U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ready, Fire, Aim: A Writing in Life

My task for this summer is to start to figure out how in the world to begin to write a book.*  It is my most important writing obligation, my top priority.  I probably shouldn’t work on anything else.

But that’s not how I work.

If prior experience is any guide, then my book writing process will go something like this:  first I will do the writing, and then when I’m all done, I’ll figure out how to begin.  That sounds backwards, and it is, like serving a whole cake in Through the Looking Glass:  first you hand out a piece of cake to everyone, then you cut the cake for serving. But to do that you have to give yourself permission to not think about the whole; you have to let yourself think – and work — small.

Earlier this week I was able to share a small piece of my book-to-be in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I didn’t know this op ed was an actual part of my book when I wrote it – I thought it was just a quick, standalone reaction piece.  And of course it was just that:  1200 words pushing back against journalistic accounts of higher ed history that take at face value the notion that “the canon” purportedly lost or abandoned in the 1980s had ever existed in the first place.  The canon was an object of anxiety and conflict, certainly – but it was an imagined object.

The history of thought is replete with imagined objects — supposedly materially existing referents that, on closer inspection, dissolve into signs, and signs of signs.  Or maybe that’s not the history of thought; maybe that’s just “thought.”

In any case, only after I had written and said my piece in the Chronicle did I realize why I needed to get it off my chest:  because there’s no talking about the “canon wars” without first talking about the history of the idea of “the canon,” and – believe it or not — that’s not how I had set up my inquiry the first time around.

The first chapter of my dissertation had focused on changing notions of the idea of “liberal education” over the long 20th century.  That was spadework that I needed to do, and it gave me a way to ground my discussion of the curricular disputes of the 1980s and their polemical, political aftermath.  Explicit and widespread scholarly discussions of “canon formation” date to the 1970s (Harold Bloom is crucial here), but they stand on older conversations (even in the particular context of American higher education), and I didn’t give those conversations their due.

So one small task for me this summer will be writing my version of this history:  how discussions of disciplinary “canons” morphed into discussions of “the canon.”  Eventually, I will need to interweave or interleave that history with the history of “liberal education” — and I’ll need to go back to square one on that question as well.

Indeed, I will need to go back to square one on this whole project, again and again, or I won’t get anywhere.

So whatever else I do this summer, I guess I’d better feed my head.  Sometimes that means writing, and sometimes that means not writing. I will just have to go along as I figure it out.

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*Over at my personal blog, I have been thinking through some tools and techniques of history writing, using Joan Shelley Rubin’s Making of Middlebrow Culture as my guide.

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