Fast forward to 2013. The spacious lecture hall of LC 101 isn’t anywhere near filled to capacity. Undergraduates are scattered throughout, and the winds of fashion have clearly changed direction. The subject of the lecture is the same—the dense thicket of one of Derrida’s seminal Deconstructionist essays—but the man at the front isn’t Derrida: it’s Paul Fry, William Lampson Professor of English, and the course is LITR/ENGL 300, “Introduction to the Theory of Literature.”
Things could not be more different here from how they were when Derrida himself held his Yale audience rapt with the very same ideas. What Fry is teaching is now part of the history of criticism, not its cutting edge. But when Paul Fry began teaching literary theory in the late 1970s and ’80s, it was “a thing absolutely of the moment,” he said. “I had a colleague in those days who looked at me enviously and said he wished he had the black leather concession at the door. Theory was both hot and cool, and it was something about which, following from that, one had not just opinions but very, very strong opinions.”
Theory today at Yale is decidedly room temperature. Paul Fry’s allusion to a literary moment gone by served as a reminder of the days when Yale was a hotbed of theory, a world-renowned center of intellectual discourse, debates, and publishing about new literary theory. The discipline was in fashion; what was generated then is discussed now only as a great moment in the history of ideas. These theories were dominant intellectual forces on campus for several decades, but now they’ve faded into the fabric of what we learn rather than being the lens through which we learn. Has Yale’s relationship to theory truly faded into the past? What kind of legacy does it hold? For nearly 30 years, from the ’50s to the ’80s, Yale stood at the forefront of intellectual discourse, of new approaches to literary theory and thought. Now—as the next 30 years have passed—where do we stand? In the way we read, how do we see literature?
Ontic-ontological difference, rhizomes, the trace and the pharmakon: this is the vocabulary of literary theory, a language that can seem synonymous with pretension and cocktail party conversation. But behind the polysyllables and the glasses of white wine, the ideas signified by these words prove fundamental to every Yale education—and, beyond that, to the way we see the world. At its core, literary theory is about how we read. It presents critical approaches to reading: not just considering the words on a page, but why they’re there. What did the author intend? What does language connote and denote? Theory examines how we interpret meaning and significance, how our preexisting knowledge serves as a frame of reference, and how we distance ourselves from what we know.
Derrida and fellow literary theorist Paul de Man weren’t the first to contemplate these questions; they’ve been on the table since the days of Aristotle and Longinus. But literary theory as a discipline really took off in Europe in the early 20th century, with Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and the beginnings of Modernism. The 1950s saw the arrival of this intellectual movement in the U.S. and the true beginning of literary theory at Yale, with W.K. Wimsatt, who ushered in the long reign of New Criticism at Yale. “Theory at Yale seems to me synonymous with the name W.K. Wimsatt,” wrote Paul Grimstad, assistant professor of English, in an email to the Herald. Wimsatt’s mode of thought focused on close reading and relied on the idea of the text as an independent unity. It was an austere, but also revolutionary and surgically precise way of approaching literature, and Yale rose to prominence in opening up new paths of entry into old texts.
In the years that followed, New Criticism remained the prevailing intellectual tide both at Yale and in the world of literary theory. This dynamic began to shift in the 1970s, when Yale found itself home to a group of Deconstructionist thinkers, the radical revolutionaries around whom would develop a formidable cult of personality known as the Yale School. Among these figures were Derrida, de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Peter Brooks; Harold Bloom, still a huge name on the Yale campus today, had a more complex relationship to the movement. The Deconstructionists argued that texts subvert themselves, undoing the meanings that they try to construct. Soon, Yale found itself at the center of that movement, though this change did not occur without resistance from the University’s earlier generation of literary greats. “The older faculty at Yale who represented the New Criticism felt that the Deconstructionists and the Yale School were attacking something they saw as fundamental to literary criticism: the possibility of a verifiable reading of a text,” said Penelope Laurans, master of Jonathan Edwards and professor of English at Yale since 1973.
