Perish The Thought

I vividly remember when I was a lad of twenty-six (well, an old “lad”) and had just accepted an offer for my first academic tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University in 1975. I was told by the department chairman that my teaching and service to the department would be very important in my professional development. 

But he also told me that I would soon need to have in place a contract signed by a publisher for an academic book which I would be required to write if I wanted to be assured of tenure. Since this departmental tenure decision would be made concerning my fate (by the executive committee) after just six years of my having joined the faculty, I had no time to waste in beginning to write that career-securing book. This was my personal introduction into the “publish or perish” world of academe. New university professors have those first six years to prove that they will soon have an academic book published or, if not, they do indeed ‘perish’ — they are usually fired.

I asked the one colleague in my English department who specialized as I did in Victorian fiction if she would consider co-authoring a book. That way, we could share the research, the writing, and the revising, and we could thus hasten the process of getting the book into print — and keeping our jobs. She readily agreed.

But scholarly books written about famous Victorian novelists (Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy) had been “done to death”  by other desperate young tenure-seeking professors, and so we knew that academic publishers wouldn’t be eager to bring forth yet another such study. No, we needed to find a new little niche.

As you could figure out on your own, “Victorian Novels” are those novels published during the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. This was the overworked scholarly area that we knew we needed to avoid.   

Amazingly, there were over 40,000 such works of fiction published in England during the Victorian period. And the quality of these novels was — and still remains today, more than a hundred years later — astoundingly high. It was a Golden Age for writers of fiction, just like the Elizabethan Age in England, during the sixteenth century, had been golden for playwrights—Shakespeare being, of course, THE gold standard. But my co-author and I needed to uncover, if we could, a somewhat different literary period in order to attract an academic publisher.

We found it. I do believe that we were the first young scholars to mine (or perhaps “milk” might be the more accurate verb here) fiction written during a tiny forgotten literary period immediately BEFORE Victoria’s reign.  It was the period when her elderly uncle, King William the Fourth, was briefly on the throne of England from 1830 until his death in 1837. He was quite old for that time — just under sixty-five — when he began his reign (and he still remains the oldest monarch to ascend the throne), and so he ruled for a very short time.

Are you now thinking about today’s Prince Charles, the future “King Charles the Third”?  Me too. Do you realize that if he were — impossibly — to rule as long as his mother has, he would have to stay on the throne until at least 2092! 

Oops, I have wandered from my topic of securing tenure.  Well, it is MY essay, you know, so I’ll mosey along where I please, thank you. Anyway, our completed book manuscript, which the two of us managed to grind out in exactly nine months (yes, we referred to it as “Our Baby”) was a detailed analysis of the few obscure but influential novelists who wrote between 1830 and 1837 during William’s reign. Two examples are Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who gave Snoopy in Peanuts  his novelistic opening, “It was a dark and stormy night”, and Benjamin Disraeli (who is better known as Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister). This was hardly enthralling stuff. But because no other scholars had previously invaded this unique territory, we very quickly received an impressive publishing contract from Macmillan’s Press of London. We were thrilled. And, even better, two months later, we were both tenured professors in our department. 

We titled our academic opus The Victorian Novel Before Victoria: British Fiction During the Reign of William the Fourth, 1830-1837. Perhaps we thought such a snappy title might enhance sales?  No, we knew that there would probably be no sales except to all the college and university libraries which had to purchase our book in order to keep their stacks up to date with all such research-oriented tomes.   

Well, actually, there were multiple purchases of our book (at my author’s discounted  rate of 50% off) by my loving, proud parents who insisted that I personally inscribe copies to my no-doubt startled relatives who received them from my irrepressible mom and dad as a most peculiar Chanukah gift in that December of 1984. Oy, how I miss my two greatest cheerleaders!

Fifty years later, I still don’t know what to think about the onerous publishing pressures still put upon all young tenure-track university professors. I suppose the whole subject was best summed up by an old New Yorker Magazine cartoon that showed two professorial types standing beside a closed casket at a funeral.  One of the men is whispering to the other. The caption reads:  “Poor Smedley!  He published and published — but perished nonetheless.”

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