Tag Archives: literary criticism

My English Teachers 5: Bill Maidment (revisited)

See my earlier entry where I mention a problem with the Quadrant site. This is now fixed, and “Men Without Borders” by Neil McDonald is back online.

It was Maidment’s ability to analyse every nuance of an individual passage of literature, elucidating the rhythm, symbolism and allusions, then to place it in the context of the work as a whole—all the while keeping us aware of the period when it was written—that was of special value to us all as film critics and teachers. In addition, there was his deep understanding of imagery, traditional emblems, heraldry and associations with the paintings of the period of the work being examined. Unlike many contemporary critics, Maidment was particularly good at defining a genre, exploring precisely how it related to other literary forms…

I learnt from Bill to ask these questions about any film or literary work I was examining: What does it mean? What did it mean when it was first released or published? What is it about? What is it really about? What does it assume? What does it assert? And what does it imply? …

Bill Maidment’s influence on my work was, I believe, more extensive. I first encountered him when I enrolled in his Eighteenth-Century Literature option in 1963. It was a small group, and we soon became friends. Even after I began to write Shakespearean criticism, Bill continued as mentor and friend. When my first article on Macbeth was rejected in 1964, he was there with encouragement and advice: “Certainly it has some rough edges, but it deserves to be published.” And it was, by Frank Moorhouse no less.

OFTEN OVERLOOKED by even his warmest admirers was how good a Shakespearean critic Maidment was. Only very recently he pointed out to me how the breaking of even the most trivial of oaths had a religious significance in Elizabethan England—very difficult to convey to a modern mainstream audience. Consequently when Kenneth Branagh adapted Love’s Labour’s Lost to the screen, he needed the wartime setting to create an appropriately serious modern equivalent to explain the lovers’ partings. When I was teaching Shakespeare using the Elizabethan theatre models made by my father, it was Maidment who pointed out that the playhouse itself was part of the play’s imagery. This coupling of imagery and form became vital when I worked on Shakespearean film. It was Bill who alerted me to the way Orson Welles played cinematic variations on Shakespeare’s imagery as well as enhancing the word pictures with visual equivalents…

The intellectual rigour and sceptical tolerance Bill instilled in his students gave us the confidence to see through, refute and ultimately systematically ignore the jargon-infested discourse theorists, open and covert Marxists and dogmatic gender-studies experts—who have come close to destroying film studies in recent years. There was really no debate: their want of elementary film scholarship made them easy game whenever they wrote or spoke to anyone but each other. There would be lots of eye-rolling, heavy sighs and throat clearing, but rarely any argument. Quadrant readers have, in a way, experienced this phenomenon for themselves. I have only to raise a political issue for the letters column to be filled with missives of dissent. I have even taken issue with our editor! And this is as it should be: a journal of ideas like ours is no place for unquestioned opinion. But when I accused the New South Wales Board of Studies of compelling students to misrepresent their set films for ideological reasons in my article “How Not to Teach Film”, and attacked jargon-ridden film criticism in “Screen Studies and Lantana”, the silence was deafening…

AS A MAN Bill Maidment was gentlemanly and unassuming to a fault. In his prime he was very handsome, but dressed down as if he feared any sartorial display would distract from his teaching. All Bill’s students know of his battle with his stammer, which, in the early 1960s, threatened to destroy his career as a teacher. By the way—who, today, would hire a lecturer with a stammer? Professor Wesley Milgate did, and gave the English department at the University of Sydney one of its greatest scholars and teachers of the last century. So how did Bill survive as a lecturer? He had Milgate’s support, and the students didn’t want to forgo what this unassuming, brilliant man had to offer. I remember vividly how we would simply sit there, willing him to keep going so we could make our notes and read or re-read the text he was discussing, knowing we were getting insights that few other lecturers could provide.

The stammer too was the basis of some of the best Maidment stories. No one dared so much as move during his lectures for fear it would put him off! So when, during a lecture on D.H. Lawrence, Bill mentioned that the writer’s sexual problems were rooted in his relationship with his mother, there was dead silence. The class remained quiet when he added that Lawrence’s sexuality was also rooted in the English Puritan tradition, and continued to be silent as Bill used the same word to describe a whole range of other influences in which D.H. Lawrence was rooted. The joke that went around campus the next day was that Maidment had managed to root Lawrence fifteen times! When I mentioned the story to Bill, he couldn’t remember the incident, but added, “I’m sure there was some deep-seated Freudian significance.”

Interwoven with Bill’s battle with his stammer were the triumphs. These were the occasions when it was heard around campus that Bill Maidment was about to lecture on one of his many specialties, and it would be standing room only. These lectures would be received in hushed silence, followed by a rousing ovation at the conclusion. Ultimately Bill overcame his stammer by deciding that it simply didn’t matter…

Confirming and extending my own memories of this remarkable teacher.


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My English teachers 4: Sam Goldberg

You will find I have mentioned S L Goldberg (1926-1991) before: on Lines from a Floating Life and in the Big Archive. Back in 1964 he was just coming into his own as Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, having taken up his duties during 1963 when I had a year out working at the MLC Insurance Company in Martin Place where they vainly tried to seduce me into a business or legal career. The next few years were to see the English Department split in two, and by decade’s end Goldberg had gone. When I returned to Sydney University for a temporary secondment as a lecturer in 1977 he was just a memory, albeit with a few acolytes still hanging on, and a cricket team named in his honour, or in honour of his mentor the Downing College Cambridge literary critic F R Leavis.

