its readers, or its society in the business of reform, as political novelists had, was foolish.
I sensed that in a perfect world Sherley Anne Williams might have joined forces with Pearce. Her book, Dessa Rose, was the talk of the lit department when it appeared in the spring of 1986. Based on true events, the historical novel about a white woman who helped a black mother escape slavery seemed bound in a historicist tradition. But Sherley’s postmodern bent set her apart from other scholars. Her book challenged the notion that black and white female liberators were simple Harriet Tubman do-gooders.
Because of my background and Sherley’s common-sense approach, I discovered that feminism was only somewhat useful to me, a man. What I should devote myself to was combining Sherley’s feminist analysis with Pearce’s historicism. This notion was bolstered when Dr. Pearce read my revised seminar paper, which I’d written over the summer: “Kindness and Terror: Slavery, Paternalism, Motherhood, and Pudd’nhead Wilson. ”He pronounced it a damn good effort, much better than the polemic I’d presented in class, on which he’d scrawled that pissy evaluation. I reread Twain’s novel and at Pearce’s urging went back to a half-dozen southern New Critical Twain critics and wrote eight pages of background about miscegenation and slavery. I showed how Roxy, under the contrivances of Twain’s plot, used her own motherhood as a means to overthrow her master. This theory was in line with Pearce’s insistence that an authentic character was more self-reliant than community-reliant.
Pearce read my paper again, suggested further revisions, and then—Oh Happy Day—when those revisions were complete, the good gray consul put his Seal of Approval upon the paper’s 40th and final page. I felt like a Nobel Prize winner: towering smugness for a week, then roiling despair. Now what?
I had ground one paper in enough theory to keep my teachers and me interested. But I was still alienated, still searching. Unlike Sherley, I was no black mother. And unlike Pearce I was no budding scholar of American lit. I wanted a personal strategy, my very own ism; I believed that what made my teachers competent scholars was this melding of self and theory.
About this time UCSD students were seized by the nationwide student movement to free South Africa. The movement’s objective was to force university pension-fund managers to divest stock holdings in U.S. or foreign companies doing business with the apartheid regime, hoping to cripple the fascist state economically. The protests— sit-ins, marches, teach-ins — began on the East Coast but quickly found support at UC Berkeley.
A few days later the protest wave headed south and engulfed us in La Jolla. In one week, during the middle of the 1985 spring quarter, a march of 2000 students erupted and the campus was transformed. After a rally in Revelle Plaza, the Humanities library was renamed “Winnie Mandela.” The library’s front portico was occupied by 75 students who set up a peaceful vigil, letting people in and out of the building. It was all very civilized; even the police said they were “happy” with our orderly assembly. Many faculty members supported the students. At one rally I heard a student call for the faculty to run the protest, to which a bearded labor-history prof replied that the faculty was out of touch with our concerns; we students needed to appoint ourselves as organizers. He suggested that we call a one-day limited boycott of classes, an idea that was gaining steam UC-wide. Some of the more militant protestors at Berkeley had just been arrested for occupying buildings; their arrest made it imperative that the UCSD radicals form a committee and issue a set of demands.
Two days later, on a bright Saturday morning in front of “Winnie Mandela,” the demands were read through a bullhorn. First, total divestment of the $2.6 billion in investments of those companies, American and foreign, that do business with South Africa; second, a public forum to discuss why this was a good idea; third, drop charges against all anti-apartheid demonstrators in Berkeley and elsewhere; and fourth, give students control over the UC Regents’ investments in the future.
The first three demands were somewhat legitimate; the fourth had as much chance of passing as Jesse Helms supporting the NEA. Many of us started to see the issues’ complications. They were summarized in a statement made by a testy protestor:^Are we really conscious of what we are doing here? Will we continue when we are not in a crowd of thousands? Are we also committed as individuals?” This was painful for me to hear. Much activism during the ’60s was grounded in self-interest—saving our male skins—as young men like me refused military service. We knew from experience that mass movements were nothing without personal sacrifice. But there we were, drinking cans of Coke after a 6K jog while Coca-Cola was one of the biggest U.S. companies to sell its product in South Africa and a major player in the UC pension holdings.
