The Glow from The Fire Next Time

When you’re branded “the ugliest boy,” the sense that the world is on a precipice is where you begin in life, not a revelation somewhere in adulthood. Being labeled a perverted black nihilist in a world hunting for targets of hatred makes every paragraph urgent. Baldwin was writing for his life, and the nation looked away.

Read the full essay in The New York Times Book Review


Truman Capote Award Acceptance Speech

Iowa City, October 19, 2016

Reprinted with permission in The Chronicle of Higher Education    

If it’s worth coining a term for the sort of work that a few other scholars and I are doing, we might call it “Narrative Historicism.” Narrative Historicism is like any other historicism in that it assumes a text’s significance is not immanent but rather radiates outward from the author to the author’s family, influences, preoccupations and further outward to friends and allies, editors and publishers and still further outward to cultural habits and biases, to legal, political and economic institutions. Historicism thinks that all of these ghosts are hovering nearby whenever a reader picks up a book.

Historicism imposes order upon chaos. It finds patterns in the boggling immensity of the past. What fascinates the historicist is how a book ripples out across the wide surface of a culture, how literary intentions end up serving unforeseen interests, how meanings get warped, how people may grow rich or suffer, how what was an expression of freedom now becomes a trap, how what was virtuous now becomes immoral.

Narrative Historicism uses storytelling as its method of imposing order. It inverts the standard critical structure. Rather than embedding stories in an argument, it embeds arguments in a story. The narrative asserts relevance, identifies influence and qualifies importance. It draws out nuances of personality, of moments in time, of settings and disputes and gestures. Criticism is not distant. Literary history accumulates from a litany of intimacies, from the small, day-to-day experiences of men and women of letters. Recreating those experiences is as crucial as forming arguments about them. In fact, it doubles as an argument about them. Narrative details serve critical purposes. The size and style of James Joyce’s notebooks are important. It matters not just that Ezra Pound was one of Joyce’s early allies but that he was the sort of child who would ask Santa Claus for a battle-axe and a globe. It matters not just that Sylvia Beach dared to publish Ulysses but that she was so supremely kind and yielding almost to a fault.

We can, of course, apply these methods to literary criticism itself. How it is produced, funded and disseminated shapes its content. Writing on a laptop differs from writing on a typewriter or with a pen and paper. The difference between a trade press and an academic press matters. It matters that literary critics almost always work under the auspices of universities. It matters that criticism receives the support of fellowships, grants and awards.


This award was created in memory of Newton Arvin, an English professor at Smith College who was charged with lewdness and possession of obscenity after officers from the Massachusetts “pornography unit” ransacked his apartment in 1960. Arvin’s real crime was that the sexually explicit material he owned was homosexual. During the investigation, Arvin apparently named two untenured faculty members at Smith who also possessed allegedly obscene material. The courts ultimately overturned the professors’ convictions, but Smith College suspended Arvin from teaching and cut his salary in half. He died in 1963. The two untenured faculty members were fired, and Smith has never apologized. This award for literary criticism acknowledges an injustice perpetrated by a profession that failed to live up to its own values. There is some satisfaction in knowing that, decades after these men suffered under obscenity law, this year’s award in Arvin’s memory honors the history of James Joyce’s struggles against the very same censorship regime.

I accept the Truman Capote Award in this spirit of justice. I would be remiss, therefore, if I did not address another injustice tarnishing the literary critical profession. I am, so far as I can tell, the first adjunct faculty member to receive this award. To be sure, I have one of the best non-ladder positions available. My paychecks cover my bills. I have health insurance. I can work full time. I know by the end of June if my appointment is renewed for the fall. And yet I am one of over one million non-tenure-track instructors working on a temporary or contingent basis and whose position offers no possibility of tenure. To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be cancelled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment. They rarely receive benefits and have virtually no say in university governance.

