Lecture Hopping: Shakespeare and Melville

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Profs. Andrew Delbanco and James Shapiro, two English Department all-stars, spoke about their recent experiences composing biographies of, respectively, Herman Melville and William Shakespeare. Yet both seemed to loathe to stick to discussion of the past. The Bwog’s Rob Wile was there.

Wednesday evening marked the final talk in a series of lectures sponsored by the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism. What a way to end it. By hosting two of America’s must distinguished English professors–James Shapiro and Andrew Delbanco—-in a small room in Hamilton Hall, one came away with the feeling of having just experienced LitHum on steroids.

“Jim” and “Andy,” as they were to refer to each other throughout the discussion, had ostensibly come to talk about their two most recent works, biographies of William Shakespeare and Herman Melville, respectively. But, perhaps because they had said everything there was to say about their subjects (a notion both of them floated at several points during the talk), they turned the discussion toward themselves; in particular, how they made the jump from, as Professor Shapiro put it, the “fresh water” of academia to the “salt water” of bookstores and its “mythical creature” known as a general readership, and the ways in which this phenomenon gets translated into the classroom.

After recounting the compositional evolutions of their respective works, the two began discussing the intellectual compromises they’d made along the way. We were treated to stories of fussy, dollar-driven editors incessantly questioning whether their material was going to keep readers interested; Shapiro seemed to have become especially keyed in to the publisher-speak, saying how he had to constantly keep in mind that what he was writing had to “give the reader a reason to turn the page,” lest they find the first one dull and put it back on the shelf.

The talk then turned to how this mindset has filtered into the university. Although both Shapiro and Delbanco are just in their early 50s, both of them let fly with several curmudgeonly statements about how much things have changed in academia since they were first granted tenure. Delbanco asserted that “academic culture had softened,” recounting a story about how he could never get away with writing on a student’s deserving paper, “Shit like this doesn’t belong in the Harvard archives,” as one of his professors had once done. A professor’s fear of pressed charges, they agreed, has replaced a student’s fear of harsh yet ultimately constructive criticism.

How to reconcile the marketplace middlebrows with the university mandarins. With regard to this, the professors are wrong in thinking that this is somehow a new problem: H.L. Mencken, for one, was making these same complaints at a time when Moby-Dick was still considered a bizarre one-off by an eccentric author. It seems to me that the professors’ gripes ultimately have little behind them. As long as they are conscious of the fact that the ideas expressed in their writing would be of a “different”—ostensibly higher–quality, there’s no reason to think that they’re unwittingly contributing to the downfall of excellence in literature.

If true, though, the notion that universities are lowering their own standards is indeed troubling. Universities must unquestionably remain dynamic and in-tune with the world in which their students have grown up. Yet they must also somehow strike a balance between conforming to students’ demands for the higher grades they desperately need for today’s job market, and their true role as preservers of the venerable Western academic tradition.

Professor Shapiro spoke of the “coded” language that has evolved in academia that to the layman is mostly inscrutable. Yet however “useless” such language is in theory, it still has some kind of appeal to some part of the population, even an incredibly narrow one. If not in the university, where else?


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