Saturday, February 26, 2011

What is American gay fiction?

Profiting from the findings of some recent scholarship, we can discern two radically different categories of modern American gay-male fiction.

The first may be termed the Genteel Tradition. Books in this vein have the following characteristics. The writing, though often only fair to middling in quality, follows the conventions of the literary standard, eschewing “taboo” words and colloquialisms. Sexual explicitness is either nonexistent or very rare; in the latter case it is generally disguised by metaphor or indirection. Attitudes towards same-sex love are rarely enthusiastic, though they may be mildly approving or neutral. Books in the Genteel Tradition generally appeared in hardback, issued by respectable mainstream publishers. Paperback versions, if any, appeared later.

For a long time bien-pensant opinion held (and largely still holds) that this is the ONLY tradition worthy of notice. But there is an alternative strand.

That other tradition comprises the Pulps. These books were carelessly written and often poorly edited, if edited at all, They appeared in cheap, poorly printed editions. Usually described in blunt street language, sex is omnipresent. While the settings may be tawdry, the approach is frankly hedonistic. Sex is good, and the more we get of it the better. Most of these works, of course, first appeared before the inception of AIDS in 1981.

As I have noted, for a long time, the pulps were not considered literature at all, but recent studies by Michael Bronski, Drewey Wayne Gunn, Susan Stryker and others have made a serious case for them In his 1982 bibliography (see REFERENCES below), Ian Young included many of these items (anticipating a unified field theory, which remains hard to achieve).

1. The Genteel Tradition

At the outset stands a certain body of veiled or ambiguous work by such writers as Herman Melville, Henry James, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Bayard Taylor. Yet James B. Levin, a leading authority on the subject, holds that A Marriage Before Zero (1889), by Alan Dale (pseudonym of Alfred J. Cohen). ranks as the first real American gay novel. The novel portrays the plight of a naive young woman who rashly weds a gay man; he refuses to consummate their union and carries on with another man.

Reflecting the difficulties of publishing on gay themes, the following two specimens by Prime-Stevens and Fuller were (and remain) obscure. Stemming from the first decade of the twentieth century is Imre: A Memorandum (1906) by Edward I. Prime-Stevenson (1868-1942), an expatriate who wrote under the name of "Xavier Mayne." Privately printed at the writer’s behest in Naples, the novel recounts the main character’s passionate friendship with a Hungarian soldier.

The end of World War I presented opportunities for somewhat greater freedom on our native soil. Bertram Cope's Year (1919), by Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929). The novel portrays a young college instructor as he is pursued by several characters, including some women, an older man, and a school friend, who comes to live with Cope in mid-year. Not published abroad, Bertram Cope's Year was nonetheless rejected by every publisher and had to be issued privately at Fuller's own expense.

By contrast Strange Brother (1931) was actually published by a mainstream publisher, Liveright. This novel stems from Blair Niles, a respected woman author and scholar. Portraying a platonic friendship between a heterosexual woman and a gay man in New York City, it looks forward to the current cable television hit “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.”

In 1933 Mark Scully brought out A Scarlet Pansy. James B. Levin writes: "while giving us a clear picture of the public side of the gay subculture, Scully is also showing that this is a world inhabited only by those men and women who have given up any hope of social acceptance. To his credit he does this with humor and satire." Hugh Hagius has argued that Mark Scully is the pseudonym of Robert McAlmon, a noted author and publisher of the so-called Lost Generation in Paris.

A Lost Generation setting also occurs in Richard Meeker’s The Better Angel (1933). Only in the 1990s did Forman Brown (1901-1996), a noted puppeteer who worked in Los Angeles, identify himself as the author.

