Fall 1989, Volume 6.2
Book Reviews

The Wake of the General Bliss  Reviewed by Aden Ross.
Prof Scam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education   Reviewed by Miles E. Friend.
A Good Time Coming: Mormon Letters to Scotland Reviewed by Philip F. Notarianni.
Conrad: "Nostromo"  Reviewed by Victor Luftig and Mark Wollaeger

The Wake of the General Bliss by Edward Lueders; U of Utah P, 1989, 188 pp., $15.95.

Reviewed by Aden Ross.

In Edward Lueders's first novel, a ship carrying troops home from World War II circles back on its own wake to find a man overboard and ends dead afloat, halfway between India and America, war and peace, direction and rest. A trio of musicians aboard the General Bliss provide the content, symbolism, and structure of jazz: in war, as in jazz improvisation and the novel form itself, things "get good" precisely because they first go wrong.

The way the characters play is, of course, the way they live. Stanley, the drummer, holds the beat steady with simple diction, perennial hungers, and uneasy sex. LeRoy, the guitarist, plays melody, relying upon electrical circuits to amplify his nervous system and dead-end dreams. The most complex character is Mark, the pianist, whose playful musical allusions and syncopated free associations provide harmony. Mark never hears the words or the melody, exulting instead in the whole; war has taught him to tune his own "piano," to harmonize his fragile, aesthetic being with a tough, dissonant universe.

Like Mark, the ship floats between an Eastern and Western ethos—between brotherhood and alienation, emotion and intellect. Its wake stretches from a bloody past to an uncertain future, a lifeline along which chance casts "transient personnel" continuously forward or backward.

Ironically, only the wake can tell them where to find the man overboard. Like the good jazz pianist he is, Lueders develops the motif of the man overboard into a full-fledged theme, richer each time it's played. At first, like Pip in Moby Dick, the soldier is merely a soul separated from the ship's body. But he quickly becomes the destiny of the ship, its invisible, subconscious antagonist. Finally, his very existence is questioned; and he modulates into the melody line we all continue to play, daily, in the face of failure. When the Captain abandons the search, the "wake" of the General Bliss assumes new connotations. The novel joins a rich tradition of initiation stories, but with a twist: the reader is left holding watch over the corpse of our nation's blissful innocence killed by the catastrophic war.

The novel is quintessentially American and richly allusive. Even without its direct references to Jim and Huck, it thrums with Twain-like anecdotes. Comparisons with Melville are, naturally, inescapable, as are the "ship of fools" and other themes of the sea. Thoreau, Dickinson, Lanier, Marianne Moore, and Count Basie provide more than chapter epigraphs; they share the novel's poetic fabric and its world view. One unforgettable episode details a crap game in the ship's head below water line, a Surrealistic mixture of Dantesque cosmology and Freudian id.

Stylistically, however, Lueders owes the most to jazz. Apart from its obvious solos, ensembles, intermezzos, and codas, the novel plays legato passages smooth as memories of childhood or a woman's liquid skin. Just as often, characters—in syncopation—improvise. They riff. They jive. Occasionally, Lueders thinks about the music too much and fails to sing. But usually, he plays it straight, "with it," and wide open to everything: us and him in tune. In the language of jazz, this writer can wail.

Prof Scam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education by Charles J. Sykes. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988, 304 pp., $18.95.

Reviewed by Miles E. Friend.(Return to Top of Page)

With the resolve of a medieval knight who is determined to rescue the Holy Land from the infidel, Charles Sykes lays siege to the Ivory Tower of Academe. His attack is relentless and, at times, brutal; however, one soon realizes that his intensity is fueled by what he perceives to be a formidable foe. His goal: to win back higher education for education.

Sykes is convinced that higher education has long since sold out to interests that have only, at best, secondary concern for what he considers to be the university's prime objective—the dissemination of basic knowledge through formal instruction. He further identifies the culprits of this educational betrayal as those professors who, while insulating themselves in what he refers to as "academic villages," have succeeded, in most cases, in redirecting the concerns of the university away from undergraduate instruction and toward graduate studies and research where prestige and financial benefits may be garnered. His indictment is manifold with considerable culpability to be passed around.

Prof Scam explores the history and method of this betrayal and in so doing reveals impressive research. The son of a college professor himself, Sykes seems to have an innate sense not only of knowing where to dig for the bodies in this revealed conspiracy, but also in whose direction to point the finger of guilt. The academically initiated will recognize either his own role in this scenario or that of colleagues or peers. Herein lies the discomfort, for one seems forced to accept the role of either offender or offended. There is no middle ground.

