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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/13/15

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 13, 2015: Who's interested in Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)? Because she was a feminist, pacifist, and activist, perhaps progressives and liberals should be interested in her and her work.

Now, Rob Kall may be disappointed that Virginia Woolf does not happen to explicitly thematize bottom-up versus top-down change. To be sure, as a feminist, pacifist, and activist, she did work for change in the world of her time. So did the world of her time change so dramatically that she no longer speaks to the world of our time?

In Virginia Woolf's time and in our time, women are generally at the bottom, figuratively speaking. Few women in her time received a university education, but that has changed. In addition, women in her time were not allowed to vote, but that also has changed.

In theory, bottom-up change would presumably have to involve women and tend to favor women.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton emerges as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate in the 2016 election, then we will undoubtedly hear more about women being generally at the bottom, figuratively speaking, even though not all women are at the figurative bottom. For example, to spell out the obvious, Hillary is not at the figurative bottom. But her mother was.

Now, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was known for his concern for the "little guy," even though he himself was not a "little guy" (a sexist expression). In our American experiment in democratic government, it appears that significant political change typically involves a measure of top-down action, but preferably top-down action taken by politicians who are genuinely concerned about social justice, as FDR was -- and as Hillary may be.

To advance the kind of change Virginia Woolf favored in her time, she published, among other things, two collections of her own essays titled THE COMMON READER (1925, 1932) to help advance bottom-up change. Even though she herself did not have a university education, as her two brothers did, she really did think that people should cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities in order to promote bottom-up change -- even if this meant taking charge of their own education and cultivation by becoming autodidacts. As far as she was concerned the men at the "top" of British and European prestige culture at the time tended to be pompous philistines. So at first blush, she may sound like a snob. No doubt she was opposed to the philistines and philistinism in her time.

At the time, modern English literary studies was just emerging as a university field of study at Cambridge University under the influence of F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards. The Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), for example, studied under Leavis and Richards in the 1930, completing his doctoral dissertation and the history of the verbal arts and Thomas Nashe in 1943, when World War II was still going on. Commercial radio and movies were also emerging. So I see Virginia Woolf's collections titled THE COMMON READER as aimed at a broad educated public -- amateur readers and autodidacts, not the then emerging class of professional literary scholars such as Leavis and Richards.

Disclosure: As an undergraduate majoring in English at St. Louis University, where McLuhan had taught English in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I was initiated into the approach to close reading that Leavis and Richards pioneered at Cambridge University. However, even though two of my later professional publications grew out of my independent study of Virginia Woolf, I am not a Virginia Woolf scholar. So I would describe myself as being a "common reader."

My two professional publications that grew out of my independent study of Virginia Woolf are (1) "The Female and Male Modes of Rhetoric" in the journal COLLEGE ENGLISH, volume 40 (1978-1979): pages 909-921; and (2) "Secondary Orality and Consciousness Today" in the book MEDIA, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND CULTURE: EXPLORATIONS OF WALTER ONG'S THOUGHT (1991, pages 194-209).

I also see Virginia Woolf's two volumes titled THE COMMON READER (1925, 1932) and her novels as emerging in the waning years of print culture 1.0. By 1960, the communications media that accentuated sound, as radio does, had reached a certain critical mass that Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), describes as secondary oral culture -- or oral culture 2.0, for short. Over the last half century or so, our contemporary oral culture 2.0 had deeply influenced our cultural conditioning and as a result, print culture 2.0 has emerged. No doubt oral culture 2.0 and print culture 2.0 will dominate Western culture for years to come.

Now, over the last half century or so, Virginia Woolf has been lionized by certain literary scholars -- the successors of Leavis and Richards. In general, literary scholars tend to the custodians of print culture 1.0, except for those few literary scholars who are aware of oral tradition.

However, as far as I know, the literary scholars who have lionized Virginia Woolf over the last half century or so have not connected with the literary scholars who have begun taking oral tradition into consideration, and vice versa. The connection would be Virginia Woolf's essay "Anon."

In the scholarly world, Albert B. Lord's book THE SINGER OF TALES (1960) and Eric A. Havelock's book PREFACE TO PLATO (1963) call attention to the singing of tales such as the Homeric epics. Over the last half century or so, certain literary scholars have begun taking oral tradition into consideration -- oral culture 1.0. See, for example, the 550-page anthology TEACHING ORAL TRADITION, edited by John Miles Foley (MLA, 1998).

As Lord and Havelock and others point out, the Homeric epics were sung as songs. In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms and the Song of Songs are for singing. St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of Brother Sun" is a medieval song. In Virginia Woolf's essay "Anon," which she wrote when she was writing her novel BETWEEN THE ACTS (1941), she invokes the oral world of song -- oral culture 1.0.

Brenda R. Silver published Virginia Woolf's two essays "Anon" and "The Reader" along with an introduction and commentary in the journal TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE, volume 25, numbers 3/4 (Autumn/Winter, 1979): pages 356-441. Around the same time that Virginia Woolf was writing the novel BETWEEN THE ACTS (1941), she wrote those two essays for a projected book that she did not live to complete.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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