Even within this Deconstructionist era, not everyone had the same approach. Bloom brought a different set of ideas to the table. By virtue of the fact that he taught at Yale at the same time as the members of the Yale School, Bloom is often grouped with his Deconstructionist colleagues, but his ideas of literary interpretation really differ greatly from their approach. “They were friends [Bloom and the Deconstructionists] because they were these brilliant guys, but Bloom believed in authors, and his work was…so different from the Deconstructive wing of literary criticism,” said Margaret Homans, PC ’74, GRD ’78, professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Homans explained that Bloom believed strongly in authorship and studied the relationship of writers to authors who had come before them. Bloom argued that writers struggle with their precursors the way that a boy fights to overcome his father à la Freud’s Oedipus Complex: at once indebted and determined to kill him off. By contrast, Deconstructionists saw authors and their texts in conflict not with other authors and texts—but with themselves. Often in Deconstructionist readings, it turns out that works mean the opposite of what they seem to be saying. By taking this approach, Deconstruction radically questioned the traditional and accepted approaches to meaning.
The ideas of the Yale School featured heavily in the study of literature, challenging students to go beyond face value and to analyze intention, order, and structure, and, above all, rhetoric—and perhaps, to conclude that there was no meaning at all. Across the country, these ideas began to take hold; new literary journals sprang up as a result of these conversations at places like Cornell, and the University of Minnesota saw cutting-edge advances in theory.
The Yale School’s dynamic work made one thing clear: literary theory was a hot topic. “With the graduate students and the young people, the ferment associated with the literary theory was kind of a magnet,” Fry said. Classes and lectures drew crowds, and students and professors alike clamored to hear the newest theoretical developments taught by the rock star scholars of the day.
Laurans looked back on what she described as “those heady days in ’73, ’74 and ’75 when de Man was giving classes… the excitement of being on a campus where two equally influential and exciting schools of literary interpretation were extant at the same moment.” Homans, who was a graduate student at that time, remembered a similarly vibrant atmosphere. She recalled lecture halls so packed there was no room to sit. “Everybody took the elevator to the top of Bingham to go to Paul de Man’s lectures, and Derrida’s lectures, and people were hanging from the light fixtures,” Homans said. “It was a really cool scene.”
These new ways of reading affected not only graduate students like Homans, but also undergraduates seeking to study theory in greater detail. Enter Yale’s Literature major, developed in the early 1970s with the intention of exposing undergraduates to the theoretical developments that were until then only available to graduate students in the Comparative Literature department. The courses offered in the Literature major would differentiate it from the English department offerings. “Instead of starting with a course in canonical literature it was going to start with literary theory,” said Leslie Brisman, Karl Young Professor of English. “It was called Lit X. That was the path to bring heightened attention to literary theory to Yale undergraduates.”
Literature X was part of a three-course series of prerequisites, whose striking names—Literature X, Y, and Z—conveyed the novelty of their approach. Literature X was originally officially called “Man and His Fictions,” but was later renamed for the sake of gender neutrality; it still exists, now known as “Introduction to Narrative.” “We were interested in asking questions about the nature and function of literature, and juxtaposing classics like Oedipus or Faulkner along with some more problematic and popular fictions,” said Peter Brooks, currently an Andrew Mellon Foundation scholar at Princeton University, formerly Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, and one of the creators of Lit X.
J. Hillis Miller, former professor of English at Yale and prominent literary critic, voiced the questions to which Brooks alluded in our interview.“Why are there stories? How do you go about talking about them? What use do they have for people? Why is there such a thing as the novel?” Hillis Miller mused, as he reflected on the aims of Lit X. “Every year, we’d change the readings [for Lit X], which were sometimes overambitious. They were serious pieces of literature, mixed in with what looked like theoretical works, but the theoretical works were read as though they were literature, as if they were narrative.” This method of reading hinged on close analysis of the text at hand. Both the structure and the content of the course were new; at that point, theory was considered the stuff of graduate education. “We didn’t have even an undergraduate course in the history of literary criticism in those days,” Brisman said. “It was really a subject that only our graduate students studied. Our undergraduates studied literature.”
Suddenly, what it meant to study literature was up for debate. The scholarly approach to narrative widened to include not only the words on the page, but also the questions underlying their placement, questions of interpretation, guided by the theory prominent at the time. “Instead of approaching literary works historically and chronologically, we approached them first and foremost by asking questions about the text and reflecting philosophically on the nature of what we were reading,” said Laurans, who taught Lit X in the ’70s.
