MLA Meets Americana

pk School Stories, FLEX (Deschooling) Years

The Modern Language Association is many things, but for the purposes of this narrative, the MLA is a meat market. The MLA meets annually around Christmas time. Papers are read … but the bulk of the people there are looking to employ or to be employed. The hotel rooms are chock full of interviews: way out numbering attendance at the conferences.

If you have tenure, the MLA is for hearing and for giving papers. If you’re a graduate student looking for your first teaching assignment, or an instructor on a one year contract, you can meet more department heads in a few days than you could in a month of unlimited jet fares.

(I got my contract at Colby directly: but I’d already attended a few meetings to get the feel of things (an awful feeling).) I attended the 1970 meeting because it was in Denver and I’d never skied out west. I’d already founded FLEX, but didn’t want to burn all bridges quite yet. Mainly though I used Denver to launch myself into the Rockies, visiting Utah and Wyoming as well as Colorado’s Aspen and Vail before heading back the NYC. The following year the convention was held in NYC, on Sixth Avenue, at the Hotel Americana: and that’s the convention I must report on.

It was a war.

The US was still whooping it on Vietnam. Scholars were still getting fired for speaking up. What may have bewildered academics who didn’t speak up was that America was at war in those years more openly than usual against nearly all intellectuals: certainly against independent intellectuals: that is, those not openly employed by DC or the states. Put us all into a pen, as the MLA convention did, and it was true blue America against the Communist hippies.

The media pretended that war protest was mostly from “students.” But deep down, union Americans knew that “students” meant anybody associated with universities: people who read, people who “thought” beyond the twelfth grade.

First draft: gimme a break. I’ll expand and clarify and revise later. Right now I gotta jump to the main story.

My wife and I go down for a cocktail. Maybe we’ll run into friends. We stand suffering on a line to get to the cocktail lounge. The place is bedlam. All MLA conventions are bedlam, maybe all conventions are bedlam; but I’d never seen anything like this one. Some scholars were busy plastering the Americana with anti-war posters. The Americana staff was busy tearing down ALL MLA postings! See where Freedom of Speech gets you here, Buddy!

Hilary and I are finally seated. Waiters rush by. No eye contact. No promises to be there soon. The place is stifling. Age thirty two, I was a guy who liked my drink. Damn it, where was my martini. I haven’t even been able to request one yet.

Four persons would be jammed at the Americana’s cocktail tables which were too small for two people to drink coffee at comfortably. Two extra chairs were wedged against out table. The waiter who came closest most often, never making eye contact, began however rearranging the unoccupied chairs each time he passed: wham! banging me in the shins each time.

I didn’t know anybody in the room. I didn’t have my martini. I was getting welts on my shins from the waiter’s berserk neatness.

The next time the same waiter banged me smack on the same rising welt, I caught his arm. He looked at me alarmed. I mouthed my words soundlessly. He bent closer to hear. I quick released his arm and grabbed him by the shoe string western “neck tie” he was wearing. I yanked his face down to mine, smashing my elbow against the table in a karate blow to make a maximum of noise. I hadn’t hit him, but it sounded like I’d broken his back. The room went silent. His face in my breath, I said in my then semi-“Oxford” English, clipping my words, “If you hit me in the shin with that chair one more time, I’m going to make the chair a part of your anatomy.”

More flesh, more perspectives later: for now, instantly, several service personnel were near our table, ready to toss me, and I suppose, poor Hilary. Instantly the cocktail lounge patrons stood as a man. “It was self-defense. You touch him, we break bones. We’ve all been getting creamed here.”

Normally the Americana served Teamsters, big tippers. The staff didn’t like commies, didn’t like thinkers, and didn’t like people who spent their lives in school in order to starve spending more of their lives in school. The waiters, the hostess, the busboys … had satisfied themselves we were all castrati: wouldn’t fight back. Suddenly they faced a united army: English professors.


Reordering, I move some peripheral things below:

The Modern Language Association is the most powerful organization of university level English scholars and teachers in the world. Known by its acronym, the MLA decides on matters of style (punctuation and so forth) for Standard Written English within the profession and its decisions are widely (though hardly universally) followed by other publications. Any magazine may have its own style, and writers should ask the editors for guidance not only before submitting to that organ but before writing the article in the first place. But, if you’re not sure, use MLA style.

Take very seriously my quick definition above: “style” here has nothing to do with the man in the street meaning — writing anecdotally in the vernacular, for example; no: it has to do with whether you place your periods inside or outside your quotation marks. Think it’s silly? Try ignoring it: then submit.

The MLA also publishes papers. You want tenure? Publish there!

PS. A Note on MLA Quality: I got this story directly from John Hurt Fisher, professor at NYU but Secretary of the MLA (read executive as powerful as Stalin!)

Henry Adams submitted Mont Saint Michel and Chartres to the MLA.
They rejected it!

Um, is there any more important work of American scholarship?

pk Stories Social, Hierarchical
by Age by Theme by Others Institutional Stories
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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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