John DrydenTo help me with an article I’m writing, I spent part of yesterday reading two articles about John Dryden’s 1681 poem, Absalom and Achitophel, a satire written during the so-called exclusion crisis, an effort to exclude Catholics from the throne of England. In this poem, Dryden (pictured here) uses Biblical history — the story of David and his rebellious son Absalom — as a metaphor for the current English situation of Charles II and his rebellious son, James Scot, duke of Monmouth. While the particulars of this research probably aren’t of much interest to anyone but me, I soon became fascinated by the gender politics of the scholars themselves and what this politics means about the state of literary criticism.

I started reading an article by Jerome Donnelly, a retired professor at the University of Central Florida. His article, entitled “‘A Greater Gust’: Generating the Body in Absalom and Achitophel,” was published in Papers on Language and Literature Vol. 40 in 2004. The article quickly turns into a diatribe against another essay written by Susan Greenfield and published in ELH in 1995 and reprinted as part of a collection of essays entitled Inventing Maternity: Politics, Science, and Literature, 1650-1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 1999). Her essay is “Aborting the ‘Mother Plot’: Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel.”

After reading the first couple of paragraphs of Donnelly’s article, I had to run to the library and check out Greenfield’s essay — his dismissal of her work was so vehement that I knew I had to read her essay first and then come back to his. (My first thought, in fact, was, “This is going to be good!”) In her work, Greenfield examines Dryden’s construction of the maternal in his poem. She concludes that “the poem’s emphasis on David’s promiscuity is gradually replaced by references to a feminine sexual desire and productivity so dangerous that the king appears politically reliable by contrast” (86). In effect, Greenfield argues that Dryden attempts to absolve Charles II’s promiscuous activities, which have, in effect, led to the exclusion crisis, by associating his rebellious son with the feminine and the feminized. She supports her reading with evidence from the period’s political theory (Filmer and Locke, especially) and from a close reading of the poem.

Before moving on to Donnelly’s article, let me offer a brief evaluation of Greenfield’s essay. In sum, I think it’s a very provocative and interesting reading of Dryden’s poem. Her analysis of how certain conservative political thinkers erase or demonize maternal authority in order to privilege patriarchal authority is especially well taken. Her demonstration that Dryden, also a conservative, draws upon such erasure and demonization (whether consciously or unconsciously) is also fairly convincing.

But Donnelly will have none of this reading. He especially decries the combination of feminism and deconstruction in literary criticism. He rejects any notion that Aristotle and Dryden “operate from a sexist position” (117), a rejection that immediately undermines his point of view — the Restoration is nothing if not sexist. Even the women are sexist. Heck, we’re all still pretty sexist today — why wouldn’t Dryden be sexist too?

His article explicitly presents itself as a refutation of Greenfield’s essay. I should immediately point out that Donnelly is absolutely correct about at least one point: Greenfield quotes from an early, famous passage from Absalom and Achitophel,

Not so the rest; for several Mothers bore

To Godlike David, several Sons before.

So since like slaves his bed they did ascend,

Not true Succession could their seed attend. (13-16)

arguing that it is particularly “confusing” (91). Donnelly rightly rejects this idea; this passage is not especially confusing, and Greenfield does seem to set it up as such just so she can ultimately delineate its meaning for us. This is an unnecessary move on her part, and it allows Donnelly to score some easy points.

Along with this bit about this passage being “confusing,” Greenfield argues that Charles II is depicted as a rapist and has a homoerotic fondness for his own son. Both of these points are rejected by Donnelly. I have to agree that Greenfield needs to do a lot more work before asserting the rape charge; I also have to question her point about homoeroticism, but not for the same reason that Donnelly does, but I’ll get to that point later.

