Opening Minds

The first time I met Alpers, I was terrified.

Last year, UC Berkeley English Professor Paul Alpers retired. He’s 68; he has grandkids to visit, travels to take. During his 38 years at Cal, he served as chair of the department, wrote and edited highly regarded books about poetry, translated Virgil’s Eclogues into English verse, and was the first director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary institute. He’s certainly not the best known Berkeley professor nor, probably, the best loved. But Alpers’ retirement comes just as the university–and higher education in general–undergoes what insiders call a sea change in vision.Not that Alpers is a dinosaur. He came of age in an academic climate that some dismiss as outdated, but over the years he has also incorporated newer ways of thinking into his own –theories such as deconstruction and new historicism, which strive, among other things, to expose the biases of the upper-class, white, academic establishment that set the rules for so long. (Before deconstruction, most scholars thought the aesthetic value of a poem or novel was self-evident and universal–not merely the product of Western culture.)

But over the past forty years, this new thinking has changed many literature classrooms by arguing, on the one hand, that any written text can hold different meanings for different people and, on the other, that works of literature are powerful tools in a sexist, imperialist, and classist culture.

“Things change,” Alpers reflects. “You change. Discussions go on, you see things differently.” But even so, at heart, his view of literature is cemented in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Nobody would say I’m a deconstructive critic, because I’m not. It always turns out I’m giving you a just account of what I think is the intention of the poem. That’s my blind spot.”

His search for certainty and wholeness comes out of New Criticism, a theory of literature that ruled the day when a young Paul Alpers showed up at Harvard in 1949. Championed by leading figures such as John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks, New Criticism asks readers to focus on the formal elements of a poem–how it uses language–rather than its political or cultural ramifications. In a New Criticism classroom, a student would be asked to read a poem closely, identifying specific rhetorical techniques and explaining how the author put words together to create the artistic effect. And that artistic effect would be deemed valuable in itself–and empirically provable, too.

“New Criticism reflected quite broad political shifts,” Alpers explains. “One of the obvious things that’s said about it is that it’s not socially elitist. The crucial thing that got rewarded was being very smart and observant; the validity of what you did as a reader of literature depended as little as possible on what you knew already. You didn’t need to bring a knowledge of Greek and Latin–you didn’t bring a knowledge of anything. The idea is, if you put a poem in front of a smart and willing ex-GI, you would get somewhere.

“The war really made a big difference with what happened to the universities,” Alpers says. “The experience of a citizen army had democratized things.” By the time Alpers got his Harvard PhD in 1959, the stage had already been set for significant changes in higher education. For one thing, the dominant role of the Ivy League was being undermined, opening the way for a broader spectrum of educational offerings for every high school student.And then there was Berkeley. Alpers arrived in 1962, which he calls “the heyday. It was [Gov.] Pat Brown’s University of California, and you could sense the expansiveness of the whole state.” The month Alpers got here, California surpassed New York as the most populous state in the union. It was also the peak of the state’s commitment to its university, to providing a first-class education to every qualified California high school student.”From a purely self-centered standpoint, professionally, it was the golden days for us–because there was never a question in the legislature about funds for the university.”

But in the ’60s, literary theory was shifting, reacting to social changes in much the same way that postwar demobilization had helped fuel New Criticism. This time, it was the Vietnam War protests and civil rights movement that got scholars thinking the academic status quo paralleled the chauvinistic attitudes that had gotten the US where it was now.

“It’s not an accident that all this frightening stuff–deconstruction and cultural relativism–came out of the ’60s,” Alpers says. “It clearly reflects the way this country was changing, and calls into question the formerly unquestioned rightness of our country’s dealings with the rest of the world.”

As for why a nonacademic should care about the abstruse changes in literary theory, Alpers has a long and appropriately professorial answer that goes right to the heart of the pressing issues the humanities face as enrollment figures grow and grow–and, potentially, budget cuts get deeper and deeper.

