IN 1967, STANLEY FISH WROTE ABOUT a character who built a mighty kingdom through sheer force of will. But this story had an ironic twist: The seeds of the kingdom’s destruction were present from its inception. Although Fish was writing about Milton’s Satan in Surprised by Sin, he could have been prophesying the fate of the Duke English department, which he chaired from 1986 to 1992.

The story of what happened during Fish’s chairmanship is the stuff of academic legend and the source of epidemic institution envy: With shameless–and in academe unheard-of–entrepreneurial gusto, Fish took a respectable but staid Southern English department and transformed it into the professional powerhouse of the day. Fish–who had been recruited at the suggestion of the recently appointed Frank Lentricchia–had a knack for hiring scholars who were stars or who were about to become stars: neo-pragmatist literary theorist Barbara Herrnstein Smith, queer theorists Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon, and, for a brief moment, future African-American studies institution builder Henry Louis Gates Jr. Even a decade earlier, it might have seemed crass for a department simply to buy its way into prominence. But the stigma of conspicuous consumption had faded considerably in the go-go 1980s, and academia was enjoying its moment of high glamour. For the most well known academics, the rules of the professional game had come to resemble big-time sports or stock market speculation: Play for maximum stakes and then get out while the getting is good.

And at Duke, getting out has become a popular option for most of the professors who made the department famous. When an external review committee arrived last spring to perform a routine six-year evaluation, they were shocked by what they found. Sedgwick, Moon, and their fellow queer theorist, Renaissance scholar Jonathan Goldberg, had just accepted offers elsewhere; Americanist Jane Tompkins had practically quit teaching, and had worked as a cook at a local health food restaurant; American Literature editor Cathy N. Davidson had bolted to administration; medievalist Lee Patterson and his wife, Annabel, whose field is the Renaissance, had defected to Yale; and Frank Lentricchia, though he remained at Duke, had left the department and denounced his field (in the pages of this magazine), becoming, in effect, The Artist Formerly Known as Frank Lentricchia.

There seemed little motivation to replenish the dwindling ranks. "We find the Duke English department in a seriously weakened condition; more weakened, perhaps, even than its own internal critics realize," the external reviewers–Paul Hunter, Marjorie Perloff, Paul Strohm, and Eric Sundquist–wrote last May. "Its meteoric rise has given way to a relatively rapid descent. This is not to say that the department lacks excellent faculty; but the current department, except by virtue of its afterglow, cannot reasonably be considered top-ranked." They cited the absence of a clear departmental mission; a leadership and personnel emergency; desperately low morale; and numerous procedural irregularities. They also recounted hearing what amounted to "litanies of perceived deception and duplicity" from disgruntled faculty. Even more disturbing, perhaps, the reviewers described a department in which basic services–like teaching–had become a random, arbitrary affair. "The department still finds itself without anything we would be disposed to describe as an undergraduate or a graduate curriculum," they wrote. Fish soon followed with a bombshell of his own: In July he announced that he and his wife, Jane Tompkins, were leaving for the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he would serve as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The revelation that Fish’s empire was in crisis provoked a wave of Schadenfreude through the literary profession and a front-page story in The New York Times. But understanding the exodus has proved an elusive hermeneutic game. The story of Duke’s fall from grace seems less a morality tale than a postmodern pastiche–a dizzying refraction of the familiar narratives of academic dissension in the 1990s. Old Guard against Young Turks, cultural studies against literary criticism, left versus right, globe-trotting celebrities versus classroom-loving teachers–all of these antagonisms seem at one moment to apply, at the next to be beside the point. The salient question may be not why did the Duke English department collapse, but what was it in the first place? The apt literary analogy might be not Milton’s Paradise but Gertrude Stein’s Oakland: Perhaps there was just no there there.

Fish insists that his experiment was a grand success. "If something endures for twelve or thirteen years in the academic profession," he says, "if, as Yeats would say, the center holds for that long, then that is what should be marveled at, not that there is a loss of personnel now." And Eve Sedgwick, in spite of her current disaffection, agrees: "What I come away from this train wreck feeling is not, ‘Oh, what a terrible train wreck,’ but that it was a real accomplishment."But where was the train heading before it ran off the rails?


IN 1984 Duke administrators decided it was time to dry out the beer kegs and devote considerable resources to pushing the school into the front rank of national research universities. The man they brought in to propel the English department onto the national stage was Frank Lentricchia, who received a Ph.D. from Duke in the 1960s, back when the place was no big deal. Lentricchia turned out to be perhaps that department’s most famous product. While writing a series of influential studies of Frost and Stevens and some groundbreaking books on critical theory–including After the New Criticism (1981), still used as a textbook for graduate theory surveys–he had moved from UC-Irvine to Rice University before returning to his alma mater.

