Being Frank

To understand English professor Frank Lentricchia's Lucchesi and The Whale, and his irreverence toward established conventions and forms, go back to his revolutionary 1980s. Back then, when his mustache was full, Lentricchia and his thoughts on art, theory, and politics, used to anger and inspire in equal and vehement numbers.

Adorning the walls of his East Campus office are three paintings from the Duke art museum's permanent collection. One, a somber, disfigured nude in dark hues, was painted by a Duke art student in the late Sixties, shortly before his suicide. This is the favorite, the one he asked for; the other two were there already when he moved in 1993 from his earlier perch in the Allen Building. The room is adorned in mahogany, with a large desk, two walls of bookshelves, and a small, round table with chairs that barely reveal their institutional heritage. There is no computer, not even a typewriter--just yellow legal pads and a can of pencils. The office corner frames a poster advertising Ezra Pound's 1931 pamphlet "How to Read," with those three contentious words emblazoned on yellowing leaves in 40-point type.

This is the office of Thomas Lucchesi, professor of American literature, writer of letters, visitor of moribund friends. A man who teaches college "only because [his] fiction is commercially untouchable," and who works tirelessly, if not productively, on some "experimental novel." A man who can deal more aptly with art than with life. A man whose passion to create can, time and again, isolate him and saddle him with anxiety. A self-fashioned "mad Ahab of reading," who searches desperately, in heartfelt scholarly prose, for the meaning within Melville's Moby-Dick. A man who sometimes sees his world through the prism of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. But above all, a man whose love for life, for his intimates, and himself, endures.

In reality, it is the office of Frank Lentricchia A.M. '63, Ph.D. '66, Katherine Everett Gilbert Professor of literature, celebrated critic, novelist, master teacher, lover of high modernist poetry, and creator of Thomas Lucchesi. His work, especially a critical trilogy in the 1980s, has inspired many a fierce devotee of its own. In an angry testimonial published in 1996 he famously disavowed his status as a pre-eminent literary critic--and the entire notion of politically based, politically biased, politically correct scholarship, which he has been charged with inventing. Finally, he has turned to "close reading" and fiction writing as outlets for the literary passion he refused to let the academy contain.

Lucchesi is the hero of Lentricchia's Lucchesi and The Whale (the "The," in reference to Melville's creation, takes its capital on purpose), published last year by Duke University Press. And for its author, Lucchesi "is an outgrowth of a preoccupation with the cost of shutting yourself down in order to practice total devotion to your work."

Lucchesi began with a few literary sketches culled from the author's dreams, and grew from there into a lyric fiction. Through it all, the awake Lentricchia was dealing with the baggage of a semester of Melville's Moby-Dick, during which "the book suddenly loomed before me as unteachable." Channeling frustration into inspiration, he says he began to think "this obsession with Melville would give some coherence to the various fragments of narrative that I had just put together. Inevitably, I came to the point where I realized that my character had to confront Moby-Dick, and that became the central drama of the book." He describes it finally as "the kind of narrative that sits on the border between realism and fantasy."

An opera in four acts, the book opens with two sequences of dreams culled from the author's nightly travels, everything from a family of cannibalistic snakes to an evening at La Scala, where Lucchesi-the-writer is called to replace Pavarotti-the-singer. A comic interlude titled "Writer in Residence" separates these earlier forays from the following meat of the book, which is a critical reflection in the form of an obsessive monologue on Melville's Moby-Dick. In a few hundred words, Lucchesi is dismissed from his post at Central College at the behest of the dean and a certain "President Jan" who find his pedagogy, which consists of "repeated and strenuous exercise in deep aesthetic immersion," risible.

"Chasing Melville," an animated spell of light-hearted criticism in Lucchesi's thinly disguised Lentricchian voice, takes up the central question of hyphenation. Moby-Dick is the totality, the aesthetic universe, in which Moby Dick, The Whale, resides. "It definitely stems from the terrible experience that I had with Melville in the classroom, not that any of it came out that well at the time," says Lentricchia. Lucchesi concludes with a meditation on "Sex and Wittgenstein," wherein the bookish professor woos an Alitalia flight attendant into midair lovemaking with his dazzling explications of philosophical nuance.

Lucchesi plays with the boundaries of book form, with the "structurality of the structure," to use some of the very parlance Lentricchia coined in his earlier incarnation as a literary theorist. To understand his playful irreverence toward established conventions and forms, one must go back a bit, to his revolutionary 1980s. Back then, when his mustache was full, Lentricchia used to anger and inspire in equal and vehement numbers. And to understand this polemical face of Frank Lentricchia, one must then go back even further, to his days at Duke as a graduate student under Professor Bernard Duffey.

