One of my professors in college rhetorically asked us about literary analysis and theory, “Will it make you happy? Will it get you a job? Will it help you succeed when you have a job? Will it make you a better person?” In order, his own answers were, “not exactly, maybe, yes, not necessarily.” It was about as good as I could have hoped.

I was an English major, and had been so in spirit probably since 2nd grade when I first tried to write my own Redwall fanfiction. The idea of books being some kind of immortally resonant and life-changing form of art was, and is, easy for me to believe. And being a graduated English major has made it also easy to believe that my ability to write a 20 page paper on postmodernism in The Golden Notebook doesn’t cause flocks of employers to climb over each other just trying to grasp the hem of my dinner jacket.

So, this is possibly some kind of portfolio, or something. In any case, it is hopefully the convergence of what I want to do professionally with what I love to do all the time—that is, consume, digest, and be nutritionally satisfied by every kind of narrative I can find. Novels, movies, video games, history, anything with a beginning, middle, and end is probably something I will think endlessly about and definitely something that will help all of us grow. At least, that’s what I believe, and that’s what I want to demonstrate here.

That’s also what my favorite professor, Wes Chapman, believed, I like to think. As textual evidence, and as a means to say everything I mean to say in a much better way than I could ever say it, I’ll end this with the finale of his Senior Seminar speech. I’ll be back later to put in my own word.

The peculiar success of the English major is to accept the impossibility of full understanding and to get along anyway.  We know that our beautiful impossible blueprints aren’t true in any absolute sense, but we can create them anyway, knowing they are true in a more provisional sense—and very necessary.  And because we work with materials that will not be reduced to definitive statements, we come to appreciate the necessity of using ALL of our minds:  the analytical intelligence, yes, but also intuition, emotion, imagination, conscience, the aesthetic faculty.

So:  will this get you a job?  In the short run maybe or maybe not, in the long run probably so. Will it make you better in your job once you have one?  Very likely, although you may find it hard to pin down exactly how.  Will it make you a better person?  Not necessarily.  You’d think it would, as literature is chock full of moral values, but the moral premises go all different directions. My own experience has been that what really happens is not that literary study fosters morality as that it tends to attract people with a certain morality in the first place.  We tend to be, well, human, with keenly pricking consciences and the usual share of weaknesses. 

Will it make you happy?  That’s the big question, isn’t it?  You didn’t go into this field for the money, after all.  Here too I think it’s important to recognize the kind of people that English tends to attract.  In my experience, the happiest people are the ones who don’t think too hard, who are not introspective, who cheerfully ignore problems and cling to unexamined beliefs.  English majors tend not to be like that. The people who are attracted to English in the first place tend to be the introspective ones, full of doubts, unable to ignore problems, constantly questioning themselves and their place in the world. So the odds are pretty good that it was too late for all of you long before you majored in English—you have to be born one of those happy unthinking people to become one. But I do think that literature has a way of helping those who need it.  I don’t know that it makes you happy, necessarily, but it makes you appreciate things—it makes the sadnesses more meaningful, the joys richer if only by comparison, the laughs more knowing.