It was Lentricchia who suggested bringing Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins into the English department in 1985; he also suggested recruiting Fredric Jameson from UC-Santa Cruz to chair the Literature Program, a separate entity that would advertise itself as "a new approach to literary study"–a comp lit, cultural studies, and critical theory program rolled into one. Fish had made a name for himself as a renegade Miltonist and an original proponent of reader-response criticism. His 1980 book, Is There a Text in This Class? had upended what was left of New Critical formalism by suggesting that the answer to its title’s question was, in essence, no. When Duke approached him, Fish had just turned down an offer from the Columbia English department. Jameson, meanwhile, was also already famous. The author of Marxism and Form (1971) and The Political Unconscious (1981), he was considered America’s leading Marxist literary critic and a worthy heir to the Frankfurt School philosophers.

From the beginning, the new Duke was not just about critical theory, it was about critical theory in pairs. Indeed, couples hiring was an important status symbol for this nouveau-riche department. If for a particular couple a joint hire was the ultimate proof of desirability, evidence that they–not the university–controlled the terms of their appointment, then for the social-climbing Duke spousal hires were a showy way of publicizing deep pockets and infinite largesse. While Fish was chairing the English department at Johns Hopkins, Tompkins was teaching at Temple University, and they were eager to find jobs in the same place. Fish’s colleague at Hopkins, Lee Patterson, and his wife, Annabel, a professor at the University of Maryland, had similar desires. By 1986 Duke had made both couples offers, and an academic empire was born.

Other crucial hires came in quick succession. The following year, Barbara Herrnstein Smith was recruited from the University of Pennsylvania ("She was already in the stratosphere," Fish recalls), along with Michael Moon, a talented young Johns Hopkins Ph.D. whose interests were in nineteenth-century American literature and gay studies. In 1988 Duke managed to snag Henry Louis Gates away from Cornell and to keep him for a year before he ascended to Harvard. (Fish now marvels at Gates as perhaps the only person more savvy than himself.) The year 1988 also brought the professor who, perhaps more than anyone else of late, has been responsible for drawing national attention–and notoriety–to the department: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Sedgwick, who came to Duke from Amherst, was a Victorianist committed to exploring the place of gender and sexuality in literature. Her book Between Men (1985), a study of latent homoerotic tropes and male power in Victorian fiction, was a crucial precursor to queer studies, written before the field even had a name. Her first book at Duke, The Epistemology of the Closet (1990), a collection of complex investigations of the logic of sexual desire and identity in the writings of Proust, Nietzsche, James, Wilde, and Melville, would consolidate her national reputation and help to inaugurate the "queer moment" in the humanities. Sedgwick may or may not have been the most famous person to teach at Duke during Fish’s reign, but there is nobody more closely associated with what could be called a Duke School. Today, when it seems every other paper at the MLA has a title like "Queering Ben Jonson," Sedgwick is the scholar most credited–or blamed–for queer theory’s ascendancy.


IN THE EARLY 1990S, the Duke English department’s growing appeal to graduate students and Fish’s extraordinary popularity with colleagues and administrators masked a troubling reality. In retrospect, the report of an external review committee that visited the department in April 1992, toward the end of Fish’s term as chair, has an eerie, prophetic power–as if written by a chorus of Cassandras. After pausing to applaud Fish’s accomplishments–his record on hirings, the new selectivity in graduate admissions, and the surge in undergraduate English majors–the tone turned darker. The reviewers, Richard Brodhead, Myra Jehlen, Del Kolve, and Jerome McGann, issued a number of stern warnings. "The need to acquire distinguished faculty and to create the conditions that would lure them properly dominated the department’s agenda in recent years, and made civic issues–issues of the faculty’s duties at the school it moved to–a recessive concern," they wrote. "But Duke’s very success in the phase of faculty acquisition...makes it time, now, for this temporarily-ignored other part of the departmental agenda to be embraced as a high priority. To put it bluntly: should the department fail to make progress on this important matter it might expect to face serious difficulties before long."

The committee enumerated the trouble spots. On the subject of the graduate curriculum, they reported that the single most frequent complaint–or was it a boast?–they heard from faculty was: "There is no curriculum; we each merely teach what we want to teach." This statement was borne out by a look at the course bulletin, "a hodgepodge of uncoordinated offerings" in which "broad foundational courses" were few and evidence of collective faculty planning was scant. With the rise of interdisciplinary scholarship and theory, it seemed that the period survey course–long the mainstay of graduate English education–was going by the boards.