In a 1999 article in The Australian Book Review Terry Collits recalls:

…migrating Leavisism first touched these shores at Perth, with the professorial appointment of a veritable ‘Scrutineer’, Allan Edwards. The word was brought across to Melbourne by Jock Tomlinson in the early 1950s, and Leavis was more or less the sign under which the brilliant younger brigade of the department (Goldberg himself, Maggie Tomlinson, David Moody and Vincent Buckley) set about revamping its pedagogy. The purists, the ‘true believers’, of the group were Goldberg and the Tomlinsons, and it was they who carried most influence with the honours students. Buckley was a special case: he himself had written a book on Leavis, but would not call himself a Leavisite; his personal influence, in Irish and Catholic circles, extended well beyond the English department and has been well recorded.

Goldberg was the rising star in academic English in Australia at this time. This was his hey-day as a teacher, attested by Germaine Greer and others who gravitated to English Honours at Melbourne in the ’50s. From the start his teaching took in wider agendas: he set up a ‘Lit. Club’ for staff and students to discuss books and issues and it was from papers presented in that forum that a serious critical journal, The Melbourne Critical Review, was established. Despite the worrying repetition of the name of Leavis, early numbers of the journal reflected the liberal pluralism of the department of Ian Maxwell, and included critics as diverse as A.D. Hope, Leonie Kramer, Andrew Taylor and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Undergraduates, many like Wilbur Sanders and Ian Donaldson to go on to distinguished academic careers abroad, found space for their first publications in the Review, an astonishing fact in an otherwise strictly hierarchised Australian academy. Further, as the recalling of these names might indicate, English at Melbourne was by no means cut off from the literary community of the 1950s: the department housed, as it has right up to the present time, many a ‘creative writer’.

All this might suggest that one of the collective errors of judgment in those halcyon days was the abortive attempt to translate Australian Leavisism to Sydney, where for the Sydney natives it had all the appearance of a violent act of colonial appropriation. In Melbourne, Goldberg and the other Leavisites could live in a state of civilised friction within the greater department while achieving a high degree of hegemonic authority; in Sydney, they were greeted with a mistrust that quickly degenerated into collective paranoia. Besides, the overlooking of Wilkes for the Challis Professorship (the real Chair) while simultaneously appointing him to the newly-established Chair of Australian Literature laid the foundations for the struggle to the death that ensued.

When Gerry Wilkes, with the support of the Administration at Sydney, set up a rival course to the one Goldberg thought he had sole authority over, the move to split the department was defended in the name of pluralism, a corrective to the proselytising rigidities of Goldbergism. Once Goldberg had returned to Melbourne, less than four years after his arrival at Sydney, this pluralism was abandoned and a new/old monolithic course set in place. All traces of Goldberg’s values were expunged. Thus Andrew Riemer could finally settle down to enjoy his rightful inheritance, complete with a room in the old sandstone building that is the impressive quadrangle of Sydney University. Academic English at Sydney, to adopt Terry Eagleton’s favourite description of Oxford, would revert to a state of ‘pre-Leavisian’ innocence. But only as long as the world allowed, and the inhabitants of Sydney English could go on forgetting…

We, the class of 1964, were the meat in the sandwich. None of us attained First Class Honours, but a year or two later the first ranks of the Goldberg-educated were showered with them.

That could be interpreted as my being resentful, but the fact is Goldberg was a brilliant, if at times ruthless, tutor. My love of seventeenth century English poetry owes much to him. Then too there are memories of tutorial groups so stimulating that they would go hours over time! All this apart from my being the one male in a class of fourteen, with happy memories of my “harem” and I lying under trees in Centennial Park reading seventeenth century poetry to one another. (I have heard about Joy Phillips since, so if you read this, Joy, know that I remember, and also that you later taught my cousin, now a teacher.)

Michael Wilding, a prominent writer of short stories and former Reader in English at Sydney, tells a fascinating tale in Southerly (March 1999):

“So what do you want to teach?” Sam asked me.
I had no idea. I had just taken finals. It was all literature, all accessible, at least up to 1870 when the Oxford syllabus had ended.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I tried to be more specific. “Anything except Milton,” I said.
Milton had been a compulsory author in my first year, and compulsion rarely endears.
“That’s it then,” he said. “Milton it is. I don’t want some Miltonist teaching Milton.”
Perhaps I had expected to gain merit from my proposed exclusion. Milton was a particular bugbear of the Leavisites. Perhaps I had expected a complicit smirk at my correct taste, my gesture of avoidance. I had certainly not expected this new compulsion. Compulsion it was. I demurred. But I got nowhere…

Apart from Milton I chose, or agreed to the suggestion of, the novel course. That was why I had come to Sydney, after all, the path of the novelist. It would be sensible to learn something of the novelist’s art. And whereas the Oxford syllabus had ended in 1870, this course included the moderns: Conrad, James, Lawrence, Faulkner: what passed for the modern at that time, books too modern for Oxford, even if written some fifty years earlier. I was to teach it together with a lecturer Sam had inherited when he had taken over the department. Most of the lecturers he had inherited. He was trying to stock the place with new talent, Leavisites he had taught or taught with in Melbourne, or recent graduates with a seal of approval from Cambridge or, at a pinch, Oxford. But Bill Maidment, with whom I was to teach, was one of the old guard, the unreconstructed.
“I want you to keep an eye on Bill,” Sam said. “I’m not sure about him.”
I was twenty-one. I had never taught before. I felt uneasy about this instruction…

Bill Maidment will be #5 in my English teachers.


S L Goldberg’s last book (PDF)

Goldberg on King Lear (PDF)

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Posted by on October 31, 2007 in Australian, English studies, literary theory, my English teachers, reminiscences, Teachers Who Change Lives


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