Citing Louise Rosenblatt

I am writing an essay that celebrates the groundbreaking work of the late Robert Scholes (1929-2016), one of my favorite literary and pedagogical scholars, whose books, especially The Rise and Fall of English (1998) and The Crafty Reader (2001), influenced me a great deal during graduate school and continue to influence me to this day. But as I call his work groundbreaking, I acknowledge that some of his breaking of ground was rebreaking ground the literary and pedagogical scholar Louise Rosenblatt (1904-2005) had already broken. And as I acknowledge that, I have to account for the fact that Scholes never, to my knowledge, cites Rosenblatt. And if I acknowledge that, I have opened a much larger conversation about gender and citation, one that implicates even me. Because that larger discussion does not fit in my essay on Scholes, I am writing this note on citing Louise Rosenblatt.

Let’s begin with an example and then spin out the larger patterns and implications from there. Here is Scholes, writing in 2001:

The great works of literature are worthy of our attention only if they speak to our concerns as human beings, and these must take precedence over the artificial concerns of symbol, tone, and irony. (The Crafty Reader, 24)

Now consider Rosenblatt, writing at least as early as 1995 (she expresses the same sentiment decades before in an earlier edition):

Analysis of the technique of the work, concern with tone, metaphor, symbol, and myth, has therefore tended to crowd out the ultimate questions concerning relevance or value to the reader in his ongoing life. (Literature as Exploration, 29-30)

In these two passages, we can see that both scholars prioritize the human significance of literature in the life of readers (Scholes: “speak to our concerns as human beings”; Rosenblatt: “relevance or value to the reader in his [sic] ongoing life”) over concern with “tone,” “symbol,” and other literary devices, which they critique (this last point becomes clear in the context each quotation comes from) the New Critics for getting carried away with. Both scholars use similar language to make similar points. And it’s not the only place where Scholes’s work overlaps with Rosenblatt’s earlier work.

Rosenblatt first published her key work, Literature as Exploration, in 1938 and continued to revise it through a fifth edition in 1995, when it was republished by the MLA, the very organization Scholes would soon preside over as president. Along the way, she also published The The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978 [1994 with a new preface and epilogue]) and Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essay (2005). At various places in this body of writing, Rosenblatt argues many of the same key points as Scholes, and she argues them first. In addition to stressing the human significance of literature, these arguments include

  • that the teaching of literature ought to focus on reading,
  • that we ought to attend to multiple ways of reading,
  • that we ought to attend to a wide range of texts, not just literary ones,
  • that readers inescapably contribute something to the meaning of texts,
  • that reading of “easier” works can prepare students to read classics,
  • that students can learn to better read particular kinds of texts by trying out that kind of writing for themselves, and
  • that readers can apply the ways we learn to read literary texts to the world at large.

The parallels are striking. Yet, as far as I can tell, Scholes does not cite Rosenblatt at all.

To be absolutely clear, the problem is not that Scholes steals from Rosenblatt but that he does not seem to have even read Rosenblatt. The problem is not that he borrows too much but too little. Admittedly, no scholar can read everything; it’s easy to overlook, from time to time, even important figures in a field. But the omission of Rosenblatt, a scholar who is a woman, is part of a larger pattern. Scholes’s most famous book, The Rise and Fall of English, cites only three women, while other of his books cite just as few (or just a few more). In one place, Scholes gives an extended discussion of feminism without citing any women at all (Protocols of Reading, 91-105). In short, the problem is not plagiarism but patriarchy.

Of course, the pattern of not citing women (and people placed in other marginalized categorizes) is much larger than Scholes. We could name countless other scholars who have the same gaps in their work. It is so widespread and pressing that feminist theorist Sara Ahmed (Living a Feminist Life, 2017) refuses to cite white men at all to draw our attention to the problem and to make space for citing others. So why is it important to bring up this kind of omission in discussing Scholes specifically? One reason is that I want to offer fair assessment of the originality of his work. Acknowledging Rosenblatt as I praise Scholes for his work on the teaching of reading is not entirely unlike acknowledging Franklin when praising Watson and Crick for the discovery of DNA.

Yet another reason is that gender inclusion mattered to Scholes. Although, like all visionaries, his vision exceeded his practice, it is key to note that including women was part of his vision. In his criticism of New Criticism, Scholes counts how very few women poets are included in the first edition of the landmark New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry, while also docking the sexist language that that book uses (“man speaking to man”) (The Crafty Reader, 33, 32). Similarly, he critiques Hemingway by counting how few women appear in several lists of scholarship on Hemingway’s work. On this point, Scholes observes well: “‘Masterpieces’ have genders. They, too, are grounded in difference” (Textual Power, 59). In the same move, he reveals that bibliographies have genders, too. But he leaves to us the work of turning that insight on his bibliographies, and our own.

The problem of not adequately citing women is one of equity as well as quality. In a forward to Rosenblatt’s fifth edition of Literature as Exploration, another eminent literary and pedagogical scholar Wayne Booth confesses of his own earlier writing: “if I had read Literature as Exploration carefully before . . . I could have done a better job” (viii). The same applies to Scholes. And the same, I too confess, applies to me as well. In two recent essays I cite Scholes, but not Rosenblatt, for an idea that Rosenblatt had expressed earlier and more vividly (“Conclusion to Literature” and “Whether Wit or Wisdom”).

Given how much more developed what Rosenblatt has to say about the human significance of reading literature is than what Scholes has to say on the same topic, Scholes’s own work could have been enriched by conversation with hers. Had Scholes read Rosenblatt carefully and made overt use of her work, he could could have both given a key scholar her due and done better work himself. Indeed, when Scholes does cite women, it appears to be to great effect. In a discussion of the fiction of Ursula Le Guin, for example, we can arguably see Scholes learning and growing on the page before our eyes. Not many pages after forwarding a vision of language steeped in “violence,” his reading of The Left Hand of Darkness brings him to a vision of language based on “love” (Protocols of Reading, 112, 128). The latter vision is more beautiful and more sustainable.

In sum, my point is that Scholes’s work would have benefited from a greater engagement with the work of Rosenblatt and other women. So would mine. So might yours.

For further reading, please consider Nancy Chick’s idea of an “ethos of attribution.”

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