After World War II Gore Vidal came forward with his This City and the Pillar of 1949. Much reviled at the time, the novel was also much read. Standing at the opposite pole from the stereotypical sissies of the time, Jim Willard is a tennis ace. The pivotal event of his youth was a single sexual experience with his best friend, Bob Ford. After many travels in the gay world, Willard manages to reconnect with with his friend. But things go badly: the tennis player murders his friend. (Later Vidal modified this ending,)

Quite different is Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964). Written by a transplanted Englishman living in Santa Monica, the narration concerns a writer and professor in Southern California who had enjoyed a rewarding relationship with his male partner, until that partner is killed in an automobile accident. In 2010 many became familiar with the story through the film version starring Colin Firth.

These few typical examples serve to give an idea of what has generally come to be regarded as mainstream gay-male fiction. Today this tradition thrives in the work of such careful writers as Christopher Bram, Michael Cunningham, and Edmund White.

2. The Pulps

The countertradition reflects a curious union--the not-so-mystical marriage of Paris and Tijuana.

The Parisian connection derives from Obelisk Press and its successor Olympia. The British writer Jack Kahane founded Obelisk in Paris in 1929. Kahane took advantage of the fact that English-language books published in France were not subject to censorship. His list mingled smut and serious work, with the former serving to subsidize the latter. Kahane issued five books by Henry Miller at a time when his novels could not be published in the US or Britain. He also released work by Anis Nin, Cyril Connolly, and Lawrence Durrell. After Kahane died in 1939, the task was taken up by his son Maurice Girodias, who renamed the enterprise Olympia Press. All these books appeared as quality paperbacks, and are not pulps as such.

Much less respectable were the scabrous “Tijuana bibles” (also known as bluesies, eight-pagers, gray-backs, Jiggs-and-Maggie books, jo-jo books, Tillie-and-Mac books, two-by-fours,and fuck books). They enjoyed a clandestine existence in the US from the 1920s to the early 1960s. The typical "bible" is 4 by 6 inches, with black printing on cheap white paper, and eight pages long. Some were illustrated with crude pornographic drawings in comic-book style.

Most were probably run off by mimeograph in basements and garages, but a few were actually produced in the Mexican border town of Tijuana. This location helps to account for the later emergence of nearby San Diego as a place of publication of explicit pulps.

During the mid-sixties a series of legal challenges established the right of American publishers to issue sexually explicit works. At first benefiting writers like Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence, these changes unleashed a flood of new erotic work, whose general character was decidedly demotic, not to say pornographic. The bibliographer Tom Norman records thirty gay paperback books published in 1965, but over a hundred in in 1966.

With most of the titles being openly pornographic, they came from small, marginal presses, such as the Guild Press, Greenleaf Classics, and the Gay Parisian Press, rather than from mainstream publishers. Some typical titles are Mad about the Boy by Jon Marsh; Run Little Leather Boy by Larry Townsend; Sherbet and Sodomy by I. V. Ebbing; Summer in Sodom by Edwin Fey; Gay Whore by Jack Love; and When in Rome Do . . . by Phil Andros. Needless to say, all these authors' names are pseudonyms.

There were also more ambitious works, with several related titles appearing in sequence to build reader interest. For example, Victor J. Banis published a series of erotic spy parodies of a popular television show under the general rubric of The Man from C.A.M.P. In a class of its own is the Song of the Loon trilogy, a kind of gay version of The Last of the Mohicans by Richard Amory (Richard Love). Generally well regarded were the Dave Brandstetter mysteries written by Joseph Hansen, a gay activist living in Southern California.

Poorly printed and generally marketed in the one- or two-dollar range, these books were generally discarded by the purchasers after reading. Today some have become rare and fetch good prices. One pulp writer has ruefully mused that a single copy of one of his books now costs more than he was paid for the original manuscript. A few of the more notable titles have been reprinted to meet a growing demand. Some of the purchasers seem to be older men, who wish to recapture the experiences of their youth, but there are new readers as well.

