I’ve long thought that what prepped me for lit theory were all the religion classes in high school and first three years of college. Later at MD I switched from theology minor to philosophy minor. But back in high school, maybe even late grade school, those religion classes we would try to stunp the teachers with questions that tried to trick out every contradiction we could find in religious teachings. If God knows all, how can we have free will? If you spend your life murdering people and on your death bed you have a conversion and receive the sacraments can you still get into heaven? Stuff like that. Then in college more reading in theology. Lit crit and lit theory in grad school then seemed a slightly weaker version of such speculative big think. In fact I nearly got into a little trouble for plagiarism in one course because I cited some stuff from Aquinas in a paper and the prof called me in to his office to ask where I had gotten the ideas and passages and wanted to be sure I really knew about such things first-hand.
I never took a course with Wayne Booth. A friend said to me one day, let’s take an independent study with Booth next term. Why? I asked. I had heard of Booth but knew nothing about him and never had heard one could take an independent study with anyone. Well, it would be different and fun, said the friend. He went to ask Booth and later he and I and Marjorie G-- met with Booth. He said he would meet with us once a week and asked what we should study. He said he was working on a book and wanted to have us study either R S Crane’s work or Kenneth Burke’s. I said I’d never heard of Burke and asked him who he was. He said he was a critic who disagreed with the Chicago School and attacked them a bit and was also a bit unusual and difficult. I said, Let’s study him and so we did. We read one of his books called The Philosophy of Literary Form.
Booth had been a student of R S Crane, high admired prof at Chicago who had died probably five years before I got there. Crane led a small band of literary critics in the late ‘50s in a revival of studying Aristotle with an eye to using him to attack and correct the New Critics who held forth at Yale. They got to be called The Chicago School. They agreed with the New Critics in being sworn to studying only literary form (close textual analysis) and keeping off the table questions about history and biography. Burke was “outside” all of these warring factions, partly because he was never situated at one of the big universities. His power base had been New York where he worked free-lance for mags like The New Republis, The Nation, and earlier the very influential Dial. Crane’s work was very dry, he was trying to make criticism be as respectable as scientific discourse. Burke was much livelier and brought in the social sciences. He essentially advocated subsuming the social sciences under the dominance of literary thought—a position which lost the battle over the long run. He was definitely a literary thinker so I found it disheartening that his work was pretty much ignored by the literary world, especially as he aged, but got adopted big-time by the burgeoning social science wing of English departments at the time—Communications, which quickly broke away and became much more successful and wealthy.
Burke started college teaching in the Depression to make some money. He had left New York to be a farmer-writer in northwest New Jersey right at the time of the crash. He taught one term a year at Bennington. That’s where Sontag was his student. I’m sure he was a big influence on her but I doubt he was the most powerful shaper of her career. She was probably enrolled in the New York Jewish intellectual elite from the time she was in denim overalls by the age of eight. But it was unfortunate that she turned to attempting to write fiction. I think she didn’t try it until relatively late in her career but I may be wrong. I never read her very much but I had the impression her first and biggest success was with books on critical thought, one especially called “Against Interpretation.”
It’s amazing how susceptible we are, I was, at 22 when all this started to take place. I did one paper for Booth and Burke that one Quarter (ten weeks). He wrote on it—"ready to be published.” That bowled me over and I had no idea what to do next. It totally scared me. I never went to him and said Tell me how to publish this, where. I had no idea what I was doing back then. We moved here, took ten years until I finally wrote the dissertation the year Va was pregnant with David and there was a full-time opening in English here and I had to finish the degree or be booted out. Nothing like pressure. At the start of grad school it was the draft, twelve years or so later it was getting a job.
Fifteen? years later Booth writes (we had been in touch off and on) and says Hey I just re-read your dissertation because I’m giving a paper at a conference on the same topic. It is really good. Did you ever publish it? Gee, why didn’t you say that fifteen years ago? In other words back in our day there was no such thing as “mentoring” —and if you were as clueless as I was, and as lacking in ambition or drive or whatever, you had no “career.” Well, I oversimplify but that’s basically it.