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Pens, Pickaxes, and Patriarchy

I often read the scholarship that constitutes new modernist studies wondering, as Virginia Woolf’s narrator did in A Room of One’s Own, whether the author “has a pen in [their] hand or a pickaxe.”[1] For Woolf, an attention to pens and pickaxes derives from her acute understanding of anger and its potential to transform an author’s writing. For example, upon reading Professor von X’s account of mental, moral, and physical inferiority of the female sex, Woolf’s narrator is confronted by the author’s anger and overcome by her own: “her heart leapt, her cheeks burned, and she flushed with anger” (Woolf Room 32). Although perplexed by the source of Professor von X’s anger, the narrator knows well the reason for hers: “one does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32). Moreover, she reminds her readers, “England is under the rule of a patriarchy” (33). Can we disagree with this conclusion? No one wants to be considered inferior to another. Unfortunately, though, women as a group have been negotiating their so-called inferiority, as the written record testifies, for centuries. But if patriarchy is the foundation of women’s anger, from what does Professor von X’s anger originate? At first glance, this is a confounding question, given that patriarchal society places men within the dominant gender category—and works relentlessly to preserve this hierarchy. Like Woolf’s narrator in A Room of One’s Own, I find myself musing: “His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and subeditor . . .” (33).  I pause. This sounds all too familiar.

As in 1929, so too in 2019. Professor Christopher Ricks is angry. He expresses his anger in “To Criticize the Critic” an editorial in which he responds to Professor Megan Quigley and her introduction to a cluster of Print Plus essays in Modernism/modernity entitled “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation.” According to Ricks, it is Quigley who first raised the pickaxe by noting how Ricks’s (and his coeditor, Jim McCue’s) annotations contributed to “‘perpetuating certain traditionalist structures of power’” (468). Consequently, Ricks positions himself as the unwitting, wrongfully accused defendant and casts Quigley as the overzealous, misguided plaintiff. He is the victim, his essay implies. He has been wronged. I see the glint of a pickaxe. I hear its metallic ping as it chips away at Quigley and her introduction.

We know why Quigley and her fellow authors are angry: patriarchy. Particularly, they are angered by the scholarly history surrounding T. S. Eliot’s poem and the complicity of modernist studies in reinforcing the patriarchal status quo—a history and a complicity inescapable when reading with the #MeToo generation. Consequently, the authors of the cluster understand well what Audre Lorde first explained in 1977 in her essay about racism and righteous anger: “Your silences will not protect you.”[2] In the face of continual patriarchal dismissal, Quigley and her colleagues chose to speak, to transform silence into language and action, as Lorde’s peroration challenges readers to do.

Writing Back

Fueled by centuries of silence, encouraged by centuries of murmurs and whispers, and finally compelled to action by the #MeToo movement, feminist, queer, and trans academics, shoulder to shoulder with academics of color, are transforming silence into language and action. Thus, organizing and publishing “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” was both a necessity and a risk. As the title of the cluster indicates, such critical reassessments are made imperative by the students we teach, the Ph.D. candidates we advise, and the junior scholars we mentor. They are the #MeToo generation and they have taught, advised, and mentored us by their example. They have spoken up—in classrooms surrounded by their peers, in offices with their advisers, in department meetings with their new colleagues—and so, in turn, should we. That is the necessity. Publishing a direct response to the work of well-respected senior colleagues—arguably one of the foremost experts in Eliot studies—is the risk. And yet the true target of Quigley’s and her colleagues’ critique is not Ricks himself, but rather the professional structures that have socialized scholars to internalize patriarchal norms, misogynistic biases, racist assumptions, classist values . . . the list goes on. Yes, Ricks has contributed to the maintenance of the patriarchy, but haven’t we all at some point in our careers? This is bigger than Ricks. It is bigger than Quigley. It is bigger than modernist studies, bigger than the academy. In other words, this is not about us only.

“Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change,” explains Lorde in her essay, “The Uses of Anger” (Sister Outsider 129). And it is a grief of distortions between peers that Quigley, her colleagues, and Modernism/modernity risked when publishing “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation.” For some readers, like myself, particularly attuned to the scholarly and pedagogical recalibration taking place in the wake of #MeToo, the critiques and reflections proffered by Quigley and her fellow authors were in service of something bigger than a few annotations. I hoped, after reading, that eminent scholars like Ricks and McCue would be open to new perspectives, and recognize the bigger picture. Yes, I anticipated a response, the beginning of a conversation. Tense and uncomfortable, probably, but productive and generative, too. It would be driven by reflective questions such as: What is it like to be a senior, white male scholar who has been writing professionally about Eliot for decades, editing a new collection of Eliot’s poetry in the particular political context of the twenty-first century? What is it like to be a woman, a more junior academic—maybe white, maybe not, maybe straight, maybe not, maybe cisgender, maybe not—who has been learning about Eliot since graduate school, reading his poems through the lens of white, male academics who edit, annotate, and contextualize the poet and his life? And what is it like to be that woman, confronted by a classroom of young people poised and prepared to read canonical poems like The Waste Land through the framework provided by their political and social milieu? These are the questions that clear space for generative thinking. These are the questions that require us to look in the mirror, recognize our own power and privilege, and craft responses that strive for honesty, ethicality, and generosity. Reflections such as these do not appear in Ricks’s editorial.

