The Spectator

Should You Go To Grad School?

My story.

Overloaded student in library.
Please don’t waste your life this way

Photograph by Otmar Winterleitner/iStockPhoto.

Apparently, people have been talking. Recently I received an email from an editor at Bookforum who was asking a number of writers to contribute essays to a book to be called Should I Go to Grad School? for an institution called the Platform for Pedagogy.

She told me, somewhat mysteriously, slightly ominously: “Several people have mentioned that you have strong feelings on the subject.”

Hm. It’s true, I had recently spoken to a grad school class on Shakespeare at NYU (led by my colleague, the gifted poet and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke) about my book The Shakespeare Wars. And if all grad school teachers of literature were like her, I would have no problem with the institution.

But I must admit I expressed some very “strong feelings” in that class. Specifically about the controversy stirred up by some academics who have arrogated to themselves spurious authority to discard parts of Hamlet. I had indeed emphatically warned the impressively bright students in the seminar against the kind of grad school-nurtured exegesis of Shakespeare most egregiously represented by James Shapiro in the section of his book, 1599, wherein he purports to read Shakespeare’s mind and discover that Shakespeare would have wanted to cut, trash, delete, and disappear Hamlet’s final soliloquy; one of the high points of the play and of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre.

It’s true that the fourth act soliloquy (“How all occasions do inform against me/ And spur my dull revenge …”), which is present in the so-called “Good Quarto” of Hamlet, the one published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, was omitted from the posthumously published Folio edition. But there is no evidence that this was Shakespeare’s preference and not that of, for instance, a theater manager who wanted to speed up the action of one of the Bard’s longest plays, which in fact revolves around extended delay.

As I suggest in my book, the mind-reading case Shapiro makes for the excision is no small matter. It’s emblematic of a whole academic mindset, of the sort of tin-eared arrogance that would consign to the dustbin on no good authority 35 eloquently tormented lines of self-reflection by one of the greatest characters in world literature—a character defined by his penchant for introspection and self-reflection—on the basis of a half-baked theory. In this case, the theory that Shakespeare decided he wanted to revise Hamlet to make Hamlet more of an action hero! Like Schwarzenegger in True Lies! Or maybe a Bruce Willis vehicle: Die Hard With a Vengeance: The Elsinore Conundrum.

In this analysis Hamlet’s last soliloquy slows down the action, makes Hamlet too “dark and existential,” as Shapiro disparagingly notes. Wouldn’t want that! That Shapiro’s theory has been taken seriously by academics is not merely an intellectual scandal but makes it the perfect metaphor for the way most graduate study of literature in America diminishes it—and has become something to be avoided like the plague. I’ve tangled with Shapiro before and I will never cease condemning his grad school-bred disembowelment of Hamlet ’til the day I die and hopefully, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, return to haunt those who advance this meretricious attempt to pour poison into the ears of grad students, to besmirch one of the high points of English literature.

Yes, I guess I do have strong feelings.

But, I told the Should I Go to Grad School? editor, I couldn’t speak about graduate school education in general for two reasons. First, it seems intuitively true that for subjects such as history, philosophy, the hard sciences, and even some of the softer ones, it would be hard for me to make a case against graduate study.

But grad school for literature, I can’t advocate. I escaped Yale before it became the center of the frenzied fad for French literary theorists, as a result of which students read more about arcane metaphysics of language, semiotics and the like than the actual literature itself. But, even though many of the most sophisticated contemporary intellectuals who once bought into this sophistry (such as Terry Eagleton) have abandoned it, the tenured relics who imposed this intellectual regime are still there, still espousing their view that literature itself is only to be understood through their diminishing deconstructing lens. I can testify to it, having sat through enough seminars at the Shakespeare Association of America conferences to last a life time. Please don’t waste your life this way.

Second, she had said she was asking two kinds of writers: those who had, and those who had not gone through graduate school. I fell into neither category: I had only spent a year at Yale’s graduate school (in English literature), and then fled the institutional comforts it offered for an unknown future.

All the better, she said. I’d looked at life from both sides now.

And so return with me to the moment I made the choice about whether to stay in graduate school; the moment when two roads stretched before me. I don’t suggest anyone take the path I did—I don’t want to ruin any lives—but maybe it will help some see if it’s the road for them.

It was the spring of 1969, around midnight at a lovely house on a comely cove a few miles up the coast from New Haven, a place I shared with a couple of Yale friends. I was sitting at the kitchen table. I had been up late paging anxiously through the classified ads of the Village Voice (long before they became a porn emporium), looking for a traveling salesman job, not finding one, and wondering if I should accept what seemed to be my fate and continue on in graduate school.