Students began talking sanely about the situation, which led to some dissolution of the protest’s spirit. A few student leaders used the rally’s pulpit to chastise us for campus apathy. “Apartheid is something that’s happening outside of our country, which makes it easier for people to rally around,” said one student leader in the campus daily, The Guardian. As our ideological and physical support lessened, term papers and finals became imminent. Many of us had to TA our sections. Within six weeks, summer came
and most students left campus. Without rallies, without bodies, the movement’s muscle withered. Meanwhile, the Regents sent a plan to divest to an ad hoc committee and in July 1986, they began a divestment program that was completed in 1990. This act of “corporate citizenship” was the largest divestment ever by a U.S. educational institution. To no one’s surprise, the Regents did not hand over their investment decisions to the students.
Through it all, I marched and chanted “U-C, Di-vest, U-C, Di-vest,” and although I didn’t spend the night at Winnie Mandela, the tumult was invigorating. Perhaps because I wasn’t watching for it, my ism’s identity took shape. I made sense of the contradiction between the protests of spoiled American university students and a nation’s injustice 5000 miles away. One class of people was in support of — and in conflict with — two other classes of people: the oppressors and the oppressed. This meant that the spirit of revolution had not ended with the passing of ’60s activism. It manifested itself in America’s relationship with the Third World, where the complexity of a new, global classicism had been cloaked by Reaganomics and self-indulgent new-age nonsense.
The ism haunted me until, one day, running around the track at Scripps Hospital, it materialized. There it was, yearning to expose an oppressive economic system that led to slavery in America and apartheid in South Africa. There it was, opening to the contrariness of historicism, feminism, psychology, and deconstruction, which had all drawn me deeper into analysis. There it was, making me feel at home with its doctrine that each, according to their needs, must be given to (or taken from) by each, according to their means. There it was, encasing all boxes of reality and illusion : Marxism.
I rushed into Marxist learning and read in three areas: selections by Marx, which were often tedious except for the early, straightforward Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; American literature with Marxist leanings, such as Call It Sleep by Henry Roth or U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, proletarian or class-conscious novels of the 1930s; and such Marxist literary critics as Frederic Jameson or Raymond Williams. Of the latter group, my favorite was Terry Eagleton, whose 88-page Marxism and Literary Criticism explained everything succinctly— literature and history, base and superstructure, form and content, the writer and commitment, the author as producer, art and the proletariat.
Marxism is a scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of transforming them; and what that means, rather more concretely, is that the narrative Marxism has to deliver is the story of the struggles of men and women to free themselves from certain forms of exploitation and oppression. There is nothing academic about those struggles, and we forget this at our cost.
The relevance to that struggle of a Marxist reading of Paradise Lost or Middlemarch is not immediately apparent. But if it is a mistake to confine Marxist criticism to the academic archives it is because it has its significant, if not central, role to play in the transformation of human societies. Marxist criticism is part of a larger body of theoretical analysis which aims to understand ideologies — the ideas, values and feelings by which men experience their societies at various times. And certain of those ideas, values, and feelings are available to us only in literature. To understand ideologies is to understand both the past and the present more deeply, and such understanding contributes to our liberation.
What a remarkable line: And certain of those ideas, values, and feelings are available to us only in literature.
I was captured. A path presented itself. I became intrigued how an individual, or the individuality of a character like Huck Finn or Roxy in Puddin’head Wilson, might be understood in Marxist terms. Marx defines the individual as “the subjective existence of social relations.” He thought too many writers concentrated on the subjective existence (self-development, family, talent, soul) while too few focused on social relations (with boss, government, military, community). Marx argued that the individual who craves such subjective identity was a product of the French Revolution, circa 1800, after the establishment of the bourgeoisie. This class overdevelops the individual, and his autonomy, property, and leisure time begets the most selfish pursuits. In order to keep his subjective position intact, the bourgeois or moneyed person creates dualisms and hierarchical systems. He is self-reliant. He is educated by institutions whose courses of study (law, medicine, science, business) support his class position. He opposes the rule of crowds but marshals the mania of nationhood to fight wars on his behalf. He believes he and those of his class are psychologically bred with such self-selecting advantages as giftedness, racial and class superiority, monarchy or autocracy. He believes in God the Father because he attributes to God a spiritual system of reward and punishment, which he, the bourgeois, imitates in business. For Marxist critics it is these individuals, celebrated in stories and novels of the 19th Century, who, because of their rationality and privilege, represent the most illusory of human behaviors — self-determination.
