Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

Free-For-All Friday: Or Saturday… Whatever.

I know.  I’m late.  I’m sorry.  In my defense working on your PhD is not easy.   I have been frantically churning out a paper for the last few days, and simply haven’t had the time to catch up on blogging.  But, I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the kind of writing I do in my academic field.  It is not, actually, all that different in tone from how I write my blog (though, of course, the “Academese” jargon is still present).

So, for lack of anything better to do, and because I really do enjoy this kind of writing in a weird, masochistic way, here are some passages from the paper I am currently working on.  It is a critical analysis of a book called Professing Literature: An Institutional History.  And I’m pretty much ripping the book apart (as will become quickly apparent).

The paper is titled: “Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

As Graff claims in the first sentence of the first chapter, “Introduction: The Humanist Myth,” “Professing Literature is a history of the academic literary studies in the United States, roughly from the Yale Report of 1828, which assured the primacy of the classical over the vernacular languages in American colleges for another half-century, to the waning of the New Criticism in the 1960s and subsequent controversies over the literary theory” (1).  By the end of this introductory chapter, however, it becomes clear that while the book is organized in roughly chronological order, it is not exactly a book about historical events or even, really, the development of literary studies or the English/Literature department.  Graff explains as much at the end of the chapter when he states that the history he is discussing is rather about a “series of conflicts” (13) such as that of “classicists versus modern-language scholars; research-investigators versus generalists; historical scholars versus critics, New Humanists versus New Critics; academic critics versus literary journalists and culture critics; critics and scholars versus theorists” (14).

Furthermore, Graff argues that the universities institutionalized the “field-coverage model,” in which academia is split into departments, fields, and sub-fields, and each subject is considered “covered” when the department has enough faculty teach each sub-field (6).  This system made the institution highly flexible, but also led to “patterned isolation,” which made it easy for the conflicts and controversy within literary studies to be hidden from view and allowed instructors to avoid the “need to discuss the reasons they [are] doing what they [are] doing” (Graff 7).  This led to confusion and fragmentation where, Graff argues, coherence would have been more useful.  Rather than teaching a fragmented array of various periods, genres, themes, and theories, with the assumption that these will add up to a coherent vision of literature which Graff states is based in the humanist myth that “literature teaches itself” (9) literature teachers should be “teaching the conflicts” so that students can more clearly see how all the various field and sub-fields hang together, and why they are taught they way they are (viii-xiv).


Graff’s ability and willingness to employ such a wide variety of texts allows him to reveal some fascinating elements of and thoughts about the development of literary studies.  The use, especially, of personal accounts from students and teachers, paints of a deep, personal picture of the cultural situations.  However, Graff exemplifies two of the problems that many New Historicists seem to fall into.  First, he has a tendency to view each “era” in his history as unified by and indicative of a particular zeitgeist (Ellis 96-97) in his case, each era is defined by what Graff points to as that era’s conflict of choice: in 1828-1876 it was conflict between Humanist and philological; in 1875-1915 it was investigator versus generalists, et cetera. Second, he, like many New Historicists, works under the assumption that politics is the most important factor, and thus has a tendency to ignore sociological and economic concerns (Ellis 96).  Thus, Graff’s New Historicist theoretical stance and his focus on the “conflicts” leaves him blind to many important aspects of the history of literary studies.  In fact, certain issues are almost completely erased from Graff’s account.  Two of the most important and most conspicuously absent elements of such a history are issues of class/economics, and women.

It can hardly be denied that class and economics have played an enormous role in the development of literary studies in general and English departments, yet Graff largely ignores the issue, excepting a few quick references mentioned without reflection.  For instance, despite the enormous impact the G.I. Bill had on colleges in general, and English departments specifically, war veterans are mentioned only a handful of times, and the G.I. Bill only once.  When discussing the changing behaviors and attitudes of students in the 1940s, Graff states “the postward student body, swelled by numerous beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill, was a peculiarly serious one” (155), as if the only influence war veterans had on colleges was to make the overall student body a more somber group.  He also mentions that college enrollment rose to 40 percent from 1940 to 1964 (a seemingly clear indication of the number of veterans coming to college), but then quotes Laurence Veysey’s claim that “war veterans made up only one segment of this dramatic increase, which more broadly reflected an awareness within a greatly enlarged sector of the middle and skilled working classes that some version of college was necessary” (155).  This quote is significant for a number of reasons: first, it allows Graff to diminish the importance of war veterans on colleges without having to actually say it himself; and second, it does not ask question of where exactly Veysey (or Graff) thinks this new “greatly enlarged” middle and working class is coming from, if not from the war veterans and, soon, their children.