Once theory became accessible to undergraduates, demand for these courses became so great that Yale’s repertoire needed to expand. “Lit Y was introduced just really out of necessity,” said Fry, whose current lecture course, Literature 300, is its contemporary iteration. “I was teaching it by the early ‘80s, it had been around for seven or eight years when I taught it for the first time—and I have to say, my syllabus hasn’t changed all that much.” The class, originally taught by Peter Demetz, still surveys 20th-century theories of literature.
But Yale’s most distinctive undergraduate literature course was Literature Z. “The simplest way to put it was ‘the world according to de Man,’” Fry said. An unsigned—but commonly attributed to de Man—proposal for the course describes it as “quite different from Literature X which deals with the relationship between literary fictions and society, and from Literature Y, which deals with the history of contemporary critical theory rather than with exegesis, or the practical application of critical theories. In Literature Z, students will read a series of increasingly difficult texts (poetic, narrative, dramatic, as well as historical, philosophical, and critical) and are initiated at the same time into the bewildering variety of ways in which such texts can be read.” Team taught by de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, the course first ran in 1977, and continued to be offered until shortly after de Man’s death.
Because Lit X, Y, and Z were the introductory courses in the Literature department, most students in these classes were either freshmen or sophomores. Before this program was developed, theory had been largely out of reach for most undergraduates, but now entry-level courses were being taught by the biggest names in the game. The combination of the fledgling Literature program’s undergraduate focus and expert teaching was unique to Yale at the time and rendered the experience all the more novel. “There were sections, of course, taught by junior faculty or graduate students—but the courses were run [by senior professors], and most of the lectures were given by people like Peter Brooks or Paul de Man,” said Hillis Miller. “These were freshman, sophomore courses. But a huge number of published essays came out of the lectures. Peter Brooks published some of his lectures, Paul de Man published some of his early famous essays. Geoffrey Hartman published some things from his lectures, and so on.”
This was the time when public literary discourse flourished, the height of the movement. The Yale School was at its prime. “There was a profound conviction among the undergraduates that this was the last theory,” recalled John Rogers, SY ‘84, GRD ‘89, professor of English, with amusement. “That you would never need to go beyond this in any way. We had reached the end of days. That was incredibly exciting, that with the principles of Deconstruction and Poststructuralism, all illusions could be exposed for their illusiveness and we were faced with the knowledge of the abyss that is the meaninglessness that is part of everything and that seemed incredibly exhilarating. And we pitied the people who didn’t get it.”
The 1980s saw a shifting literary climate, though, and the role of the Yale School—and of theory itself—began to change. In 1983, de Man died of cancer. Three years later, both Derrida and Hillis Miller left Yale for the University of California at Irvine. But the real death knell of the Yale School came on Dec. 1, 1987, when the front page of The New York Times ran an article revealing that de Man had written some 200 articles for an anti-Semitic newspaper in Belgium during the Second World War. The discovery, the work of a Dutch graduate student named Ortwin de Graef, broached the possibility that de Man’s theory of literature was in large part geared toward concealing his past. That aside, this cult figure of the American intelligentsia suddenly seemed a whole lot less appealing. “De Man died, and then we found out that he was a Nazi sympathizer, and the whole thing kind of turned over,” Homans remembered.
The disappearance of iconic figures like Derrida, Hillis Miller, and de Man from New Haven permanently changed the University’s approach to theory. It also coincided with the beginning of a new era for Yale. Until the 1980s, women could be lecturers, but were never awarded tenure. “Another date that’s very notable to me is 1986: the year that Hillis Miller left, and the year that I got tenure,” Homans said. She remembered feeling disappointed that she would not be able to teach alongside Hillis Miller, who had been one of her closest advisors, but she also saw this as a watershed moment for the landscape of theory as well. “Things just got more diverse after that, which is probably a good thing. That was the moment when New Historicism started, in the late 80s. So we all got historical, in one way or another,” she recalled.
The diversity to which Homans alluded manifested itself first in New Historicism; over the next 30 years, other theoretical approaches would emerge, including techniques of postcolonial criticism, feminist criticism, and queer theory. Yale was perhaps slow to keep with the times at first. “In the early years of New Historicism Yale was left in the dust, because we just had the last gasps of Derridianism and de-Manianism,” Rogers recalled. But in time the new approaches filtered through. In the Literature department, with a rising emphasis on global narrative has also come theory surrounding the art of translation. “Comparative Literature has taken up a lot of energy from [the domain of world literature],” said Dudley Andrew, professor of Comparative Literature and Film Studies. “It brings up issues of translation theory, which include questions of adaptation among media, how a culture operates as a diffusion device where major ideas in texts are taken up in other places, other media, by different kinds of readers and viewers.”