Thus individuals in literature are complex not because of their inner life but because they are more than their inner life, an amalgam of self and society, one and anyone. The person I was hunting was the classconscious individual who in crisis sees himself not just as a nomadic entity but a socially interdependent being. Classconscious individuals were drawn by proletarian writers like Henry Roth, Abraham Lewinsky, and Mike Gold. Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) is a coming-of-age novel about his character’s political awareness in turn-of-the-century American immigration. Fast forward through the generation of “popular front” writers and the Soviet socialist-realists in the ’30s, and the soup is enriched with novels thematicized along racial, gender, and ethnic lines. A less knee-jerk class-conscious Marxism emerges in novels such as Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire, Josephine Herbst’s Pity Is Not Enough, and William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge. Perhaps the one novel to present the most sympathetic and intelligent portrait of class-conscious individuals is Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
In that 1939 epic, Steinbeck portrays individuals who become types because the economic disaster of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl forces them into a common plight. It is their class dependency that the novel dramatizes. Among the finest character creations in The Grapes of Wrath is Tom Joad. He organizes migrant workers, strikes the growers, and uses violence to advance the union cause. Tom Joad is defeated in the end, but his sacrifice becomes legendary. The most conscious character is Casy the Preacher, who undergoes radical change. Once convinced that only God is capable of redressing human iniquity, Casy learns by ministering to the poor that human beings are much better equipped to solve their problems without God. To paraphrase Casy, a God who creates the mass hunger and social upheaval of the Okies, does nothing about it, and then remains the object of a people’s veneration is not only dead but must be unbolted from the cross.
I became fascinated by other literary characters who, like Casy, rejected religion and rejoiced at their own intellectual emancipation. It didn’t matter how these characters worked out their lives’ crises. Many failed to forge stronger ties with their communities, their families, their ethnic enclaves, their genders. In Nelson Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm, Frankie Machine almost makes it out of Chicago’s card houses, but drug addiction does him in. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger Thomas, a young black man convicted of the deaths of a white and a black woman, goes to the gas chamber. When Bigger admits, as part of his gallows’ speech on the novel’s final pages, that “What I killed for I am!” he becomes aware not of individual but collective culpability. He sees that racism mixed with poverty produce him and his crimes. As he accepts his guilt, he also articulates his life’s political meaning.
This was the process of Marxist interdependency, a theory of class-forged selves that galvanized my interest. My first accomplishment as a Marxist followed: a paper for Michael Davidson’s seminar on “The Long American Poem.” I argued that William Carlos Williams’s “Paterson” reflected the industrial exploitation of the poet’s hometown and the betrayal of the artist such exploitation brought. Davidson’s acceptance letter touted my “solid understanding of Marxian ideas about [the] relations between economic conditions and superstructure, between the self as creative and the self as created.”
My Marxism found, it was time to deflate my intellect and join an organization. I was tempted by the Communist Party and the California Peace and Freedom Party, but I declined. These groups were no different from any other political group; they wanted me to canvass neighborhoods or write for their hyperbolic newspapers. One such paper was UCSD’s leftie rag, the new indicator: When I discovered that the workers at the “n.i. collective” used first names only, spelled those names and other titles with lowercase letters, and when reporting right-wing behavior, parroted Newspeak cliches like “brutal murder” and “innocent victims” (Aren’t all murders brutal? Aren’t all victims innocent?), I pulled away.
I did subscribe to The Guardian, the Socialist Workers Party newspaper. Soon after I got a call from the local chapter announcing a film about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers screening in Southeast San Diego. Inside an abandoned barbershop storefront, corner of 28th and B Streets, I met the local SWP: three emaciated white guys who asked me nothing (I was the lone guest) but seemed thrilled to entertain a fellow traveler. When the film ended, I browsed three book racks, bought a novel by Jack London, and slipped away, saying I had a big day of teaching to prepare for. Something about the SWP—no mass appeal — no Commie belligerence, no Marxist erudition — kept me from joining.
