In the fall of 1976 I was in my last year of grad school and two chapters away from a finished dissertation. After five years in gritty New Haven, I longed for a job near wild country, preferably out west and close to the mountains, ideally at a small liberal arts college, but failing that, even a big state university would do. In those days the job crunch was just coming on, and most universities offered little coaching or placement assistance beyond the requisite dossier file. Your degree was expected to open doors and speak for itself. We all anticipated a soft landing right down the middle of the tenure track.
In October the MLA Job List arrived with about a hundred positions in American or Comparative Lit, a third of them in tempting locations. I pulled out my Hermes manual typewriter and set to work. This was long before word processors, flash drives, or email. Each letter had to be composed and typed by hand, with a carbon copy for reference. Rereading those letters now, after thirty years on both sides of the desk, I’m struck by their wooden formality and self-conscious posturing, both natural and logical consequences of following the MLA’s bad advice: their template for job letters guaranteed that readers would learn as much about the candidate as they would from a dissertation abstract. But who knew? We did what we were told.
I typed and mailed thirty-five letters, then sat waiting for replies, as nervous as a teenager hovering by the phone two weeks before prom. A few places acknowledged my application, seven requested my dossier, and two invited me to interview at the MLA convention in New York. Two out of thirty-five seemed like pretty tough odds, but at least I was doing better than some of my colleagues.
I remember standing on the sidewalk outside the Hotel Americana in Manhattan, wondering what my first MLA convention would feel like. Inside were over two thousand English professors of every rank and station. When Dante envisioned Hell, he simply crowded like-minded people into small, overheated places where they all talk past one another and nobody listens. Such was the scene that I encountered inside. Senior professors, fat with privilege, sailed through the press of job- and tenure-seekers like forty-foot yachts riding a light chop. The rest of us, lean and hungry, ranged about looking for sessions or interviews.
I arrived for my first interview at noon and was promptly offered a drink. I noticed that the shades were drawn and the air smelled of whiskey. After fumbling through the preliminaries, my host asked how I would teach Henry James, something that neither the job ad nor my dossier had mentioned. It soon became clear that he had no idea who I was nor, indeed, what job he was trying to fill. At my second interview, two hours later, a team of eight professors sat in a semi-circle firing questions as if I were a duck in a shooting gallery. I must have held my own well enough, for they invited me to a departmental reception that evening, during which I was cornered by several grad students and regaled with horror stories about junior faculty life.
All in all, this hardly seemed like an auspicious start. Nevertheless, I returned to New Haven undeterred and modestly hopeful. After all, I had made the second cut and was still in the game. I might still be called for campus interviews. And both places were located in California, a stone’s throw from the glorious Sierra Nevada.