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Having to defend John Milton


Stanley Fish has recently written an online essay for the New York Times that defends the committed lifelong engagement with John Milton as educationally worthwhile.  I thought the essay eloquent and, to be blunt, entirely unobjectionable, the sort of paean to the liberal arts (or, more narrowly, to the humanities) any literate person would support.  Yes, Fish couldn’t help taking shots along the way at the cult of Shakespeare (he appreciates Milton more because his own voice booms more clearly through his characters; with Shakespeare, Fish argues, there are “many voices but [WS] identifies with none of them”), and that judgment I figured would provoke disagreement, but surely no reasonably intelligent person could deny the value to be derived from a close reading of Paradise Lost or Milton’s indispensable essay in defense of (mostly) free expression, the Areopagitica.

Boy was I wrong.  Days later I’m still reeling from the realization that even among, of all people, the highly educated readership of the New York Times (and not only that, but those who would choose to take the time to read an essay by a literary critic like Stanley Fish in the New York Times), many will dissent from the value from humanistic work so deeply as to say so in print.   It was unexpected.

One respondent weighs in to argue that college students would benefit more from a close textual analysis of the works of Milton Friedman than by wasting their time on a long dead poet (Sam Rainey:  “The fact that an entire academic career can be spent on John Milton speaks volumes about the triviality of academe.  Thank God that the Internet will soon destroy the traditional university and put these tenured featherbedders out of work for good”).  Another seems to express skepticism that “keeping the conversation going” justifies a Milton career.  Yet another accuses those interested in Milton with having what the commenter called “daddy awe” (which seems to refer to the fact that some readers are awestruck by his eloquence).  Ana wonders why Professor Fish and the other readers have missed the real question:  “why only the weakest mind of every class take up literary studies.”  Huh?  And Daniel criticizes academics for preferring the “obscure” over the “popular” (specifically, movies):  “a lot of the feelings about literature stem from wanting to be important.  Take away the importance; would anyone still care about Milton?”

Sometimes the comments at least reflect evidence that Milton has been read; some call attention to his sexism (comment #136 is particularly well argued), others to his sectarianism (Mike writes that “Milton is a Christian bigot, which I could live with” – hmmm – “but he is a bore which I can’t”).  To their credit, many pushed right back at the “featherbedders” commentary.  Others thank Fish for directing their attention to Milton’s work. And I suppose without further information one cannot really generalize (perhaps Ana is a junior high school student; maybe Sam Rainey is playing a joke on everyone).

But what comes through in the negative comments are the stereotypes one might hope would lack salience for the educated:  that scholars are pointy-headed and weird, that they are freeloading on others who are doing real work, that their interest in great fiction is more a fetish than an interest reflecting literature’s true value, and so on.  Whether such sentiments reflect a lack of intellectualism or a refusal to do the hard mental work necessary to engage works like Paradise Lost, or perhaps a failure of humanistic scholars to adequately defend their enterprise, one cannot finally know – and maybe it’s both.  But the expression of such dismissiveness is depressing nonetheless, and especially so for emerging from the readers of the nation’s leading newspaper.

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