Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Nine

The letter informing me of the acceptance of my book for publication could not have come at a more opportune time. My name had been before the department tenure committee for about a month. According to some discreet leaks from friends and sympathetic associates involved in the rating process, the word went something like this: You've compiled some interesting credits, Camden. Interesting--but not significant.

Subtext: UCLA is a research institute. Our graduates are placed in major universities throughout the world. They contribute an aura of books, papers, and interpretations, all of which push the appreciation and understanding of literature to new plateaus. They are significant. You are interesting.

Dan Binford, whom I considered neither friend nor sympathetic associate, seemed to take particular pleasure in asking me to coffee in order to tell me in his southern Missouri drawl that I was not only some distance from breaking new scholarly ground, I was in fact--his metaphor--plowing up acreage that had already been harrowed. Never one to keep his metaphors in control, Binford extended a patronizing pat on the arm before leaning in for the kill. "Your work is like Santa Monica Beach on a Monday morning, Howard. All those scavengers with the ear phones ad metal detectors are combing the sand, looking for lost pocket change, an occasional cheap wrist watch and, if they're lucky, a Swiss Army pocket knife." My publications and theories were, according to him, the scholarly equivalent of loose coins found between the cushions of a sofa.

Binford went on to assure me that he was pushing for my contract to be renewed at full course load for another year, this on the basis of my good evaluations from students. "After all, their opinions should count for something." But the implication was clear. Publish something substantial during the year or start looking for a job somewhere else.

This ultimatum was ratified by my wife, Sylvia. Although her subjects were art and art history and she was at Santa Monica College, she too, it seemed, knew someone on the tenure committee." "The thing I'm concerned about," Sylvia said, "is all that time and effort we invested toward your Ph.D."

Translate that to mean, Where would I go if UCLA didn't rehire me? Translate that to mean joining the army of academic gypsies on part-time contract to three or four different schools in the L.A. Basin, spending as much time commuting from one
campus to another as in the classroom. Translate that to mean being so low on the totem pole that at least half my classes would be Freshman Comp.

Translate Sylvia's concern about the time and effort going into my Ph.D. as reflecting her awareness of being tenured at Santa Monica and not having the slightest intention of leaving the L.A. Basin, much less the state, in order to be with me if I had to take something out of California.

It might as well have been a notation on my curriculum vitae: Interesting but not significant credits. In the Biblical sense, I'd been held in the balance and found wanting. Mene, mene, tekel upharshin. Existentially, it was Close, but no cigar.

Then the letter from J. Digby Wolfram came, changing everything.

The letter would have been delivered sooner, but one of the departmental secretaries thought it was nothing more than the kinds of inducements we get from publishers with maddening regularity, urging us to consider new text books. If in the line of the blind--as H.G. Wells put it--the one-eyed man is king, it must also follow that in the land of academia, departmental secretaries know things first. Jennifer was nothing but cordial and solicitous toward me, asking with regularity if I needed typing, photocopying, or even help with my filing. Asking secretaries to fetch coffee was a political taboo as well as a departmental no-no, but this self same Jennifer could not bear to let me have a visitor in my office for more than fifteen minutes before asking if she could bring us coffee. And so when I tell you that Jennifer knew, she was current on my status in the department, you must not suppose she had any other than the most kindly of agendas when she delayed bringing me Wolfram's letter.

Jennifer was sparing me an advertisement. Why else would Yale University Press be writing to me? She told me this in an excited rush when I arrived for my office hours one Thursday afternoon and was told Wolfram had called from New Haven, wondering why--why the bloody hell? were his exact words--I hadn't responded to his letter.

I could scarcely contain my enthusiasm nine months earlier wen Wolfram, responding to my query, invited me to send along the entire manuscript of The Widening Gyre: Text and Textuality in Nineteenth Century American Fiction. The intervening time was a personal torment. Outside of Sylvia, it would have been bad form for me to tell anyone, even as a casual aside. Everyone in the department wants to be published by Yale or Princeton. Only Cambridge or Oxford would have ranked higher. Indiana is also an occasion for champagne and before Ronald Wilson Reagan began dismantling the University of California, even our own press had a cachet of respectability. But you didn't say--didn't even think--you had a book at Yale until you got back what I got from Wolfram: an agreement to publish.

My fingers shook as I read the document, and you will think me an incredible bombast when I tell you how, with my mind's ears, I heard the aria from Lakmi, sung by the princess and her maid. But nevertheless, there I was, the shaking fool, complete with audiohallucination.

The Widening Gyre: Text and Textuality in Nineteenth Century American Fiction brought me two direct results: an offer of publication by a respected university press and a unanimous vote of tenure in the most prestigious English Department of the University of California system. There were two tangential results. I was hit==no, hit doesn't do the matter justice--I was blindsided by the same force that had validated me and what I now like to think of in metaphor as the onion of my marriage to Sylvia was peeled away to the point where noting recognizable was left.


R.L. Bourges said...

First of all, congratulations for the contract, Camden! Excellent news! And I'm fairly confident that treating the topic from a 19th century perspective allows for a much-needed amount of distanciation. At least in the widening gyre part of the exercise. A useful counterweight to the deep and deadly part related to well, the slouching, shall we say.
A very difficult exercise indeed. Requiring at least as much technique and vocal control as the flower duet, n'est-ce pas?
Vous placez la barre très haute, monsieur. Oh. Sorry: you are placing the jumping bar very high, sir. But that's what master classes are all about, non? For the students as well as the teacher. Or else, à quoi bon? Sorry again. I meant; of else, what's the point?
Best of luck with Chapter 10, Shelly. Something tells me it's going to get much tougher before it gets easier - for everyone.

R.L. Bourges said...

I don't mean to hog the optic fibers here (says she, hogging the optic fibers) but the question is truly a key one - at least for this reader: does the author know what it is Camden will discover about himself as the process unfolds?
Or is the author finding out along with his main character?
In other words; is the author the Virgil to his character's Dante? Or are the character and its author still finding out who's who?
and now I will really let the matter rest - and try to do as much.