Yet to talk about adjuncts is to talk about the centerpiece of higher education. Tenured faculty represent only 17% of university instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled. And the so-called “part time” designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously. A 2014 Congressional report suggests that 89% of adjuncts work at more than one institution. 13% work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. In 2013 the Chronicle of Higher Education began collecting salary and benefits information from adjuncts across the country. An English Department adjunct at UC Berkeley, for example, received $6,500 to teach a full-semester course. To read the employment details from thousands of people teaching courses in language and literature is a demoralizing experience. It’s easy to lose sight of all those people struggling beneath the data points:

The University of Texas at Austin: $8,500 for a full course.

Columbia University: $6,000

The University of Chicago: $5,000

Vanderbilt: $5,900

Duke: $7,000

             The University of Iowa: $5,950

These are the high numbers. According to the 2014 Congressional report, the median adjunct pay per course is $2,700. An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” per year. Other studies have similar findings. 31% of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line. 25% receive public assistance, Medicaid or food stamps. One English Department adjunct who responded to the Congressional survey said that she sold her plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daughter’s daycare. Another woman stated that she teaches four classes a year for less than $10,000. She writes, “I am currently pregnant with my first child… I will receive NO time off for the birth or recovery. It is necessary [that] I continue until the end of the semester in May in order to get paid, something I drastically need. The only recourse I have is to revert to an online classroom […] and do work while in the hospital.” 61% of adjunct faculty are women.

You have asked me to speak to you today about literary criticism, and so we might note that the conditions ravaging our profession are also ravaging our work. The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. Junior faculty play it safe—conceptually, politically and formally—because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture.

If my book deserves recognition, then we must also recognize that no young scholar with any sense would be foolish enough to write it. Graduate students must tailor their research projects to a fickle job market, and a book like mine simply doesn’t fit. Few academic presses publish narrative literary history, and what’s worse is that my book is a microhistory—it chronicles the publication of just one novel. The job market’s clearest demand is that a candidate must demonstrate breadth in research—especially if he or she works in a traditional field. This year, for example, there are only eight tenure-track jobs seeking a scholar of British modernism. And yet even this tally is too generous because all eight of those departments are looking for someone whose expertise covers two or more centuries of British literature. The message is clear: Stick to the old dissertation formula—six chapters about six authors. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees a trade book is merely a book that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.


We cannot blame this professional anemia on scarce funding. The largest adjunct faculty increases have taken place during periods of economic growth, and high university endowments do not diminish adjunctification. Harvard, for example, has steadily increased its adjunct faculty over the past four decades, and its endowment is $35.7 billion. This is larger than the GDP of the majority of the world’s countries.

The truth is that teaching is a diminishing priority in universities. Years of AAUP reports indicate that budgets for instruction are proportionally shrinking. Universities now devote less than one-third of their expenditures to instruction. Meanwhile, administrative positions have increased at ten times the rate of tenured faculty positions. Sports and amenities are much more fun. Last month, the University of New Hampshire made news when one of its librarians, Robert Morin, saved fifty years of paychecks so that he could give $4 million back to the university upon his death. UNH spent $1 million of the librarian’s gift on a 30 x 50-foot High Definition scoreboard for their new $25 million football stadium. The university defended its decision by stating that the donation was used for “our highest priorities and emerging opportunities.” English Department adjuncts at the University of New Hampshire typically receive $3,000 per class. They already knew they weren’t a high priority.

And why should they be? Amidst competing budgetary pressures, classroom instruction is the easiest expense to cut, and part-time employees aren’t just cheap. They also provide curricular flexibility. Unpredictable course enrollments encourage administrators to find faculty who can be hired and fired just as unpredictably. Adjuncts help departments offer an ever-changing menu of courses.

