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The Yale Companion to Chaucer
The Yale Companion to Chaucer

Yale University Press, 2006
432 pp., $70.00

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Tom Shippey


The English Professor's Tale

A politicized guide to Chaucer.

In the background of this book there lies a disaster; in the foreground, a contradiction. The disaster has been aptly labeled, by Victor Davis Hanson and his colleagues in Classical Studies, "the bonfire of the humanities." In English Studies, twenty-five years ago there were 65,000 undergraduate majors in the United States. Since then the college population has doubled, so that one might expect to find 130,000. Five years ago the actual figure was 49,000, and it is unlikely to have increased since. Putting it in commercial terms, departments of English have lost close on two-thirds of their "market share." This, of course, is not a concern for tenured professors in élite institutions, like Seth Lerer and his contributors, who can continue to teach their graduate seminars in the sure and certain knowledge that their jobs are safe, and that the social cachet of their universities will ensure a constant supply of students. It is a concern for the students in those graduate seminars, being poured into a shrinking job market, and even more for students outside the élite institutions. But that's their problem, and their disaster.

To turn to the contradiction, Lerer (professor at Stanford) is well aware that there are already half a dozen "guides" and "companions" to Chaucer on the market, and is concerned to establish selling points for this one. In brief, it's young, it's American, and it aims to do more than "just conveying facts" or providing "bald surveys." Young is stretching it: most of the contributors are in their forties and fifties, though academics start late these days. I am sure all the competing collections aimed to do more than "just convey facts." As for Americanness—and here the reviewer must confess that he is just the kind of old-style Englishman whom Lerer has in his gunsights—it's odd that, while all Lerer's contributors subscribe to the normal academic ideal of diversity, as soon as they encounter figures who do not conform to the ...

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