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Looking Back at the 1960s: Sense and Nonsense

When I arrived at UB in the late summer of 1967 after a drive across Southern Ontario from Ann Arbor to join UB’s Department of English, I assumed that Orwellian common sense and well-wrought ordinary language (“Politics and the English Language,” “Why I Write”) were the critic’s most useful tools in a democratic society in order to communicate with a wide audience – an audience that included undergraduates and the public at large.

Most major American English Departments pre-1980 had at least one critic who bridged the gap between on the one hand what professors, somewhat pedantically, call the “academy” and on the other a general readership: John Aldridge at Michigan; Irving Howe at Brandeis; Randell Jarrell at Sarah Lawrence; Alfred Kazin at Amherst (for a few years); Mark Schorer at Berkeley; Lionel Trilling and the Van Doren brothers at Columbia; Raymond Williams at Cambridge; and Robert Penn Warren at Yale.

Many unaffiliated literary critics (some of whom were poets and editors) and journalists at large still wrote for influential journals with large audiences: Bennet Cerf, W.H. Auden, Norman Cousins, Bernard DeVoto, Randell Jarrell, Mary McCarthy, and, most importantly, Edmund Wilson who was perhaps the most powerful literary critic of the American 20th Century along with the Baltimore Evening Sun’s bombastic H.L. Mencken who wrote a famous book on The American Language.

There have been some echoes variants of these “general” voices in America on mass media and in print since the end of the Viet Nam War: William Buckley, Dick Cavett, Jason Epstein, Charlie Rose, but no one with equal public standing. Robert Silvers, brilliant editor of The New York Review of Books, has made an invaluable contribution to American belles letters, but he has not been a writer (though I hope he will write a memoir).

So: there was still in this pre-postmodern and social era a connection between the world of academic literary criticism and literary journalism (mainly sustained at Harvard today through the writing of Louis Menand and James Wood both of whom contribute to The New Yorker – that impressive enclave of toney taste a la Manhattan and Westchester Country). After he left the university in Missoula, Montana, UB provided a platform for Leslie Fiedler whose exploratory and bold Love and Death in the American Novel quickly became a monument in the field of American Literature after its publication in 1960. Professor Fiedler’s lucid and controversial work and public presence put UB on the world map along with the prestige of a few other faculty members and drew graduate students from remote corners of America and the world at large.

UB’s English Department in its halcyon days (1963-1975) was housed in something like Quonset huts on Bailey Avenue. The eminent French critic Rene Girard, who was on the faculty at the time, once said that it was the best department in the least attractive building in America. His aesthetic judgment was on the money, but the faculty liked it, especially newly arrived Young Turks (there were eleven of us).

We could step outside easily and throw a ball around when we weren’t doing whatever we thought we needed to do in order to earn tenure down the road. We knew we were in a high-octane department that would burn the “deadwood” as unproductive faculty were called behind their backs. The “Cooker” legacy provided the fuel: white smoke, in; black, undecided.

We knew we had to publish, but most of us still partook in the spirit of the 1960’s – play and protest (in some form) – when we weren’t paying our dues to secure a lifetime position.

The department’s softball team could have been an impressive start-up faculty for a liberal arts college: Charles Altieri, Kenneth Dauber, Irving Feldman, Jan Gordon, Martin Pops, yours truly (whose generally shaky fielding was interrupted by an occasional sensational catch – key word, “occasional), and several guest stars: Richard Fly, Mark Shechner, and some talented graduate students. Robert Boyers, editor of Salmagundi (Skidmore College) joined us a few times.

A remnant of the 1930’s-1940’s generation of critics were on the faculty for various periods of time: the ornery Lionel Abel, cantankerous David Bazelon, imperious Leslie Fiedler, and famous New York man of letters Dwight Macdonald (who knew all the leading literary lights from Greenwich Village to Southampton).

Whether attacking or defending some version of Socialism, they aimed their writing at an enlightened public that read widely circulating journals of opinion such as The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, Dissent, The Nation, The New The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, and The Saturday Review of Literature.

Between 1963 and 1975, one could have a heated conversation in the halls of Annexes A and B, now a Childhood Learning Center, with these academic celebrities and think that one was in Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room or Columbia’s West End Bar. There were some risks, however. Lionel Abel usually would end every argument, never a conversation, with the his signature phrase: “Drop dead.”

There were variants. He once said to a late friend and colleague who dared to question Abel’s reading of Beckett’s Endgame with the less than collegial utterance, “I don’t care if you live or die, and I’m going to tell the Chair to get a coffin ready for you.” My friend spent the next fifteen years hiding behind a coffee machine every time he spotted the intellectual assassin. Leslie Fiedler once said of the man whose barbs were as sharp as his ever present toothpick, “the man we love to hate and hate to love.”

The university may be an Ivory Tower, but you still can get run through with a cutlass.


And there were poets in the department who addressed their work to what Virginia Woolf calls the “common reader,” poets who wrote intelligibly in a language that Robert Frost would have approved of (if not the content): Robert Creely, Irving Feldman, Lyle Glazier, Mac Hammond, Robert Hass, and John Logan.

Novelists John Barth and Raymond Federman were on the reading circuit, and UB’s flag flapped in the wind wherever they appeared. As complicated as their structures might be (postmodern strategies), their words were clear and intelligible. Even though Ray Federman once chided me cordially for writing too clearly. Jack Barth, intertextualist to the max, asked me early on to help him teach a writing class, but I demurred (I hadn’t published enough). There were some links between the generations then.  

