"I learn by going where I have to go"

Former Yale College dean and Duke University president Richard Brodhead recounts his intellectual career.

Richard Brodhead ’68, ’72PhD, is a professor emeritus of English, former dean of Yale College, and former president of Duke University. He read this essay at the Koerner Center on May 6, 2019. The title is from “The Waking,” a poem by Theodore Roethke. The class years of the Yale graduates mentioned were added by the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

Brodhead entered Yale as an undergrad in 1964 and spent four decades there. This article is an excerpt from his own Intellectual Trajectories essay. View full image

I’ve had the chance to listen to hundreds of students confide their hopes and uncertainties about charting a course in life. I have counseled as well as I knew how, but in ways I was the last person they should be talking to. For I never doubted my trajectory: there never was a time when I did not know what I wanted to be. When I was little, I loved to learn things: my idea of a good Christmas present was a book of flags I could memorize. When it came time to go to school, that place suited me to a tee. There were many things I was not good at in my youth but school always came easily. School is where I was at home.

When I was 13 my parents sent me away to school, partly out of class aspiration perhaps, but largely because they recognized my peculiarity and wanted to give me as much education as they could. I did not love Andover’s hierarchies of preppy cool or athleticism, but I had a great experience of learning with a succession of memorable teachers. In their presence I came to the idea that I wanted to be a teacher, and from age 15, I never considered another career.

If you were reasonably smart at my school, Harvard or Yale is where you went next: 100 of the 225 students in the Andover Class of 1964 went to one or the other. I thought I’d like Yale as the less pretentious of the two. But although I did not know this when I chose a college, Yale was in the middle of a transformation of which I was the inadvertent beneficiary. A faculty committee in the early ’60s had decided that Yale’s tight adherence to the elite boarding school model was causing it to fall behind Harvard and even Princeton in academic prowess, and the university resolved to make itself a more intellectual place. In the last years of the Griswold [’29, ’33PhD] presidency and the first years of Kingman Brewster’s [’41], this led to a more professional, less clubby approach to faculty hiring and a changed profile for student recruitment. When admissions officers went to work the year I applied, they were instructed to give more weight to intellectual aptitude and less to gentlemanly manner. In consequence, mine was the first Yale class to include more students from public than from private schools.

Everything still looked like Old Yale when I got here. The student body was still all male and clad in coats and ties. But there was a difference, and I felt it. In Directed Studies I was in class with the kind of people I’d always hoped to be surrounded with: real smarties, fellows active of mind and tongue, people who read great books without doubting that their own thoughts were worth sharing too. It did not take three weeks to conclude that this was where I really belonged: I still wanted to be a teacher, but now, in a university. But a professor of what? Directed Studies gave us the likes of Alvin Kernan ’54PhD in English; George Kubler ’34, ’40PhD, in History of Art; or Robert Jackson in Slavic Literature. I learned from them but none was the key to turn my lock.

In sophomore year I took a course on nineteenth-century American literature from R. W. B. Lewis and, as they say in Faulkner, Something Happened. Lewis was a captivating figure. I can see him onstage in W. L. Harkness with his fascinating overabundance of initials, his white hair combed back in a lionlike mane, and his reputation for being friends with famous authors and painters—a man of letters, a new thing for me. Under his direction, we read books and authors whose like I had never encountered: those enigmatic Hawthorne tales of people who suddenly succumb to freaky but irreversible compulsions; the flowing lines and lapping rhythms of Whitman’s poetry; The Portrait of a Lady, The Education of Henry Adams, Pudd’nhead Wilson. Under the sway of this teacher and these mesmerizing texts, my ambition clarified itself. Now I meant to be an English professor, administering the mysteries of this uncannily charged domain.

Here too I felt the force of historical developments I was unaware of as such. Having been born in 1947, my youth coincided with the postwar boom of American higher education, which vastly expanded college opportunity while creating the research university as we know it. Along with the new push for federally funded scientific research, the postwar re-envisioning of the university conferred a complementary national priority onto the humanities, understood as nurturers of cultural value, critical thinking, and the individual quest for meaning.

Yale has long been known as a humanities university, and in the 1960s English had pride of place. When this field advanced from the mix of belles lettres and Germanic philology that had characterized it before World War II, Yale professors led in theorizing literature as a distinct body of knowledge requiring distinctive methods to unlock it. In this approach, literature was a site of existential meaning only accessible through close reading, scrupulous attention to the play of language within the text. It’s hard to exaggerate how the so-called New Criticism transformed the landscape of literary study, opening it to an enormous public and giving it intellectual heft, while broadcasting Yale as such study’s mother ship.

