January 21, 1995

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

I’m back in Oakland, missing my Teresa’s sweet face and touch. I slept with my mom last night. (She drove me up here.)  Not the same.

I opened my mail: several phone bills, including a threat to disconnect.  A Mills College bill, and a rejected manuscript from Eighteenth Century Studies. (l decided to submit my long Boswell paper to academic journals–why?)

The rejection consists of a pretty standard rejection letter and is signed by three editors. Then there is a report, which they hope I will find helpful. Here’s the report.

This essay does have a few merits, but I cannot  conceive of how it would ever be judged publishable.  The mildest criticism one might make is that the author seems seriously out of touch with the world of literary scholarship and criticism.  I don’t know whether I was most shocked by the parenthetical remark in the sentence:  “The woman [in Boswell’s journal] wouldn’t call it rape (I don’t even know if they had the word then), but her springing away and screaming for help show that she’s very much aware of being violently harmed”  Or the note on the last page to the following sentence:  “I’m reminded of what Addison said about Chaucer, ‘Here is God’s plenty,’ which seems to me the perfect way to describe a work or series of works which give the impression of portraying every part of life.”  The note to this sentence reads, “This [referring to Addison’s supposed words about Chaucer] may  be apocryphal.  I’ve heard it, but never read it.”  Someone who writes sentences such as these should have no expectation whatsoever of being published.

The report goes on for about a page and is unsigned.  Now, what are my feelings about this? What are they? For one thing, fear. There’s something chilling about this instinct to destroy people who aren’t in the club–especially if the person is ME.  As matter of fact, the whole thing reminds me of…The Holocaust! But people don’t like holocaust jokes. I’m going to kill myself.

When I first opened my rejection last night I read it quickly and gingerly, trying not to let it penetrate my consciousness, and I felt fear–a kind of shrinking away. This morning it all seems interesting, amazing, funny, outrageous, and I am plotting my revenge. Thus we see the resilience of the human spirit.

I read the report to Teresa over the phone (laughing, since it was this morning) and she said, “Oh, Princess, they’ll be sorry some day.”

“No they won’t. It doesn’t matter.”

It’s certainly true that I’m seriously out of touch with–what was it?–the world of literary scholarship and criticism. I will never be in touch with it. I wouldn’t read those literary journals with a ten foot pole. And writing which isn’t of that world is a threat. I’ll find a better way to say it. Maybe it’s because the world of literary criticism is nothing but participation. Those literary journals aren’t to read, they’re to be published in.  And instead of being ashamed of that, they’re proud of it, and writing that is meant for pleasure and fellowship or even just information becomes intolerable.

I know I’ve written this before, but people in English studies have become practically insane because the earth is crawling with rank amateurs who can read and write, and so the whole reading and writing life of professors and (worse) graduate students becomes an effort at distinguishing themselves from the amateurs.  And they lose their grip. Am I exaggerating? Look at that letter. It’s almost impossible to believe that it’s not an intentional caricature.

I said this to my mom, and she said, “Well, I think it’s intended to make you feel terrible–that’s intentional.”

“But it’s not supposed to be funny.”

“No, I guess not.”

One of the things that sent this reader practically into a frenzy of disgust was when I said that I didn’t know something. Johnson did this in his books about Shakespeare–said he was stumped when he was–and he said that he’d never seen anyone else do that when writing criticism. Of course Johnson’s ignorance is much more interesting than mine. because he knew a lot, and I am wonderfully ignorant about practically everything.

But never mind!

Editor’s Note 2013:  I think it’s funny that in my paper (the part that’s quoted, which is all I have) I made these extravagant and sometimes false claims of ignorance.  Like gaily asserting that I didn’t know if the word rape existed when Boswell was writing.  I mean, even I had heard of The Rape of the Lock and knew that Pope came a bit before Boswell.  (Now I have to go on Wikipedia and make sure I’m right about that.)  It’s like saying, “I won’t even look up words in the dictionary for the likes of you.”  No wonder they were offended.  It really was a piece of impudence.  Impudence I approve of, naturally.

Okay, I just looked up The Rape of The Lock, and I was right about the dates, but I found out something that astonished me:  It’s a lock of hair, and I was like, “Oh, now I get it.”  I always thought it was like a lock in a door, and it all sounded so uncomfortable.  Maybe I should actually read that poem.  Or not. 

It reminds me (in a very distant way) of William Carlos Williams who learned very late in life that the word venereal came from the word Venus.  It’s at the beginning of his autobiography and he says, “I was an innocent child and have remained so to this day.”

All right, all right.  I looked it up.  Here it is:

 I was an innocent sort of child and have remained so to this day.  Only yesterday, reading Chapman’s The Iliad of Homer, did I realize for the first time that the derivation of the adjectve venereal is from Venus!  And I a physician practicing medicine for the past forty years.  I was stunned!  (The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, New Directions, 3.)