Frank Lentricchia's Don DeLillo:

"Introducing", Postmodern Modernism and the Academic Fear of Death

Jason Camlot

Delivered at University of Oregon, May 1993

The idea of attempting to address 'the practical relevance of postmodernism' is intriguing, for it proposes the need to return to the field from which most theories of the postmodern originate, that is the 'condition' (Lyotard) or 'scene' (Krokker) of a 'late capitalist' society (Jameson). It suggests that the specialized languages that have quite recently been developed to describe and interpret late-twentieth century reality can be culled in a useful manner and brought back to the inhabitant of the realm that has been interpreted, to the non-specialist, so that s/he may benefit, most probably by learning to attain a position of critical distance from the circumstances that are primarily responsible for constructing him or her. The issue of agency--how the 'subject' can resist being wholly subjected by its social context--is extremely important in this regard, for it is the theoretical description of how one may successfully act upon one's situation (and not only be acted upon by it) that must be rendered useful (applied) if postmodern theory is to provide any viable space for political intervention on a practical level. But theories of the postmodern and the models of identity that they propose are often so fraught with qualifications regarding the potential for agency that any attempt to prescribe a useful method , to communicate how one can practice politically in a postmodern world, must proceed with extreme caution lest it succumb to the (understandable) desire to believe in facile solutions.

Rather than present a paper which explains how one can hope to become a shaping agent within a 'given' postmodern condition, for example, by developing further the 'empowering' gaps of of an Althusserian model of interpellation, or by using the more recent debate surrounding 'identity politics' as a springboard toward a practical project of intervention, I propose a discussion of one contemporary critic's attempt to bring to 'non-specialists' a means of critical resistance. My 'test case' will be Frank Lentricchia, and specifically his significant role in the recent academic canonization of Don DeLillo, and of his novel White Noise in particular, a book often discussed in the context of postmodernism. I will argue that the role in which Lentricchia casts himself, that of "Introducer" of the relevance of DeLillo's writing at this particular moment in history, is representative of a more general anxiety surrounding such issues as the attribution of different political potentials to modernist and postmodern projects, the social significance of academic labor, ways of confronting the commodification of this labor, and, by extension, of the identity of the intellectual. The parameters set up by the very outline of the "Practicing Postmodernisms" conference which separate (although not as starkly as I am putting it here) theory from practice and the specialist from the non-specialist, are relevant to my paper for it is my contention that Lentricchia's work as a critic and editor is deeply concerned with the potential for the labor and persona of the intellectual to become fashionable, commodified and saleable to a public larger than that which attends the annual MLA conference.

Due to time limits I will have to work from (rather than demonstrate) the premise that the contemporary concern with subjectivity quickly becomes one with the potential for agency, the ability of a person to act in the world, to change things, to make a difference . In the largest sense, here according to the Foucaultian model, it becomes a matter of the subject's ability to act in spite of the technologies of the institutions in which he or she works and lives. My primary argument is that Lentricchia's tactic is to reinvent modernism for a postmodern age. So much effort in his work as a critic and editor is put into rescuing the modernist text's resistance to commodification from the critique of escapism, elitism, and irrelevance. Especially in his presentation of DeLillo as an engaged and skillful writer, Lentricchia hopes to bring the myth of modernism as a resistant mode of figuration up to date.


* * *

There are two primary narratives that tell the story of Don DeLillo's rise as a fomidable literary figure, one describing how his books have been marketed, and the other concerned with the recent interest of the academy in his work. The former is largely analogous to the marketing techniques used to promote any number of authors who 'came into their own' in the mid 1980s. David Kaufmann provides one version of this narrative in his account of Publishing innovator Gary Fisketjon's invention of the 'Vintage Contemporaries' series which was launched in 1984 with Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, a novel which Kaufmann has dubbed "the first Yuppie bestseller." The paradox of the series's title reveals much of the logic that lies behind the marketing strategy: to sell contemporary authors as though they have already attained 'classic' status in their own right, or will, most certainly, age into this status over time, like a fine wine. 1984, then, was 'a good year for fiction', for it brought us McInerney's book, the only original novel on the Vintage Contemporaries inaugural list, and a host of reprints, including Raymond Carver's Cathedral, under a new cover design by Lorraine Louie which, as E. Graydon Carter has remarked, "with its pointillist grid and letter spaced type, looked more like an album cover" than the cover for a collection of short stories . But in addition to selling its author's as rock stars, Fisketjon's series, with its highly identifiable book-covers, promises a sound cultural investment. Through an elaborate system of internal reference, with authors recommending one another, and book blurbs comparing the style of one vintage contemporary to another, the series cultivates an aura of uniformity and excellence , and has led the Yuppie (Kaufmann) baseball card (Carter) generation to collect them like parts of a set, and to line them in pastel colored blocks upon their shelves so that they function as a decorative accessory in their own right.

