Wednesday, 23 June 2010

English Internationalizing

Regular BSR readers may remember my recent anguishing over the decline of the English major. My move in 1982 from college teaching to independent journalism stemmed from my growing conviction that my basic aim to internationalize the study of English could happen faster with a secular readership than with a degree-seeking crowd. You may remember how I first slipped black Americans writers in to my syllabic mix, then Appalachian poor whites.

I can’t complain that the Beaver brass discouraged my moves. Dr. David Gray, director of the college’s very successful overseas program, was a big help. (Beaver was better overseas than home, I think back!) I twisted my Am Lit course when I ran the London program, 1967-8, by pairing Amis and Brits, Twain and Dickens, Whitman and Arnold, Emily and Hopkins. (I loved the fresh insights on old favorites.)

And I scored big with Roy Danish, head of TIO, when I fielded a semester of unseen American TV at London’s Royal College of Art under the rubric “24 Hours”, then the leading BBC evening news program. BBC2 even prefaced the TV series by inviting me and PBS’s Robert MacNeil to discuss what Am TV was missing and why. And the British Film Institute booked me for several years as a quarterly prose commentator on American TV in their journal “Contrasts”. (Time-Life Films even made me their adviser (1968-72) on which BBC programs to bring on American TV. (Monty Python remains my sole home run!)

And Dr. Howard Springer invited me to Lagos for the Commonwealth Educational Conference in 1968 to show “Nigeria: Culture in Transition”( featuring Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka) at the U.S. Embassy: we wanted each and every Commonwealth country to create a similar hour long TV feature on their share of International English. And when I ran out of money, Gray bailed me back to London without a whimper!

And Dr. Bette Landmann gave me money to invite Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, black American poet Michael Harper (Brown U), and Jamaican egghead and ballet dancer (alas just passed) Rex Nettleford to a “Caribbean Seminar” as well as later Appalachian poets. It looked like International English was up and running in Glenside! But once you’ve shown a peasant Gay Paree, it’s hard to get him back on the farm! All that London and Africa rattled me.

Why this flood of reminiscence? Because I’ve just discovered by the bibliographical miracle of Gemeinschaft Bibliotheken Verein (the online General Library Network) that while I was tooling around globally in my self-devised post-post-doctoral studies, academics from all over the increasingly English speaking/writing world slyly but indefatigably (in Europe that is) were creating a solid infrastructure for a new discipline, International English Literature.

Take my first find, “The Politics of English as a World Language”, edited by Christian Mair (Editions Rodopi, 2003, Amsterdam.) Not one of the 36 essayists (who met for four days in Freiburg, Breisgau, 2001) to noodle the new literary domain was American! Indeed, there is a distinct ant-Americanism prevalent—almost like keep those Ami barbarians from taking this over too!

It reminded me of what the Canuck editor of Canadian Commonwealth Literature said to my ecumenical suggestion that Am Lit plus Commonwealth Lit equals International English Lit. He flew into a verbal rage suggesting I sounded like a CIA agent! (It was the era of “Encounter” and the Committee on Cultural Freedom.)

Far from being a CIA agent, I had an epiphany high up in a London Transport #4 on a hot day in July,1972 to found the Centre for Internationalising English (note my ecumenically Britty spelling) to sabotage the CIA with world poems in English! (Who dares to say I’m impractical!) Luckily that generally unknown institution was taken over by my son Michael and renamed the Center for International Education, a nonprofit group that has financed his growing treasure of humanist films.

This indispensable Bible of IE Lit reports a joint meeting in the Breisgau between GNEL (Gemeinschaft für Englischsprachgigen Literaturen) and MAVEN (for Major Varieties of English). They led me to new journals such “English World Wide” and “World Englishes”. And enough thick books on International English Literature to keep me overworked until my second reincarnation. Should you be interested, please look in about a month into my blog. Better late than never.

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