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Laurie Colwin
Are Human Beings Obsolete?

Laurie Colwin: A Passion for New York

by Francis-Noël Thomas

The New York novelist and short story writer Laurie Colwin died at the age of forty-eight on 24 October 1992. Her books remain in print, and she continues to attract new readers. This is a personal remembrance.

When I first met Laurie Colwin in 1967, she worked in the rights and permissions department of, I think, the Viking Press and wanted to be a writer. The most immediately impressive thing about her as far as I was concerned was her ability to turn her miniascule one-room apartment on Bethune Street into a world. I had no way of judging her talents as a writer, but loved her deft cartoons. These came in two varieties: cruelly funny ones of fashion models and sentimental funny ones of immigrant Jewish professors from Germany. I still have the cartoon of the abstracted "Dr. Spatzieren" she made for me in 1969, and one of her dopey self-important fashion models decorates the title page of my copy of Passion and Affect, her first book of stories.

During the academic year after I moved to New York to teach at the New School, I saw her in that tiny and comfortable room almost every day. We had a wonderful time inventing celebrity characters such as Perrici Ruba, the millionaire industrialist, and his companion Jebba Garubu, the Aztec movie star, whom she drew and colored. We talked about doing a parody of the Vogue feature "People Are Talking About" in cartoons. At the time, I thought her great talent was for cartoons, but the cartoons were for the private amusement of her friends; her serious ambition was writing fiction.

One evening when I came for coffee, Laurie told me she had written a story and wanted to read it to me. She had just arrived home a few minutes before and hadn't yet settled in for the evening. She put the water on for coffee and then began to look through her bag for her notebook. The search became frantic as she realized she had left her notebook on the bus. After the obligatory "Are you sures" and "Let's look agains," she poured me a cup of coffee and told me to just sit there for a moment. Then she sat down at her desk and typed out the story from memory in about fifteen minutes. When she was finished, she smiled with relief, assured me she had got it all down again, and then read it to me. The story was "Mr. Parker." It was to be her first published story, and it was published where every serious fiction writer in New York wanted to publish at the time, The New Yorker.

Laurie went on to become the writer she wanted to be—well almost. Writers are never as successful in real life as they are in their fantasies. She had her fifteen minutes of fame, I suppose, with Happy All the Time, but she was never a celebrity either in the sense of someone like Ernest Hemingway (whose range is as narrow as hers) or in the sense of Harold Brodkey (whose range is narrower). She resented the fact that she would never be taken "seriously," never be the sort of person whose work is treated as a cultural event, never win a major prize, or be thought of as someone who knew the real secrets of human experience. Publication in The New Yorker was for her the ultimate validation of her talent. She published a half dozen or more stories there, but she never became a regular the way her contemporary, Ann Beattie, did. It was one of her disappointments.

She was a minor writer, and she was a New York writer. She was, moreover, the kind of minor writer whose collective work makes New York one of the world's great literary cities. Only Paris, London, and pre-war Vienna and Berlin among modern western cities have had so many of their sub-cultures refracted into literature. Her most memorable fiction falls into two categories. The first, represented by stories such as "Animal Behavior," observes people as a naturalist would. The characters do not make choices; they behave in a way determined by their environment, and their environment is the New York she knew: the New York of the marginal functionaries at great cultural institutions. The second, represented by what I always think of as the Guido and Vincent stories, are cartoons about trust-funders. They are like her drawings of self-important fashion models. They are often very funny, but they rest on her essential view of people as functions of a culture.

She had a deep affection for native New York varieties of self-deception. If she had written The Canterbury Tales, all of the pilgrims would have worked in meanial jobs at the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Collection, or the Pierpont Morgan Library and lived downtown or have been millionaire trust-funders and lived on the Upper East Side. The trust funders would have married one another, and so would the marginals. Every now and then a brilliant and sexually devastating, tart-tongued marginal of uncertain temper would marry a trust-funder who would adore her forever. Their route, like that of all her characters, would be shown to be—appearances to the contrary—a socially determined journey through life. The limits of her characters' pilgrimage would have been Wall Street to the south and the Cloisters to the north. That was Laurie’s territory; she knew it, loved it, and wrote it. In the end, no writer can be more successful than that.

Are Human Beings Obsolete?

by Francis-Noël Thomas

My work as a scholar centers on how particular ways of organizing concepts become commonplace. My areas of special knowledge are iconography—the diffusion of ideas through pictures—and the history of literary interpretation—the history of reading as a form of human thought. For almost all of my teaching career I have taught introductory courses in the Humanities in public colleges; my scholarly work finds direct expression mostly outside of my courses, in print or in talks at scholarly conferences or invited lectures.