They were joined by scholars on the premises, at least for a while, whose books were written with great clarity and could be read and understood by any non-specialist seriously interested in literature: C.L. Barber, Arthur Efron, Angus Fletcher, George Hochfield, and Marcus Klein, to say nothing of distinguished visitors who blew some fresh air of worldliness through our then provincial premises: Donald Barthelme, Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Although waves of different approaches had been rolling towards shore for some time – myth criticism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, structuralism – the standard English language of the New Criticism as it had been codified by Brooks and Warren in their Understanding Poetry — served as a breakwater against obscurity. Orwell’s 1984 reminded some of us that an “old” language had to be preserved.

But the lingo and the spirit changed after the Viet Nam War mercifully ended in 1975. A new generation of graduate students, now young assistant professors, whose political ambitions had been defeated by Washington’s “waritocracy,” if I may simplistically put it this way, turned to abstruse forms of postmodern and poststructuralist French literary “theory” as a way to “deconstruct” authority and to “research” as a way to earn a permanent position.

Somehow, Literature with a capital L and the Author with a capital A became the equivalent of colonial rule and the subjugation of oppressed peoples. One colleague told me that the period (“end-stop,” as he called it) was an instrument of suppression wielded by the ruling class.

In the hands of the adroit and often brilliant Deconstructive critics, “sense” was transformed into “non-sense,” just as the civilized became primitive and the primitive civilized according to some of these theorists. Walter Benjamin, clearer than his followers had said, “There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.” I remain puzzled.

Words became ciphers, “signifiers” had no referents, and meaning approached Zero. If he had been alive, T.S. Eliot would have had another breakdown and might have written a play called Murder in the Annex. Eliot was brilliant, complex, and learned, but his prose was as crystal clear as one of those organ-pipe icicles that hang from our eaves in Buffalo’s winter.

One colleague, now in the upper stratosphere of the American academic firmament, brought a journal to UB: Glyph. Webster’s dictionary defines a “glyph” as “any symbol bearing information nonverbally, as a crossed out cigarette on a non-smoking sign.”

There were soon many Glyph-dwellers in our ranks.

It’s no wonder that Magritte was favored by this school of criticism. His painting of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” (elementary, Watson it couldn’t be smoked) was an emblem of French-style thinking in the period under consideration. I have heard that this erstwhile colleague has a second career as a physical therapist, so she may have developed a concern about real bodies and the actuality of pain.

The spirit of Mai, 1968, the revolt of Parisian students in the name of “liberation” was exported to America in the bottles of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Levi-Strauss. Put too simply, this French ethos challenged individual identity, humanistic values, liberal democracy, and the foundations of Western Civilization called into question.

These values were relabeled as “bourgeois illusion,” abuses of “power,” “social control,” privileged misrepresentation of reality (to the extent that reality itself was admitted into the intellectual café), and forms of linguistic imprisonment. Frederick Jamison’s The Prison House of Language became an important book (my circle of friends knew it was important because we couldn’t understand it).

These bottles were opened, decanted, and served by Jonathan Culler (Cornell), Harold Bloom (Yale), Hillis Miller (Johns Hopkins), Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman (UB), Barbara Johnson (Harvard), William Warner (Santa Barbara), and a host of other servers and hostesses throughout the land.

In those days, you could find a young French-style critic of literature anywhere you threw a dart at the map of American Institutions of higher education.    

Looking back at the 1960’s, the culture of protest in all of its manifestations (Beat rhythms, communes, sit-ins, love-ins, “self-grading,” drug-induced hallucinations, primal scream therapy, Maoistic politics, dreams of utopia, for openers) seems remote and removed from the current atmosphere in America; and the academic period 1980-2000 in which ordinary language and common sense were assumed to be antiquarian values, material to be disposed of in the dustbin of history, now have faded and given way, I’m pleased to say, to neo-realism in a variety of forms. George Orwell rests more comfortably in his grave on the island of Jura.

Some of these forms are: concern with global warming, preservation of the species, genetic engineering, evolutionary biology, social media, basic economics (fight for higher minimum wage), and rights that are consistent with the Bill of Rights (not Mao’s Red Book – I once owned a copy).

Needless to say, these trends, obscure in their origins and implications even for close cultural observers, will keep future historians busy for a long time and even may defy Amazon’s algorithms from making connections between all the books that will be written to try to explain how and why the “Self” (Shakespearean character, Whitman’s “I”,” Freud’s Ego, Buffalo’s own Heinz Lichtenstein’s “identity”) became so endangered for a while even as the age of the “Selfie” seems to have reinstated it.

“Tune” into future blogs for more “portraits” to flesh out the period that I once dubbed “Frisco to Disco” in my collection of essays, THE EDUCATION OF A TEACHER.

         Howard R. Wolf

         Emeritus and Senior Fellow (English/UB)

         Life Member, Wolfson College (Cambridge University)


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for the next installment. Click here to view all the parts in the series, as they are added.

Howard R. Wolf is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in The Department of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Education of a Teacher and Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile. Some of his recent work has appeared in Colere, George Orwell Newsletter, Moment (online), Evening Street Review, Prosopisa (India)and The Buffalo News.