Traveling salesman job? Yes, I was desperate, looking for anything to get me out of the dusty, drowsy seminar rooms of graduate school and the endless succession of other dusty, drowsy seminar rooms that choosing an academic career portended. Anything to get me on the road, any road. I was in grad school because I loved reading literature, but literature does not, cumulatively, make the case for spending your life in classrooms studying and teaching literature. And abjuring graduate school does not mean you must end your romance with literature—in fact the opposite could be true. There’s this thing called “reading” which could be done, according to my understanding, outside dusty seminar rooms.  

(In fact, if you’re interested in learning as opposed to credentials and career, I would advise, immediately upon leaving college, taking out a subscription to the London Times Literary Supplement which has been for me a vastly useful way of keeping in touch with the greatest minds and clearest thinkers and writers in academia—and finding copious reading recommendations—which will serve you better than most graduate schools and is far cheaper.)

In any case, those with souls so dead they stay in graduate-school literature programs as they are now taught are precisely the ones who shouldn’t—but do—end up teaching literature and telling students things like Hamlet’s last soliloquy is superfluous. Needless to say there are exceptions. I single out some brilliant Shakespeare scholars such as Ann Thompson and Russ McDonald in my book. But it is a sad fact that it is the people too timid to taste life without the prospect of tenure who stay behind and ruin literature for the students in graduate school who have any life left in them.

And, in fact, as many have noted, the choice to go to graduate school may only offer the illusion of comfort and security—these days it’s an arduous path that only rarely leads to tenure; for the unwary it’s a wild and expensive gamble with no guarantee of security.

Looking back, I’m still amazed that I’d acted on my impulse to get out of there, because I was not a venturesome soul. Not timid, but no swaggering badass On the Road type, either. It is a testament to the degree and the quality of the boredom I felt that I found myself flipping through Village Voice classifieds.

Indeed, I’d found myself in fairly cushy circumstances at Yale that argued for staying on. I was there on a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship which was designed to lure Yale undergraduates into graduate school life by giving them a seductive package of perks—official appointment to the Yale faculty (as a subassistant junior instructor or something, but still). And I was given junior fellow privileges at my residential college, where one of my fellow fellows was Stephen Greenblatt. (Go ahead and go to graduate school if you think you’re as smart as Greenblatt.)

The responsibilities were not especially onerous—teaching just one freshman literature seminar (although I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning to spend hours preparing for each class), and taking one graduate seminar a semester.

That fall, I was pleased that I’d been accepted into a Yeats seminar taught by none other than Richard Ellmann, known as the Yeats scholar of our time whose biographies of the poet and of James Joyce are still monuments.

What a disappointment! Everything about it. Ellmann was sedulously, reductively, droningly biographical in his approach to Yeats. Every luminous poetic line was dragged down to its mundane source in Yeats’ life, just the opposite of what Joyce did with his Dublin which was to raise the mundane to the sublime.

And all around me the graduate students in my seminar silently nodded, not with weariness, but with careerist sycophancy. With one exception, a young woman who was, like me, seething at the dullness of the class. Her name: Camille Paglia. Need I say more?

The second-semester seminar was somewhat better, a Shakespeare class with Howard Felperin, whose small renown in academic circles came from becoming a hardcore deconstructionist and then, years later, having second thoughts. I liked him. I liked Shakespeare, but again the students, the dusty drowsy seminar rooms …

And there were the grad school sherry parties, the faces flushed with alcohol, the musty smell of damp tweed, the jockeying for position around such rising stars of sophistry as Harold Bloom. And the grad school culture, beery, sneery sessions with fellow students who seemed to evince no love of literature, just a lack of imagination. Was this what I wanted from life?

But I could have stayed, I could have played the grad school game. I had a cute townie girlfriend, Joyce. I had a good life with the prospect, after some thesis labor, of a secure tenured lifetime.

But it was beginning to feel like a life sentence.

Fortunately, I had had two experiences of life beyond grad school before then; one romantic, and one hardboiled.

The first came the summer before I started grad school, when I had scammed second-class press tickets to the Democratic National Convention from a hometown local daily, the Suffolk [Long Island] Sun. The Sun was a short-lived Cowles Publishing Company venture that nonetheless got the DNC to recognize my press pass. I drove out to Chicago in a beat-up Chevy and found myself in the middle of the wild riotous ’68 Democratic convention. Shifting from the posh interiors of the convention hotels to the tear gas and billy clubs in the street, I met a woman and convinced her we should leave the hectic violence and head for the lakeshore where (according to some sketchy info I had) Allen Ginsberg was going to be chanting for peace at sunrise. We never found Allen Ginsberg, but we did find ourselves alone on the beach as the sun rose.

It was an impossibly romantic dream of a first newspaper experience, and you can probably see why it spoiled me for the dusty seminar rooms.

And then in the middle of my graduate school year something else happened that proved to be even more decisive. I didn’t think it would be possible to replicate the romance of Chicago and had kind of given up on the idea of being a writer, when the same Suffolk paper offered to let me work as a daily reporter during winter break, where I was given the job of under-assistant police reporter.

This was what I wanted, this was what I found I loved. Hanging out with cops and criminals. Being up close and personal with crime and punishment, not just writing papers on it.