In the old Duke English department, Lentricchia penned a historical master's thesis on the American reception of the poet Byron, which gave rise to his first published essay. A dissertation followed, and the book that sprung from it, The Gaiety of Language: An Essay on the Radical Poetics of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, was released only two years after he took his Ph.D. in 1966. Even in the book's title, traces of Lentricchia's double-edged obsession begin to shine. The pleasures of language and radicalism of artists and critics--the two strands that entwine his career--were present already in his first work of scholarship.

From his assistant professor's chairs at UCLA and then UC-Irvine, Lentricchia's early scholarship began to unfold. In Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, which he considers his "weakest book," he argued for Frost's place "as a welcome member in the company of Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats," as someone engaged with the literary and philosophical ideas of his day. Lentricchia waited nearly two years for the book to find a publisher; during this time he wrote Robert Frost: A Bibliography, 1913-1974. Once the two works were published, in 1975 and 1976, Lentricchia says he grew bored. "It's sort of a motif in my life; I find myself written out in a certain vein and look for something else to do to keep myself interested."

At Irvine, with the newly christened discipline of "critical theory" preparing to "stretch its mighty limbs and take over the stage of professional study on the literary side of the academy," Lentricchia didn't have to look far. "Theory" referred then to High Post-Structuralism, a wave of largely French thought that sought to debunk the fixity of text and the stability of language through its intricate formulae of Marxian, Freudian, and Nietzschean suspicion. Despite the strife it created, there was no single book to which a theory newcomer could turn for orientation, or in which a theory practitioner could see the historical landscape against which his work was being done.

No book, that is, until Lentricchia's After the New Criticism appeared in 1980. At once a roadmap for the uninitiated and a tome for the expert, it circulated as the Little Red Book of this particular cultural revolution. After the New Criticism tracks the development of the movement from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism through existentialism, phenomenology, and structuralism to post-structuralism. It concludes with chapters on Murray Krieger, E.D. Hirsch, Paul DeMan, and Harold Bloom. It was the kind of book people bought to find out what was going on.

In providing an observer's account, Lentricchia also served up his own literary philosophy. "I ended up writing a polemical history, one which charged a number of practitioners of contemporary theory with idealism." Some of the book's harshest critiques, then, came not from the theory-averse, but from theory-lovers who were beginning to wonder whether their newly minted jargon could ever change the world.

Now famous in literary circles, Lentricchia moved to Rice University in 1982, and in another year had drafted an answer to his critics in Criticism and Social Change. The slim, 170-page book argues that literary scholars, as literary scholars, can and should contribute to the work of the left. "In the absence of a program or positive message in After the New Criticism," says Lentricchia, "it attempted to put something in place of what I didn't like." That "something"--the idea of humanist scholarship as a platform for "activist study, contentious study, study with a purpose in mind, ulterior political goals, study that would open up the canon, study that would recognize the multiplicity of American cultures, study on behalf of the denigrated and the downtrodden"--cleaved the academy in two.

Lentricchia and his insistence on blurring the line between scholarship and politics were excoriated by the Reagan-era cultural right. "I got some good strong corrosive footnotes from the wife of our current vice president, Lynne Cheney," director at the time of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the years that followed, theory's second wave swelled, in which the textual irreverence of the now-hyphenless poststructuralism met the radical fervor of identity politics. If a single sentence couldn't have a fixed meaning outside language's "system of differences," how could anyone possibly dictate a list of great books? Bitter public debates broke out as Stanford University led the charge to revamp its Western Civ requirements, and schools across the country pondered the pertinence and fairness of the canon. "The whole story of political correctness in the university and the literary academy," Lentricchia notes, "was put at the door of this little blue book."

The book gave him renown as a figure of cultural discord. The jacket photograph bears his likeness in a tight-fitting golf shirt, arms crossed and biceps borne. Maureen Corregan, in an early 1984 Village Voice review, coined the "Dirty Harry of contemporary literary theory" moniker that Lentricchia, eighteen years later, has not outlived. He remained suspicious of this media fixation--"it's as if one's personality were one's work!"--but such newfound academic celebrity wound up drawing him back to a Duke that was hovering on the brink of national prominence.

