The Peter Bell Phenomenon

The Peter Bell Phenomenon

In the midst of graduate school at Hopkins, I discovered that I had one set of reasons for being there, and my professors had an altogether different set of reasons for asking me to be there. My dissertation, on the novelist Kingsley Amis, was an effort to fulfill my own objectives in studying and teaching English literature; The Peter Bell Phenomenon was an effort to satisfy those of my professors. My interest, in minor genres, and in an empirical, untheoretical approach to texts, stood in direct contradiction to my professors’ interest, which was in highly theoretical criticism of texts firmly seated in the approved canon. To satisfy them, I in effect wrote a second dissertation, one that dealt with not just Wordsworth, but Keats, Shelley, and Byron, and a slough of associated figures as well. The work was good enough so that three published learned journal articles were successfully carved out of it. But at the end of the day, however major the poets involved, I was writing about minor works, and really this was a work of scholarship, not of criticism. Given these ineluctable facts, I predictably and utterly failed to impress my professors with Peter, a bit of which I presented (if memory serves) at an excruciating ritual known as Journal Club.

Rereading this manuscript 34 years after I completed it, I’m struck with the thought that only a young man with nearly unlimited energy could have done this at the same time as he produced a dissertation on an unrelated subject. Understand, the minimum number of years in the program to a doctorate was four. Most graduate students struggle to get through one dissertation in that period, and many of my peers had to take an extra year or two. I bagged my doctorate in four years, having done both projects. Of course, some of my peers, having played departmental politics rather better than I did, ended up as academics. By contrast, my own academic career ended almost immediately thereafter.

Although I wept actual tears when I realized my academic career was over, I have never since that time much regretted that failure. Rather, I regret the attempt. Law school was my true path. I wish I could have had those four years back. Not that they were worthless. Four years in intense pursuit of any intellectual training will always be worth something. Still, those years could have been much better spent.

The manuscript itself remains, however. It has sat in my drawer for half a lifetime. I know that the scholarship is dated, and likely outmoded in various ways, but I still think it makes a contribution. I still think my professors were worse than idiots not to champion it. But it was not realistic to try publishing it before now.

When I put the book together, one would have needed the cooperation of a university press to publish it. And without the prestigious backing of my Hopkins patrons, or that of the academic department I never got to join, such cooperation was obviously not going to be available to me. Blogs have handed the artillery of publication to us scribblers, however, and it is high time I took advantage of it. So I offer Peter to the world now. Hopefully, the self-indexing properties of the Web will enable it to find its way to scholars who may find some use for it.

I apologize in advance for the state of the typography. This was done with the latest 1975 technology: an IBM Selectric typewriter, on onionskin paper, and heavily corrected with Wite-Out. Some illegibility resulted, and some errors, typographical and doubtless of other sorts as well, crept through notwithstanding. And it would be nice to have the notes on the same page, or even in the same part of the manuscript, as the text. Perhaps some day I can pay an amanuensis to slick-ify the presentation. Even unslick-ified, it is legible enough, and, hopefully, readable enough.

If you like satire, if you like politics, if you like infighting and pseudonyms and catty remarks made great people about other great people, even if you simply like seeing great poets in their less-great moments, dig in and enjoy!  (When you click on the link, have patience with the length of the download; this is a large file.)