Most of the influences on our scholarship, teaching, or even departmental citizen-hood are obvious and spring readily to mind: we all have crucial professors from college or grad school, seminal books in our field, and sometimes coaches or bosses or mothers whom we credit, effusively, with shaping aspects of our work ethic or our teaching persona.
But I suspect most of us also have unacknowledged influences: people and works and ideas that spoke to us at one point in time or during one stage of our lives, but that seem crazily or only counterintuitively related to who we are and what we do now.
For me, the most important of those mostly-forgotten influences is Camille Paglia.
I hadn't realized this myself until SEK's posts on Paglia several weeks ago, which made me think, for the first time in any real depth, about the effect she had on me when I was in high school and college.
I was 16 when "Rape and Modern Sex War" was published in the Sunday opinion section of my hometown newspaper, which must have been within weeks of its first publication in New York Newsday in early 1991. I found it electrifying. I loved the way she wrote, and the personality that I perceived to be behind it: smart, aggressive, take-no-prisoners. I couldn't remember ever reading a woman who wrote like that.
When Sex, Art, and American Culture was published the next year, I bought it and read it straight through--even though I didn't understand a great deal of what she was writing about (I had no idea what the culture wars were, or most of what was at stake in them). I went to see her when she came to speak on my college campus in 1994 or 1995, and then bought her second collection of essays, Vamps and Tramps, when it came out around the same time. Somewhere I picked up a cheap hardback of Sexual Personae, and looked forward to the day when I felt I'd be able to understand it (I did finally read it over winter break of my junior year).
But then, around age 22, I stopped reading her. Partly it was that Paglia's moment had passed and partly it was that her writing, as SEK notes, became lazy to the point of embarrassment and self-parody. But mostly I stopped reading or paying attention to her because I had other and more relevant sources for whatever she'd once given me--and since I wasn't reading or rereading her as an adult, it took me a long time to realize that we were largely not on the same side when it came to the culture wars, or feminism, or very much, really.
Still, from ages 16 to 22, I loved her. Partly it was the intoxication of her prose style (and dudes, think about it: I now work on Milton's polemical prose), but it was also that I had never encountered anyone like her: a female public intellectual who wrote and spoke as freely about pop culture as about high culture. I had had smart female teachers, and I must have seen female experts or academics on television, but I'd never seen a woman whom I perceived to be intellectually serious who was also fierce and mouthy and colloquial, or who came from a family background that was outside the usual centers of intellectual power.
I don't know that I needed Camille Paglia to become the academic and the woman and the writer that I am today; other models would have come along, and they did. But I'm grateful to her all the same.
What are your unacknowledged influences?