Was the graduate program "sufficiently rigorous"? the committee wondered. Eight courses, they noted, were all the course work required to obtain an English Ph.D. at Duke–significantly fewer than elsewhere. (The reviewers had the same reservation about the undergraduate requirements, noting that "the number of courses that make a major in English at Duke–eight–is strikingly low compared to other schools of comparable quality.") At the same time, they observed, graduate students were expected to carry a relatively heavy 2—1 teaching load beginning in their second year. (Presumably this policy allowed the department to compensate for the sweet deals that guaranteed its star hires permanently reduced teaching loads and other special considerations.) Too little foundational course work and too much grad student teaching, the reviewers implied, added up to–if not exploitation exactly, then at least inadequate preparation for a tenure-track job. "We are not persuaded, in view of the dismal job market all Ph.D. programs have recently faced, that Duke’s light requirements for extensive expertise are the sole cause of its sorry recent placement record," they wrote, "but it is a fact that the structure of its program virtually discourages generality of preparation.

Though the committee was optimistic that a faculty as talented as Duke’s could solve its problems, overall the report’s implications were ominous. But who was listening? For academy watchers, an admiring May 1992 profile in The New York Times Magazine confirmed Fish’s presence on the national scene. Here was "the epitome of the academic as showman, a new breed of superstar as much concerned with professional notoriety as with the humdrum details of scholarship." He was also a blithely autocratic leader: "I would announce changes and see if anyone said anything," he told the magazine. "No one ever did." In passing, the article mentioned that the perceived radicalism of Fish’s handpicked hires had provoked written complaints from alumni and compelled Duke’s president to send out a reassuring letter citing the department’s "traditional literary offerings." But this, the Times implied, was proof of Fish’s extraordinary success as a provocateur. No mention was made of curricular disarray or of unhappy or overworked graduate students, or the external review committee’s visit. As far as the public could tell, the party at Duke was still in full swing.


IN FACT, an unlikely transformation was under way. What had been a highly centralized fiefdom run by Fish’s diktat became under his successor, eighteenth-century scholar Wallace Jackson, a diffuse assortment of individuals pursuing increasingly idiosyncratic, self-referential projects, often requiring them to disappear from campus for months at a time on extended unpaid leaves. Celebrated and castigated for their innovative approaches to the study of literature, many of Duke’s stars were turning their attention to other subjects: mostly themselves.

True, there had been hints that the turn to introspection was coming. A 1987 article by Sedgwick, "A Poem Is Being Written," first published in the journal Representations and reprinted in her anthology Tendencies (1993), includes memories of childhood spankings and long passages of highly personal poetry. But nothing prepared academe for the sheer volume of confessional writings and recollections that emerged from the Duke English department between 1993 and 1994. The Moi critics, as Adam Begley dubbed them in a 1994 Lingua Franca article, peddled their life stories to commercial presses like Random House and Dutton. Already well known in the corridors of academe, with books like Cathy Davidson’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (1993), Jane Tompkins’s A Life in School (1994), and Frank Lentricchia’s gritty The Edge of Night: A Confession (1994), the Moi critics were now striving for mainstream fame. (Anticipating today’s memoir boom by several years, few of them received it.) Sedgwick herself produced a volume of poetry, Fat Art, Thin Art, in 1994. For his part, Fish, who has generally been content to let others write about him, was dividing his time between the English department and Duke Law School, where he had secured a joint appointment in spite of his lack of a law degree and his frequently stated position that legal interpretation and literary criticism had nothing in common.

In retrospect, the department’s memoir-writing phase seems virtually predestined, an inevitable turn for an institution that made little effort to foster a sense of collective purpose or identity among its members, stressing their value as individuals instead. And for a department that never had much intellectual infrastructure or cohesion to begin with, the faculty’s inward flight left an irreparable vacuum. A couple of the Moi critics, notably Tompkins and Lentricchia, abandoned literary criticism and theory altogether–and stopped publishing the kind of work that career-conscious graduate students could emulate. By the end of 1994, the most professionally active figures in the department were the queer theorists–Sedgwick, Moon, and Goldberg, who had been dividing his time between Hopkins and Duke. More often than not, the best graduate students who came to Duke during the Jackson years were interested in gender and sexuality, or in finding high-powered mentors. It must have been hard for the more traditional (and obscure) professors not to feel slighted. By the time Marianna Torgovnick ascended to the chair in 1996, the department’s latent tensions and resentments had emerged in full force.

