A lively greatest-hits collection from the pages of the recently deceased journal Lingua Franca, which “sought to occupy the no-man’s-land between the tabloid and the treatise.”
The brainchild of former Yale professor Jeffrey Kittay, Lingua Franca was rare among general-interest journals in taking academia seriously—reporting as news, for example, an English professor’s argument that the “ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” belonged to a lobster, not a crab. (On the minor controversy that ensued, the Harvard critic Helen Vendler sensibly remarked, “You’re not supposed to envision an animal, you’re supposed to envision a scuttle.”) The magazine’s reporters did heroic work in bringing to readers strange tales of thwarted ambition, misbegotten theory, and the inexhaustible egotism of the professoriat, but Lingua Franca was always at its best when it joined the classroom to the courtroom—and, indeed, some of the best pieces here examine the vicious battles that followed, say, a Colby College sociologist’s failed bid for tenure or a distinguished classicist’s apparent perjury when parsing a term out of Plato. Other highlights include a profile of the historian Eugene Genovese, who evolved from Marxist to southern conservative “while remaining very much the same man”; an exposé of the Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s bad treatment of his translators; and a report on the strange matter of a mystery millionaire who paid a dozen philosophers handsomely to comment on a philosophical treatise he had written, revealing in the bargain how few of them were intellectually honest, let alone willing to entertain the efforts of an outsider without said handsome recompense. Though less full of spite and despair over the current state of academia than is, say, Newsweek or National Review, these pieces add up to a condemnation of academic culture as they lay bare the silliness and irrelevance of much contemporary scholarship. Unlike Newsweek or National Review, they’re also wicked fun to read, and highly edifying in the bargain.
A wonderful collection, offering fine bedside browsing for disaffected grad students, refugees from the university, and fans of solid journalism alike.