Throughout its history, the discipline of English literary study has been haunted by a question that has threatened its legitimacy as an academic field. Is the literary academic a professional or an amateur? If literature is a “soft” subject, naturally moored in our daily hopes and fears, pain and pleasure, our quotidian language and emotions, our private, social and communal relationships, how badly does it need the “hardness” of academic disciplinarity? In early 20th-century England, English literary studies valiantly fought and finally overpowered this very skepticism in order to entrench itself as an academic discipline. But that has by no means sealed the amateur-versus-professional debate. The idea and the practice of disciplinarity have occasionally tried to dismiss the question, but never with definitive success. The amateur has never quite withered away. Unlike merely recreational — and perhaps just a little ridiculous — figures like the amateur engineer or the amateur scientist, when the discipline in question is literature, the amateur even becomes an empowered figure of sorts, occasionally cheating the fully credentialed academic specialist of her authority.
Marjorie Garber has reminded us that the respective prestige of the amateur and the professional have been historically variable in the humanities more than anywhere else. She accounts for the changing prestige of the amateur and the professional in the Anglo-American world of letters by returning to the term “virtuosi” (and what she calls “its more abjected companion, dilettante”) as it was used in 17thcentury England as a prestigious antecedent of the literary amateur. The term embodied a unique intersection of power, privilege, and cultural literacy: “Virtuosi were connoisseurs and collectors, gentlemen of wealth and leisure, identified with the aristocracy.” Intellectual, social and economic privilege came together to turn the virtuoso into a gentleman-scholar and distinguished him not only from those who did not have money, but also the newly rich who could not claim an ancient family name. Throughout the 18thcentury, while the dilettante sat in a position of humility next to the “better-informed” virtuoso, neither of them had the trivial or derogatory cast that they were to quickly earn with the increasing professionalisation of literary studies. It was through the 19thcentury that the virtuoso, the dilettante and the belletrist gradually came to be devalued, to the point where an Oxford don could measure academic success with the claim that “we have risen above the mere belletristic treatment of classical literature.” And by the 1920s, John Middleton Murry was articulating what had become a decisive dismissal of the amateur: “No amount of sedulous apery or word-mosaic will make a writer of the dilettante belletrist.”
The 1920s and ’30s were crucial decades for the institutionalisation of the discipline of English studies on both sides of the Atlantic. At the University of Cambridge, the entrenchment of English as an academic discipline through the intellectual and entrepreneurial energy of canonical figures like F.R. and Q.D. Leavis and I.A. Richards, was, to a great extent, dependent on its emergence as a specialised subject of definite academic rigour, as opposed to a domain of dilettantish debates about aesthetic taste.
If Scrutiny, launched in 1932, was the celebrated platform for the Leaviste championship of this disciplinary rigour, a comparable stance was taken by the American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, who likewise made a powerful case for literary criticism as a serious, significant, and specialised activity, and founded The Kenyon Review in 1939 as a platform for it. Ransom’s famous 1938 essay Criticism, Inc. argues, much like F.R. Leavis had done, for a rigorous and scientific model of criticism, an endeavour which requires a level of sustained collaboration that is only possible at the university: “Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic, and this means that it must be developed by the collective and sustained effort of learned persons — which means that its proper seat is in the universities.” This scientific instinct continuedto thrive in the academic development of criticism and reached its peak with structuralism in the mid-20th century, a methodological approach that drew its primary inspiration from the disciplines of linguistics and anthropology.
The aspiration to a scientific model waned somewhat from that point but it seems to be back again in full swing today, with the ascendancy of computational methods of criticism and the prosperity of digital humanities, embodied in such institutions as the Literary Lab at the English department at Stanford University. But whether we use quantitative or qualitative methods, literary studies today have been professionalised to the point where there is no place at all for Garber’s amateur in the English department of the research university,which originated with Wilhelm von Humboldt’s reformed University of Berlin in the early 19th century and was introduced later in the century in the US through the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University.
There is no reason why some — or many — of our doctors and engineers and finance professionals should not emerge from a more serious encounter with the humanities than the lip service paid in existing curricula.
Literary study and creative writing in English departments across the US has subsequently followed the trajectory of professionalisation, urging both study and practice into rigorous structures farther and farther from its embarrassing ancestry in amateur discourse. This happened more intensively in the research universities than in the liberal arts colleges, but it happened more or less everywhere.
But during these crucial midcentury decades, the discipline of literary study wasn’t the only one on a fast track of professionalisation. The university on the whole was fast transforming itself into a venue of professional knowledge and advancement, moving farther and farther away from the liberal arts mission that had once been its core. It felt like a natural process — and the right thing to do — as postsecondary education opened up beyond the privileged elite.
It is hard to miss the historical irony. Just as a discipline such as literary study was seeking to increasingly professionalise itself, the university was professionalising itself on a far greater scale. As the 20thcentury drew to a close, the traditional core of the university had essentially shifted outside, to the professional schools (medical, engineering and business). The shift is felt acutely at a school like Stanford, located as it is in the heart of Silicon Valley, but it is felt everywhere, and with a different intensity in the rising economies of Asia where professional upward mobility is both the anxious goal of individual desire and the urgent public mission of the nation state. Clearly, even as the trajectory of professionalisation pushed the literary studies into exciting new terrain, something was also getting radically out of sync between the internal professionalisation of the discipline and the larger professionalisation of the university itself. The former was absolutely of no interest to the latter, and one might say, only helped to push it further back from the terrain of relevance.
Enter the crisis of the humanities, of which the rapidly emaciating English department is a good ambassador. It is about time, I think, to assert that the hundred-odd years of the curricularisationof English literary studies around the globe have made us too indifferent to the dialectic of the amateur and the professional at the heart of literature and its study. This productive tension needs to be reclaimed even as we sustain and develop literature as an object of academic study and practice. By de-professionalising itself as and when necessary, the discipline of English literature can stand out on its own term against the inevitable tide of professionalisation with which university education is now synonymous.
How does one de-professionalise? Every gesture of public outreach, be it nurturing community book clubs, speaking or writing in a public forum requires the literary academic to de-professionalise a little. De-professionalisation need not be imagined as a shift towards the superficial. The miracle of literature is that de-professionalisationtakes one deeper into the very roots of literary thought. The recipe for de-professionalisation can be an entire subject in its own right, but one of the most significant thing one can at the university is to encourage the amateur humanist — deflect some of the energy devoted to nurtured the professional—be it the undergraduate major or the graduate student, to engaging the engineer or the MBA in the making.
Let’s face it — the world will always need far, far more engineers and business administrators than it will need professional humanists. But there is no reason why some — or many — of our doctors and engineers and finance professionals should not emerge from a more serious encounter with the humanities than the lip service paid in existing curricula. But for that we also need to keep our end of the bargain. As literary academics, we should be able to suspend, from time to time at least, our investment in the professionalising impulse of literary studies. For most of the 20th century, literary studies, powered by the acute discipline-envy and insecurity about its amateur past, has tried to professionalise itself with a rigour that has alienated it more and more from its amateur interlocutors. It’s time we celebrate our amateur past with real pride. So that the next time the proverbial nuclear scientist tells that studying literature is easy, anyone can do it, even as we feel exasperated, we also feel gloriously happy.
Saikat Majumdar teaches English at Stanford University and is the author, most recently, of the novel, The Firebird. He is currently a visiting professor at Ashoka University.