One less professor in the academy

February 27, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The half-dozen big cardboard boxes on the basement floor had been annoying me for some time.

They were Trouble, with a capital T which rhymes with C which stands for Clutter. You had to weave through them or jump over them to get to the clothes washer, which in our odd house lives in the basement. And they were a special nuisance when it rained hard. This was because the basement sometimes floods a little, and then the boxes had to be moved or put up on blocks to keep them dry.

Thus it was that one afternoon when I was in a housewifely clutter-eliminating mood I decided to go through them, separate the useful from the useless, and get the latter to the Dumpster before I changed my mind. I collected a handful of feed bags, and began dumping boxes.

Sorting the contents of the first ones was easy. They contained dozens of little spiral notebooks filled with penciled incomprehensibilities. These notebooks were easily recognizable, if not actually readable. They were a reporter's notes, the raw material from which many hundreds of newspaper stories had been constructed.

There were notes on zoning hearings, murder trials, political conventions, a war; notes from interviews with people long since dead; notes on little scandals and major-league outbursts of corruption; notes going back 30 years. Interesting facts or remarks were marked with stars; the writer's editorial observations were set off in brackets, as in [i think he's lying] or [her nose looks like an overcooked beet].

The notebooks had been preserved initially so that quotes and facts would be readily available for follow-up stories, or in the event that they were challenged. From a legal standpoint, most journalists keep their notes at least until the statute of limitations expires, in most cases a year after publication. But these were old, old notes. Into a feed bag they went, and thence to the Dumpster.

Now it's barely possible, of course, that some future historian working on a dissertation concerning, say, the Prince George's County Commissioners of 1966, would like to have these notes. But if so, she's going to be out of luck, and will have to read the newspaper stories themselves, which are in eternal hibernation on microfilm. She probably couldn't have read the notes anyway.

Once this journalistic slag heap had been removed from the basement floor, I turned to the remaining boxes, and found -- more notebooks. But these were bigger ones, containing college lecture notes. There were also typed papers which had been written for college courses. The notes went directly to the Dumpster -- the ones from the accounting course gave me a creepy shiver when I touched them, like the feeling some people say they get when they touch a snake -- but I was curious about the papers.

Impassioned but incoherent

I started flipping through them. There was an essay comparing a poem by Keats with one by Wordsworth; it seemed slightly sophomoric, perhaps because it was written by a sophomore. There was a turgid discussion of Dr. Johnson as a moralist. There was an impassioned but quite incoherent effort to explain certain metaphors in the hunting stories of Faulkner.

It wouldn't have taken long for Sherlock Holmes to determine, inspecting these, that he was in the basement of a former English major. (Of two former English majors, actually, but the other one keeps her notes and papers in much better order, certainly not in rotting boxes in the middle of the base- ment floor. And I'm sure she never got a C-.)

And not only was it the basement of an English major, Watson, but as the grades and comments at the end of most of the papers confirmed, it was the basement of an extremely undistinguished one.

''A clearly written essay, but it lacks thoroughness. C+.''

''A good beginning, but unpersuasive. B-.''

''Disappointingly superficial. C.''

It was easy to see, even by the likes of Dr. Watson, why the writer of this sludge eventually became a journalist instead of a professor of literature. These neatly typed papers reflected enthusiasm for the subject matter, but they were clearly not the work product of a future Lionel Trilling, or even a Stanley Fish.

As it happened, that was just as well. The study of literature on most campuses today bears little resemblance to what it was 35 or 40 years ago, ever since the deconstructionists, semioticians, hermeneutical Marxists and psychocritical theoreticians got ahold of it, forced it through fine-mesh political screens, and sucked all the juice out. But that's a subject for another day.

Anyway, the basement floor is so clear now you could write a poem on it. You might even be able to get a government grant for doing so.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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