Keith Harrison

Book Reviewed: 
English Department of the Spirit

Keith Harrison 

Thanks for sending me a copy of The Department, a particularized history cum autobiography tied together with considerable wit.  For a long while I had trouble reading your words off my computer screen after spending many days putting mine on—and my Scottish heritage did not allow me to print your pages.  Finally, though, I got swept along.

This quasi-Platonic account, at once a scholarly rant of well-cited research and an implicit confession of life in academia, is not exactly a walk on the mild side. Your Eric Nichol-like comic take, which often goes beyond “detached empathy” to the scalpel-wielding of a merry vivisectionist, illuminates the Canadian English Department’s earnest fantasies and self-affirming politics as a way of side-stepping the void. But, in that regard, is it akin to life itself?

The book’s sustained lines of semi-caricature and self-deprecation mean that even a reader familiar with the terrain has a usefully detailed, hand-drawn map for traversing impenetrable thickets, crossing dull morasses, and not getting lost in some very opaque theoretical woods.  Frequently, there is an emergence into sunlit meadows, and, from semi-vistas, a startling glimpse of where the journey has taken him.

 The advocacy of increasing the workload of English profs seems like a moralistic, clinically cool, if not masochistic conclusion for someone whose elegiac pleasure in the labyrinthine workings of the Department is evident from the outset in the book’s warm dedication to colleagues and students.

Reviewer bio: 

Keith Harrison is the author of five novels, Eyemouth was a finalist for the QSPELL literary awaard and Furry Creek, a story about the murder BC poet, Pat Lowther, which was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Price. Harrison is a professor of English at the Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC.