Riots and Romantics: Larry Lockridge on the Eve of Retirement (by Peter Tasca)

larryFor those students who have had the pleasure of taking the Critical Theory and Romanticism courses taught by Professor Laurence Lockridge–or “Larry,” as he convivially styles himself–the 2015-2016 academic year will be tinged with melancholy. After nearly thirty-seven years of teaching, Professor Lockridge is on sabbatical leave this year before enjoying a long and, he hopes, a productive retirement. We at the Blotter sat down with Professor Lockridge to discuss his long career at NYU and how the department has changed over the course of his time here.

Although at various points he considered becoming a concert pianist and a mathematician–he reneged on the former because a piano instructor admonished him for having “a weak left hand”–Professor Lockridge feels that his decision to enter the field of literary studies was more or less made for him because of the indirect influence of his father Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of the monumental novel Raintree County (1948). His father died a suicide at age thirty-three just as his novel became the nation’s number one best-seller; Larry was only five at the time.  He necessarily felt some ambivalence about entering literature as a field, but it seemed to beckon.  He had grown up with a novel instead of a father.

As a PhD student, having initially intended to write a dissertation on Shakespeare, Lockridge humorously said that he discovered that “the only seminar paper I had written that had anything original in it” was on Coleridge and ethics. He put in an additional year of research and then shut the door for seven weeks, emerging with a completed doctoral dissertation that was subsequently published. Lockridge has recommended this strategy to all his doctoral students but has never found a taker. In this work and subsequent publications he has taken some pride in being among the first modern critics to bring philosophical ethics to bear on the study of literature.

After graduating from Indiana and Harvard and teaching at Northwestern and Rutgers Universities, Professor Lockridge in 1978 jumped at the opportunity to teach the Romantics at NYU. “In those days,” he says slyly, “all the hiring was done through a decidedly undemocratic process: by the chair of the department!” As to why he wanted to teach at NYU, Lockridge explained that among other strengths he was drawn to the distinguished company of literary biographers who taught here in the 70’s. The publications of the Department of English at the time included the esteemed biography of Henry James by Leon Edel, one of Keats by Aileen Ward, and one on the young Browning by his present-day colleague John Maynard.

Other eminent biographers included Kenneth Silverman, Edwin Miller, and Frederick Karl. Ralph Ellison of Invisible Man fame was also on the scene, serving here as Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities until 1980. The emergent Creative Writing Program was still housed with the regular Department of English at 19 University Place. There, according to Lockridge, Allen Ginsberg was also a presence, frequently overheard grumbling about the department secretaries who had failed to mimeograph his poems in time for class. “Quite a come-down,” Lockridge admits, “from the man who had prophetic visions and conversed with William Blake.”

Soon after he arrived, Lockridge began offering a graduate course in the history of critical theory which in 1986 was then extended to undergraduate students. But one of the main differences between the department then and now, Lockridge said, was that in 1978 there was an enormous number of graduate students in the Department of English by today’s standards and fewer than 30 full-time faculty members. Because as many as ninety percent of applicants were admitted–in other words, anyone willing to pay– teaching over fifty students in a graduate course on theory or the Romantics was not unusual for the time.

One the most memorable incidents of his time at NYU, Lockridge recalled, occurred when he and Denis Donoghue were co-directing the Poetics Institute. Unexpectedly, over five hundred people tried to attend a panel of critics assembled to speak on the provocative topic, “How to Read a Poem.” With so many people attempting to crowd into a small lecture hall, the fire marshal approached Lockridge, whispering in his ear that he was needed outside immediately to “quell a riot.” (Nobody was hurt.)  In the fall of 1999, when he co-taught a three-hour seminar with Jacques Derrida, Lockridge remembers being similarly overwhelmed by the legendary philosopher’s “groupies, quite dismayed because denied entry by the fire marshal.”

As for “How to Read a Poem,” Lockridge remembers asking Harold Bloom what he thought of a Rutgers student who had interpreted the first line of Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal” to mean that Wordsworth’s pet seal kept falling asleep on him. Bloom replied, in deadpan, that he thought this a “strong misreading.” In reply to being asked what he thought were the most significant changes in the intellectual atmosphere during his time at NYU, Lockridge replied that the first thing that came to mind was the tilt away from literary history and biography toward cultural studies with gender theory by far the most popular subject among students.

lockridgeIn spite of his own commitment to critical theory, Lockridge said he feels a certain nostalgia for the days of yore, having himself written a biography of his father entitled Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr. (Viking 1994; Indiana University Press, 2014), undertaken because an earlier biography “was so terrible.” Lockridge added that, in assembling over 78,000 documents for a major exhibition of his father’s papers at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, in 2014, he learned that “it is much more fun to visit an archive than it is to create one.” As for the thinkers who have most significantly influenced his writing and thinking, Lockridge numbers M. H. Abrams, author of the classic The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), for his “unrepentant humanism” in addition to “his lucidity of mind and directness of discourse.” And, of course, Lockridge counts Coleridge, whose “mind was to be sure a museum piece in many respects,” at the top of the thinkers he most admires. Other thinkers who have exerted influence include Bakhtin, de Beauvoir, Levinas, Ricoeur, and Said.

Now, with retirement before him, Professor Lockridge is busy at work on two projects. The first comprises a book on European Romanticism and its ties to the rise of modern critical theory. The purpose of the work, Lockridge elaborated, is to show that many critical schools have their anchorage in European Romanticism, and are much more continuous with the Romantic Tradition than is usually recognized. The second project, which Lockridge calls “unchartered territory for me,” consists of a series of comic novellas which will include “only the smallest bit of academic satire.” Although he will assuredly miss teaching in the classroom and interacting with students, he feels that grading papers is something he can do without. Nevertheless, his wit and passion for the Romantics–and their critical descendants–will be sorely missed by everyone in the Department of English.