Alongside this popular interest, a kind of scholarly subdiscipline has arisen, recording and reevaluating the pulps. One can sample this scholarship in the excellent collective volume edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn, The Golden Age of Gay Fiction (2009). These new studies challenge the conventional wisdom that the Genteel Tradition ranks as the only form of the gay-male novel worthy of consideration.


Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual Hero in Contemporary Fiction. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Austen, Roger. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs, Merrill, 1977.

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Bosman, Ellen, John P. Bradford, and Robert B. Marks Ridinger. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: a Genre Guide. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2008. [lists some 1000 items, mostly of popular literature]

Bronski, Michael. Gay Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martin Griffin, 2003.

Büssing, Sabine. Of Captive Queens and Holy Panthers: Prison Fiction and Male Homoerotic Experience. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1990.

Cardamone, Tom, ed. The Lost Library. New York: Haiduk Press, 2010.

Dynes, Wayne R., and Stephen Donaldson, eds. Homosexual Themes in Literary Studies. New York: Garland, 1992.

Garber, Eric, and Lyn Paleo. Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. 2nd ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Gunn, Drewey Wayne. The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film: A History and Annotated Biblography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

_______________ ed. The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. Albion, NY: MLR Press, 2009. [centered on the apogee of the pulps, ca. 1966-1980]

Levin, James B. The Gay Novel in America. New York: Garland, 1991.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.

Norman, Tom. American Gay Erotic Paperbacks: A Bibliography. Burbank, Calif.: Author [?], 1994. [list of 4,471 pulps published between 1954 and 1992]

Sarotte, Georges-Michel. Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theatre from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978.

Stryker, Susan. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.

Young, Ian. The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1982.

__________. Out in Paperback: A Visual History of Gay Pulps. Toronto: Lester, Mason & Begg, 2007.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gods that failed

The French have an expression, les phares, the lighthouses, for luminaries and ideas that serve to guide and inspire. Over the years I have been drawn to a number of such sources, only to find, at the end of the day, that their light is but feeble. This realization takes place, I suppose, largely unconsciously and gradually: one day I wake up to find that such and such a figure or set of ideas is not as important to me as I thought.

These realizations have a material counterpart, for I am constantly sifting through my library, to locate items that I feel I can dispense with. Some go into a form of purgatory at a storage facility I maintain nearby; others are simply banished, to be given to a dear friend who is a book dealer.

At all events, through these dual processes--mental estrangement and physical banishment--I have identified four such dimmed lighthouses. In summary they are as follows.

1) The occult. I have never had any faith in conjuring spirits, hexagrams, harmonic convergence, or any such beliefs. However, in studying the history of avant-garde art, I have had to confront the fact that some innovators did find inspiration in the occult. For example, the three major founders of abstract painting--Vassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, and Piet Mondrian--were all, at one time or another, devotees of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy. Similar allegiances are found among prominent writers, from William Butler Yeats to Hermann Hesse. Recently, a German scholar has found evidence of such affinities in the later work of F. T. Marinetti; as the founder of Futurism, one would never have suspected the Italian writer of such divagations.

As a kid growing up in Southern California, I was aware of the Hindu gurus, headed by Krishnamurti, who had settled there. The Brit expats, such as Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood, seemed particularly susceptible to this attraction. Later came the Counterculture, including the brief connection of the Beatles with the export version of popular Hinduism.

Historical honesty compels one to acknowledge the maieutic effect of such pseudodisciplines. They served as "life lies," in Ibsen's sense--fantasies that served to bolster creativity, whatever their actual truth value. But now that I no longer called to provide classroom analysis in connection with my courses on modernism, I have dispensed with the need to keep up with this material. So the writings of Blavatsky and company are slated to go off to the storage facility. (Not though. Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Yeats, whom I still revere.)

2. Freud and psychoanalyis. Like many people who came of age in the 1950s, I felt pressure to undergo "analysis." Fortunately, I resisted. Even before the current wave of critiques of psychoanalysis appeared, I came across an empirical study by H. J. Eysenck, who showed that this rubbish had no therapeutic efficacy at all. In a controled study, people who had received no treatment whatever did better than those who submitted to prolonged and expensive exposure to the shrinks.