Most students at my college have some idea what a course in computers is about, what a course in statistics is about, but they have no idea what their required course in "humanities" is about. They sometimes call it "humanity," and ask, without irony, what it is and what it is good for—good questions that are almost as old as humanity and have long served as a classic introduction to the Humanities. The fact that there has been no apparent progress in answering these questions since Socrates began to discuss them can lead to the conclusion that the Humanities are perpetually stuck in the same old rut. Something that belongs to the dead past rather than the vital future.

This is a view now widely shared among policy makers who direct and manage public institutions of higher education such as the one I work in, and among elected office holders who direct the public money that funds them. They think that the Humanities are obsolete or out of place for students who, above all, are trying to qualify themselves for stable employment at a living wage—"Good jobs at good wages" as one recent candidate for public office liked to say.

Although I make a living wage, I am—politely—regarded, like my subject, as obsolete. There are almost no jobs in my field. I was hired in 1976 and am the second most junior member in my department. Perhaps in another twenty years there won't be a Humanities department at my college. As I listened to President Clinton's speech to the delegates who had just nominated him as their party's candidate for the presidency at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I heard a confirmation of my obsolescence. We don't need to build bridges to the past (when a high school education could lead to a good job at a living wage); we need to turn colleges into job training centers. "Opportunity through education," the president called it. We don't need to bother with ideas from the past—or with ideas at all—we just need to learn computer skills, replace concepts with information, and connect every classroom in the country to an expensive highway to nowhere in particular.

Turning institutions of higher education first into markets for industry and then into technical schools, so that "humanity" can be reshaped to fill the needs of business is itself an idea from the past, one that Thorsten Veblen exposed for the fraud that it is in The Higher Learning in America, published in 1919—an exposition even older than Senator Dole—yet very timely reading.

I am pretty sure that the Humanities as an academic subject will be tossed off that bridge Mr. Clinton wants to build "all the way to the twenty-first century." But that doesn't mean the required curriculum of the Humanities will disappear because is not an artificial requirement. Let me explain.

The required Humanities curriculum for all of us begins shortly after birth when we set about learning to make visual sense of the world. Once we have succeeded, we forget we ever pursued such a curriculum and take what we have learned for granted. We do something similar when we make that astounding transition from helpless, vulnerable creatures without language to fully formed human beings who have mastered the most complex of human inventions: a natural language. Until we have learned to make visual sense of the world and mastered a natural language, we are wholly absorbed in "the Humanities."

In view of this universal human experience, it is ridiculous to defend the importance of the Humanities. It is like defending the circulation of the blood. It is equally ridiculous to talk about education in the Humanities as if it were somehow the rival of education in skills. Are there more important skills than seeing? speaking? reading? Are these foundation skills something apart from the Humanities? It is only after we have mastered these absolutely compulsory parts of the Humanities curriculum that it is possible to acquire those very limited, if sometimes very important skills, that allow people to occupy slots in business enterprises, or in professions.

But it is clear to everyone who bothers to consider the situation for ten minutes that human beings do not have as their purpose filling job slots. Perhaps beavers are "designed by nature" to build dams, perhaps certain families of dogs are "designed by nature" to retrieve balls, sticks, and dead ducks. The human family is quite different in this respect: we are uniquely equipped to make choices and to examine them. We are not "designed by nature" to sell skin-moisturizer to one another at a hefty markup, or outwit the IRS, or turn our pocket change into a comfortable nest egg speculating on the commodities market.

There is no education worth the name that ignores this situation. Any curriculum that banishes an extension of the basic universal curriculum in the Humanities to the margins and makes "skills" its central concern—when that means learning to fill a job slot that derives its value from a tenuous commercial situation that may disappear tomorrow—is engaged in turning human beings into drudges, machines that can be declared obsolete. This sort of curriculum is like a drug that gives a short jolt of pleasure and progressively turns a person into a wreck.

How did we ever get to the point where anyone seriously questions the value of the Humanities in higher education? The short answer is that we have allowed the dead hand of routine to turn vital inquiry and genuine discovery into inert information. Look at what passes for textbooks in the Humanities. They have, as a group, taken some of the most interesting things in the world and turned them into isolated and meaningless bits of information, and then placed those bits of information into apparently arbitrary categories. To use one of these textbooks as the basis of a course in the Humanities is to convince students that there is nothing in the Humanities worth knowing. No wonder politicians think the whole enterprise can be superseded by "computer literacy."