Maybe my favorite part was getting a front-page byline on a story about a Long Island Rail Road strike. The managing editor, a classically grumpy veteran Irish newshound, taught me the art of “bouncing quotes”—repeating some management-bashing quote from the union leader (Anthony D’Avanzo—I still remember his name) to the management spokesman, then reading his retort back to D’Avanzo, who upped the ante. I stirred up a fight, actually reporting the under-reported union point of view. I thought I was part of The Struggle. Almost as important, my father, who commuted to the city on the LIRR for 40 years and hated the incompetent line, was proud I was giving them a hard time with my byline.

Still, curiously, that night in the spring, the night I had to decide whether to re-up at Yale or … what? I didn’t think I could become a writer. It was just blessed luck that when I couldn’t find a traveling salesman job, I kept flipping the pages in Help Wanted and my eyes alighted on the tiny type of a small classified ad for a job as assistant editor at a summer weekly called The Fire Island News, which was published in Ocean Beach on the barrier island right across from where I’d grown up in Bay Shore. I drove down to the interview in the Chelsea Hotel with a guy named Bill Redding, a novelist who had taken the job as editor, and got the sense that a number of writers took summer gigs with paper despite the nearly no pay, in return for the room and board (I lived in a room behind Karl the Barber’s shop), and the sun, surf and other beach enticements. I signed on. But then Redding had trouble with the publisher and I was suddenly left as editor, having to write practically the entire weekly for the rest of the summer.

Again I don’t necessarily suggest you try this at home; I was very often very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The founding editor of the Village Voice, Dan Wolf, had a summer place in the next town over, and his wife Rhoda called his attention to the unconventional copy I was throwing into print, ranging from a very deep exegesis of Bob Dylan’s country-pie album Nashville Skyline to profiles of the hippie cast of Hair visiting haute gay enclave, Fire Island Pines. And I covered a march led by the great Nat Hentoff, the Voice writer who also lived on the island and led a protest against discrimination by the wealthy WASP Newport Cottage-style colony called Point O’Woods. Hentoff later suggested I write to Dan Wolf to see if there was a place for me at the Voice, which was then still in its golden age.

And as it happened, the Voice’s last counter-culture reporter, the legendary Don McNeill, had walked into a lake at a commune in Massachusetts allegedly with a headful of acid and died the year before. And so I was thrown into the breach.

It was heavy duty covering the Weather Underground types and the heavy acid heads, but I survived it in part, I think, because of the skepticism and distance I had developed from reading my beloved 17th-century metaphysical poets and the crazy quilt of visionary sects who surfaced during Cromwell’s Interregnum—the Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters, and the “Family of Love,” (for more on all of these see the great scholar Christopher Hill’s wonderful book The World Turned Upside Down)—all of whom anticipated in their dreams and sad fate the ’60s and ’70s types I was covering and left me less vulnerable to being carried away by their seductions.

I began covering politics too, and eventually ended up as the Voice White House correspondent standing a few yards away from Richard Nixon as he made his weepy farewell speech the day after he resigned.

And so began a very fortunate working life, at the Voice, Esquire (where one of the first stories I wrote was the one on “phone phreaks” that brought Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak together in what would be the Apple partnership), Harpers, the New York Times magazine, and other places, working for luminaries too numerous to name—to all of whom I owe a great debt for their encouragement and guidance. The point being, again, that without this initial luck I would not have had the fortitude to keep on going and might have ended up going back to grad school or even to law school. Yes, that old quote from E.B. White: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

Seven books and hundreds of periodical pieces later do I regret I left graduate school? Do I regret turning the fateful page of the classifieds that night?

What do you think?

In fact, I still recall just one experience that made it all worthwhile, made me realize I’d made the right choice (for me anyway): The chance to see a life-changing Shakespearean production, perhaps the single greatest and most influential in the past century— Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Again it was a matter of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I’d been following this weird, silly Medicine Ball Caravan documentary that Warner Brothers was filming, about a bus caravan full of San Francisco hippies that had made its way across America and then accompanied them over the ocean to the U.K. for some concerts. (Faces with Ron Wood at Canterbury!)

But after all that madness was over I rented a Mini and started driving to some literary landmarks, like the place where Keats stood when he wrote his beautiful ode “To Autumn”. And I ended up in Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, on the very weekend the Royal Shakespeare Company was opening Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream there. Ask anyone who’s seen it (ask Frank Rich, for instance)—it was a life changing experience. I suddenly realized why Shakespeare was Shakespeare in a way I never would have otherwise (i.e. in graduate school). You can read about it, should you care, in The Shakespeare Wars, a book that was inspired by that experience. Until then, I’d never understood the power of the spell Shakespeare could cast on the stage rather than the page—if the players on the stage were under the direction of a magus like Brook; a play about a love potion that was itself a kind of lifelong love potion. It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for an entire graduate school education.