Over the years I have dread many critiques of psychoanalysis. The universal conclusion is that it is simply a crock of you know what, without any scientific credibility whatever. Freud and Blavatsky--they are much the same.

3. Marxism. As I have explained elsewhere, I was raised in a Marxist household. By thinking and reading, I was able to break free of this tutelage in my mid teens. During the 1970s I felt the need to revisit this stuff, what with Marcuse, Gramsci, Althusser, e tutti quanti. In due course, this infatuation faded among the intellectuals. Who reads these old duffers now? Good riddance!

4. Sociology. This dismal science may be regarded as the confluence of Freud and Marx. As an undergraduate I fell in with some students who were majoring in social science, either sociology or anthropology. For a time I was under the sway of their view that these two disciplines comprised all we need to know about human beings.

Nowadays, I feel that anthropology is somewhat unjustly neglected, as people in the "developing countries" hasten to discard tradition and to acquire a plenitude of televisions, computers, cell phones, and so forth. But I don't miss sociology at all, with its appalling jargon, inherent imprecision, and poorly concealed political agendas.

Well, that's enough intellectual house-cleaning for one evening.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Uprisings--stage two

As the uprisings in Libya increase in intensity, offering a real possibility that the vicious Qaddafi regime may finally be toppled, the process of change in the Middle East and North Africa enters a new stage. Prior to Libya, the changes have been concentrated in countries aligned with the United States and the Western powers (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain). However, Libya is certainly not like that, as the disgraceful release of the Libyan terrrorist who engineered the Lockerbie disaster emphasizes. Despite some gestures here and there, Qaddafi has generally adhered to the "antiimperialist" playbook, which involves sticking it to the West as much as possible.

Observers on the Left, a dwindling band, hold a curious binarism in this regard. They hold that what is holding up progress in the Third World (as it used to be called) is simply US imperialism, which encourages repression. If that could be ended, all would be copacetic. This view is clearly ridiculous, as such anti-US states as Iran, Syria, and Libya (not to mention North Korea and Burma) are clearly more ruthless than the lot we have favored in their suppression of opposition. In the view of their leaders, they need to be, because they are unable to play off the USSR against the West. The USSR no longer exists.

Rumor has it that Qaddafi will flee to Venezuela. This brings into question whether the trend can extend to the Americas. (I don't mean Wisconsin, which is a facile comparison.). Strictly speaking, Venezuela is not a dictatorship. It better fits the pattern set by Napoleon III in 19th-century France: that is, plebiscitarian authoritarianism.

To my mind, the most suitable country for such an uprising is Castro's Cuba, which has all the earmarks of "antiimperialist" autocracy. Like Egypt and Libya, it observes the principle of nepotism, where the ruler is scheduled to be replaced by a close relative. In the case of Cuba it is Fidel's brother Raul. That has already occurred--or has it? At all events, there are a number of significant similarities here. If the shoe fits . . .


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mental-health break

I am saddened by the troubles that the Borders book chain is experiencing, though they are dwarfed by the frightful shipwreck of the good ship Gutenberg.

It is thought that some branches of the chain could experiment by opening a wine bar. Here is a more radical suggestion: change the corporate name to BORDELLO.

PS. Just posted (Feb. 27) and promptly deleted on Yahoo Answers: "Is Jesus & Buddha having gaysex the reason we have snow?" I guess we'll never know.


Once again, the language question

In an article in the New York Times for Feb. 13, Manu Joseph points to some anomalies pertaining to the status of English in the Republic of India. Powerful politicians urge that Indic languages, especially Hindi, replace English wherever possible--while still sending their children to elite private schools where the instruction is in English. The promotion of indigenous languages is, Mr. Joseph holds, injurious to the interests of poor people, especially the Dalit (Untouchables), who are only instructed, poorly, in languages that will not open to them the path of prosperity.