This, of course, is the most cynical reading of the marketing of contemporary fiction, and the lesson I mean to draw from it is not that Yuppies are necessarily superficial and illiterate, but simply that quite recently a new public has been tapped into, and the strategy that has proved successful is one of differentiating one glossy product from other, 'inferior' kinds of paperback fiction. The lesson Fisketjon learned from marketing Carver, et al, has resulted in the uniform look given to DeLillo's fiction as well. As Fisketjon recounts his initial difficulty with selling DeLillo: "I was trying to sell quality fiction as mass market trash...The covers were meant to appeal to the sort of baser instincts, but I learned that people who want books that look like that also want books that read like that." A new, more 'sophisticated' look has been given to DeLillo editions; they are larger and thinner than the paperback novels of, say, Danielle Steele, nor are the cut edges of paper colored yellow or turquoise; and with this new design which arguably better reflects DeLillo's work, both by differentiating it from "trash" fiction, and by identifying it with the other large, slim volumes of the Vintage prototype , sales of his novels have increased.

But strategic design alone will not sell books. Good reviews in prominent papers (most notably The New York Times Review of Books) are still necessary to provide the initial jolt of cultural respectability. Staying power, or an author's introduction into a literary canon (either spoken or unspoken) is largely dependent upon the primary apparatus that instills cultural legitimacy: the high-school, the college, the university--the educational institution. I am inclined to agree with Raymond Mazurek when he writes in the essay preceding his survey on post-1945 American fiction that "A novel's remaining in print is often dependent upon its continued use in the classroom" . And a brief checklist marking the key moments in Don DeLillo's rise within the reveal the significant role that Lentricchia has played in it:


1990--South Atlantic Quarterly publishes a special issue on "The Fiction of Don DeLillo" edited by Frank Lentricchia,

--containing the first version of Lentricchia's later expanded essay "The American Writer as Bad Citizen--Introducing Don DeLillo"

1991--The special issue is reprinted as a proper book, entitled Introducing Don DeLillo (and by glancing at the cover one is justified in asking just who is this book introducing? and to who whom?)

1991--New Essays on White Noise ed. Frank Lentricchia, with an expanded version of the 'Introducing Don DeLillo' essay and a cast of contributors from Duke University.


Such a list, if more complete (listing all the articles, books and dissertations written on DeLillo--between 1989 and 1991 alone there have been 43 different pieces of writing) the question how an author enters the academic canon by presenting the various 'technologies' of the institution--the academic essay, the academic book, the academic journal, the dissertation, the essay series, etc--but does little to answer the more difficult question: "Why DeLillo?" To tackle this second question, and to begin to approach the significance of Lentricchia's academic persona, it will be necessary to return to the problem of "introduction", here, specifically, to Lentricchia's essay initially entitled "Introducing Don DeLillo". As my checklist indicates, this essay appeared in three different places, first under the title "The American Writer as Bad Citizen--Introducing Don DeLillo" in the special issue of SAQ, then under the shortened title "The American Writer as Bad Citizen" in the book Introducing Don DeLillo, and then, in a much expanded version, in the Cambridge University Press "The American Novel" series, under the generically imposed title "Introduction" to New Essays on White Noise.

By the time we get to the opening lines of Lentricchia's "Introduction" we have already been introduced to the editor of the volume of essays on White Noise by the "Series Editor's Preface". It has been established that "The American Novel" series comes in the wake of a "Critical Revolution", and that the present editor is "a distinguished authority on the text" in question . Introduction is an important means of validation, here, for instance, of the very need for New Essays on White Noise (the running joke being, 'Are there old ones?'), and of the choice of Lentricchia as the editor of such a collection of essays. The validating impulse of introduction is played out masterfully in Lentricchia's own introduction of Don DeLillo. He opens by noting that although DeLillo's publishers are pleased to advertise their author as a "highly acclaimed" novelist, until White Noise, "DeLillo was a pretty obscure object of acclaim, both in and out of the academy" (1). The "in and out" which sets up here the two worlds in which something can be read, known, acclaimed, etc, will become the basic model according to which Lentricchia must negotiate his role , and justify his purpose. The remainder of the opening paragraph of his "Introduction" is devoted to explaining that DeLillo has never been involved in promoting himself, that the "obvious" desire to advertise resides solely in DeLillo's publisher's and is admirably absent from DeLillo himself:


