Lingua Franca, October 1994, Field Notes


One could be forgiven for thinking that MLA-bashing was over; that the excesses of that beleaguered organization had begun to bore the most boring of cultural doomsayers; and that if a group of MLA detractors were going to form an alternative alliance, they would have done so in 1987, say, or 1988.  But in fact it has taken the great unbrainwashed until now to come together and form the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC); perhaps it is only fitting that a group so averse to trendiness is raising its flag half a decade after its moment has passed.

The ALSC originated late last year as a kind of chain letter from John M. Ellis, a professor of German at UC Santa Cruz, and Ricardo Quinones, a Dante scholar at Claremont McKenna College.  Around a dozen founding members met at UC Irvine last February to draft a recruiting note and mission statement, which they mailed to like-minded friends.  The association has since attracted more than 300 members, including poet and critic John Hollander of Yale, grouchy traditionalist E.D. Hirsch Jr. of Virginia; Raritan editor Richard Poirier of Rutgers; French surrealism specialist Anna Balakian, emerita of NYU; and Tennyson expert Christopher Ricks of Boston University.  Hollander had himself been thinking about starting an alternative literary organization, and contributed a list of around a hundred potential candidates.  A core group of thirty to forty members met at BU on September 10 to plan the first ALSC conference.

"The aim is truth and beauty," says Robert Greer Cohn, who recently organized a memorial for high culture.

The primary motive for forming the group, its members say, was to encourage more diversity in literary study.  Not so much diversity in the ethnicity department as a diversity of critical approaches.  To this end, the organization has decided to make an effort to recruit book reviewers, editors, and novelists.  "Someone like John Gross, who writes for The New York Review of Books, would be ideal," says Ellis, now ALSC secretary-treasurer (at press time, Gross was not a member).  "There's a danger of becoming too unreal and rarefied in the academy."

Quinones, now ALSC president, claims that the association's membership covers the entire spectrum of literary thought, including the various kinds of political criticism many members inveigh against.   Members hope that the ALSC will not go on record as favoring particular methods, since this might inhibit dissent.  They don't want the organization to be "subject to easy political definitions," as Quinones puts it.  "We hope there will be genuine debate," he says.  "That's the only way one approaches the truth, I imagine."  (Patricia Meyer Spacks, current MLA president, agrees.  "I think any new literary organization is a gain," she told Lingua Franca.  "Any opportunity for reading papers will enrich all of us.  And I think anyone who reads through our very large program will be persuaded that there is enormous variety at the MLA.")

The ALSC is thinking about organizing a hiring hall at future conferences and starting up a journal.  The group will be funded by "minimal" dues as well as by contributions from individuals, institutions and foundations "that support our aim," says Quinones.  One foundation (Quinones won't say which one) has already promised a grant, but can't hand over the money until the IRS gives the association tax-exempt status.

In its quest for diversity, the organization has decided to court an eclectic membership in terms not only of methodology and affiliation but also of language.  Unlike the English Institute, a literary association founded over fifty years ago for similar reasons (a group of professors, including Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, wanted to see more variety of textual interpretation than the MLA was offering at the time), the ALSC admits specialists in all languages and is open to classicists.  To many members, though, fostering diversity means one thing above all: bringing once again to the literary fore the aesthetic and philological considerations which, they believe, have been the hardest hit victims of Theory hegemony.  Says Hollander, "Most of us want to meet others who believe there is some kind of individual imagination whose works have to be understood in terms of history, but also transcend it."

"The aim is truth and beauty," says Robert Greer Cohn, a Mallarmé scholar and professor emeritus at Stanford who recently organized a "Humanities and Arts Memorial" to mourn the death of high culture.  "We're united in horror at how standards have been dragged down in the name of politics, a sort of flattening process to make everyone more equal.  It's been tried before - in the Soviet Union."  --Diana ben-Aaron