So I had come to the echt humanities department of the echt humanities university at the high water mark of the American valuation of the humanities. Of course these forces shaped my trajectory. But as an undergraduate, I just felt the magic of it. No historian could guess what it was like to have Harold Bloom ’55PhD for a seminar in my junior year—Bloom, whose way of reading fit no paradigm except one he generated, encountered at the exact moment when he stepped beyond the nineteenth-century Romantics to teach the poetry of Yeats and Wallace Stevens. I remember our first class. Bloom’s father had just died. He was the first teacher I had who spoke of personal experience or death. Bloom was wearing a stretched-out orange sweater, and he had begun reading from the moving Conclusion to Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. While continuing to recite (he knew this like all texts by heart), Bloom began to remove the sweater. But it got stuck as it passed over his head, so we could hear oracular utterances about life’s irredeemable evanescence continue to come from out of a gyrating mass of wool, until, the garment subdued at last, Bloom pronounced: “That is the most profound thing that was ever written.”

Yeats and Stevens remain among my most treasured writers, and they remain, for me, wisdom writers as much as poets. This is a direct debt I bear to Bloom, but the point is a larger one. It’s hard to feel the power of literary works all by ourselves. We need teachers to show us how to love them, how to invest them with the energies of our experience until the text can speak words for us we could not find on our own.

Since Yale was agreed to have the number one English department, it seemed obvious that I should stay at Yale for graduate study. I was expecting more of the same, but graduate school proved to be profoundly different, in ways both good and bad. More than 50 students entered my graduate class in English—the department had expected 40 and had assumed there would be some attrition due to the Vietnam War. So the graduate seminars were all grossly overcrowded. Plus, what a product of Yale’s great undergraduate teaching department could scarcely believe, teaching as I knew it was barely attempted in most classes. Brilliant faculty assigned students to give oral reports on static subjects, and we listened nodding until the class was done. Let me tip my hat to James McIntosh ’66PhD as the one true teacher I had in graduate school.

On the other hand, here were new friends the likes of whom I’d never known. I now had women classmates for the first time since eighth grade, and one of them, Cynthia Degnan ’72MA, became the great new fact of my life. We became seriously involved in the spring of 1969 so academics were no longer exactly top of mind. The elations of courtship were amplified by other disruptive new realities. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War had formed a jarring undersong to my college career. In the spring and summer of my last year, we lived through the Tet offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy, and the horrors of the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

By spring 1970, ordinary business had halted at American universities, preempted by radical questioning of the familiar world whose outcome no one could confidently predict. On another front, my brother had been in a car accident at the end of my freshman year that left him paralyzed from the neck down. This threw my family into psychic turmoil that, by 1970, brought this loved group to the verge of breakdown.

Everything was crazy, but somehow everything was manageable with some discipline and focus. This city’s brush with the specter of revolution on May Day, the Kent State shootings, my PhD orals, and our wedding took place within a few short weeks in 1970. That fall I got my first taste of teaching, as a TA in Al Kernan’s superb lecture course on Shakespeare. I found this just as fulfilling and joy-inducing as I had anticipated. Circling back to American literature, I cobbled together some ideas about Hawthorne and Melville as the basis for a dissertation, and by the summer of 1972 I finished the degree.

As you will remember, the 1970 student revolutions were followed not by the promised utopia but by what could be called the Era of Bad Feeling—and then by an unexpected and most unwelcome guest, an economic downturn. My classmates and I paid little heed to the rise of inflation driven by the Vietnam War, or the cratering of university endowments after an ill-considered investment scheme in the late ’60s, or the unforeseen costs of Yale’s hastily announced, minimally planned coeducation, or the further costs the new need-blind admissions policy imposed when coupled with another absolutely key commitment of this time, affirmative outreach to underrepresented minorities. The cumulative result was that both inside the university and out, the long prosperity of the postwar period was going away fast. Yale was having a hiring freeze when I applied for jobs, but since the English department needed to teach virtually every freshman in a small seminar with a ladder faculty instructor, it could always make the case for junior lines. And so it came to pass that in January 1972, during a hiring freeze, I was offered a job as assistant professor at Yale.