But the problem goes deeper than administration as well. It’s systemic. The key feature of adjunctification is a form of labor market polarization. The desirability of elite faculty positions doesn’t just correlate with worsening adjunct conditions, it helps create the worsening conditions. The prospects of intellectual freedom, job security and a life devoted to literature combined with the urge to recoup a doctoral degree’s massive time investment give young scholars a strong incentive to continue pursuing tenure-track jobs while selling their plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This powerful incentive generates a labor surplus that depresses wages. Yet academia is uniquely culpable. Unlike the typical labor surplus created by demographic shifts or technological changes, the humanities almost unilaterally controls its own labor market. New faculty come from a pool of candidates that the academy itself creates, and that pool is overflowing. According to the most recent MLA jobs report, there were only 361 assistant professor tenure-track jobs in all combined fields of English literature in 2014. The number of English PhD recipients that year was 1,183. Many rejected candidates return to the job market year after year and compound the surplus. It gets worse. From 2008 to 2014, tenure-track English Department jobs declined 43%. This year there are, by my count, only 173 entry-level tenure-track job openings—less than half of the opportunities just two years ago. If history is any guide, there will be about nine times as many new PhDs this year as there are jobs. One might think that the years-long plunge in employment would compel doctoral programs to reduce their numbers of candidates, but the opposite is happening. From the Great Recession to 2014, U.S. universities awarded 10% more English PhDs. In the humanities as a whole, doctorates are up 12%.

Why? Why are humanists so indifferent to these people? Why do our nation’s English departments consistently accept several times as many graduate students as their bespoke job market can sustain? English departments are the only employers demanding the skills that English doctoral programs produce. So why do we invite young scholars to spend an average of ten years grading papers, teaching classes, writing dissertations and training for jobs that don’t actually exist? They do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.

The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new PhDs who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates. Adjuncts now do the majority of university teaching and grading at a fraction of the price so that ladder faculty have the time and resources to write. We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.

All of this is to say that the profession of literary criticism depends upon exploitation. Even this formulation is too soothingly vague, so let us be more direct: If you are a tenured (or tenure-track) faculty member teaching in a humanities department with PhD candidates, you are both the instrument and the direct beneficiary of exploitation. Your roles as teacher, adviser and committee member generate, cultivate and exploit young people’s devotion to literature. This is the great shame of our profession. We tell our students to study literature because it will make them better human beings, that in our classrooms they will learn empathy and wisdom, thoughtfulness and understanding. And yet the institutions supporting literary criticism are callous and morally incoherent.

No one, of course, signed up for this. You wanted to teach Milton and Toni Morrison. You wanted to change the way we understand novels and plays. You agree that the current state of affairs is awful. It makes you sad the way local decisions ripple out across the wide surface of a culture, how literary intentions end up serving unforeseen interests, how people may grow rich or suffer, how what was an expression of freedom now becomes a trap, how what was virtuous now becomes immoral.  


I sometimes wonder when the ripples widened out beyond what I had imagined. Earlier this year, I sat next to two professors at the plenary session of a graduate student conference. The students have been presenting their research all weekend, and now they are listening to us. “What is your advice?” a student asks. “Get your hands dirty,” one of the professors says, “throw yourself into your work. Don’t be afraid.” He is a good person. He is an important scholar and an inspiring teacher. He grew up in a communist country, immigrated to the United States and threw himself into his love for literature. He worked his way up, as we say, published several books, received tenure during the Clinton administration, won fellowships and awards, and now, in 2016, he is offering advice about bravery to graduate students surviving on ten thousand dollars a year. This is the neatly-dressed underclass of his department, the people who, when he wasn’t looking—because he didn’t go to yesterday’s luncheon—furtively filled their tote bags with leftover fruit and potato chips.

How did we become like this? What does the narrative historicism of this profession look like? It looks like the bright twenty-one-year old peeking his head into office hours seeking advice about grad school and your wanting to help. It looks like the papers stacked on the wobbly café table of the adjunct who doesn’t have an office. It looks like the miles ticking away on her shabby car’s odometer. It looks like the hiring committee member who, by the time you’ve given your job talk, still has not bothered to read your application’s cover letter. It is coming to terms with the appalling fact that you have spent the better part of the last decade applying for a seat at this table, trying to convince committees in hotel suites that you would be a more effective member of this particular team. It is the painful recognition that it never fully outraged you until the jobs didn’t work out.