Lentricchia was lured back to his alma mater in 1984. It was a bold step for the university, the beginning of a commitment to a particular style of renegade scholarship that evokes both resentment and admiration from the wider community. He remembers his first public lecture as a Duke faculty member, over dinner at the nearby National Humanities Center. He outlined his thesis from Criticism and Social Change, and several of his new colleagues stomped angrily from the room.

As is sometimes forgotten, it was a suggestion from Lentricchia that brought Stanley Fish from Johns Hopkins to the department chairmanship he so notoriously inhabited between 1986 and 1991. Fish, who remained on the Duke faculty until accepting a deanship at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1998, presided over what a 1992 external review committee called "a kind of engine or life-pump for the humanities at Duke, a supplier of intellectual energy and stimulation for the university at large." Hot hires proliferated, graduate applications increased fivefold, and the once sleepy Duke University Press re-fashioned itself as a clearinghouse for cutting-edge scholarship.

Lentricchia's other enduring recruitment suggestion was the appointment of Marxist critic Fredric Jameson to found and spearhead what grew into the Program in Literature, an interdisciplinary venture that incorporates comparative literature, literary theory, cultural studies, and film. More than fifteen years later, the program--into which Lentricchia himself transferred his appointment in 1993--remains strong.

From his new digs at Duke, Lentricchia wrote the final piece of his critical trilogy, Ariel and the Police. With sections on Michel Foucault, William James, and Wallace Stevens, he says, "the book moved away from pure literary theory; it was a reading of Stevens' life and poetry in its cultural context." What shines through in Ariel and the Police is an obsession with the act of writing over and above its philosophical significance as expounded in After the New Criticism or its political value as defended in Criticism and Social Change. It represents less the end of Lentricchia the critic than the beginning of Lentricchia the writer.

"That whole side of me came out then. I must have known that I was going to be bored soon, had done what I could do there, and was asking myself, okay, what next?" The following years saw the production of two edited volumes on Don DeLillo and Critical Terms for Literary Study, an undergraduate anthology that has proven his best-selling work. But the shadow of Modernist Quartet--a book on Frost, Stevens, Pound, and Eliot that had been under contract since 1982--suddenly loomed before him as unwritable.

A set of personal and intellectual crises were afoot. Lentricchia faced mid-life anxieties as his marriage collapsed. He spent parts of the summer of 1991 at Mepkin Abbey, the Trappist monastery in South Carolina. He spent the fall semester of 1991 in New York teaching on a Duke-sponsored program for art students. All the while, he was writing a set of autobiographical meditations that would become his next book. "Literally," he recalls, "what started it was a commandment from a monk to write. I was leaving the monastery and he said, 'You have to tell the world about this, you have to write about it.' 'You're a writer,' he said. 'Write through this.'"

So Lentricchia undertook a project that departed significantly in scope and tenor from everything he had done in twenty years as a professor. "I felt myself launched into a totally different literary space, one in which I was writing about what actually happened. So it was not fiction in that sense, but I found myself writing about it in a way that released me from fact, so that I could explore my emotional reactions, so that I could explore what it meant for me to reflect upon myself at this stage. And I thought it was very seductive, I enjoyed it very much."

He published one of these meditations in the journal Raritan, and presented another, to much chagrin and a quiet room, at Harvard's annual English Language Institute in 1993. "I think a number of people found it a breach of propriety, that level of personal revelation. That maybe you'd want to write this, but why the hell would you ever want to publish it? I think some people were, without telling me,embarrassed on my behalf that I should be doing this." The reflections were published in 1994 as The Edge of Night: A Confession.

Lentricchia was more invigorated than apologetic. According to Clay Taliaferro, Duke dance professor and Lentricchia's friend, the catharsis set him free. "Frank lives the moment through and through, and this outburst was so necessary to his personal continuity. It was such a huge outburst, personally and publicly, and he never lost in the process any of his essence as a strong man full of love, full of spirit." Taliaferro is the only man to have played Lentricchia on stage, which he did in a 1994 dramatization of The Edge of Night by drama professor Jody McAuliffe. It was a time of literal as well as intellectual rebirth--Lentricchia and McAuliffe married, and their daughter, Maeve, was born in 1995.