You might have thought I would have had enough of Yale by now. I did have an offer from Berkeley, the other great English department of this time. But in truth, I didn’t seriously consider it. Moving 3,000 miles away from my very needy family would have been an act of unforgivable treachery, so that was one reason. Another is that I did not want to leave. No graduate student would have been caught dead admitting to positive feelings for an institution at that time, but I knew that Yale would be a great place to do what I cared about, so I stayed.

The Yale I joined as a faculty member was wonderfully different from the one I had graduated from four short years before. The transformation of the student body that had begun when I entered had by now progressed much further: the dependence on feeder schools and their academic culture had been almost totally disrupted by the early 1970s. As for coeducation, that was just the best. I never attended a Yale College that included women students, but I never taught at a Yale College without women students. They brought an intellectual vitality that made study more serious and more fun for everyone. At the same time, in many ways, the Yale I loved remained almost mystically preserved. Whatever upheavals authority had suffered elsewhere, in freshman English the literary canon reigned in undimmed glory. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth: they were now mine to teach, and I learned that preparing works for class discussion was the very best way to activate the power of a literary text. Yale’s residual humanistic culture was largely still in place as well. On my way into my first class as a professor, Richard B. Sewall ’33PhD grabbed my coat sleeve, drew me out into the hall, and said: “Come’ere, come’ere, I have something to tell you. Now, don’t be afraid to say something profound!”

Teaching loads were heavy for junior faculty, but I was happy as can be. I was doing work I loved with students who repaid any amount of effort. When I wanted to learn a new body of material, I’d invent a new course with new student partners. The University of Chicago published my revised dissertation, so I had a book. In my third summer I was invited to teach at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English, where many a Yale luminary (most recently Bart Giamatti ’60, ’64PhD) had taught before. Things were going great! In spring of 1976 I even offered my first lecture course, on nineteenth-century American literature. So I was R. W. B. Lewis now, I was the R. W. B. Lewis of latter days: I was 28 and had already become the furthest thing I could imagine ten years before.

But under this smiling surface, my way of engaging my profession was becoming seriously problematic. Cindy and I spent the 1976–77 academic year on sabbatical in London, where an American assistant professor’s salary was still a princely sum. This was glorious, as long as I didn’t think about the work I was supposed to be doing. As the Life of Dick was advancing step by charmed step post-1970, literary study had been undergoing a profound shift. Theory, the shorthand name for the successor to humanism-cum-close reading as bearer of intellectual prestige, was centered at Yale, so, far from threatening the dominance of my department, Theory renewed Yale’s title for another decade or more. The trouble was, I felt no call to work in these new styles, yet could scarcely defend myself from their internalized judgments. I recall the day a senior colleague said of a friend’s work that it was “insufficiently theorized.” You mean, there’s now a whole new way one can be insufficient?

So I was now sailing against a stiff wind, and worse, the undeniable power of new methods exposed the work I was attempting as riddled with naïve assumptions. I had a fellowship to write a study of American literary realism. The first two books I read on arriving in London were Roland Barthes’s S/Z and Jonathan Culler’s Structural Poetics. Too bad for me! Already I had learned that the literary relations to reality I was set to discuss were actually textual effects activated by reading technologies.

I soldiered on, but it was dismaying to find my work so thin that it had to be abandoned. I returned from leave to a Yale full of challenges. The economic situation grew abysmal as stagflation took hold. On campus, deferred maintenance was making Yale a kind of gothic slum. The academic job market had virtually gone away, especially for humanists. Theory was ever more dominant, heaping scorn on beliefs that had been foundational to my engagement with my field: the idea that authors, not critics, were the interesting ones; the idea that literature is a privileged bearer of deep understanding of the human lot.

With tenure an ever straiter gate and no real project in hand, I threw myself into the part of the profession I knew I was good at, the teaching end. But this only postponed what came ever clearer: I had never faced the fact that my profession was a structured career with its own expectations I would be judged by, not just a fantasia on my personal desires. As the tenure clock ticked ominously in winter 1978, I got an invitation to lecture at Boston University. In short order I learned that I was being offered tenure and the chance to lead their American Studies program. What luck! I could escape from my dark woods by going somewhere else.

With the job market at its nadir, I thought I should jump at the chance. I went so far as to call my acting chair, Geoffrey Hartman ’53PhD, and tell him I was resigning. (OK, he said, in an unreadable tone.) But I couldn’t bear it. I instantly knew that I needed to try for a career at Yale and not leave just to avoid the risk. Sheepishly, I phoned Geoffrey back and rescinded my resignation. OK, he said, with another enigmatic tone.

