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Part Two: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 16, 2016 at 7:00 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

AM:  In your essay “Conservatism, Liberal Education, and the Promise of the Humanities,” one of two essays you contributed to the edition, you state, “There is a broader philosophical conflict at hand between the very principle of academic freedom, encompassing the rights of individuals to engage in scholarly inquiry and espouse contrarian views, and policies currently governing campus discourse.”  What do you mean by this?

MZ: Quite simply, the state of campus discourse is, by its very essence, incompatible with the rights of faculty – and students themselves – to engage in the search for truth. When conduct, particularly verbal conduct, can be reported and penalized through mechanisms designed to “protect” students, we might sense that something much greater is afoot. If such fundamental rights as speech and due process are curtailed – as I feel they have systematically been on today’s campus – then we are no longer interested in educating an informed and responsible citizenry. The great irony in this is that even as faculty and administrators maintain the conceit that students must confront dissonant viewpoints, the viewpoints that qualify are limited and selective. Therefore, I think the fear of faculty to approach teaching or research from a conservative angle, or even to introduce conservative arguments in the context of intellectual debate, is very real. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when tenure, promotion, or funding are on the line.

On the other hand, the concept of academic freedom has been so narrowed as to apply almost exclusively to members of the faculty. The dearth of conservative faculty in the humanities and social sciences makes it difficult to determine the degree to which this privilege might be invoked as a defense against charges of offending progressive student sensibilities. The case of Marquette professor John McAdams that I discuss in the book is not promising. It is fortuitous that the demands of students to be protected from certain ideas are often in harmony with the ideological makeup of the faculty. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the freedom claimed by a largely progressive professoriate is not afforded to the student body, which labors more under the onerous regulations governing speech and conduct.

Aside from being able to report the utterance of harmful words, students have very little stake in academic freedom’s fundamental premise, and their rights have ceased to be part of the conversation on classroom conduct. I don’t count the imposition of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces as really striking a blow for freedom or the intellectual pursuit. Faculty might be able to proselytize under the banner of academic freedom, but students have little recourse when scholarly inquiry descends into partisan demagoguery. It speaks volumes that today’s campus will often charge conservative student groups for added security at their events in anticipation of disruption and unrest. The campus in this case is refusing to guarantee what is essentially the safety of free expression. It has been said that the greatest beneficiaries of a political and ideological monoculture are conservative students, who are consistently challenged to refine their arguments and confront opposing viewpoints. But that’s perhaps little compensation when those arguments are preemptively dismissed and delegitimized by an institution unwilling to entertain them. Some critics have been ambivalent about either the extent of curricular politicization that exists on today’s campus or its impact on students. I don’t think either can be overstated.

AM:  The question I hear a lot—and in different contexts—is “what can be done?”  Do you have an answer to that question in light of what you’ve just said? 

MZ:  To answer that important question I would probably qualify some rejections to otherwise bad ideas. Federal funding should not be tied to the amount of money students can be expected to earn upon graduation. However, at some point students must be expected to see some material returns from the meteoric rise of tuition and administrative costs. We have seen an intense regulatory push directed exclusively at for-profit colleges over the last eight years. The question of value in higher education is a good one, and perhaps it shouldn’t only be asked of these for-profits.

Also, while the idea has been floated, I do not believe in any kind of affirmative action for conservative professors. However, departments conspicuously lacking in conservative faculty members might take steps to acknowledge the intellectual costs of such insularity and promote viewpoint diversity, a concept propounded by groups like Heterodox Academy, the National Association of Scholars, and the John William Pope Center. These are not conservative organizations but rather ones that care deeply about the state of discourse on today’s campus and how it adversely affects learning.

Furthermore, while we must heed Michael Oakeshott’s warning not to “suspend conversationality for a politicizing counterrevolution,” a more robust rejection of identity’s preeminent place in in the classroom might restore some dignity to the learning process. It is not atypical for composition students, for example, to be assigned anthologies that are promoted as much for the racial, ethnic, and gender identifications of their authors as the dynamism of their prose or the enduring legacy of their ideas. No doubt many of the essays in these collections are worth modeling and are deserving of study, but not because of predetermined genetic variables. Having students read essays by Max Beerbohm, John Ruskin, or Evelyn Waugh – all the while ignoring their “privilege” – might inadvertently put the focus of the class on prose style, rhetoric, and stylistic precision.

