Christopher Ricks of Boston University is absolutely the cynosure of English literature this month. The New Yorker said his just-published American edition of T.S. Eliot's early unpublished poems -- "Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917" -- is simply the best book ever written about Eliot. This newspaper, two Sundays ago, referred to Ricks's "critical genius." Reviews of last fall's British edition of "Inventions" ranged from merely ecstatic to unconditionally worshipful.
"My introduction to the BU English department was rather unusual," Ricks recalled in a conversation earlier this winter. "Before classes had actually begun at BU," he recounted, "I was invited to give a lecture on Shakespeare, `King Lear,' as I remember, at a distinguished women's college in the area." (Diligent research has revealed that it was Wellesley College to which Ricks referred discreetly.) "The chap who was going to introduce me said that BU had a terrific English department. One of the reasons the faculty members were so terrific, he told me, was because they were `against Silber to a man.' " That is the all-inclusive humankind "man," as the women in the department were also anti-Silber.
Thus immigrates Ricks: personally indebted to Silber (and then-provost, now president, Jon Westling) for an American position, personally sympathetic to Silber's avowed distaste for modern English criticism of the feminist/lesbian, Marxist/Maoist, deconstructionist/ structuralist sort. Perhaps worst of all for future friendly relations, Ricks deplaned with British baggage, including a tendency to almost revel in verbal academic acrimony. "I sometimes think," Ricks said, "that there is a specific prejudice against English people in English departments."