If only a John McWhorter had been around when Marshall McLuhan lost it! It would have saved Humanistic Studies in America a generation of dissolution by European Mystiphysics. His current essay in the New Republic is groundbreaking in the sense of turning our abused intellectual soil over something edible would grow there again. I taught Am Lit for thirty years beginning in 1952 while finishing my doctoral prelims at Michigan State. A Ford grant in 1955 took me to New York to devise ways of coping with newer media, especially TV.
(I became the radio TV Editor at Scholastic Teacher for six years, until an appointment at the University of Hawaii made a Variety subscription inaccessible.) Marshall was spreading his latest gospel at TC, Columbia. The more I knew him face to face, the less credible he became. My doctoral committee at Western Reserve rejected in 1952 my proposal to write my dissertation on McLuhan. As a philosophy major at the Jesuit University of Detroit I had become a Commonweal Catholic reader, where Marshall first tried out the ideas that became “The Mechanical Bride”.
Anyway at the 4C’s convention in New York in 1956, the English brass from Trenton State were beguiled by my convention speech, “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism,” and invited me to teach there. In the next year, my dissertation accepted, I was awarded a Carnegie post doctoral to spend two year at Penn creating a new Am Civ course on the Mass Society.
During the second year Walter Annenberg gave Penn $2 million to found the Annenberg School at Penn. Faute de mieux, I became Penn’s gofer while they searched for a dean. (I was dispatched to J Schools and business conferences to spread “our new word”. Gilbert Seldes preceded McLuhan my mentor. (“The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) turned me on to Pop Cult crit.) I promoted him as dean successfully and became his gofer!
Ironically the business contacts were thrilled at the arts emphasis of the new Annenberg, but the burned out M.E.’s who mostly ran the J Schools mocked us for taking Walter’s dirty money! They sneered that Hearst had tried the same gambit a generation earlier and they gave him the boot. Except for the new cadre of socially scientific communications “scholars”. Not the great figures like Wilbur Schramm. The untenured climbers had no ethics. Such news rattled the New School’s “thinkers”. I taught media history in the Annenberg until David Riesman recommended me as the first director of the American Studies Institute at Hawaii’s splendid innovation of the East West Center in 1961.
Alas “the best job I ever had” had some flaws. The first was a cut of $3000 from my promised salary—after my family of three small children had already arrived—no negotiation possible! The second flaw was that my number two had spent the ten years since his Iowa PhD working for the CIA. His task was to keep Asian and American students (and professors “clean” politically! And we had just left a new Louie Kahn house in Philly while we scrounged in a small house a bachelor English professor left for a sabbatical.
We returned to Philly where I became English chair at Arcadia University. My media interests NPR, Time Life adviser for BBC, American correspondent for the British Film Institute’s journal, publication in The Nation and The New Republic (my first piece there was about the second banana in TV’s “The Honeymooners” called “Out of the Sewer and into the Sky”. Once you’ve visited Gay BBC, it’s more and more boring back on the suburban farm! One saving grace was the WFIL-TV program manager with two lobes. Tom Jones created “American Bandstand” with his right lobe while his left let me shoot cultural TV on his station.
Meanwhile back at the farm, I was trying to update Am Lit by turning it gradually into International English Lit. I premiered the new angle in London by pairing writers, Dickens/Twain, Whitman/Arnold, Emily/Hopkins. It works! In London I booked poets like Australia’s Robert Frost, A.D. Hope. It worked. Back home, I added AfroAm Lit (slyly pairing it with Appalachian Lit!) I designed a conference with Seamus Heaney, Michael Harper, and the Jamaican egghead Rex Nettleford. They bought into my Globish concept: Am Lit plus Commonwealth Lit equals International English Lit. (Except for the cranky editor of Canadian Commonwealth Lit who saw it as a CIA plot.
Imagine me who celebrated our BiCen by founding The Centre for Internationalising English to neutralize the CIA by dispersing IEL poems throughout the world. My saner filmmaker son Michael changed the name to the Center for International Education in St. Paul where for the last thirty years he has making the humanities more intelligible with films on the likes of locals Tom McGrath and Robert Bly.
I attended the Commonwealth Educational Ministers Conference in Lagos in 1968 with Wole Soyinka’s TV film on Nigerian Lit, as an example for other Commonwealth Countries. Alas, after showing it at the American Embassy, three CID detectives detained me for ten hours as their lieutenant interrogated me on my intentions! Only because the Canadian ambassador shamed them at a reception the next evening did the give me back my camera and tape recorder! Yo, I never knew Culture could be so exciting. They didn’t return my film until six months later in London. Fools work slowly!
When my mother died in 1982, I grandly gave the Dean a letter of resignation on Walt Whitman’s Birthday. I soon was writing cultural reports for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Business Journal (my first masthead and greatest editor). Then I went to Shanghai to study Mandarin for six weeks as a cover for my first “scoop”, the first foreign visit of the Shanghai Museum to the SF Asian Art Museum, with the cover story on Focus, the monthly magazine of KQED-TV.
What followed was a decade of Globish trotting to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Followed by a decade in Philly writing a weekly column called “Hazard-at-Large” putting to work what I had learned on my travels. The only thing better than reading an unusually (but rare) student paper is making a weekly deadline in an alternative paper, “The Welcomat”.
When I started trailing the Globish options (which simulates poorly what I want to do!), I found that while I was scooting around, Europeans were holding scholarly conferences on IE, almost bereft of American input! I will soon outline their achievements in another essay. It’s encouraging! John McWhorter will be thrilled! (I hope: he clearly doesn’t thrill easily.) Read me later.