Finally, it should remain up to students to choose their colleges carefully. There are a lot of alternative institutions that have placed the pursuit of knowledge above all else. The market for this kind of place is strong, and those charged with administering higher education could do very well to take notice.

AM:  At one point in the book you mention a “multicultural canon.”  I’m interested in this phrase because I’m interested in canonicity and the idea that there are certain works that are more influential and important than others within a given tradition, and even that certain traditions may produce works that are more influential and important than works produced by other traditions.  You often here people dismiss the idea of a canon but urge the reading of certain texts.  It seems that any support for a program of reading necessarily entails a view of the canon, however different that might be from prevailing consensus.  At a time when English departments are struggling to maintain stable and uniform curricula, and the notion of a canon has become unpopular, what does it mean for a work to be canonical? 

MZ:  While the idea of a canon has become unpopular, it still exists in every department that embraces the multicultural ethos of the university. And it is equally as narrow as the one it sought to replace and far more intransigent. Like so many revolutions, the spirit of canon reform was swept away by a radical zeal to destroy foundations necessary for, in this case, literature’s survival as part of a college curriculum. To me, literature is universal and it has the potential to speak to a common humanity. In short, it should be valued for its own sake and for its cultural status as an expression of artistic endeavor. It has intrinsic value, and its success lies in part on historical continuity – on its relationship to what came before it. In the book, I mention T.S. Eliot’s “historical sense,” the idea that tradition must be defended against forces that would destroy it out of hand. I think that in many ways this has happened. Today’s literature has become so balkanized as to render impossible the continuance of any sort of shared cultural value system. To that point, I would also argue that an English curriculum consisting predominantly of identity-based literature (African-American, Native American, Women’s, Latinx, etc.) can in no real way be considered diverse. As it is, those who might turn to literature for the truth it tells, for its contemplation of ideas, or for its linguistic execution have been in retreat.

I’m not sure anyone would make the case that the traditional canon was never fluid or that it hasn’t contained glaring omissions. It has, and they should be rectified. But whereas critics in the past denounced the traditional canon as the product of “institutional tastemaking,” today’s demands for courses that aim to represent some unique, singular experience are guilty of the same thing. A canon is necessarily foundational. It isn’t, however, necessarily exclusionary, and an inclusive canon should be exactly that. This is a very long way of saying that a canonical work might be one that embodies an idea or an epoch, or one that masterfully portrays the psychological depth of a character in crisis. There are many divergent opinions as to this question, and I don’t consider myself an authority. But my vision is this: surely others have treated the same subjects as, say, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. We just have to be able to say that few have perhaps done it better. The reader may take his (or her) pick as to what authors deserve special consideration. The point is that the literature’s function and its success as a work of art are what we consider first and foremost. I think that case can be made, and reinforcing the idea of great literature – asserting its very existence – may benefit our discipline greatly.

AM:  If a student were to ask you for 10 writers you believed every person must read before he or she dies, who would they be?

MZ:  This is a question every literature person longs for, and at the risk of inevitably short-changing some, here is my list, in absolutely no particular order: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Saul Bellow, and Vladamir Nabakov.

 

Part Three coming soon….

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Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.

 

Part Two coming soon….

Why Read? An Interview With Mark Edmundson

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 5, 2016 at 6:45 am

In the following C-SPAN Booknotes interview, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia discusses books, readings, the liberal arts, and more.

Paul H. Fry on “Russian Formalism”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Eastern Civilizaton, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on June 25, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the sixth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry’s “The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Communication, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on May 28, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the sixth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry’s “The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork”

In Academia, American Literature, Art, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on May 21, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the fifth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, and here.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews J. Neil Schulman, Prometheus Award–Winning Author of Alongside Night

In Artist, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humanities, Imagination, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing, Writing on January 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

J. Neil Schulman

J. Neil Schulman is a novelist, actor, filmmaker, journalist, composer, and publisher.  Among his many books are Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza, both of which won the Prometheus Award.  Visit his website at http://jneilschulman.rationalreview.com/.

 

The following interview originally appeared here at Prometheus Unbound: A Libertarian Review of Fiction and Literature.

