The Best of Its Kind, Whatever the Kind

For most of PMLA’s readers and potential writers, the first port of call is the opening paragraph in the statement of editorial policy: “PMLA welcomes essays of interest to those concerned with the study of language and literature. … The ideal PMLA essay exemplifies the best of its kind, whatever the kind; addresses a significant problem; draws out clearly the implications of its findings; and engages the attention of its audience through a concise, readable presentation.” The introductory parts of the statement seem to elicit two reactions from readers and potential contributors. On the one hand, some assume that the mandate of PMLA is clear and categorical: the journal is about the study of language and literature. It is not unusual for those who are disenchanted with PMLA and its sponsoring organization, the MLA, to argue that the journal has strayed, like the proverbial mongrel, from its natural home in the house of language and literature. If PMLA is concerned with the study of language and literature, why does it publish articles drawn from film, cultural studies, and the new media? On the other hand, readers worried that PMLA is too wedded to older ideas about language and literature tend to call attention to the second part of the opening: the ideal essay exemplifies “the best of its kind, whatever the kind.” This part of the statement is seen as a signal that the journal has no a priori ideas about literature and language. But what is the best of its kind? What is the kind?

To answer these questions, I turned to the winners of the William Riley Parker Prize, which is awarded for the most outstanding article published in PMLA each year. An analysis of the prizewinners since 1964 provides many interesting points for conversation. I’ll call attention to five:

  • PMLA remains focused on questions of language and literature. While articles concerned with linguistics seem to have become fewer in the last two decades, the literary continues to be the touchstone for the journal. When it comes to literariness, broadly defined, little separates David J. DeLaura’s 1964 article on Arnold and Carlyle from Tobias Menely’s 2012 article on Cowper’s Task and climate change.
  • The assumption that PMLA was taken over by “theory jocks” in the 1980s is undoubtedly exaggerated. Theory may have become an important method in literary scholarship, and hence a significant mode of defining the best of its kind, but—with a few exceptions, such as Fredric Jameson’s article on “metacommentary” (1971)—the winning essays have been centered on authors and texts, even in the age when the death of the author was proclaimed.
  • The occasional grumbling that PMLA has abandoned canonical writers and older periods has been based on a misunderstanding of the relation of the old and the new. If literary studies made a cultural turn in the 1990s, one that put questions of nation, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality at the center, it is significant that these topics often entered PMLA through studies of older periods and canonical writers. Lawrence Lipking’s “The Genius of the Shore: Lycidas, Adamastor, and the Poetics of Nationalism” (1996) showed how debates about empire had always been at the beginnings of the canon of English literature.
  • PMLA has been a launching pad for some of the most transformative works in literary studies. Among the winners of the Parker prize are early works of leading literary scholars like René Girard (1965), Walter J. Ong (1975), and Claire Cavanagh (1994). The winners include essays that were to be resurrected as chapters in important works by Terry Castle (1985), Jahan Ramazani (1997), and Toral Jatin Gajarawala (2011).
  • PMLA’s anonymous review process provides equality of opportunity to contributors. In the pages of the journal, distinguished scholars and graduate students meet on a level playing field. The journal lifts its lantern for all scholars, ensuring that the best of its kind anywhere comes to light.

So the next time you wonder what PMLA does, just look at the list of the best of the “best of its kind.”