English is indeed vibrant in India. When I was there I always read The Times of India, which is much better than The Times of London. That New Delhi daily is noteworthy not only for the accuracy of its Engliah, but for the supple use of wit and irony.

The promotion of English in India, though, can reach absurd heights. Here are the money quotes from Mr. Joseph's piece:

"Accepting that English is the national language would have benefits that far outweigh soothing the emotions of Indian nationalism. It is to emphasize this point that Chandra Bhan Prasad has built a temple to the Goddess English in an impoverished village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

"People like Mr. Prasad, who want to liberate the poorest segment of the population, the Dalits, through the extraordinary power of English, view Indian culture and all related sentiments with suspicion. It was that same culture that had once deemed the Dalits “untouchable,” relegating them to the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy.

"In Mr. Prasad’s temple, there is an idol in robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Very soon, Mr. Prasad said, he would encourage young Dalit couples to include a ritual in their wedding ceremony in which they would sign the letters A, B, C and D on a piece of a paper. “That would be a promise they make that they will teach their children English,” he said.

"He also plans to adopt an Islamic tradition and fix a loudspeaker in the temple from which a recorded voice would chant the English alphabet, from A to Z , every day at 5 a.m. All these are just symbolic gestures, he said, and the best he can do in the absence of genuine political support for making English the national language."

If English is so important, how is it that the Japanese have reached such heights without mastering it? To be sure, we have all encountered educated Japanese whose English is fine, but try getting around in Kyoto or Tokyo without having your destination written out in advance in Japanese. As a college professor, I have had a number of good Japanese students. I noticed, though, that it took them about a year to become fluent, as English teaching in Japan is about as efficient as our teaching of foreign languages in the US. That is, it is not effective at all.

A wave of enthusiasm for learning English has swept mainland China. But how necessary it is for economic success there is uncertain. To be sure, Singaporeans do wonderfully well in English, but that is a very small, atypical society, however successful. Conversely, learning English hasn't helped Filipinos much, as most of them remain desperately poor.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An odd silence

Obama's so-called budget plan is a feeble effort to compete with the more radical Republican schemes (when they are honest enough to admit to what their supposed commitment to fiscal responsibility actually amounts to).

What seems clear to me is that last year Congress should have just sat on its hands and let the disastrous Bush tax cuts expire. Or Obama could have vetoed the restoration, and not just bleetingly talk about keeping the old taxes just for the superrich. Abolishing all the cuts would have meant a situation in which we all would suffer the pain--without unnecessary tinkering with Social Security.

Briefly, the columnist Paul Krugman, in one of his few sensible comments, advocated letting the Bush tax cuts simply expire. But he no longer talks of this. Why not?

And why doesn't anyone else in the punditosphere?


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Should we go back to learning Latin?

When it comes to learning foreign languages, Americans are notoriously inept. Forget about learning several of them, as many Europeans do. Let’s just settle on one second language and become proficient at that--such is our modest mantra. For demographic and geographical reasons, Spanish has held the lead in this contest for some time. Even though Spanish enjoys the reputation of being an “easy” language, proficiency proves elusive for anglophone Americans. When we try to speak it, all too often our interlocutor turns out to have good English, so we switch to that. Only if one travels about in rural Peru or Bolivia, as I have, does one find that some knowledge of Spanish is a real necessity. Then my high school Spanish kicks in. But most of my contemporaries have forgotten what they learned in those classes. “No problemo” (sic) is certainly not their watchword.

The problem is more than a practical one, for in some meaningful sense it seems that Spanish is not a “power language.” Today, Chinese is preeminent in holding that status, though one school district in Texas is requiring the study of Arabic.