Torgovnick, a specialist in twentieth-century British fiction, had a publishing record that included both a much-discussed study of modernism’s obsession with tribal cultures, Gone Primitive (1990), and–virtually obligatory by this point–a memoir, Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian-American Daughter (1994). In addition, Torgovnick was a protégée of Stanley Fish and the first woman to chair any major department at Duke, all of which made her, one might have thought, well qualified to improve upon Fish’s vision, or at least to perpetuate it faithfully into the future.

But Torgovnick’s term as chair was far from a success. "The dissatisfaction with the deep and widespread," noted the 1998 external review committee. "There was unanimous feeling that the present chair’s term should not be extended beyond next year when her current three-year term ends.... More than a few of the faculty favored immediate change at whatever emotional and professional cost." Frank Lentricchia is one of Torgovnick’s most outspoken critics. From his current perch in the Literature Program, he puts much of the blame for the department’s current disarray on the shoulders of Torgovnick and her allies in the administration: "For two years prior to the devastating external review, a huge majority of the department–diverse in gender, race, and rank–had been informing the upper administration (and Stanley too, by the way) of its displeasure with the coterie that, with the chair’s open assistance, subverted democratic process."

The charges are serious, yet the evidence of mismanagement is difficult to pin down. Many of the departures that took place on Torgovnick’s watch, for example, cannot be attributed only to unhappiness with the department. Stanley Fish had long declared his intention to take an administrative position once a suitable offer materialized; Jonathan Goldberg was reportedly less than thrilled with North Carolina; Eve Sedgwick was ill with breast cancer and was seeking to join her husband, a professor of ophthalmology, in New York, where she is now Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

What’s more, for all the strong rhetoric of Torgovnick’s critics, the alleged subversions of the democratic process seem surprisingly modest. Several professors mention her decision to schedule separate departmental meetings for faculty of different ranks; the plan was scotched when some of those professors circulated a petition against it. Another oft-repeated story involves Torgovnick’s decision to select a student to accompany her to an MLA conference, despite student demands that the delegate be elected. Ultimately, the visit to the conference was canceled, and Torgovnick allegedly chided one graduate student that when he and his colleagues grew up they’d realize that democracy had nothing to do with departmental politics. Torgovnick waves aside all these allegations, pointing out that the meetings she planned for various faculty groups were informal get-togethers and "entirely supplemental" to the regularly scheduled departmental meetings that everyone attended. As for her ill-fated attempt to bring a student with her to an MLA conference, she says the episode was "essentially a misunderstanding." She says she assumed someone would volunteer to come along–"like having an extra ticket to a basketball game." She hadn’t realized the graduate students would feel competitive and resentful.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that tensions rose during Torgovnick’s reign, and that these tensions were increasingly expressed in personal and ideological terms. Sedgwick paints a dark picture of intolerance and hostility. "I knew my time was very finite and my energy was very finite," she says of her decision to leave. "I have stuff I want to do with the next few years, and it’s not grappling with people whom I don’t respect. Now I don’t know what took me so long to leave. It was really because I was just very disturbed by what seemed to be an increasing amount of anti-intellectualism and lack of support and respect for theory in general, for queer thought, for African-American study and faculty, and it seemed to me that the colleagues I respected immensely were marginalized, and I just hated that."

Asked to detail the kind of anti-intellectualism she encountered at Duke, Sedgwick alludes, somewhat vaguely, to colleagues who laughed at and dismissed work that is theoretical, "difficult," or simply not demarcated by a traditional period boundary. Moon also complains of anti-intellectualism–and adds another, even more incendiary charge. "The homophobia that I experienced and saw other people experience was certainly a factor in my decision to leave," he says, "but there were other matters of serious concern, such as anti-intellectualism. I’m glad to be out of there."

"It is predictable for Eve to portray herself and Moon and Goldberg as martyrs of some form of intellectual intolerance," says Thomas Pfau, an associate professor who came to Duke in 1991 and is the author of Wordsworth’s Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production (Stanford, 1997). "I think those people actually had an exclusionary and somewhat monomaniacal sense of what literature departments ought to be like." Pfau offers a specific example that he says illustrates these charges: "We had a search for a position in the department, and Eve found herself without any candidate that fit her bill. None of them seemed to be ideologically agreeable. In the department meeting, she actually suggested that we scuttle the whole search. And people considered that an act of sabotage because, of course, a lot of work goes into those searches. It was highly suspect that she would suggest such a thing, and it was very clear to everyone why she was saying that."

