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Consistent Contrarian

The iconoclastic Yale scholar and critic is giving his personal papers and large library to a small Catholic college in Vermont.

This fall marks your 50th year teaching at Yale, during which you wrote such major works as The Western Canon. Donating your books and papers to Saint Michael's College in Vermont, then, seems quite a rebuff.

I wanted a place that would maintain my library as a kind of humanistic legacy after I go on and where the current political-theory garbage is not welcome. I am a lifelong, rather left-wing Democrat -- I would never vote for a Republican for dogcatcher -- but no one is more passionately opposed to the absolute garbage of what I call the "school of resentment": the horrible melange of what people call feminism and the French literary theory garbage that I have no patience for. At Yale, there are certain departments, like American studies, that have gone completely into this. At Harvard, too. The real exceptions to the lemmings leaping off the cliffs to destruction with their subject -- once my subject, literature -- are a few of the major Catholic universities, like Notre Dame and Catholic University, and a handful of old Catholic liberal arts colleges, such as Saint Michael's.

Can a small college do your library justice?

I believe I will double or even triple Saint Michael's special collections, so you see I can do some good there. And I do have a personal connection; I received an honorary degree there, and I am close to a former student of mine, who taught at Saint Michael's for decades -- John Reiss, a devout Catholic and a fine scholar.

When did you first go to a library?

I came out of a very poor, Yiddish-speaking family in the old east Bronx. Just a few streets away was a little branch of the New York Public Library, and I literally read through it when I was a little one. Then, clutching my nickels in my hand, I started down to the 42d Street main library, determined to read through that as well, but that was impossible, even by someone with my reading rates.

Might Saint Michael's become a haven for iconoclastic, Bloomsian thinkers?

Let me tell you a story: Many years ago, I put in two idyllic summers at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English, near Saint Michael's. We had a distinguished faculty, the wonderful John Frederick Nims and the wonderful classicist William Arrowsmith. I taught Keats and Shelley and Coleridge, for a course on six Romantic poets. And so my blood ran very cold when a former student told me that the absolute rot of literature had come to Bread Loaf. The course on the major English poets now includes Mary Tighe, Letitia Landon, and other "worthies." All of them combined could not write their way out of a paper bag. So I thought, how nice it would be if a real summer school of English could be set up again, in the ideal place of Vermont, to compete with Bread Loaf. I would love to have my distinguished friends there, like good old Helen Vendler at Harvard, and we can teach poetry correctly.

(Photo / Steve Miller)
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