One issue, however, is even more thoroughly erased from Graff’s history than questions of class and economics, and that is the issue of women.  That is not to say, of course, that Graff does not have a single mention of women.  There are a few.  He discusses women’s college in exactly four places (pp 37-38, 84, 102, and 211), but these are very brief mentions that usual center on the male professors teaching at the Seven Sisters colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, and Wellesley.  On a few occasions, Graff even discusses the influence of a particular woman scholar, most particularly Vida Dutton Scudder of Wellesley, who preached “Christian socialism” (84).  Graff describes Vida Scudder as “one of the most remarkable of the forgotten figures of early American literary studies” and “virtually in a category by herself” (84).  However, even the impressive Vida Scudder is allotted only a single paragraph to herself, after which she is mentioned once or twice more when Graff mentions the generalist male scholars who happened to agree with her views as if being adopted by male scholars is what makes her views truly valid.

Beyond simply neglecting to discuss important women scholars, Graff also quotes and relates various attitudes and assumptions about women and effeminacy without any kind of reflection or analysis.  For instance, in the explaining why women’s colleges usually took on the same classical curricula as colleges like Yale and Princeton, Graff explains that “the decision to give women of these colleges [Vassar, Smith, etc] the standard fare for males ‘was dictated by the necessity to prove that women could undertake a serious course of study’” (37).  Here, Graff is once again quoting someone else so we may excuse his use of the word “necessity” rather than, say, the “perceived necessity.”  However, Graff makes no attempt to interrogate this assumption that women needed to prove themselves capable of the same coursework as men.  I do not mean, here, to imply that Graff actually believes this statement.  But he seems unwilling or unable to critically examine such statements, exposing only a vague understanding of why it is problematic.  He seems to understand that such attitudes about women are “wrong,” but he lacks the theoretical grounding to examine these attitudes, or to recognize when he is, in fact, replicating such attitudes within his text.


Finally, I would like to point to what I see as Graff’s underestimation (or perhaps misunderstanding) of how ideology works.  This is visible throughout the text, but I will point out just a few of Graff’s statements to make my point.  First, the only conception of ideology he discusses is that of deconstructionists, which while important and powerful, is not the only way to discuss ideology.  Second, even his representation of deconstruction is over-simplified, such as when he states: “I see nothing inherently self-undoing or illegitimate about all idealizations as the deconstructionists do, and I doubt that all institutional patterns can be explained as effects of ideology, power, ‘logocentrism,’ or subjugation” (Graff 11).  Graff’s understanding of deconstruction here empties out all the complexity of the method/theory, which Derrida developed as a way to examine all the complex, contradictory, but connected assumptions and meanings that lay at the base of a text.  The point of deconstruction is not to illegitimate all idealizations but to demonstrate how the many idealizations within a text contradict (and perhaps illegitimate) each other in ways that allow for multiple legitimate and meaningful interpretations of a single text.  Graff also accuses deconstruction of tending to “accept the same working model of institutional history as the traditionalists, merely ‘reinscribing’ it in an accusatory vocabulary” (11).  This is clear meant as an insult, even an attack on deconstruction, which is all well and good if he can support his claim with any kind of proof.  Yet Graff does not even take a moment to explain what precisely he means by this, and certain makes no effort to explain why he thinks so.

So there’s that!  If you were brave/crazy enough to read the whole thing, I applaud you!  Please tell me what you think.  I’d love to hear it!  Also, please come back on Monday for the Top 10 SciFi TV Shows, Pt 2.  I promise not to throw anymore theoretical jargon at you for awhile.


2 thoughts on “Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

  1. Hi Amanda,
    I love this kind of writing because I’m one of those who likes to write this stuff! I have my MA in English, but I’m afraid I don’t have the heart to go for my PhD. At least not at this point in my life. I applaud you for going for it!
    I love what you are arguing: ” . . .he, like many New Historicists, works under the assumption that politics is the most important factor, and thus has a tendency to ignore sociological and economic concerns (Ellis 96). Thus, Graff’s New Historicist theoretical stance and his focus on the “conflicts” leaves him blind to many important aspects of the history of literary studies. In fact, certain issues are almost completely erased from Graff’s account. Two of the most important and most conspicuously absent elements of such a history are issues of class/economics, and women.”
    I read it quickly, but it was interesting to me and seemed thoroughly argued for this length of paper. 🙂 Put it this way, I didn’t expect to read the whole thing, but as I read, I wanted to see how you would put forth your argument. Essentially, I wondered if you could convince me. You did. At least for the little I know about Graff and this book (which is limited to what I learned just now from you). Haha!
    For what it’s worth, I also applaud you for keeping up on your blog while you are getting your PhD. That’s gotta be tough! But I’m glad you do. I enjoy reading your entries.

  2. Hi Amanda,

    First off, thanks a lot for writing this blog entry on Graff – whose text I will not even pretend to like or care for. I find it astonishing that he managed to construct such a boring narrative out of the history of literature in academia – and I study both literature and history.

    I have not yet reached the passages where he discusses the post-war era so I look forward to reading that while keeping your criticism in mind. What has become apparent to me as well is the lack of discussion of women. I do appreciate his pointing out that the study of literature and modern languages were constantly gendered, as feminine/effeminate of course, and thus devalued.

    I hope you will post another entry on Graff and I have to say: respect, I woud shout myself if I had to write my thesis on Graff’s text.
    Much love,

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