His readings are rare. He attends no conferences, teaches no summer workshops in fiction writing, never shows up on late-night television and doesn't cultivate second-person narrative in the present tense. So he has done little to promote himself in the approved ways. (1)


Again we have the two realms to which DeLillo must be introduced, that of the academy (of conferences and summer workshops) and that of popular culture, of television and Bright Lights, Big City. And then, in relation to these two pools of possible readers for his novels, DeLillo is presented as one whose writing can have an altering social effect on both, as one whose effect is as real as that of the cultural critic (such as Lentricchia is, for instance). Of what he declares to be DeLillo's "mode of writing", that of "terrific comedy", Lentricchia writes: "It is the sort of mode that marks writers who conceive their vocation as an act of cultural criticism; who invent in order to intervene...and who desire to move readers to the view that the shape and fate of their culture dictates the shape and fate of the self" (1). At a time when the "self" is viewed primarily as putty in the hands of the institutions in which it resides, it seems that one of the sole means of claiming the potential for agency, and for defining a critical praxis which can resist the most pessimistic version of the Foucaultian paradigm, is by declaring one's awareness of the effect of society's institutions in the formation of the self. It is not unlike the various versions of doubleness described above in which the awareness of one's own constructedness is what finally justifies one's inhabiting an identity as though it were real (i.e. existed outside the effect of institutions). Here, DeLillo's awareness of the way in which "culture" dictates identity, his self-conscious treatment of the institutions of late capitalist America, is what (for Lentricchia) rescues his writing from the industry of culture in which his books presently thrive.

A part of Lentricchia's "Introduction" is devoted to interpreting the significance of the right-wing reviews of DeLillo's novels, in which DeLillo's status as one who is as much a novelist of "institutions" as he is of "characters" is criticized. Lentricchia declares that attacks by such widely read columnists as George Will and Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post stand as "the best backhanded testimony I've seen in a long time on behalf of the social power of literature, for good or for ill, and an unintended but superb compliment to DeLillo's success in making his writing count beyond the elite circle of connoisseurs of postmodernist criticism and fiction" (4-5). To one as critically aware as DeLillo, "success" as a novelist--that he has found a large popular audience in spite of the fact that "the books are hard"(1)--is not emblematic of a loss of significance to the elite circle, but on the contrary, signifies his greater significance. In a sense, this can only be so in a mode of writing that moves into the popular sphere with both the critical and fictional elements at once. It is this combination that allows him to remain critical of the industry and institutions within which his writings are disseminated, marketed and become commodities like any others. It is a combination which, according to Lentricchia, makes DeLillo a viable agent within these industries and institutions, and not merely a product of them; as he closes his introduction: "Impulses aesthetic and critical have--classically--stood in starkest opposition, but they go together in the modernist idea of literature, perhaps no more seamlessly than in Don DeLillo, last of the modernists, who takes for his critical object of aesthetic concern the postmodern situation" (14). It is the myth of the modernist project as the final stronghold against commodity culture that is presented by Lentricchia here as that which makes DeLillo's writing most effective, both in resisting the levelling elements of the "situation" that is both his critical object and his aesthetic concern, and thus in acting as a viable agent within that situation.

What, then, can be said to make Lentricchia's work as a critic equally relevant and effective? In a most obvious sense, it is the position he assumes in relation to the important author that he is introducing that works to establish his own importance. Don DeLillo was already a popular author soon after 1985, and by this time he was becoming a significant object of academic attention as well, but these two facts had little bearing on one another, but rather were two distinct phenomena. At least this is what Lentricchia's role as editor and introducer seems to suggest. It is as if the true social significance of DeLillo could not exist until a critic such as Lentricchia recognized it, patented it, in a way, by introducing DeLillo as the last of the modernists in the postmodern era. The critic is thus enabled, like the author to whom he allies himself, to work both rooms at once, to remain an academic (a quality analogous to DeLillo's being a modernist, for both imply separation from the larger realm of commodities), and yet to popularize oneself with a book such as Introducing Don DeLillo, which is intended less for critics studying DeLillo than for (real?) people reading him . It is a familiar gesture in Lentricchia, one which is analogous to his desire to bring the ostracized Kenneth Burke back into the the academy (so as to enable academic criticism to effect social change), or to his interest in the relationship between Wallace Stevens's day and night jobs. Lentricchia's concentration on Don DeLillo as an editorial project, a figure the social relevance of whom must be taught, introduced, both in and out of the academy, represents the academic's attempt to fend off the looming anxiety surrounding his academic labor, the (paternal) voice which is always whispering such straightforward, yet paralyzing questions as: 'So what do you do, anyway?' The stress, of course, is on the issue of production, of doing something useful. Lentricchia can present himself as a no-nonsense doer --'the Dirty Harry of contemporary criticism', as one feminist critic has described him, in response to the 'ironic' cross-armed photograph that appears on the back of Criticism and Social Change--by playing ironically the game of self-presentation, by over-posing for a photograph, telling unsettling, 'Italian' anecdotes in the context of a discussion of a high modernist poem, by taking gaudy advantage of the critic's 'role' as introducer (making the letters of his name as big as those of the author whom he is introducing, etc). But is not one subtext of such critical and editorial projects the fear and anxiety surrounding the issue of self-worth? Or to use a phraseology that is not from popular psychology (although "self-worth" does capture rather nicely the economic dimension which is at the heart of Lentricchia's problem), isn't the real issue the critic's fear of death?

