’Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang’rouse is th’ offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
—Alexander Pope, in “An Essay on Criticism”
It had been a good many years since fortune had first brought us to enter the labyrinthine purlieus of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, and memories of our early experience of that event were not so redolent of pleasure—or, for that matter, of intelligence and enlightenment—that we had reason to feel a keen sense of regret over the many meetings we had missed in the interval. It was over thirty years ago, in fact, that our earliest encounters with this holiday-season jamboree of the country’s literary scholars and their apprentices took place, and our occasional return visits to the...