“If I were explaining to a layperson what all this stuff was about, my first example would be the important impact feminism has made,” Alpers says. “When I was in graduate school, you just didn’t ask questions about gender. You just took it for granted. Lady Macbeth was clearly a problem, but no one would have raised the question of the way women are by and large demonized in Macbeth. We never raised the question, ‘Is there something about the imagination behind this play that you want to interrogate?'”One of the major effects of the new theories was to reposition works of literature as cultural artifacts, not monolithic works of universal genius. Shakespeare was no longer “not of an age, but for all time,” as his contemporary Ben Jonson had eulogized, but a man responding specifically to the political and social context of his time. This idea, of course, potentially changes our reasons for reading literature–and our ideas about why the humanities are important and worth funding. “If literature is valuable, one of the reasons it’s valuable is because it’s about the life you’re living,” Alpers offers. “And you’re keeping alive things that would just disappear. Shakespeare’s an example where you can really see the public thinks it’s important to keep some understanding going–to understand what went into these plays, what they’re saying to us. The real problem of America has always been its provincialism–it’s dismayingly easy for Americans to be amazingly provincial about their experience and the significance of life. So works of literature from the past are very, very important for the cultural life of the nation. The work of the humanities is manifestly important to the health of society as a whole.”The hard part, of course, is convincing a state legislature to believe that. Alpers remembers the flush years of the ’60s and ’70s, when Cold War-driven fears pushed governments to fund scientific research–and other intellectual pursuits could ride the coattails of that push: “Sputnik did more for professors of English than anything else, because it meant, ‘Yes, we fund research; we’ve got to catch up with the Russians, beat the Russians.’ Congress was throwing money at research.”

Since the ’80s, it hasn’t been so easy. “The question now is: What’s the appropriate kind of funding?” Alpers asks. “Now you have to develop a much more focused case for the importance of research in the humanities, but a case absolutely can and should be made. The answer is, I think, that a lot of people are really interested in the things that get discovered.”

And as Cal admissions faces what is commonly called a tidal wave of new enrollment over the coming years, there will be more and more people putting their faith in higher education as the only life raft in an economy in which any success at all increasingly demands a bachelor’s degree. Paul Alpers won’t be there to guide them–but he wishes them well.

“Of my last two undergraduate classes,” he says, “the first was one of the three or four best classes I’ve taught. But the second was much more of a mixed bag. I thought at first, ‘Maybe I should have cashed in my chips a year early.’ But I got to love that class. There were at least six students over thirty, and one was a working mom who had been told by her supervisor that she couldn’t advance without a BA. She told me, in office hours, ‘I’m only here to get a degree.’ But I don’t have any complaints about that–because in the course of it, she was actually getting something out of it.”Hearing my former professor talk about teaching reminds me of how easy it was to get caught up in his world of poetry and aesthetics. The first time I met Alpers, though, I was terrified. It was my first year as a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley, and one of the classes for which I had signed up was already proving achingly tedious. So I was trying to get into Alpers’ class on the Renaissance poets Spenser and Milton a few days late. I hadn’t done the reading; I didn’t even have the text. And I was accustomed to professors who would respond with at least some degree of enthusiasm to any comment a student would proffer. “No, no, that’s not it,” he told a hapless fellow student. “That’s not right at all.” I never showed up for that class again. But a few years later, I did work up the courage to enroll in one of Alpers’ graduate seminars.I loved it, and he became my advisor as I muddled through my oral exams. To me, his class, and the discussions we would have in our weekly advisory meetings, were exactly what I had come to graduate school for: open inquiry and stimulating debate, laced with connections to so much in the literary canon that it seemed as if all of Western writing was working to solve the same central puzzle–would that I knew exactly what that puzzle was. But maybe it was merely the process–not the answer–that was important. Alpers strives for his students to achieve a certain idea of “literacy,” an easy familiarity with the characters and tropes that shape Western literary heritage.

Alpers was at a post-election event last fall, he tells me now, where some Democratic Party hack was railing against Ralph Nader. She compared Nader to Sancho Panza “tilting at his windmills,” Alpers says. “And I thought, ‘Well, if you think it was Sancho Panza who tilted at windmills–!’ I mean, does it matter that this woman is illiterate? I think it does.”

Previous articleGrappling With Tradition
Next articleGorilla Warfare
Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

overcast clouds
49 ° F
51.8 °
46 °
76 %
90 %
61 °
58 °
55 °
57 °
56 °