What do I mean by the academic fear of death? The initial idea comes from the protagonist of White Noise, Jack Gladney, chair of Hitler Studies at a College in small town America, who has developed an academic persona, in part by basking in the aura surrounding his mythic object of study, as a means of warding off the fear of death which envelopes him to such an extent that he finds himself willing to kill for a drug that might work on the brain in such a way that the fear of death will disappear. Gladney's construction of an academic persona is done very deliberately, very self-consciously, initially pursued on the advice of the chancellor of the university:

[he] had advised me, back in 1968, to do something about my name and appearance if I wanted to be taken seriously as a Hitler innovator. Jack Gladney would not do, he said, and asked me what other names I might have at my disposal. We finally agreed that I should invent an extra initial and call myself J.A.K. Gladney, a tag I wore like a borrowed suit.

He is advised, further, to gain weight, to "become more ugly" (17), for the sake of his career, and in addition to the false initials, and the added bulk, Jack dons glasses with thick black heavy frames and dark lenses as an elaboration of this newly constructed persona. The year 1968, a "touchstone" in the history of intellectual activism is telling, for it suggests that the failure of the New Left has ushered in a new mode of self-conception for the academic, one that is unabashedly self-conscious, and career oriented. But to return to the issue of death: For Jack, the arbitrary accoutrements that he decides upon become crucial to the cultivation of a sense of immortality. When he encounters an eerie 'figure of death' sitting in his back-yard (it turns out only to be his father in law) he clutches his dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf tightly to his stomach for protection (244). When a doctor tells him he has been exposed to a fatal substance, and thus has death inside him, he says, "I wanted my academic gown and dark glasses" (142). And when he is seen off campus by a colleague named Eric Massingale, without his dark glasses, the following dialogue ensues:


"I've never seen you off campus, jack. You look different without your glasses and gown. Where did you get that sweater? Is that a Turkish army sweater? Mail order, right?"

. . .

"You won't take offense?" he said, the grin turning lascivious, rich with secret meaning.

"Of course not. Why would I?"

"Promise you won't take offense."

"I won't take offense."

"You look so harmless, Jack. A big, harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy."

"Why would I take offense?" I said, paying for my rope and hurrying out the door.

The encounter put me in the mood to shop. (82-3)


When the constructed persona fails, the only alternative is unbridled consumption. Shopping becomes the alternative to the gown and dark glasses, the non-academic way of securing one's immortality. It is a dichotomy (academic power/ consummerism) which tells us something about the significance of the popularizing and canonizing projects of certain academics, such as Lentricchia, and Harold Bloom.