A proleptic meditation on Foucault in the final essay of Ariel and the Police hints at the course Lentricchia's intellectual life would take in the wake of The Edge of Night: "Foucault's antidote is writing: not as a space for the preservation of identity and the assertion of voice, but as a labyrinth into which he can escape, to 'lose myself,' and, there, in the labyrinth never to have to be a self--write yourself off, as it were, 'write in order to have no face.' "

Within a few years, Lentricchia had turned his back on his status as critic and fashioned himself an advocate for, and creator of, art. He denied the criticism he had worked to create, and did so, ultimately, out of frustration with methods of criticism that hinged on moral superiority. The story goes that one day in the early 1990s, a graduate student opened class discussion in one of his seminars with the words, "The first thing we need to understand is that Faulkner was a racist." Vexed by what he considered narrow-minded reading, Lentricchia stopped teaching graduate students, and in the September/October 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, outlined his much-maligned objection to critical work as it was coming to be practiced: "The fundamental, if only implied, message of much literary criticism is self-righteous, and it takes this form: 'T.S. Eliot is a homophobe and I am not. Therefore, I am a better person than Eliot. Imitate me, not Eliot.' To which the proper response is: 'But T.S. Eliot could really write, and you can't. Tell us truly, is there no filth in your soul?' "

Lentricchia sought greener literary pastures and, within four years, published three novels--Johnny Critelli, The Knifemen, and The Music of the Inferno. Critelli, which began as a sequel to The Edge of Night tentatively titled For My Father, was not far from Lentricchia's autobiographical fare. He remembers his thrill when "after about two pages, I realized I was not writing a memoir, I was writing fiction, and that was really exciting."

The Knifemen, inspired by the consuming O.J. Simpson spectacle, was his attempt at "something that was as far as possible from the lyric mode of Critelli; something that was not musical, but brutal, blunt as possible." The two were published in the same volume by Scribner in 1996, paving the way for Lentricchia's longest sustained work of fiction, The Music of the Inferno. In this "novel in the more traditional sense," splashed against the historical canvas of Utica, Lentricchia traces the story of Robert Tagliaferro, a racially ambiguous orphan who lives alone in a bookstore.

After a decade of splashing his love for art in the face of critics run amok, Lentricchia is ready for a fusion of his several worlds. Lucchesi and The Whale hints at this: a work about a teacher and his students, one that combines literary criticism and a vague, curious kind of autobiography. Says Lentricchia of Lucchesi, "Maybe in this particular text I came back to a side of me that I had left behind when I started writing The Edge of Night, that I had run away from. Then I wanted to get as far away from literary criticism as possible. I wanted to do a kind of writing that would stem not from the rational, but from the fingertips or from the blood or from some other bodily fluid, but not from the brain, the rational brain. But maybe in Lucchesi I've married myself to myself."

One product of Lentricchia's pedagogic power is Andrew DuBois '96, a Lentricchia student turned co-author, a humble Alabaman and Harvard Ph.D. candidate whose undergraduate and doctoral theses take up the "radical poetics" of John Ashbery and the high postmodernists (‡ la the young Lentricchia). "Frank's work is still activist," maintains DuBois, "in that it's always about art against whatever would try to squelch it out."

After re-writing Modernist Quartet as a volume for the Cambridge History of American Literature, DuBois is collaborating with Lentricchia once more, this time on an anthology, Close Reading: The Reader. It draws together landmark essays by formalists and deconstructionists alike. "The polemical point underneath it, without being explicit," argues Lentricchia, "is that the newer stuff, the newer modes of literary interpretation, are most persuasive when they do not break with the older formalist protocol, that there is not a great divide between contemporary schools of literary criticism and the older criticism."

And as if this new contentiousness weren't enough, Lentricchia--together with McAuliffe--is hard at work on a critical book, From Groundzeroland to Kleist: Studies in Transgressive Desire. Centering on fiction and film, as well as real-life figures, the book will examine a definition of the artist as someone who acts, sometimes unwillingly, as a violator of the social order. "It is our contention that modernism grows steadily from early romantic preoccupations with the difference, the deviance, the uselessness of the artist--his break from all norms of his society: the artist, in other words, as seer whose ways of seeing and expression put him in sharp contrast to publicly held understanding and values."

The project ties research to teaching, having inspired an eponymous course in the literature program, co-taught by Lentricchia and McAuliffe. "Bringing one's work to the undergraduate classroom is the greatest challenge of all," he says, "because it affords teachers the possibility of bringing what they're doing at the very edge of their minds to an audience which will test the clarity of their conception. And if you can do that with a good, strong undergraduate group, then you have succeeded in finding a style that makes your work available to literate people in general."

It's a statement that would be a long time coming from "mad Ahab" Thomas Lucchesi. But it's a sign that Frank Lentricchia has once again left one literary creation behind to build upon another.

--Tinari '01 is living and working in China.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor