An Invasion Is Coming While the Civil Wars Wage
The Shakespeare Requirement: A Novel | Julie Schumacher | Penguin Random House
It’s no secret that the humanities are under attack.
Pragmatism is king, and the arts are right out. But the left-brained are not the only ones to blame. Life is full of absurdities, and so are the advocates who rise to literature’s defense. “Wait,” they cry, “beauty and empathy are the building blocks of civilization! How can we expect society to hang together when it’s not bound by a shared culture?” Then, having said their piece, they brush off their hands and fervently resume their favorite activity: nitpicking colleagues on finer points of esoteric theory.
In my limited academic experience, the inter-departmental vitriol that lurks behind closed doors in universities and schools (and on Twitter) is enough to make one question the aforementioned apology for the humanities. I know I’ve been guilty of such near-sightedness. How easily I forget that I share ninety-nine percent in common with my colleagues when I obsess over the one percent of our disagreements.
Julie Schumacher holds up a friendly mirror to such folly in her latest novel, The Shakespeare Requirement. A sequel to her earlier offering, Dear Committee Members, it continues the story of irascible hero, Jason Fitger. Committee Members ends with Fitger the newly elected head of the English Department at Payne University. His appointment to the office comes as a surprise. Fitger has a reputation around campus as an incurable grouch, unwilling to play nice with others. He makes cutting jokes as the Engli_h Department crumbles around his head (quite literally, the “s” has fallen off of the department sign), while the Economics Department upstairs enjoys a multi-million-dollar renovation, venting hazardous waste into his office.
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Furthermore, Fitger is generally held in disdain by the members of his own department. No literary scholar by trade, he serves as a Creative Writing professor due to the popularity of his pulp fiction. Which fiction, by the by, drew on personal amorous experiences, leading to Fitger’s untimely divorce. By the end of Committee Members, it appears the hapless professor has nothing left to comfort him but his sardonic humor. Even his election to department head seems nothing more than his colleagues’ attempt to saddle him with unwanted responsibilities.
The Shakespeare Requirement, however, opens on a new academic year, where we find Fitger taking stock of his disorderly domain. Under the direction of newly crowned Economics king, Professor Roland Gladwell, Payne University is planning the extermination of all “unprofitable” assets. To receive a budget for the coming year, each department will be required to submit a Statement of Vision in order to prove its worth to the administration. The only problem is that said SOV requires a unanimous department approval in order to pass, and “unanimity in English,” according to Fitger, “was akin to a rainbow over a field of unicorns.”
Schumacher fills Payne’s English Department with a wild array of familiar caricatures. Their prejudices and quarrels will make any former English major chuckle with fond recognition. There’s Helena Stang, feminist studies, with her steampunk jewelry and disdainful air; Sandra Atherman, Brontë specialist, strangely reminiscent of the sisters in her appearance; Zander Hesseldine, the “armchair Marxist;” Jennifer Brown-Wilson, the young British Romanticism professor with far too many commitments and no time to herself; and Lincoln Young, the disgruntled, ragamuffin graduate assistant, barely making ends meet. But, most importantly, there’s Dennis Cassovan, the once-respected Shakespeare scholar (now old as dirt), who refuses to budge in insisting that his Shakespeare course remain a requirement for the Payne English major’s graduation. While most of the English professors trade their assent to the proposed SOV for paid leave or a reduced class load, Cassovan plants his ideological flag firmly on the Bard. Fitger’s attempts to bring the department to an agreement are consequently useless as each professor then feels a right to lobby for the requirement of his or her own specialty.
But while this conflict boils on the story’s surface, in the background a wide-eyed freshman arrives on campus, eager to expand her horizons. Bookish and shy, Angela Vackery hails from a thoroughly rural background, complete with an ankle-length jean skirt. Oblivious to the department’s bickering, she quickly finds a home in the English building. Studying Shakespeare with Cassovan and dystopian fiction with Fitger, she rejoices in “a secret, purposeful language, one that ran separate and subterranean from the clumsy dialogue [she] struggled to engage in every day.” Fitger unwittingly begins to adopt her, appreciating her quiet, steady presence in the midst of chaos. So when, mid-semester, he receives an unexpected invitation to Angela’s wedding, the frantic SOV circus is suddenly of no concern.
It is here that Schumacher unleashes the power of the humanities in all its glory. Fitger discovers that Angela has ventured too far in her new-found freedom and is now punishing herself by doing the “right thing.” She will marry the greasy, immature freshman who has become the father of her child. Laying aside their disagreements, the entire English department shows up in force to Angela’s wedding. They rally around to support their young student because Angela is no theoretical problem, archetype, or idea. She is a flesh and blood fellow sufferer, a breathing embodiment of literature’s primary concern. And although my literary approach is quite opposed to Helena Staang’s, when the feminist professor pushes Fitger to object to the marriage during the ceremony, even I could have embraced her. Taking the bride aside, Fitger counsels Angela to return to her family and continue her education, to refrain from throwing her or her child’s life away on an unexamined premise. Unprofitable asset or no, the full weight of a literary education, a lifetime of studying humanity, is brought to bear in this moment as Fitger puts aside his university concerns in order to sit beside another human being in her pain.
Hunched over his latest esoteric article, Cassovan smiles at the “impermanence of his work: how deeply invested in it he was, and how little it meant to almost anyone else – which is as it should be.” Scholarship and popular academic debate will fade and change with the times, but Angela’s story serves as a gentle reminder of literature’s true purpose: the fostering of compassion, shared suffering, and collective hope. It’s not that the arguments surrounding literary theory aren’t important. The question of Cassovan’s Shakespeare requirement is crucial, one close to my own heart. But ironically, given the title of this novel, that question is not Schumacher’s primary concern. She instead reminds us that while we liberal-arts-minded folk quibble over our civil wars, a foreign invasion looms on the horizon. The humanities are under attack, and one reason might be that we have forgotten what the humanities are really all about—humans.
Emily Andrews is an Associate Director at CenterForLit in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches, writes, podcasts, and develops teacher resources. She is an Associate Editor for FORMA.
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