If the first meaning of the academic fear of death resides in DeLillo's character Jack Gladney, its larger meaning can be found in the situation for which DeLillo's character stands as a metaphor. The academic fear of death is here a fear of extinction, or of a loss of social relevance, relevance being equated with the realm of consumer exchange, of becoming or coming up with a viable product, of having worth according to the logic of this realm. The editorial projects of Lentricchia and Bloom represent two ways of dealing with this version of the fear. In the case of Lentricchia, death (which is associated with never breaking out of the academy) is avoided acting as promoter for an important novelist. In his role as introducer, Lentricchia not only maintains his integrity as a critic, but brings this integrity to a larger market. Bloom's association with the Chelsea House press is the alternate heroic story of survival . With the ultimate intention of generating 1,000+ volumes under the six different series headings all edited by Bloom, the parallel between editorial practice and the professor turned voracious consumer (here of essays and authors) seems not too far fetched. By having his name appear hundreds of times, not only in university libraries but in key public libraries as well, Bloom's role as scholar is justified, for it carries into a non-academic realm, and yields a decent profit to boot. As Chris Goodrich has noted, Bloom's "main hope was to write 'brief and pungent introductions' to an author's work that went beyond the more technical acts of literary criticism" (36). And along with this desire to bring literature (by editing into existence his own literary canon) to the people, is the unashamed desire to make a good profit from it. As Bloom ventriloquises Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money" (36). The model provided by Johnson is important for it represents the continued importance (the immortality) that can be earned by engaging in an editorial project whose ultimate object is "to satisfy the taste of the time" (31). Bloom's desire to be remembered as Johnson, to survive himself via the canon that he constructs, the amount of entries of his name there are in library computers, and Lentricchia's attempt to associate his own name with that of a writer whom he is working to cannonize so to assure his future importance, are both attempts to deal with the academic's fear of death, which is both his fear of never being 'productive' within the larger realm of commodities, and his fear of being forgotten as an important literary figure.

The final meaning of the academic fear of death allows for the possibility that this fear is indeed academic , that is, unwarranted because it arises in theory but never in practice. This definition brings us back to the problem of the death of the author, the removal of the individual from the subject. As I have already remarked, there is an antidote even to this theoretical mode of death which resides in a particular kind of self-consciousness. One way of putting it: By making his labor the manipulation of images of public figures and icons, and thus by demonstrating an understanding of the mechanism by which a public identity is constructed, Andy Warhol finally manages to position himself someplace outside the whole reproductive network, thus buying for himself more than the generally alloted fifteen minutes of public existence. In theory, of course, it doesn't work this way: there simply is no outside. And yet, the power of self-consciousness, the fact of irony as a sign of agency cannot be denied. This is how Lentricchia's DeLillo manages to remain a "modernist" while living and writing about the postmodern situation. An aesthetic treatment of the commodification of books (of aesthetic treatments of commodification, for example) represents to Lentricchia a grace-giving gesture. I am thinking here of this passage from Mao II, but might quote any number of passages from DeLillo's fiction which treat the fact of commodification with what might be called a modernist self-consciousness:

He walked among the bookstore shelves, hearing Muzak in the air. There were rows of handsome covers, prosperous and assured. He felt a fine excitement, hefting a new book, fitting hand over sleek spine, seeing lines of type jitter past his thumb as he let the pages fall. He was a young man, shrewd in his fervours, who knew there were books he wanted to read and others he absolutely had to own, the ones that gesture in special ways, that have rareness or daring, a charge of heat that stains the air around them. he made a point of checking authors' photos, browsing at the south wall...There were books on step terraces and Lucite wall-shelves, books in pyramids and theme displays. He went downstairs to the paperbacks, where he stared at the covers of mass-market books, running his fingertips erotically over the raised lettering. Covers were lacquered and gilded. Books lay cradled in nine-unit counterpacks like experimental babies. He could hear them shrieking Buy me.

This is the DeLillo who is critical in his fiction of the very realm within which he has, by 1992, gained success. It is this element that allows Lentricchia, by juxtaposing his own name with the novelist's, to become popular without becoming a product of popular culture. By making a point of raising the issue of "authors' photos" in his fiction (and this is one of the major issues addressed in Mao II ) DeLillo is dealing with the problem of life and death as it relates to representation, death being, in this context, a purely theoretical matter. It is by turning death into a problem of representation, by putting it in quotation marks, that an academic such as Lentricchia is allowed to defeat the more literal reading of the term. The academic fear of death alleviates the academic's fear of death . The explicit irony of one's self-presentation to a larger-than-academic public is what allows one to enter the social sphere without being wholly appropriated by it, to deal with it on one's own terms, or, as Lentricchia puts it in his description of DeLillo's manipulation of the Domestic genre in fiction, to have one's way with it. Indeed, it is Lentricchia's self-mocking masculinity (as in his photo-parody of the D.A. Miller stud) that allows him a sense of immortality. It is an ironic self-presentation analogous to the cover of Mao II, which presents the very problem of representing the cultural icon by reproducing Warhol's various reproductions of Mao Zedong, and to the Michel Foucault photograph which depicts, not his face, but the back of his head. Irony is what allows the always dead author to live again, as a result of his conspicuous knowledge of the pervading fact of identity's constructedness. In this regard, Lentricchia's introduction of DeLillo stands as one version of the contemporary academic's method, not only of self-presentation, but, by extension, of self-preservation.

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