Sometimes I did grassroots work. I became an on-call protestor: “Hi, you’ve reached T.L., and if you’d like me to march or rally, leave all the gory details after the beep and I’ll make it if I can.” Here I am phone-banking for the San Diego Teacher’s Committee on Central America. Here I am attending a “Vigil for Peace and Justice in Central America,” August 20, 1986, with Congressman Jim Bates presiding. Here I am ready to get arrested at the Nevada Test Site with Martin Sheen, but without the funds to pay my bail, I have to back out. Here I am holding up a sign on the corner of Seventh Avenue and B Street, trying to get drivers to honk if they believe in “Justice for Janitors.” Here I am at the Berkeley Marxist Scholars Conference, with the Peace and Anti-Intervention Activists for Jesse Jackson, making an $8 check payable to the Christie Institute, going door to door in Southeast San Diego, one black person and one white person, registering voters. But enough! The snapshot activist had papers to write, two sections of freshman comp to teach, two sons to raise.
At the Marxist conference I met John Crawford, the former publisher of Boston’s radical West End Press, who was then promoting a new Association for the Study of People’s Culture. A gnomish, bespectacled man, Crawford was a commie-tumed-Marxist who became a mentor through correspondence. Excited by our first meeting, I sent him some of my ravings about left-wing “culture” and the Marxist “self.” He responded enthusiastically, saying he intended to start publishing a series of monographs and my impending thesis might be the first.
One day I received one of Crawford’s papers. He had written an overview of the seminal novels in American proletarian literature and of the writers’ ethnic and racial diversity. The copy I still have contains a few dozen “white-out” spaces in which Crawford must have edited — censored?—his language. Were the removed words too revealing of his intellectual bias? Spaces gaped where modifiers usually appear:
“We see how effective this kind of novel’s language is when we grasp the hidden agendas buried in its textual density.” I didn’t see this as crude editing; I thought it indicated a ruthless self-censor. To join Crawford’s association would I have to white-out Thomas Larson-identifying style?
When I sent him a draft of my master’s thesis, Crawford, in his supportive, analytic manner, shredded it. His criticisms were many, but he flagged one overriding flaw—I didn’t know how to balance the conflicts of culture, of race, ethnicity, and class. I also didn’t “see” my own biases in the literature I liked. Many of the writers I admired, such as Sherwood Anderson or even Hemingway, were not part of the class they wrote about. Therefore, Crawford wrote, their “thinking” required more of my suspicion. He listed several books to crack, fresh theories to consider. He covered my paper with more comments than my UCSD profs had on all the hundreds of pages I’d written in graduate school. “It would be wild if you could expand the model, treat a few more works, escape some
of the ethnocentric biases of your secondary sources, and show a fuller picture of how culture has both limited and helped to define class struggle in this century,” he wrote at the end. “You would have made a major contribution to American ideological studies.”
How poor a Marxist logician I was! How ethnocentrically — no, Eurocentrically biased I was! Was there any course of study right for me? If Crawford thought I was fuzzy (and he read my stuff), imagine what my master’s committee would think. Though I wanted to expose the contradictions within class-conscious individuals using the Marxian method, Crawford said I was not seeing the role of modern American culture in determining those contradictions. I felt the contradictions within me were what was being exposed. I couldn’t be a Marxist literary critic unless I got out of the way of what I was supposed to be thinking. But what — no, how—was I supposed to be thinking? It seemed, like Pogo, I had met the enemy and the enemy was me.
I had to see Sherley, my adviser, now that I was dumbfounded about my thesis. “Nothing in life should be this brain-draining,” I wept in her office one day. “Tom, trying to be a cultural slash political critic of individualism in literature is the most difficult thing you can do,” she said. “Why not just stick to telling us what these books say about society and lay off the theory?” After Crawford’s critique, I was ready to jettison the complexity of what I was attempting to do. If only I could see it, instead of seeing so much of my interpretation. Sherley was right. I’d try to simplify, explain less, show more.
