Literary Regrets

Lisa Dickler Awano is a scholar of Alice Munro and an alumna of the University of Chicago, which I attended as well. She is also a subscriber to New Haven Review and a forthcoming contributor.

When we saw each other at the most recent New Haven Review gala, we talked briefly, as we have before, of the ol' "U of C." She had recently visited the campus, where Amy Kass was being honored. Our conversation turned, as per usual, to the topic of faculty we had known.

For me, Amy Kass, and her equally eminent husband and fellow faculty member, Leon, were not among those with whom I had the honor of taking a class (notwithstanding their conservative credentials). But Lisa and I were able to share fond remembrances of David Bevington, the U of C's premiere Shakespeare scholar. (Bevington's edition of the Shakespeare's complete works remarks for me a touchstone of quality in editing and exposition of the Bard's work.)

Our conversation then took a curious turn. She knew that the greatest influence on my early development as a reader and critic had been literary scholar William Veeder. But that influence, as I've written elsewhere, affected less the shape or quality of my criticism than the confidence—sometimes reckless—that underwrites it. In brief, Veeder trained me in the attitude a literary critic must take to the object of his attention rather than in the actual tools of analysis that should be brought to bear. For a critic to do his work well, one simply cannot tread a path of undue reverence to authors or their work.

And while this was a necessary first step to the art of reading well, the tools he offered at the time did not, as I suspected then but know now, deliver much substance in the way of interpretation or criticism. This is seemingly harsh, but it is without doubt the case that Veeder's passion then for psychoanalytic criticism offered readings that, in my humble view, were seemingly complex but terribly hollow. While the article on him in Wikipedia conveys the strengths of his basic positions as a literary pragmatist (that meaning is engendered by the intersection of text and reader in a given context), his in-class instruction often dwelled to absurd lengths on intricate variants to the Oedipus complex and other Freudian and post-Freudian phenomena.

Veeder supplied the starting blocks. But my "literary regret," small and speculative though it may be, was the opportunity I missed to have a baton passed to me by U of C's best-known literary critic then: Wayne Booth.

Part of the reason for the missed opportunity was simple timing. Somehow I managed to graduate from U of C in three years (an achievement not to be mistaken for any act of genius or even above average intelligence on my part: I sweated seven years on a doctorate that wasn't all that great when I finished.) My junior year was thus also my senior year, which gave me the privilege of shouldering my way into any class I wished but did not bestow the magical property of compelling professors to return to the classroom early from sabbaticals. The academic year after, I bridled with jealousy when a peer and friend regaled me with tales of Booth's erudition and kindness during classes he took the year after my graduation.

At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that the star who shined brightest in U of C's English department then was Booth. True, by the mid-1980s, my undergraduate years, his star had begun to fade under the glare of deconstruction and a cadre of poststructural reworkings of feminist, psychoanalytic, and Marxist literary theory. Booth's theories seem quaint by comparison, but with the receding of the Continental tide of theory, the artfulness and articulateness of his struggle with issues subsequently advanced by narratology and reader response criticism seem to have worn well, or at least, better than some other theories.

This, of course, is just one reader's opinion, and Booth was not necessarily my favorite or even the most convincing critical theorist. But I do think he was, at the time, the best U of C had to offer. But I'll never really know. It is always possible that he as an instructor and I as a student would have been less than compatible. But such is the nature of regrets, even literary ones, which exist in some other universe with its own history.