AM:  Right off the bat, it strikes me that I don’t know what to call you.  Will Neil work?

JNS:  Sure. It’s J. Neil Schulman in credits, and Neil in person.

AM:  Anyway, thank you for doing this interview, Neil.  You’ve had a fascinating and unique career.  You’ve written novels, short fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and other works.  Which of your works is your favorite and why?

JNS:  Every artist gets asked this question sooner or later. I asked it of Robert A. Heinlein when I interviewed him in 1973, and his answer was, “The latest one I’ve been working on.”

I’ve only completed one movie so far — Lady Magdalene’s — so it’s a Hobson’s Choice on that one. Ask me again when I’ve made two! But a lot of people also seem to like the script I wrote for The Twilight Zone, “Profile in Silver.”

I’ve written three novels. My first, Alongside Night [editor’s note: free in pdf], seems to be my most accessible and popular. I consider my second novel, The Rainbow Cadenza, to be my most layered, literary, and richest in explicit philosophy. My third novel, Escape from Heaven, is my favorite. It may not be as timely as my first novel or literary as my second novel, but it’s the one that’s closest to my heart…both the funniest thing I’ve ever written, and the one which is most deceptively simple. It appears to be a lightweight piece of comic fantasy, but it’s full of ideas that if examined more closely turn both traditional theology and rationalist philosophy on their heads.

Short stories? I’ll pick a few: “The Musician,” “Day of Atonement,” and “When Freemen Shall Stand” — all in my collection Nasty. Brutish, and Short Stories — and my latest short story, “The Laughskeller,” published on my blog, J. Neil Schulman @ Rational Review.

AM:  Your worldview is, in a word, libertarian.  Why is that?  How does libertarianism come across in your writing?

JNS:  In my nonfiction essays it comes across explicitly. In fiction, drama, and comedy, I try to examine libertarian themes without preaching. I was probably most subtle doing this in The Rainbow Cadenza. The utilitarian politics advocated by the chief villain, Burke Filcher, is so self-consistent that a lot of readers have thought this character speaks for the author. In fact, I wrote the novel to attack utilitarianism as a nullification of the natural individual rights I believe in. The novel reduces utilitarianism to absurdity — it’s a formal satire of it.

Alongside Night is less subtle, though I’m probably more successful in the new movie script than the 1970s novel when it comes to letting the audience make up its own mind. I have learned some refinements of my craft in the last three decades.

Alongside Night by J. Neil SchulmanAM:  I recently noticed that you commented on a post at the Austrian Economics and Literature blog edited by my good friend Troy Camplin.  Tell me about the influence that Austrian economics has had on you.

JNS:  I would say that Austrian economics — and more fundamentally, the analytical tools of praxeology and games theory — have been fundamental to my work for my entire professional career. They’re not the only tools in my kit, but they get shopworn as much as any of them. Austrian economics is most explicit in Alongside Night, projecting the social and political consequences of fiat money hyperinflation — but I used games theory in plotting “Profile in Silver” and applied praxeology to the afterlife in Escape from Heaven. Read the rest of this entry »

Ciceronian Society Annual Conference, March 29-31, 2012: Call for Papers

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, News and Current Events, News Release, Western Civilization on November 30, 2011 at 8:27 am

 

Allen Mendenhall

The Ciceronian Society will be holding its annual meeting at the University of Virginia, March 29-31, 2012. This will be an academic conference in which panelists can present on a variety of topics related to the themes of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine.’ A more elaborate description of these core-themes and their relation to the humanities is provided on the Ciceronian Society website

Possible panel themes include the following: 

 

  1.  The Relationship of Modern Thought to Tradition and the Divine. 
  2.  Greek and Roman Thought. 
  3.  Place, ‘Things Divine,’ and Tradition in Medieval Thought
  4.  Human Scale, Decentralism, and Federalism
  5.  American Thought/Experience and Tradition and Place
  6.  Literature, Localism, History, and the Divine. 
  7.  Agrarianism, Localism, and Economics 
  8.  Social-Political Theology

 

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Richard Miles

In Advocacy, Arts & Letters, Communication, Ethics, Law, News and Current Events, Politics, Prison, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 14, 2011 at 9:23 am

Richard Miles spent years in prison after being wrongly convicted and sentenced to 80 years.  He lives in Texas and speaks about false imprisonment.