I kept much of my research on 500 3” x 5” cards. By reading dozens of novels in grad school, I’d become a Marxist archaeologist, looking in ethnic, racial, or class communities for expressions of self-identity merging with culture, then making a note and filing it. I attached to the card a little Post-It, which would get bent, squished, or lost, its sticky dried up. And yet, despite the excess, my thesis got written over the summer. Although I don’t remember writing it, I do remember the day I had to defend it.
TO: ALL LITERATURE FACULTY AND GRADUATE STUDENTS
On Tuesday, September 2,1986, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. Mr. Thomas Larson will be defending his M.A. Thesis in Conference Room 119 TCHB.
The title of Mr. Larson’s thesis is: Culture as Social Process in Fiction of The Left: Mike Gold, Richard Wright, and Sherwood Anderson. EVERYONE IS INVITED TO ATTEND
No one came except me and the committee: my chairperson, Sherley; Rosaura Sánchez, a Latina professor; and Michael Davidson, who because of our prior association agreed to join. Before I could say anything, Sanchez, an anthropological structuralist with Leftist leanings, jumped all over me for my “dangerous unclarities.” She first recounted what I had put forward, that culture was both created under and undermined by capitalism. Culture had become a negative value, so I said, because it mystified the working class with its simplistic appeals, its production of commodities, its use of mass media such as radio in the ’30s, to keep workers entertained and politically dormant.
Sánchez was outraged about my characterization of “20th-Century proletarian culture.” She thought I had reduced culture to something lifeless and unborn, ready to be sucked up by the capitalist vacuum. Her belief, which she took a further ten minutes to explain, was that culture instills life-giving differences and uniqueness to every group on earth. She seemed especially incensed that I had neither analyzed nor mentioned how culture predated capitalism or that culture itself had changed the economic conditions that capitalism created and not, as I claimed, the other way around. Sánchez argued that culture had to be seen in historical, deterministic terms, beyond the confines of its life under American industrialism. The real issue was cultural identity — one is a Mexican or a Slav or a Thai—and thus one’s identity is different culturally from another. “Religion alone proves this,” I remember her saying. “All religions predate capitalism and are major forces in the ongoing expression of cultural life.”
Sherley Williams objected to Sánchez’s claims. She said that slavery nearly wiped out all vestiges of African culture, and therefore a new slave “culture” (she daubed quotation marks in the air) rose up in its place. The expression of the blues, for example, proved how a racial group created a cultural form that had not existed before slavery and might be thought of as powered by Africans’ anti-capitalism, although, she said, she’d be hard-pressed to think of it that way.
Sánchez agreed but said that American slavery was unique, too uncommon an occurrence to represent the long-lasting patterns of world cultures. Furthermore, capitalism in its shorter phase could be seen as an aberration in the history of cultural development. But under no circumstances, Sanchez said, turning to me, could the class system create culture on its own. “Cultures are timeless,” she said, fists on the table, “and though economic conditions disrupt them, cultures react dialectically with those conditions...”
I wanted to cry, to bawl like Baby Huey. Just as I was getting misty, Sherley said, “Tom, would you mind stepping outside while we resolve this issue?” Davidson nodded: Go.
Outside on a bench, I felt as low as dirt. Only divorce and separation from my children was worse. I was naive for not apprehending Sánchez’s objections. I had missed the full extent of Marxist analysis. Marxism interprets the history of systems of thought over all epochs, not just our epoch, and especially not just my chosen era of the 1930s. Marxism interprets the structural evolution of history via the totality of economic conditions and the cultures that help evolve those conditions. I was enamored of American literature in one lone era. I needed to recall the purpose and the paradox of our movement to free South Africa. But there wasn’t time. They’d either accept what I’d done or I’d quit.
I was asked back in. Sánchez insisted I rewrite the theoretical section of my thesis to take into account a larger, more inclusive discussion of Marxism and culture. Was that all? The three of them nodded; they wanted out of this as much as I did. I asked if Sanchez thought my analysis of how culture operates within the three works of fiction I analyzed was sound I dreaded rewriting all 100 pages.