Sedgwick denies trying to commandeer faculty searches. "I don’t understand what the deal is about that," she says. "People scuttle searches all the time. I came up with a bunch of candidates, I don’t think any of them were very smart. It happens all the time." Besides, she says, many of the hires made by search committees that she chaired worked in fields that had nothing to do with queer theory. Indeed, Sedgwick’s hires include Irene Tucker, a Victorianist who specializes in nationalism and Jewish issues, but not queer theory, and the medievalist David Aers, who writes about religion and ideology, not gender.


AND SO WE reach a standoff: Some professors accuse others of homophobia and anti-intellectualism; the targets of these charges respond with their own charges of empire lust and totalitarian power plays. Yet the rhetoric of all parties, for all its intensity, seems strangely general and ungrounded. The chair is assailed for all kinds of malfeasance, but the evidence against her seems not to match the severity of the charges. Looking at the department in pieces, it’s difficult to imagine what it looked like whole or to identify the forces that shattered it.

Perhaps it takes a professor like Victor Strandberg, a scholar of twentieth-century American literature who has been at Duke since 1966–nearly twenty years before Fish arrived–to offer the long view of the drama, to see the story’s end in its beginning. "There was a huge change when Fish came in, and the change put this department on the map in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise," he says. "I would say that we were a very standard, middle-of-the-road, probably conservative, traditional English department. I would say that there was nothing exciting about it, and I was probably a good representative of that status. When Fish and his new recruits came, what they bought here was critical theory. It was relatively new, and they were leading figures in it–reader-response theory, Marxism, queer theory. This was considered cutting edge and exciting and new. It galvanized a huge amount of attention when the media got hold of it, and, as a result, the graduate school operations went into higher gear. But after a tremendous burst of excitement, it’s dissipated.

"When Eve says there was friction in the department, I don’t think she is referring to old hands like me, who more or less sat quietly through most of this. She is talking about friction among the theory people, and that’s understandable, because theory wants to be controversial and transgressive, and there was an inherent tendency for the important people to butt heads with one another."

LAST NOVEMBER, I drank with a group of Duke graduate students at an Indian restaurant—turned—Irish pub in Durham. They were preoccupied with the job crisis (like graduate students everywhere) and especially worried that their department’s very public breakup would harm their already parlous chances. I asked them whether, if they were applying to graduate school now, they would choose Duke. Denise Fulbrook, a Victorianist writing a dissertation on melancholy, creativity, and female anal eroticism in nineteenth-century British literature, shook her head, telling me that since she worked on gender and sexuality, there would be nothing for her at Duke in its present form. But most of the students I talked with defended their choice and spoke well of their various mentors, even those who would not speak so well of each other.

And perhaps the students have reason for hope. Despite the 1992 committee’s concerns about the job prospects of Duke’s Ph.D.’s, the department’s record of placing its graduate students has been impressive through the worst years of the current crunch. From 1991 to 1995, as the bottom was falling out of the market, a remarkable 71 percent of Duke’s English Ph.D.’s landed tenure-track jobs. And last year, 60 percent of the students looking for jobs found them–still a respectable rate of success.

But will this record–perhaps the only empirical measure of the department’s accomplishments–prove sustainable? Will Duke continue to attract talented students without a core group of eminent professors to train them? Looking for a savior, Duke has decided to stick with the devil it knows: Last spring, the administration announced that Stanley Fish himself would serve on a committee charged with taking control of the department from Torgovnick and seeking to reverse its decline. And even as he tries to restore his old kingdom, Fish will be busy building a new one. The University of Illinois at Chicago has made him its first star hire–to the tune of $230,000 a year, more than the governor of Illinois makes. "This is the biggest hire I will probably ever make!" UIC’s provost Elizabeth Hoffman gushed to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But can the Duke model succeed at an urban commuter campus dependent for funding on a skeptical state government?

Even as some wonder whether it can be transplanted to Illinois, others wonder about the model’s legacy back home. Echoing Thomas Pfau, Frank Lentricchia says: "There was an initial model at Duke, and with its aid, appointments were made on the basis of excellence alone. Ideological affinity counted for nothing. The initial model was displaced (after Eve’s arrival), and appointments were made on the basis of political loyalties. Stanley used to be a champion of the initial model, but he was converted to the later model, and the English department he built so famously upon the initial model was in effect torn down. Stanley is an enthusiastic convert to the Church of What’s Happening Now: I expect him to preach the new faith at UIC." For her part, Sedgwick remains a believer. In spite of the Duke English department’s fall, she insists, its moment of glory will remain a lasting tribute to "Stanley and people that put him up to it, a number of us who were here, our students. It was a wonderful thing to have happened."

David Yaffe has written for The New York Times, and The Village Voice. His article, "Bloom’s Wild Children," appeared in the November 1998 issue of LF.

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