I never regretted this decision, but the aftermath was somewhat sick-making. I had squared to the challenge; now it was all on me. I began a project exploring the outsized role Hawthorne has had in later American literature, specifically the way the greatest writers (Melville, Henry James, Faulkner) have returned to him to help them negotiate turning points in their literary careers. I hadn’t solved the problem of how to orient myself toward the new discourses of my profession, but it was interesting (even fun) to work on this in the long, hot summer as we waited for our child to be born.

That fall, it was time to hand in my work for my tenure review. I had a book, some essays, and a couple of chapters toward a new book—surely that was enough? How could they not give tenure to someone acknowledged to be among the great teachers in the department, an indignant inner voice would say. (I’d been given the Devane Medal for Teaching by Phi Beta Kappa that spring.) To which the voice of fantasized senior colleagues would reply: but Dick—do you seriously think that is evidence of a major scholarly career? But what about Bart Giamatti, I would inwardly retort? He got tenure and became president of Yale with a profile not very different from mine. Dick, please: Bart was Bart, and those were other times.

Months went by with no word from the department. Returning to New Haven from the Modern Language convention in San Francisco, getting on the Connecticut Limousine, I found—no doubt to our mutual horror—that the only vacant seat was next to the chairman of my department. Like many admired senior colleagues of that time, he was profoundly ill at ease in ordinary interactions. After an hour sitting together in silence, I could stand it no longer. “Can you tell me anything about how my case is coming?” I asked. He winced, then said as carefully as if each word were being vetted by the FBI: “That will depend on how your work is considered in the opinions of a range of colleagues.”

Having later occupied the position this good man held, I understand his scruple about giving any encouragement that might not be borne out by events. But at the time, it was enough to make you blow your brains out. In late spring I heard rumors that the senior faculty had voted on me, though the result was not reported. It was nearly three weeks before the chair confirmed that the department had forwarded my case to the senior appointments committee, where he offered no estimate of my chances. (Several months later Howard Lamar told me I should not have worried.) We learn our lessons in forms both bitter and sweet. A chance to welcome me into the community of permanent faculty was lost to the buttoned-up, super-hierarchical, generationally skewed departmental culture of that time. A year or two later Margie Ferguson ’74PhD told me her promotion was revealed to her in these words: “Your tenure has been approved. We will give you a list of typos we found in your material.”

Getting tenure was good but did not resolve my professional problem. But then things took a turn. The national media had concocted the name The Yale School for deconstruction, though the colleagues grouped by this label were anything but identical. But Yale was the school of other things than theory, and one of these came to my rescue. During the ’70s and early ’80s, scholars in American Studies began recovering the history we would tell if women were understood as protagonists, not extras. This led to an excavation of the culture of domesticity of the emerging middle class of the early nineteenth century, which had created new worlds of leisure and new cultural spaces for reading. From the first I was intensely interested in this history, and at a certain point, I and others began asking how it and literary history could be drawn together. Reading back and forth between literary texts and cultural formations gave me a new way to visualize my work, and we were off to the races.

The half-finished Hawthorne book, trapped in a concept of influence study that no longer seemed very compelling, was reborn as a cultural history of literary careers and quickly finished. When that book was done, I was on fire. For the next decade I was never without a project. My new work caused me to expand my reading far beyond what I had known as American literature. Reading familiar classics back together with forgotten bodies of writing that had been their contemporaries opened the door to endless explorations.

Soon I was tracing the history of the movement against corporal discipline of children by pulling together childrearing manuals, polemics for universal public education, antislavery tracts, and the popular fiction of the domesticity, most prominently Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then I was reading Little Women (for the first time!) and tracking the divergence it documents among a new literary high culture, a popular domestic literary culture, and a more working-class reading culture based on story papers and dime novels. Next I was asking about the strange proliferation of regional writing after the Civil War, including the work of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, the principal African American writer of the postbellum period. Chesnutt kept a diary that offers a unique glimpse of the assets and obstructions a Black author faced trying to imagine a literary career in the resegregating society of the 1880s. I spent a year transcribing the diary and tracking down its local references. My graduate seminars had become the laboratory for exploring literary-cultural connections with wonderfully gifted student partners.

I’ve never been one for movements, but having sat out theory, I was deeply involved with the next waves in literary study, the yoking of literature, history, and social theory dubbed the New Historicism and the opening of the field to excluded voices. It had taken this long for social issues crashing in around us in 1970 to change the books being read and the questions being asked in the literary curriculum. I was fully engaged in this new order.

Then something happened that gave my career a most unexpected turn.