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· Scholarly, Critical, Theoretical Academic Librarianship, Leon Howard Style ·

I've been packing books lately since I've moved into a new Trope Topic College building. The move has had the effect of putting me in mind of academic librarianship, literally the care and keeping of books. It has had the effect, too, of putting in hand a valued text from the past, an academic biography I studied forty years ago now, Leon Howard's Herman Melville (1951). You should know that Howard was my Doktor Vater, and as I had not seen his work in years, I took a brief peek.

Howard was a fine scholar trained in the German style at Johns Hopkins — one writing the nineteenth dissertation in American literature ("of which there are no extant copies," he happily joked). His long career at Northwestern, UCLA, and New Mexico was highlighted by New Mexico's naming a small library for him in 1983. I thought that fitting, since as Moby-Dick readers may recall, "librianship" is a key theme in Melville's novel.

My own work in that service (getting students into the library and weaning a few from the net) is modest enough, but since books are all helpful, getting folks to read, and even beyond that to "think" about literature, is still more so. You may recall my Whose Words These Are I Think I Know, a January 2005 post centered on finding abstraction, figuration, and organization in books. Today I thought to add a fresh take on still more academic work — work stretching over the entire course of the past century.

Howard's biography can help us in defining it — at least at the boundaries. · Leon Howard, Scholar ·

As I tell students, twentieth-century literary academics fall broadly into three kinds, scholars, critics, and theorists. All have played one-upsmanship games over time, the older looking down on the younger, and vice versa, of course. Though I am quite non-sectarian, in aging I have grown to appreciate the work of the older scholars like Leon Howard.

Here's how he stakes his claim on "critical" study in his brief "Preface":

To those critics who insist that a work of literature makes its most admirable appearance an an independent object of aesthetic experience, I can only suggest that the arts which we call the humanities are, as a matter of fact, unavoidably human. Of them, literature is the most comprehensive and illuminating in its humanity; and, for my part, the knowledge of human beings, in all their complex relationships, which can be gained from literary study is one of the greatest incentives to its pursuit. I cannot, in short, share the apparently widespread feeling that a rereadable book is so delicate a plant that it needs to be removed from its natural environment before it can attract the imagination. Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1951, 1967, viii.

Those perfect adverbial phrases, "as a matter of fact," "for my part," and "in short," catch Howard's concern: some gathered "facts," "personally" acquired, and all "briefly" shown are, indeed, his point. So, naturally, his conclusion ("Recollection and Renown") drives it home more stylishly.

Critics whose impulse has been to worship Art have found in Melville's works a challenge to their ceremonial ingenuity in rationalizing impressions. So satisfactory has been his reflection of their subtleties that typographical errors in cheap editions of his books and mistranscriptions of his difficult handwriting have inspired them to intellectual gyrations of ectasy. The omission of a comma in modern versions of a sentence addressed to Bulkington in Moby Dick has transformed that character from one of Melville's forgotten men into one of his most "significant" heroes. The error which changed a "coiled fish of the sea" into a "soiled fish" in some editions of White Jacket has been the basis for a lyrical tribute to the author's unique genius in imagery. The probable misreading of Melville's original spelling of the word "visible" as a reference to a "usable truth" in a letter to Hawthorne has provoked discourse on the "usable truth" of both men and inspired a meditation on the "usable past." Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1951, 1967, 341.

What more can I say?

Lots, of course, but any real "usable truth" in this "blog post" cannot sustain — even theoretically — a more "usable past" in his book.

And, less so, that in the Leon Howard Memorial Library.


Indeed. Those 20th C. academics — whether scholars, critics, or theorists — have created quite a 21st C. monster.

By the wholesale awarding of advanced degrees for "research" in such arcane and relatively non-essential matters as the import of a single letter in a single word in a single transcription of a single work of fiction published in the distant past, American colleges and universities have created a class of over-specialized educators who focus too much on the particular in disregard of the general, and reward their students for doing the same. It is the can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees, I-don't-want-to-look phenomenon. Our universities have become, therefore, technical schools over the past quarter-century, and our colleges mere trade schools. As a result, our populace does not vote, and our people — according to published accounts, 51% of them, anyway — cannot comprehend complex linear text well enough to read a newspaper editorial.

Meanwhile, degrees are milled and harvested like grains of cheap processed cereal — with every crossroads hosting a "university" and granting wholly unregulated Ph.D.'s to wholly unprepared graduates. No wonder that nearly 70% of all college and university courses today are taught by adjuncts. No wonder that college presidents reap princely salaries while the professoriate declines in number and influence.

What should 21st century higher education be, exactly, what should it be for, and why? Have we lost sight of that Jeffersonian vision of free public education for the purpose of building an informed electorate and a responsible citizenry?

The process of research is just that — a process. Our students should learn the process, it seems to me, yes, by their practicing it on some trivial "academic" pursuits like fiction — including the study of single letters and single words perhaps — but not in order to worship the product, but to apply the process, over time, to the very real, pressing problems of contemporary global culture. But we have to teach them how to do that. We have to teach. We can no longer pose and pretend, as 19th C. academics may have done, that literature is all, and that scholarship about literature is more important, say, than scholarship about geography or biology or health.

Ask your students, please, which they'd rather have at the lectern — a Scholar, a Critic, a Theorist, or a Teacher: someone, indeed, who can pick and choose among all the scholarship, the criticism, or the theory, and who can communicate matters in such a way that students might better not only their own lives, but those of their countrymen as well.

Posted by Mary Lee on January 24, 2007 07:35 PM
Posted by Styles on January 25, 2007 01:20 PM

Maybe listen as well to this outtake from Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion (January 6), Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian (5:40 - 9:25).

Posted by Styles on January 26, 2007 05:24 PM

For a sounder take on contemporary librarianship, I'd also suggest Jeffrey Toobin's Google's Moon Shot: The Quest for the Universal Library.

Posted by Styles on January 31, 2007 09:41 PM

Should you be interested, Google Book Search turned up these pages on "Leon Howard" — in Melville's apt phrasing, not too "shabby" for such a "Sub-Sub-Librarian."

Posted by Styles on January 31, 2007 10:27 PM

Hmmm. Interesting reading and, in Keillor, listening as well! Thanks, Styles, as always, for keeping us busy out here.

Posted by Mary Lee on February 8, 2007 08:51 PM

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