These issues of translation—of actual texts, but also of ideas and of movement across media—speak to the larger comparative aims of the Literature major. But the program has, to some extent, moved away from these theoretical questions toward a focus on close reading of literature across cultural and temporal boundaries. Though the English major still emphatically only teaches Anglophone literature, it stresses those same skills of close attention to textual detail. “I don’t have the sense that there’s that kind of conceptual divide at all,” said Rogers. “A lot of it is whether there is a commitment to doing something comparative and pursuing another literature as well as an Anglophone one. That said, Comp. Lit. and the Literature major will always have—or certainly still have—a stronger commitment to certain theoretical interests and drives. And that’s the case: the theories have changed, but it seems that there will always be some difference, it’s just not nearly as stark. The battle lines aren’t drawn with anything like that clarity.”
Though the aims and approaches of the two departments do converge, their different identities become apparent in other respects. Some professors see a distinction between the ways that students of English and Literature analyze texts. “The standard line is that if you’ve got a class of half English majors and half Lit majors, the Lit majors are very skillful in argument, and very fluent,” said David Bromwich, PC ’73 GRD ’77, Sterling Professor of English. “Their minds rove around literature and they have names for what they’re seeing—that comes to them pretty easily, a kind of argumentative, dialectical, theoretical discourse. English majors are much less fluent, but they’ve read more literature, so they can compare a play by Shakespeare to a poem by Milton or Wordsworth.”
The relationship between the English and Literature departments involves a certain amount of necessary overlap. A theory-based approach and a close reading method are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they rely on one another, and have always done so. “Theory, in the form of Deconstruction, was all about close reading,” Homans said. “It was kind of a method of close reading. It was also a theory of culture and life, but it depended on acts of close reading. I think that’s one answer to the question of why Deconstruction found such a happy home at Yale—it’s because this was the close reading place.”
The larger questions, then, remain about the way we read, how words on a page possess meaning, what criteria we use to evaluate significance. The concerns of theory, are, in turn, also the concerns of literature. Theory may no longer be shocking or sexy in the way that it once was, but its legacy remains behind the scenes. “In a sense, theory was successful in that it moved from being radical to being mainstream,” Brooks said. “But you could say that, in the process of going mainstream, it also lost some of its cutting edge and became a little more domesticated. I think most people, certainly at Yale, recognize that there is a place for theory—not necessarily applying it directly to your reading, but as a framework for understanding your reading and criticism.”
Thirty years after the Yale School swept this campus, theory has settled down, but it’s also settled down to stay. The days when the newest Derridean untangling of a text was a cause for flash mobs has come and gone; but so, too, has the cultish mentality that made literary theory a matter of who’s on the inside and who isn’t. “I think there are theoretical pockets that are balkanized, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Rogers said. “There’s not an entire departmental move that tries to bring all students into one way of thinking. We have really interesting and committed queer theorists, language philosophers, professors and graduate students committed to affect theory, and any number of more or less distinct contextualizing intellectual moves.”
If you’re looking for Yale theory, you’re not going to find it anymore. But if you’re looking for theory at Yale, it’s alive and well, even if quietly. After all, theories of literature arise from the simple act of reading, and the English and Comparative Literature departments are still doing plenty of that. “From the inside, there was never any such thing as theory,” Homans said. “It’s a term that’s applied from the outside. There were practices of literary criticism that were informed by Derrida’s philosophy, but if you were a student here doing literature, it always took the form of doing reading.” In that sense there’s the distinct possibility that the vast theoretical structure that Yale built in the ’50s through ’80s was all a dream, a mirage. All the layers of dense abstraction turn transparent, and what you’re left with then is just the books. As Derrida and de Man taught, things—even, or especially, theories—tend to mean exactly the opposite of what they seem to. In this strange way, the apparent absence or reticence of literary theory here at Yale may just be a sign of its renewed vigor and healthiness.
contributed reporting by Sophie Grais, Eli Mandel, and Emma Schindler