Richard, thanks for doing this interview.  You and I have gotten to know each other through email correspondence.  I believe you first contacted me after reading my review of Dorothy and Peyton Budd’s Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope (Dallas, TX: Brown Books Publishing Group, 2010).  You are one of those twelve men.  Tell us how you became part of the book.  What do you think of the book, now that you’ve seen the final product?

The first time anyone heard of or read anything about Richard Ray Miles was in The Dallas Morning NewsI remember that morning as if it was yesterday.  To be arrested for murder and attempted murder, at the age of 19, was a horrific experience, but to wake up Monday morning and read that I was the shooter, in a murder I didn’t commit, tore out my insides.  Mr. Mendenhall, my fight for innocence was not just for me—I knew I was innocent—but for my mom and dad.  I didn’t want the story to be the last thing that my father—a minister in the neighborhood who had to hear accusations about his son—to read.  So, when the book Tested was completed, it was like a dream come true: now Dallas residents could read about MY INNOCENCE. 

You’ve been through a lot.  Would you mind telling us your story?  Start wherever you want to start.

I was born in Dallas to Thelma Malone and Richard Miles.  My parents split when I was young, but not long after my mom met William Lloyd and married him.  I was probably about five when that happened, so to say I was without a father is false.  My dad, William, became a minister when I was still young, so I grew up in a very strict, religious household.  Going to church every day was not out of the ordinary.  For the most part, my older sister, two younger brothers and I had a very good upbringing.

As far as schooling goes, I was very smart and interested in learning.  I went to an academy for middle school and then to Skyline High School, which was one of the most prestigious schools at the time.  When I made it to Skyline, I began to feel something different.  I felt that my parents were way too strict on me.  As young children do, I began to rebel—nothing too extreme, but rebellious nevertheless.  I was kicked out of Skyline at the end of 11th grade and was transferred to Kimball.  Kimball and Skyline were two totally different places to learn.  To be more precise, Kimball was a Hood School; its reputation preceded itself.

By the time I got into Kimball and got ready to take my senior exams, I got a reputation for coming to school drunk.  Mind you, I was not a drinker, so any little thing was not good.  The long and short is that I made it all the way to the 12th grade, but did not graduate.  I left home a little after that, never to be in the streets or in a gang because I was working at McDonalds, and I actually liked the idea of having a job.  All that changed when my friend came to pick me up from my parents’ house.  He asked me about selling drugs.  I had never been introduced to that, and by mere peer pressure, my entire life was turned around.

I struggled on the streets for probably one year, but that was enough to experience a life I will never return to.  On May 15th, I was walking home, not knowing there was a shooting miles away, and I got picked up for a murder and an attempted murder.  I have never shot a gun in my life, nor ever thought about stealing or tried to steal someone’s things by force.  So, I knew I would be going home soon. The whole interrogation lasted probably five or six hours.  Because my friend had driven me home and wasn’t with me when I was walking and got picked up, I gave the detective phone numbers of people who could identify my whereabouts.  My friend had gone to his girlfriend’s place.  That’s why I was walking by myself.  All in all, I gave the detective four phone numbers of people who could verify my whereabouts and confirm that I was not the shooter. The detective left and came back about an hour later.  He said, “Your story checked out, but you killed that man, and you’re going to prison.”  I was lost at that point.

I stayed in the county jail for 17 months before I went to trial.  I was given a court-appointed lawyer. In August 1995, I had a jury trial.  

There were ten witnesses, nine of whom said I was not the shooter.  No weapon was ever found, and the fingerprints that were retrieved were neither mine nor the victims’. One person who was shot testified that I did not look like the shooter, and my alibis came as well.  Nevertheless, I was found guilty of murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 80 years in prison. 

After I had sent out numerous letters and spent 14 years in prison, I was contacted by an organization out of Princeton, New Jersey, that picked up my case and found in the police record an anonymous phone record received before I went to trial.  This record mentioned the real shooter as well as other confidential information.  This stuff had never been turned in.  Based on that and other exculpatory evidence, I was released in October 2009; I was the first non-DNA release under District Attorney Craig Watkins

Now I’m awaiting full exoneration, even though the DA and my judge pronounced me innocent. Read the rest of this entry »

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