These are not the only candidates. Occasionally, one hears lonely voices advocating a return to the centrality of Latin in our schools. One such is Toby Young in the UK weekly The Spectator for February 3 (“Forget Mandarin, Latin is the Key to Success”).

Mr. Young is English, and historically learning Latin figured prominently in the curriculum of its oddly named public schools, which were actually institutions for training the children of the privileged and powerful. Even in Cool Britannia it seems that this tradition has survived. “70 percent of independent [elite] schools offer Latin compared with only 16 per cent of state schools, [yet]that’s hardly a reason not to teach it more widely. According to the OECD, our private schools are the best in the world, whereas our state schools are ranked on average 23rd.” Apparently, it doesn’t occur to Young that correlation does not demonstrate causation. If 70 percent of the schools offered Russian would that be an indication of the superior virtues of that language? There is also that little word “offer.” The fancy schools may provide the opportunity of taking Latin, but how many of their pupils actually do so?

Nonetheless, Toby Young presses on, suggesting that learning Latin is the norm in these schools. It accounts for the fact that the lucky students outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher-order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving. We are then treated to some evidence from the state of Iowa, which seems to support a kind of “Mozart effect” accruing from the study of the ancient Roman tongue. I will return to the US presently.

Since Latin is the basis of several European languages, it is (purportedly) an invaluable aid to communication, witness the following attestation. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart, a Classics teacher in West London. “Forget about Esperanto. Latin is the real universal language of Europeans.” With all due respect to Ms. Moody-Stuart, I doubt that this conversation actually took place--unless, that is, the flight was made up of Latin teachers.

So much for that claim. Mr. Young’s real bete noire is Mandarin Chinese. He sweeps this argument away by suggesting that such learning is merely practical, lacking the transformative benefits of Latin. All this is to ignore the 3000-year odyssey of Chinese civilization, which has generated many concepts not found in the European tradition. Exposing ourselves to these ways of thought provides a useful counterpart, fostering a useful challenge to own cherished opinions and conventional wisdom.

So we have a choice between Chinese or Latin. But why must it be either/or? We can, and should, become proficient in several languages. Granting that point, I don’t think Latin should rank high on the list.

Clearly this is not the view of Mr. Young, who concludes with what he regards as a clinching response to doubters. “For these skeptics I have a two-word answer: Mark Zuckerberg. The 26-year-old founder of Facebook studied Classics at Phillips Exeter Academy and listed Latin as one of the languages he spoke on his Harvard application. So keen is he on the subject, he once quoted lines from the Aeneid during a Facebook product conference and now regards Latin as one of the keys to his success. Just how successful is he? According to Forbes magazine, he’s worth $6.9 billion. If that isn’t a useful skill, I don’t know what is.”

This of course is the fallacy of the single example. It is mere anecdotal evidence. Since Sir Isaac Newton was a devotee of alchemy, one might argue that proficiency in that subject is essential to success in science. A French friend named Claude Courouve, who is a leading gay scholar, studied electrical engineering, scarcely a prerequisite for the remarkable results he has achieved in his chosen field. In addition to being highly selective, such arguments commit the fallacy of "post hoc, proper hoc," that is, some anterior experience is hailed as the cause of a later achievement on grounds of mere temporal priority.

Were I inclined to hitting below the belt (perish the thought), I would opine that Mr. Young's own putative classical education does not seem to have delivered the promised skill in the precise use of logic that conventionally ranks as one of its major benefits.

I took Latin in college and I am glad that I did, but history has rendered a conclusive judgment about the centrality of Latin in our educational curricula. In what follows, I rely on some acute observations found in a critique by William A. Percy ( Professor Percy laments the decline of the study of the classical languages in Western nations. Still he holds, rightly I believe, that dreary facts must be faced. These studies reached their apex in 1914; after that it has been pretty much downhill all the way.

