An American Comedy

Assistant Professor Kenneth Lynn gazed dolefully upon the countenance of a restless mob of 250 in Harvard Hall 4 yesterday, the heavy black circles around his sad eyes suggesting he grows old before his time.

"I don't like giving big courses," he said wearily. "I'm teaching English 7, and this course, English 272, is supposed to be a discussion course. There are two alternatives: this a lecture course and let everybody in, or, second, to limit enrollment. I'm afraid we'll have to take the second. I had hoped to limit it to 25 students, but I see we'll have to take 50."

The restless mob of 250 sniffed sympathetically. Luckless Lynn apparently was the only man in the English Department who was willing to talk about modern American literature.

Our operative, who shares Lynn's distaste for mobs, joined the Assistant Professor's mighty following as it shuffled in dejection down Harvard Hall's creaky stair. Reflected he:

"About 25 years ago or so, I recall, a venerable Harvard graduate, T.S. Eliot, placed on the market a remarkable criticism machine that fairly revolutionized the literary business. This ingenious invention, which closely resembled an old-fashioned washing machine but was of course so very much more than that, could wring out any piece of English prose that a skillful scholar introduced to its slithery maw. The Harvard English Department, never remiss in its respect for venerability, kept the criticism machine in perfect working order, oiling it, polishing it, loving it.


"One of the first effects of the technologicial age became apparent when scholars learned the machine best wringed out prose composed in the United Kingdom, composed preferably, before the start of the 19th century. Sadly, America was a land of haste and the automatic washer-dryer, and the work of American prosewriters proved too crude, too harsh, for the Eliot machine's sensitivities. No fools, the scholars did not be-tray their beloved machine, and respected its sensitivities; they didn't bother much with trying to process American literature, particularly modern American literature.

"Some years later, another man with a Harvard connection (gloriously!),I.A. Richards, sold his first gleaming set of metrical tools. Designed primarily for processing poetry, this stunning new creation did not supplant the earlier innovation; indeed, Richards' tool set complemented the Eliot invention, and enhanced its production. Now all they need do, the scholars found, was unplug a poem, take up one or other of their finely-honed tools, twist, unscrew, and lay out the various parts of its whole, thereby finding a meaning never before revealed. (In fairness, these scholars took up their tools, put the poem back together, and plugged it in again, so others, also on life tenure at a university, could unplug it once more and reveal its meaning.) Unfortunately for the poets of America, the tool set worked best on the august Poets-Across-the-Sea, preferably very dead ones.

"As anyone can see, the introduction of such titillating technology had a deleterious effect on criticism of American literature. Because one of the major aims of the professorial business is the preservation of the scholarly race, few young men became critics of American letters. Clearly, young men saw little advantage in tilling with their hands, when across the fence in the field of Englishliterature, large and aggressive machines were making hay.

"If Assistant Professor Lynn seemed lonely, and if his 250 admirers felt rather empty as they shuffled down the Harvard Hall stair, they could take succor in the knowledge they are admirable sacrifices to technology. That only American History-and-Literature seniors and graduate students could learn of Norris and Faulkner, Fitzgerald and West was unimportant--for perhaps they, someday, might venture forth on Assistant Professor Lynn's lonely course, there to edify later generations. It is a good thing the English Department doesn't pay much attention to Henry Adams any more."