“Oh, that,” Sánchez said, “is fine. I think you do a bang-up job showing how the characters become class-conscious through the influence of their respective cultures. It’s your theoretical underwear that I object to.”
Though I despaired for a week, beat myself up mercilessly, I did get down to revision, pleading inside, “You want out of this goddamn university so badly you’ll do whatever they say.” Produce a carbon copy of Sanchez’s definition of culture and insert it, pages 6 to 12. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought. Ms. Sánchez’s multiculturalism and Mr. Crawford’s focus on bias may have helped coalesce my thinking.
Each committee member read my revision and sent me a nice note of acceptance. Each signed the thesis in black ink, and it was then sent to the campus bindery. The next year my 99-page paper was put on the shelf of the UCSD library, where it has sat these 12 years. One person checked it out in 1993, even underlined in pencil some of the points I’d made about literature, culture, and the left wing. But then the book was checked back in, a week later. The quarter had ended.
In my accepted thesis, I tried to reconcile a historical sense of culture with strict Marxism in order to praise a few left-wing literary works of the 1930s. I thought I’d finished the first day of nursing and put the baby to bed. Upon further review, however, I found two radical ideas that unraveled everything.
The first was from Meridel Le Sueur, an early feminist, Communist Party agitator, and novelist from Minnesota, who wrote in 1935, “The intelligentsia and academics should be offering themselves as instruments of the people. At the beginning of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], 37 professors left their jobs in Detroit and Gary to start schools for the workers.... The intellectual has got to see this or rot; you don't take your great superiority to the people, you go there to learn and serve [italics added].”
The second idea came from the most famous Marxist prof at UCSD, Herbert Marcuse, who’d been hired to teach philosophy at Revelle College during the 1960s. (His best-known student at Revelle was Angela Davis.) Marcuse’s specialty — at the time the currency of the New Left — was self-emancipation within a revolutionary anti-materialist society. The key to Marcuse’s truth was that individual freedom must be safeguarded and nurtured as much as the socialist movement nurtured institutions of equality and shared ownership.
Such divergent notions stunned me. In spite of what I’d studied, Marxism did have room for extremes. Le Sueur’s approach “to learn and serve” and Marcuse’s preservation of individual rights were oppositions too radical for the left wing to handle. To understand how these poles fit required returning to a truth that Marx acknowledged as a historian and a revolutionary. Serving one’s self and one’s society is no bourgeois hangup; it’s a healthy contradiction. Most contradictions are healthy because reconciling them produces progress. I believed this theory alone would rid my mind of conflict. The more I understood society’s development according to Marx, the clearer my conscience would be. Once I had that memorized, neither the freshmen writing students I taught nor another protest novel could enlarge my awareness. As long as I remained at UCSD, I was hidden from my dilemmas.
It took years for the ideological tyranny of graduate school to fall away. Done with classes, I relied on my out-of-college experience to ground me in my new life as a teacher. I used the social skills I’d learned while working for a Mississippi river-boat union during the ’60s; I used the responsibility I developed as a father and a single parent; the joy I felt, without a thought about politics, as I played music or read novels. How different could I be, after two years of graduate school, from the parents, culture, society, and economic forces that formed me? I was like millions of other over-schooled and under-experienced teachers in America. Nothing could change my personality as much as I hoped something would.
I do feel oriented toward service and self, facing one form of the Le Sueur-Marcuse opposition every day as a community college teacher and a personal essayist. I know now that my ism did not reside in an academic discipline but in me, in my affinity for self-criticism. But an irony persists. Despite acquiescing to left-wing orthodoxy in grad school, my affair with Marxism has continued. It has instilled a clearer sense about the savage contraries of university life.
Take the student’s predicament, for example. In college there is time to comb the stacks for proof that x influenced y. There is time to argue the idea and defend against its detractors. But there is no time, and rare inclination, to understand how the economic, educational, and gender differences between students, faculty, and administration dictate a student’s intellectual development.
Students will continue to come and go from the seminar rooms and library carrels, seldom realizing that their relationship with the professors and the institution is the real “text” of their studies.