What are the underlying reasons for this challenge? In fact, Percy detects the seeds of destruction even before 1914. Parallel “trends in all the arts and letters—abstract, primitive, and folk—. . . challenged classical models. The new disciplines and trends spelled dispersal (polycentrism) and cultural relativism, on the one hand, and displacement—claims that China, Israel, and Egypt, were superior to Greece and Rome—on the other hand. The appeal of the three nonclassical candidates may be briefly noted. 1) Sinophilia, which goes back in Europe to the latter part of the seventeenth century, was essentially a conservative force, as it singled out China for its stability (not to say) inertia, under Confucian principles. 2) With the Hebrew prophets, the tradition of ancient Israel did have some revolutionary potential, as shown by career of Martin Luther King. Still, the Old Testament, as it was then termed, retained the limitations of its tribal origins. 3) For its part, Egypt was too exotic.”

In recent decades, feminist thinkers have drawn attention to the patriarchal and misogynist elements that pervade classical civilization. Some exceptions, including plays by Euripides, may be cited, but they do not change the overall picture. Multiculturalists have decried the ethnocentrism of the Greeks and Romans. Further, while some give credit to the Greeks for their homophilia, others have seen this (perhaps wrongly) as tainted by pedophilia.

As these observations show, the challenge did not present a unified front, but cumulatively the critiques have been telling.

There has also been a huge amount of institutional erosion. Gradually, universities dropped Greek and Latin as entrance requirements. “Consequently,” Percy observes, “classical philology and biblical studies declined because they required those tongues. Majors and Ph.D.s became common in all of the social sciences, including economics and archaeology, which shifted from concentration on classical and preclassical remains to embrace the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, even even Australian and New Zealand aboriginal societies. Likewise, as scions of the middle bourgeoisie gained entrance, the requirements in mathematics were reduced or even eliminated, so that there was hardly any basis for logical thought, which had formally been instilled in math and classical languages. The United States led in this democratization of the universities because the agricultural and mechanical colleges established by the Morrill Act of 1864 specialized in practical subjects, from home economics and agriculture to civil engineering and business, but conferred university degrees. Then even the liberal arts colleges of such universities were sabotaged by the removal of the mathematics, as well as the modern language and history requirements. Increasingly, one could major in business or political science, which meant deemphasizing Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Without any knowledge of classics, professors routinely proclaimed that Egyptian or Chinese contributions to society matched or even exceeded those of the Greeks and Romans. Others announced that the Mayans had excelled in mathematics (though, of course, their proficiency in mathematics did not survive their decline).”

Here are some relevant figures from a monograph on the fate of the classics in the United States. "The classical languages . . . have continued the decline that began in the late nineteenth century. For a while, Latin held its own in the high schools. In 1915 Latin still accounted for the largest enrollments of any subject besides English, history, and algebra, and nearly every public high school and private academy offered Latin. (By contrast, Greek ranked twenty-eighth in popularity in the list of thirty subjects offered by high schools in 1915.)" (Caroline Winter, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002 p. 180). At least Greek was still taught in those days.

“By the 1960s, however, Latin was beginning a sharp decline in the high schools, from nearly 7 percent of enrollments in 1960 to just 1 percent in 1978. In colleges, enrollments in Latin shrank over the same period from about 0.7 percent to 0.2 percent. The number of college majors in classics likewise declined by 30 percent in the two decades after 1971. One observer has estimated that of the 1 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1994 only 600 were awarded in classics.” (Winterer, p. 181).

Whether one applauds or deplores these changes, one must acknowledge the fact that they have occurred.

There is much more that could be said. But it is clear enough that Humptius Dumptius has had a great fall, and is not about to be made whole again.


Friday, February 04, 2011

Postmodern meltdown

For those who care about such things, we continue to witness the meltdown of postmodernism. During the nineties one of its chief gurus was the cult pop thinker Andrew Ross of NYU. Now Kevin Mattson has done a delicious takedown of this once-portentous figure. I'd love to pirate this analysis, but instead I'll suggest that you just read it at