Ceci n’est pas une Manifesto

Sometimes the best conversations at an academic conference are those that spill over into the hallways and finish early the next morning at the lobby bar. Often, these impromptu groups become host to those rare chain reactions that produce the next articles, next year’s conference panels, a new collaboration, or even a new book idea. But one such conversation at a recent American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS13) conference has been nagging at me since I left Cleveland. A group of young scholars I respect, faced with my admission that I think of myself as a Miltonist, informed me that the age of the single-author scholar is over. Miltonists, it seems, can no longer get jobs in English departments.

“You can have a chapter about one author, sure.”

Now, since I have a fairly secure job for the next few years at least, they weren’t being cruel to me. They didn’t even mean to denigrate my work. They are just honestly convinced that the age of the single-author study is over. They even had the courtesy to seem disappointed about it. Maybe “seventeenth-century literature and Milton” would be okay. Or if you had some Shakespeare on your c.v. But they all agreed it would be best to have a project with broad application beyond the author that happens to have your monomaniacal attention. Something like the neuro-lit-crit examination of the inner lives of serpents in eighteenth-century literature. A chapter on Paradise Lost might be okay there, you know.

It isn’t that I believe these young academics are wrong. After all, a quick look at the MLA jobs list for the past few years shows that English departments aren’t exactly desperately seeking Miltonists. Grad students out there hooking-and-jabbing and hoping to beat the long odds to get that tenure-track position would be insane to bet on one author (other than maybe Shakespeare). That is the realpolitik of the academic job market. Those are the economics of current academia. But… I have to ask. Does everyone think this is a good thing? For our discipline, for our departments, or for our students?

Milton stands between things. Or maybe, more properly astride them. The same weekend I was at ASECS13, RSA13 was happening in San Diego. I had to choose which one to attend. Or maybe I should say, I was able to choose. “Milton in the eighteenth century” is a topic that seems to be trending these days. The “long eighteenth-century” is more than willing to claim the “long restoration,” and Milton’s roots reach back beyond his “true original,” Spenser.

The paradox facing Milton scholars, or any academics genuinely interested in the Restoration, is that the territorial division of literature has in some sense stranded Milton. The upcoming “Milton in the Long Restoration Conference” at Rutgers seeks to address this very situation and explains Milton’s plight quite well:

For the most part, [scholars] have left his contemporaries to eighteenth centurists, who have found, in a few of them, such as John Dryden, a prologue to the Augustan Age. But for the majority of critics today, Augustan literature is no longer a high water mark of the eighteenth century. They are more concerned to trace the rise of the novel or to define a “long” century that extends from the Miltonic sublime through the poetry of sensibility to the Romantics. Either way, Milton is left to stand on his own, apart from his immediate contemporaries, and the particularities of the Restoration run the risk of being effaced altogether. http://miltonlongrestoration.com

Someone who studies Milton and the Restoration studies the very mechanisms that demarcate — no, create — the division between the Renaissance and the eighteenth-century. This may seem a grandiose claim, but since this is (only) a blog, I will go ahead and say it: who invented modernity if not Milton in his political prose and late poetry?

The Miltonist who taught me “Lycidas” wept while he read it. Wept.

A single-author scholar is never really a single-author scholar. To understand a Shakespeare or a Milton is to study an age with the sort of focused attention that leads to unexpected connections and occasional insights. To define an author’s impact is to explore what follows: the Dennis’s, Swifts, Addisons, Bentleys, Richardsons, Johnsons, and Fishes to come. I suspect that a scholar who has spent her life deeply immersed in one author is thus able to teach that author’s age in all its complexities better than generalists, regionalists, period scholars, or the most dedicated theorist. Find a scholar who will gladly be immersed in an author and an age, and you will find a passionate teacher who has followed his or her bliss all the way to the classroom. The Miltonist who taught me “Lycidas” for the first time wept while he read it. Wept. Find me a teacher like this, and you can keep your “neuro-lit-crit of the seventeenth century” dilettante.

I’m no fool. I know that there are limited faculty positions in these days of zero-sum economics. In such a system we are forced to ask what we must give up to hire a single-author academic. Departments and administrators must do the cost-benefit analysis. But as part of that analysis, I would like people to think, even for only a second, about what we lose if must give up the passionate devotion to the one author or one work that really defines us.

– 8 April 13

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