In citing numerous examples of under-taught, over-enrolled classes that must often endure the inept pedagogy of graduate teaching assistants, of university administrators' preferences for research over quality classroom instruction, and of funds expended on meaningless or insignificant research, Sykes builds a strong argument for the re-assessment of the goals of higher education. It is his contention that the curricula at many institutions of higher learning have succumbed to the whims of academic fashion and as a result have become intellectually flabby; that the professorial ranks have neglected their teaching and advisory responsibilities to the academically less sophisticated scholars by spending as little time with these students as possible; that the attitude of publish or perish has produced a mad scramble among promotion- and tenure-seeking faculty; and that the intrusion of the private economic sector into the area of academic research has produced the phenomenon of a pedagogue only too willing to be seduced into the financially rewarding world of the technical consultant while, at the same time, enjoying the security and benefits of his academic affiliation with the university.

Not one to condemn without proposing a possible solution, Sykes rallies behind the concept of the basic liberal arts core curriculum. Sykes cites the academic accomplishments of the University of Chicago's Robert Maynard Hutchins and advocates the study of traditionally solid works of scholarly significance, preferably those from Western cultures. While this particular recommendation is accompanied by suggestions for Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante, at no time does Sykes feel compelled to reveal on what basis the works of certain artists and scholars are chosen for inclusion in the core curriculum. His appeal to academic tradition seems simply to be grounded in academic tradition. Where the line of scholarly significance is drawn is never quite clear.

One may also wonder whether, in advocating the lessening of what Sykes perceives as the power of the profs, he may not imply an undue trust in those who may eventually fill the resulting power void, namely administrators, politicians, or public interest groups of narrow concern. What effects such a development might have on the honored and selfishly guarded tradition of academic freedom is a question left unaddressed.

In discussing scholarly publications, the numbers of which he finds to be all too accommodating, Sykes explores the lingua franca of "profspeak." It is through profspeak, he maintains, that the mysticism surrounding many academic disciplines is perpetuated:

Whatever lofty claims they might make about their ideals . . . academics share the same motives that animate the souls of every bureaucracy and closed guild. . . . [E]very petty bureaucrat recognizes that power rests, in large part, on the ability to cloak his or her knowledge behind a veil of inflated and intimidating jargon. (109)

Sykes also examines the question of editorial bias as part of his inquiry into the functions of scholarly publications and how such bias may impact, often negatively, on the careers of aspiring, unknown professors or on those academics whose research has led to unpopular conclusions.

While social scientists and pure scientists may chafe as a result of Sykes's inveighing, humanists, either by profession or by persuasion, may take particular umbrage at his defense of "textual objectivity" and his general assault on relativist and subjectivist theories, especially "deconstructivism" and "post-structuralism." In Chapter 11 ("The Abolition of Man: The Humanities"), Sykes drops all pretense of being anything other than a critical objectivist, at least where matters of education are concerned.

Sykes's work will prove to be a disturbing encounter for anyone who truly cares about the state of higher education. He has honed an exceptionally keen edge on his ax.

A Good Time Coming: Mormon Letters to Scotland, ed. Frederick Stewart Buchanan. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1988, xxii + 319 pp., $24.95.

Reviewed by Philip F. Notarianni.(Return to Top of Page)

In the history of United States immigration, the role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a unique one. The call of "gathering to Zion" initiated a formal immigration program which eventually centered around the Perpetual Emigrating Company and Fund. Thousands of northern Europeans heeded the "call" and traveled to Utah. A Good Time Coming captures the essence of the personal immigration experience. Composed of edited letters from one Scottish family, the MacNeil-Thompson family(and a few close friends), Professor Frederick Buchanan's work intriguingly traces their experiences in the United States, espe-cially Utah. The letters span the period from 1853 to 1904.

While labeled as "Mormon Letters to Scotland," these accounts transcend Mormon history and add incredible insights into the entire immigration and accommodation process. The interpersonal struggle with Mormonism is ever present in the correspondence of John MacNeil to his father, mother, and siblings. James MacNeil, on the other hand, constantly reaffirms his acceptance of the LDS Church. Both, however, paint vivid portraits of the struggle for survival in the "New World," all the time pointing to the observation that life "here" is still not as bad as in the old country. Optimism of the "good times coming" eventually give way to the stark realities of everyday life.