Any particular works that might be addressed in a Humanities course offer an opportunity to investigate the foundations of human understanding. How we interpret a particular text, image, or musical composition is an accessible index to how we think. Anyone doing a good job as a Humanities teacher has a concept of the subject as something dynamic that never can be reduced to a list of inert information. Teaching the humanities involves knowing particular works well—having a real command of their historical, intellectual, and technical settings—but this command of materials is only a beginning. The great achievements of art, music, philosophy, and literature have a value of their own, but they can never legitimately be the point of an undergraduate course in the Humanities, which is instead an opportunity to engage in a fundamental kind of research: one in which we discover our own human possibilities. Human beings are never going to be a match for machines at mechanical tasks. For that reason there are jobs in which people are being replaced by machines. But human beings have immense possibilities of which machines cannot even dream—since machines cannot dream at all. The Humanities are not our inert past, they are our human future. The subject will be obsolete as soon as people stop dreaming and start measuring themselves by the standards of machines.


This is the full text of a letter to the Editor of The New York Times in response to a front page article on academic publishing. A shortened version of this letter was published in the edition of 21 November 1996.

19 November 1996

The Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York City 10036-3959

To the Editor:

Peter Applebome's article "Publishers' Squeeze Making Tenure Elusive" (The New York Times, Monday, 18 November 1996 (National Edition), pages 1 and A12) draws attention—very tentatively—to the failure of university presses to fulfill their original purpose: the publication of scholarship. Mr. Appelbome takes a sympathetic approach to the presses. He says, for example that "financial pressures are making economically marginal books increasingly hard to justify." This is true only if the exclusive "justification" for publishing scholarly books is that they make money or at least break even. The most successful academic presses have found that they can do well if they have a foundation of steady sellers (reference books usually) and an occasional book that sells well for a period of years. These books (as well as subsidies from foundations) have allowed university presses to publish significant works of scholarship that initially will sell only three-hundred copies or so to libraries and a very few copies to individuals. At some universities, the presses are academic departments. I doubt that most academic departments at any university make a profit or are expected to do so.

What has happened is that the university presses are trying to publish books that will sell significantly more copies than libraries will buy. This leads them to prefer faddish subjects and well-known authors. The article quotes Walter Lippencott, the director of Princeton University Press, saying that the university presses publish far fewer monographs that they used to. What is much more significant is that presses such as the one Mr. Lippencott directs have changed what they publish in order to sell more copies of individual titles: they publish many fewer books on medieval and renaisaance subjects than on ninetweenth and twentieth-century subjects, for example. At the same time, they publish non-scholarship: books of quotations from Einstein, books about baseball, commentary by public figures. They have editors who will not look at first books because better known authors will sell more copies. This places the presses in a position they were never meant to occupy: deciding who can publish and what subjects scholars can write about.

University presses do not have an especially good record of recognizing significant books in the humanities. Once I began trying to get my own work published, I was amazed at hearing well-known scholars tell their war stories. Famous books that have sold well for thirty years were turned down by well-known presses because some editor who thought he knew all about "the market" couldn't imagine who would want to read them.

The obvious solution is one that Mr. Appelbome dismisses in a paragraph: electronic publishing. What gives a university press book its value as a professional credential is mainly the review process in which the manuscript of a book is reviewed by scholars. The problem now is that editors won't bother to have certain kinds of manuscripts reviewed. It doesn't matter how positive the reports by scholarly readers may be, whole categories of scholarship and whole categories of scholars have ben declared unpublishable. At the moment electronic publishing has far less standing than traditional publication because—given how inexpensive and easy it is to put even a book-length manuscript on the internet—there is no reasonably efficient way to sort out the significant from the competent and the competent from the incompetent. Scholars can, however, organize themselves into editoral boards and publish manuscripts electronically after the same sort of rigorous review now given to conventionally published books. There is no need for directors to set policy ("We have to stop publishing books on medieval liturgy; we can't get them reviewed in The New York Review of Books and can't sell enough copies of them—and no more first books on Milton's prosody, please; in fact, no more first books at all, unless they're about x"), or even worse, to become publishing impressarios, assembling the last scraps of Paul de Man into still another collection of essays, promoting lesbian poetics or whatever other hot-topic they wish to identify with. University presses, as a group, are no longer doing what they were originally organized and chartered to do. Instead they have become businesses, imitating the principles of larger, commercial publishers. Electronic publishing can replace them less expemsively and more efficiently as soon as scholars organize themselves to take back control of the publication of scholarship.

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