But there are at least two major problems with Donnelly’s refutation. First, while Greenfield does an excellent job of demonstrating mid-seventeenth-century political uses of Aristotle’s writings on the family and procreation, Donnelly “refutes” Greenfield’s analysis by explicating what Aristotle really says. According to him, she misreads Aristotle, which isn’t actually the case. She doesn’t read Aristotle at all. She analyzes Hobbes, Locke, and Filmer and their readings of Aristotle. They might completely misread Aristotle, but, if their contemporaries read them, then their misreadings inform works like Dryden’s poem. Donnelly never refutes this aspect of Greenfield’s essay. Instead of going back to Aristotle and explaining what he really said, he should have examined Hobbes, Locke, and Filmer, showing that Greenfield had misread them. He therefore fails to call into question one of the major points of her essay. Instead, he acts as if he’s corrected her reading when, in fact, he’s simply ignored it.

Second, Donnelly doesn’t play fair in his general characterization of Greenfield’s essay. In particular, he often fails to reproduce some of her quotes, attributing her analysis to other passages in the poem instead. For instance, when he takes on her point about David/Charles’s homoerotic love for his son, he reduces her argument to a point about Absalom’s “effeminate beauty,” which is not what she actually argues. She maintains that David/Charles has a narcissistic love for Absalom/Monmouth, that he sees himself in his son and therefore indulges his every desire and even works to fulfill his son’s sexual desires (by finding him a wife). The real problem with her argument is its reliance on a Freudian notion of homoerotic love as essentially narcissistic. But Donnelly doesn’t deal with that issue; instead he goes back to 2 Samuel to show that there’s no homoeroticism in Dryden’s source story (and therefore none in his poem).

For me, Donnelly’s article comes across as an example of an older, white male scholar who has so much hostility to feminist, deconstructive, and queer readings of his beloved Dryden that he can’t actually see the reading itself. Rather than taking Greenfield’s essay seriously and actually refuting her points, he (Lear-like) rails against the storm of these reading practices. This ultimately undermines his own credibility. Some of his points about Greenfield’s essay are true, but the failure to engage with her ideas truthfully and forthrightly makes him look like an outdated patriarch who is simply hostile to new modes of scholarship. Btw, it’s also weird that it took him nearly 10 years to publish his response to her work — you’d think he would have cooled off a bit by then and been able to read her work more objectively.

Today, PJ and I watched a few minutes of Elizabeth Kantor on CSPAN. She was giving a “lecture” at the Heritage Foundation to push her book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, in which she argues — without much evidence, apparently — that no one teaches Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Wordsworth, Dickens, Eliot, etc. anymore. Instead, she claims, we’re all too busy teaching film, pornography, feminism, and post-colonial texts to teach the canon. Even though she earned her PhD from UNC Chapel Hill, she comes across as rather dim and uninformed. According to one review of her book, Tom Landess writing for the conservative magazine Human Events, writes,

To drive home this point, Kantor reports that the program for the 2005 convention of the Modem Language Association (the professional organization for literary scholars) included the following topics: “Redeeming Violence,” “Marxism Now,” and “What Video Games Can Teach Us About Literature.” No mention of Wordsworth, Coleridge or Keats–dead white males.

I’m sure this comes as a surprise to the Wordsworth-Coleridge Association, who had a session at the convention. I don’t have the 2005 convention program in front of me right now, but in 2006 there were entire sessions devoted to Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton (4 on Milton, actually), Byron, and Dickens, and papers on Wordsworth and Coleridge, among other dead white guys. (Michael Berube has a great response to Landess’s article on his blog in the Nov. 29, 2006 entry.)

I can’t help but wonder if Donnelly’s half-assed rejection of Greenfield’s feminist reading of Absalom and Achitophel isn’t connected to Kantor’s half-assed vision of the academy. It’s true that some portions of Greenfield’s argument are unconvincing and probably wrong and it’s also true that many MLA sessions are a little bizarre. But these “critics” are too lazy and dishonest in formulating their criticisms to have any real effect on the academy, whether it’s the study of Dryden particularly or of literature generally. Instead, they write for audiences that already agree with them — other older scholars in Donnelly’s case and other conservatives in Kantor’s case — audiences that don’t ask real questions of their work. These are the writers that academic research need to be saved from — not us liberals, feminists, and queers.