The letters convey joy, sorrow, philosophical insights, religious discussions, and observations of life in Utah, the West, and in the coal and silver mines of Utah and Illinois. As Buchanan states, "Qualitative dimensions in the lives of immigrants cannot easily be reduced to numbers. It is to those dimensions that the letters in this volume speak." And they speak quite clearly! Such letters become very important documents of the time. Beyond the intricate discussions of family matters and religion, the letters add greatly to the understanding of the individual coal and metal miner in nineteenth- century Utah, providing personal observations of mining itself, anti-Chinese sentiment and the reasons for it, the role of leasing, and one's susceptibility to the vicissitudes of the mining industry. In fact, John MacNeil's struggle for financial security ended with his death in a Park City mine in 1903.

Professor Buchanan has skillfully edited and organized these letters, providing just enough explanation through footnotes. At times it appears as though he is justifying, in a rather defensive way, the reasons why certain writers were taking various stands on Mormonism. But his overall treatment of the material is most objective. He allows the letters to speak for themselves. The correspondence is grouped into six chronological periods—1853-67, 1870-72, 1872-75, 1876-85, and 1885-1904. An informative essay introduces each section and places the letters in context.

The editor's main objective of allowing the documents to stand alone and speak to the "quality" of the personal immigration experience is masterfully achieved. For example, writing from Bountiful, Utah, on 6 March 1872, John MacNeil tells his father and mother, David and Ann MacNeil, "I Never Shall have A home here Until Youre All here." Undoubtedly, this was a sentiment echoed in one way or another by all immigrants. It is this type of personal expression that renders Professor Buchanan's study as necessary and desirable reading for all those interested in history. For the readers, they indeed have "a good time coming."

 

Conrad: "Nostromo" by Ian Watt. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988, 128 pp., $19.95 ($5.95 paper).

Reviewed by Victor Luftig and Mark Wollaeger.(Return to Top of Page)

"How can Nostromo be defended?" Ian Watt asks near the end of his new general introduction to Conrad: "Nostromo." Examining a novel which, he steadily admits, "many people have found . . . difficult to read"—long, opaque, and impenetrable—Watt provides a brief, lucid, mainly accommodating treatment. This brief study emphasizes the way Conrad's mimetic art achieves (in a phrase Watt borrows from Henry James's review of Chance) "a noble sociability of vision."

After thorough chronologies that counterpoint, first, Conrad's life with significant literary and political events, and then chief events of the novel with historical events in Central and South America, Watt provides a suggested map of the principal locales in Conrad's imaginary South American country, Costaguana. In the first chapter, a pointed and concise assessment of the varied sources for Nostromo, Watt deftly traces the origins of the narrative, the originals of some main characters, and the literary bases of the book's history and politics.

These subjects are taken up in order and in greater detail by the next three chapters. In a patient recovery of Conrad's narrative intentions, Watt justifies Conrad's dislocations of chronology and point of view, and his rhetorical intensity: Conrad "gives his prose a special kind of attention, and requires that attention from the reader." Watt then supplies the model of attention necessary to understand character in a novel whose many individuals shift and interact with dizzying rapidity. By reconstructing characters' roles in relation to historical and political themes, Watt guides the reader through Nostromo's "complicated tessellation of narrative effects." After comparing critics who have assessed the possibility of historical progress in Costaguana, Watt sees the novel affirming "various traditional moral values, such as selflessness, courage, resolution, kindness, and intellectual realism." He is, accordingly, more sympathetic to critical approaches from the late 1950s than to post-structuralist judgments.

The first five pages of the final chapter, "Conrad's Traditions, Reception, and Influence," provide an excellent introduction to the Conrad canon and its place in literary history. Anyone teaching a course in Conrad or in Modernism may find here an extraordinarily concise but comprehensive preparation for the difficulties of Nostromo and works like it. Watt presents Conrad as a revealer of "social process" and "contradiction"; as a realist in the tradition of James, Maupassant, and Flaubert; and as a Symbolist seer. The concluding pages trace Conrad's legacy in the United States and elsewhere. While Watt touches on authors from Eliot to Achebe, the discussions of Fitzgerald and Faulkner are especially strong.

Throughout the book, Watt's vast knowledge of Conrad's oeuvre and of intellectual history illuminates even casual remarks in what remains an eminently readable and modest introductory work. Watt never quotes himself; he never even cites his own definitive and richly detailed Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, in which all the strengths of this shorter work are more amply displayed. But Conrad: "Nostromo" could only have been written by the author of Rise of the Novel, the larger Conrad volume, and numerous essays on Austen, Dickens, James, and Conrad. Watt ends by saying, "The number of Conrad editions, in the original and in translation, is growing rapidly; and so is the amount of criticism being devoted to him. He has worn very well, and I believe he will continue to do so." Watt's latest contribution reminds us how much Conrad scholarship will continue to depend on his research, insight, and judgment.

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