Traveling salesman job? Yes, I was desperate, looking for anything to get me out of the dusty, drowsy seminar rooms of graduate school and the endless succession of other dusty, drowsy seminar rooms that choosing an academic career portended. Anything to get me on the road, any road. I was in grad school because I loved reading literature, but literature does not, cumulatively, make the case for spending your life in classrooms studying and teaching literature. And abjuring graduate school does not mean you must end your romance with literature—in fact the opposite could be true. There’s this thing called “reading” which could be done, according to my understanding, outside dusty seminar rooms.
(In fact, if you're interested in learning as opposed to credentials and career, I would advise, immediately upon leaving college, taking out a subscription to the London Times Literary Supplement which has been for me a vastly useful way of keeping in touch with the greatest minds and clearest thinkers and writers in academia—and finding copious reading recommendations—which will serve you better than most graduate schools and is far cheaper.)
In any case, those with souls so dead they stay in graduate-school literature programs as they are now taught are precisely the ones who shouldn’t—but do—end up teaching literature and telling students things like Hamlet’s last soliloquy is superfluous. Needless to say there are exceptions. I single out some brilliant Shakespeare scholars such as Ann Thompson and Russ McDonald in my book. But it is a sad fact that it is the people too timid to taste life without the prospect of tenure who stay behind and ruin literature for the students in graduate school who have any life left in them.
And, in fact, as many have noted, the choice to go to graduate school may only offer the illusion of comfort and security—these days it's an arduous path that only rarely leads to tenure; for the unwary it's a wild and expensive gamble with no guarantee of security.
Looking back, I’m still amazed that I’d acted on my impulse to get out of there, because I was not a venturesome soul. Not timid, but no swaggering badass On the Road type, either. It is a testament to the degree and the quality of the boredom I felt that I found myself flipping through Village Voice classifieds.
Indeed, I’d found myself in fairly cushy circumstances at Yale that argued for staying on. I was there on a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship which was designed to lure Yale undergraduates into graduate school life by giving them a seductive package of perks—official appointment to the Yale faculty (as a subassistant junior instructor or something, but still). And I was given junior fellow privileges at my residential college, where one of my fellow fellows was Stephen Greenblatt. (Go ahead and go to graduate school if you think you’re as smart as Greenblatt.)
The responsibilities were not especially onerous—teaching just one freshman literature seminar (although I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning to spend hours preparing for each class), and taking one graduate seminar a semester.
That fall, I was pleased that I’d been accepted into a Yeats seminar taught by none other than Richard Ellmann, known as the Yeats scholar of our time whose biographies of the poet and of James Joyce are still monuments.
What a disappointment! Everything about it. Ellmann was sedulously, reductively, droningly biographical in his approach to Yeats. Every luminous poetic line was dragged down to its mundane source in Yeats’ life, just the opposite of what Joyce did with his Dublin which was to raise the mundane to the sublime.
And all around me the graduate students in my seminar silently nodded, not with weariness, but with careerist sycophancy. With one exception, a young woman who was, like me, seething at the dullness of the class. Her name: Camille Paglia. Need I say more?
The second-semester seminar was somewhat better, a Shakespeare class with Howard Felperin, whose small renown in academic circles came from becoming a hardcore deconstructionist and then, years later, having second thoughts. I liked him. I liked Shakespeare, but again the students, the dusty drowsy seminar rooms ...
And there were the grad school sherry parties, the faces flushed with alcohol, the musty smell of damp tweed, the jockeying for position around such rising stars of sophistry as Harold Bloom. And the grad school culture, beery, sneery sessions with fellow students who seemed to evince no love of literature, just a lack of imagination. Was this what I wanted from life?
But I could have stayed, I could have played the grad school game. I had a cute townie girlfriend, Joyce. I had a good life with the prospect, after some thesis labor, of a secure tenured lifetime.
But it was beginning to feel like a life sentence.
Fortunately, I had had two experiences of life beyond grad school before then; one romantic, and one hardboiled.
The first came the summer before I started grad school, when I had scammed second-class press tickets to the Democratic National Convention from a hometown local daily, the Suffolk [Long Island] Sun. The Sun was a short-lived Cowles Publishing Company venture that nonetheless got the DNC to recognize my press pass. I drove out to Chicago in a beat-up Chevy and found myself in the middle of the wild riotous ’68 Democratic convention. Shifting from the posh interiors of the convention hotels to the tear gas and billy clubs in the street, I met a woman and convinced her we should leave the hectic violence and head for the lakeshore where (according to some sketchy info I had) Allen Ginsberg was going to be chanting for peace at sunrise. We never found Allen Ginsberg, but we did find ourselves alone on the beach as the sun rose.
It was an impossibly romantic dream of a first newspaper experience, and you can probably see why it spoiled me for the dusty seminar rooms.
And then in the middle of my graduate school year something else happened that proved to be even more decisive. I didn’t think it would be possible to replicate the romance of Chicago and had kind of given up on the idea of being a writer, when the same Suffolk paper offered to let me work as a daily reporter during winter break, where I was given the job of under-assistant police reporter.
This was what I wanted, this was what I found I loved. Hanging out with cops and criminals. Being up close and personal with crime and punishment, not just writing papers on it.
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