Mirror, Mirror

Reading the Modernism/modernity cluster and Ricks’s response compelled me to engage in some serious reflection: What are the roles of senior male scholars in this changing scholarly landscape? How can our professional institutions—journals, societies, professional organizations— support voices critical of the patriarchal status quo? And what reflection greets us, when we, feminist modernist scholars, look in the professional mirror?: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size” (Woolf Room 35). Woolf’s insight forces us to take stock. And the authors of the cluster do just that, indicting themselves as well as the profession for cultivating the expectation that women academics are mirrors for the patriarchy. But what does “reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size” look like in the academy today? It might look like a woman, newly hired on the tenure track, compelled to praise—unsolicited—the work of her new male colleagues. It might look like a queer Ph.D. candidate bowing to their adviser’s recommendation to include a particular senior scholar’s work in their dissertation even though that scholar has a well-known history of homophobia. It might look like a woman of color, preparing to teach her graduate seminar on modernist poetry, ordering Ricks’s new edition of Eliot’s poetry because her department chair, whose own adviser once studied under Ricks, suggested that one cannot teach modernist poetry without it. (And she knows that he’ll be leading her departmental review next term.) Magic and delicious for some, but not for others.

Quigley and her fellow contributors disrupt this patriarchal expectation, challenge this lineage of exaggerated reflection. They exercise their wills: as women in academia, as modernist scholars, and maybe, in some cases, as survivors themselves. But as feminists we know what Sara Ahmed has explained, that “to be identified as willful is to become a problem.”[3] What Ahmed identifies here is a patriarchal sleight of hand. The patriarchy has evolved and adapted to accommodate twenty-first century norms such as women in academia, women in STEM, women running for president, and so on. But patriarchy has not retreated in defeat. Rather, patriarchal structures can and do permit women power and position, as Kate Manne explains in her discussion of misogyny, patriarchy’s police force.[4] But ultimately, such well-positioned women must be bent in service of patriarchal goals. In other words, a woman can have power, but only if that power does not directly disrupt the maintenance of oppositional sexist, compulsory heterosexual, white supremacist systems.

“Criticizing the Critic” illustrates what happens when scholarly, professional women reject the expectation that their work serves patriarchal interests—an example of feminist modernist scholars asserting their will and, thus, becoming the problem. And asserting their will is both the necessity and the risk. As Ahmed recognizes, “Willing is thus what a subject does—or even must do— when a command has not been obeyed” (Ahmed Willful 29). Quigley and her fellow authors of “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” have not obeyed the implicit expectation, still exerting its influence one hundred years after Woolf named it, that women serve as mirrors “reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size.”

But not every reader responded as Ricks did. Many readers have responded with “generous thinking,” a phrase coined by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her book by the same title: “Generosity, in fact, requires remaining open to criticism, not least because . . . ‘Someone who pays close enough attention to show me where I’ve gone wrong is being generous to me.’”[5] If any readers were like me, they felt complicit in the critique proffered by the cluster of essays. How many times have I glossed a line or passage without attending to the role of whiteness, both generally and my own, for example? And now, teaching students for whom #MeToo is woven into the cultural fabric, how many times have I been taught by my students? A recent example occurred last fall when my Modernism on the Margins students read the first sex scene in Jean Rhys’s novel Voyage in the Dark (1934) as one of coercion. Where I had read a historically contingent commentary on female sexuality and the value of virginity, my students read a scenario eerily similar to the one published on in which an anonymous young woman questions whether an intimate interaction she had with the comedian Aziz Ansari was assault, coercion, or bad sex. When my students redirected the conversation, I strove for generosity: their implicit criticism of my reading was not about me, but about how I was taught to read modernist novels. As Fitzpatrick suggests, for me to enact generous thinking with my students I need to assume a posture of critical humility and receptiveness (Fitzpatrick Generous 39, 55). Just as I teach them, so they are teaching me. Is it too much to ask that we extend to our colleagues the same generosity we enact with our students? Quigley and her contributors applied their critical feminist generosity to the way modernist scholars have read, understood, and taught The Waste Land. The least we can do is extend our generosity to them with the knowledge that sometimes we need our pickaxes—not to wield at each other but at the constricting frameworks that keep us confined in what Quigley rightfully recognizes as “traditionalist structures of power.”


[1] Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, 2005), 79.

[2] Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 41. Lorde is foundational to my pedagogy and her work is present in nearly every class that I teach. I turn to her essays here for two reasons: 1) Citational politics are one version of academic activism. As a white woman with a platform, it is imperative that I raise up voices long marginalized within the academy. 2) The #MeToo movement was initiated by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, and Black women’s voices are a necessary part of the continuing conversation. Moreover, Black women have been theorizing against heterosexism and anti-blackness long before it was deemed cool by mainstream (read white) culture. It only makes ethical sense that their work is recognized, utilized, and privileged.

[3] Sara Ahmed. Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

[4] Kate Manne. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[5] Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 39.