It is the grad student about to make her first foray into the job market who nods in agreement about all of this in a crowded restaurant on a cold night in Madison, Wisconsin and who replies over her tepid coffee that she will have a better chance of changing the system from within. It is suddenly seeing yourself ten years ago. It is remembering how powerful the word “system” made us feel, how it tricked us into imagining locations and targets, pillars we could smash, wires we could cut. It is arriving at the proper sense of wonder at the atmosphere we once called “the system.” It is being told over the phone that you have won an award and finally getting that metaphor, finally grasping, after all these years, that change is more cunning than we were prepared for, that change is as gentle as the snow falling faintly onto the surface of the lake outside while we wait for the server to bring the bill.

You have asked me to speak to you today about literary criticism. This is what literary criticism feels like.


"The Banished: Aesthetic Exclusions in Narrative Nonfiction"

Narrative (October 2015)


         And if we’re being skeptical, why stop at letters? We can cast legitimate doubt upon the accuracy, motives, and significance of every historical document—from diaries and memoirs to court documents, censorship records, and eyewitness accounts regarding events that happened the same day. As I write these words, the American public has been watching unobstructed, close-range video footage showing a police officer choking an unarmed African American named Eric Garner to death, and a grand jury concluded that this documentation was not compelling enough even to indict the officer. No one who manages to come of age in a world where we question this morning’s filmed events will turn to an historian for “absolute truth”... the absence of caveats (perhaps, maybe, Joyce recalled) will seem like an assertion of absolute truth only if the reader convinces himself that absolute truth is the default setting of historical narrative. Yet most readers recognize that the narrative historian’s job is to tell a story despite its elusiveness and intractable uncertainty, to examine the available record and to fall short of the truth as minimally as possible. Writing the past is like aiming for a target with a gun that shoots bubbles.

Full Article



"On Joyce and Syphilis" 

Kevin Birmingham



"The disputes surrounding Joyce’s condition underscore the fact that reading is a biased enterprise. Readers are not neutral observers. We read with the qualms, motives, and filters that help us find order in complicated texts, and the more elaborate a text is, the more likely a motivated reading will find whatever it’s looking for. Motivations can exaggerate the significance of s-words and obscure other details that don’t quite fit. When we aren’t reading too much into a text, we read too little of it.

"Like all scholarship, the research surrounding Joyce’s biography has made a practice out of this selective blindness. Lyons and Ferris had opposite motives, but they both read Joyce’s injections of arsenic and phosphorus as nothing more than injections of arsenic. Ferris’s book misdescribes Joyce’s treatment as “injections of arsenic for three weeks,” omitting the key component entirely. Ignoring phosphorus altogether was convenient for both writers, as it allowed Ferris to argue that doctors treated Joyce for syphilis while permitting Lyons to insist that they were giving him arsenic for its “tonic” effects.  Ferris read “arsenic” and thought, “Aha! Arsphenamine!” Lyons read “arsenic” and thought, “Aha! Fowler’s Solution!” — an over-the-counter tonic containing small amounts of arsenic (without phosphorus) that had been available from pharmacists and snake-oil salesmen since the eighteenth century.

"Lyons disregarded the fact that Fowler’s Solution was never injected. Ferris focused on arsenic, apparently believed it was Salvarsan, and disregarded the likelihood that three weeks of the standard arsenical injections might very well have killed Joyce. Both readings treated “phosphorus” as irrelevant textual noise. Armed with interpretations that suited their purposes, Ferris and Lyons did not have a compelling reason to dig any further into pharmaceutical history, and so they didn’t. No one found the antisyphilitic medication written in Joyce’s letters because no one needed it."

Full Article


              Joyce's Syphilis Diagnosis: A Response to Objections

                  Galyl Advertisement       in     L'Union Pharmaceutique    71, no. 9 (1930), p. 571.                                                                       (Courtesy of   Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Santé)

                  Galyl Advertisement  in L'Union Pharmaceutique 71, no. 9 (1930), p. 571.

                                                           (Courtesy of Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Santé)

         Complete Research Notes for The Most Dangerous Book

                                       (Includes unpublished notes and sources)

          Complete Bibliography for The Most Dangerous Book