The Decline and Fall of Literature

by ANDREW DELBANCO 
New York Times Book Review: November 4, 1999 

BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE 

In Plato's Cave 
by Alvin Kernan 
309 pages, $25.00 (hardcover) 
published by Yale University Press 

About Book Sales at The New York Review 

The Death of Literature 
by Alvin Kernan 
230 pages, $15.00 (paperback) 
published by Yale University Press 

Literature: An Embattled Profession 
by Carl Woodring 
220 pages, $29.50 (hardcover) 
published by Columbia University Press 

What's Happened to the Humanities? 
edited by Alvin Kernan 
267 pages, $29.95 (hardcover) 
published by Princeton University Press 

The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a
Discipline 
by Robert Scholes 
203 pages, $25.00 (hardcover) 
published by Yale University Press 

The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of
Literary Studies 
by Michael Bérubé 
259 pages, $17.95 (paperback) 
published by New York University Press 

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the
Humanities 
by John M. Ellis 
262 pages, $14.95 (paperback), $27.50 (hardcover) 
published by Yale University Press 

A couple of years ago, in an article explaining how
funds for faculty positions are allocated in American
universities, the provost of the University of California
at Berkeley offered some frank advice to department
chairs, whose job partly consists of lobbying for a
share of the budget. "On every campus," she wrote,
"there is one department whose name need only be
mentioned to make people laugh; you don't want that
department to be yours."1 The provost, Carol Christ
(who retains her faculty position as a literature
professor), does not name the offender--but everyone
knows that if you want to locate the laughingstock on
your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop
by the English department. 
The laughter, moreover, is not confined to campuses.
It has become a holiday ritual for The New York
Times to run a derisory article in deadpan Times style
about the annual convention of the Modern Language
Association, where thousands of English professors
assemble just before the new year. Lately it has
become impossible to say with confidence whether
such topics as "Eat Me; Captain Cook and the
Ingestion of the Other" or "The Semiotics of Sinatra"
are parodies of what goes on there or serious
presentations by credentialed scholars.2 

At one recent English lecture, the speaker discussed a
pornographic "performance artist" who, for a small
surcharge to the price of admission to her stage show,
distributes flashlights to anyone in the audience wishing
to give her a speculum exam. By looking down at the
mirror at just the right angle, she is able, she says, to
see her own cervix reflected in the pupil of the
beholder, and thereby (according to the lecturer) to
fulfill the old Romantic dream of eradicating the
distinction between perceiver and perceived. The
lecturer had a winning phrase--"the invaginated
eyeball"--for this accomplishment. During the
discussion that followed, a consensus emerged that, in
light of the optical trick, standard accounts (Erwin
Panofsky's was mentioned) of perspective as a
constitutive element in Western visual consciousness
need to be revised. 

As English departments have become places where
mass culture--movies, television, music videos, along
with advertising, cartoons, pornography, and
performance art--is studied side by side with literary
classics, it has not been easy for the old-style
department to adjust. The novelist Richard Russo
captures the mood of such a department trying to
come to terms with a (rather tame) new appointee
named Campbell Wheemer, who "wore what
remained of his thinning hair in a ponytail secured by a
rubber band," and who 

startled his colleagues by announcing at
the first department gathering of the year
that he had no interest in literature per
se. Feminist critical theory and
image-oriented culture were his
particular academic interests. He taped
television sitcoms and introduced them
into the curriculum in place of
phallocentric, symbol-oriented texts
(books). His students were not
permitted to write. Their semester
projects were to be done with video
cameras and handed in on cassette. In
department meetings, whenever a
masculine pronoun was used, Campbell
Wheemer corrected the speaker, saying,
"Or she."...Lately, everyone in the
department had come to refer to him as
Orshee.3


The only implausible note in this vignette is the
cordiality with which it ends. 



Bickering, backbiting, generational rift are not new,
but something else is new. Outside the university, one
hears a growing outcry of "Enough!" (it takes many
forms, including a number of Bad Writing contests, in
which English professors are routinely awarded top
prizes), while within the field, the current president of
the Modern Language Association, Edward Said, has
caused a stir by lamenting the "disappearance of
literature itself from the...curriculum" and denouncing
the "fragmented, jargonized subjects" that have
replaced it.4 

One can discern the new feeling in the titles of several
recent books whose tone is somewhere between a
coroner's report and an elegy. Alvin Kernan, formerly
provost at Yale and dean of the graduate school at
Princeton, and now senior adviser on the humanities
to the Mellon Foundation, initiated the in memoriam
theme with The Death of Literature (1990). More
recently, the theme appears in, among other books,
Literature Lost (1997), by John Ellis, a scholar of
German literature at the University of California at
Santa Cruz, The Rise and Fall of English (1998), by
Robert Scholes, a professor at Brown, and it is
reprised in Kernan's new book, a memoir of his fifty
years in the academy, In Plato's Cave.5 On the same
obituary note, a front-page story in the Times reported
a few months ago that the English Department at
Duke University--the "cutting-edge" department of
the Eighties--had collapsed into factions so bitter that
the dean placed it under the direction of a botanist
whose field of expertise is, appropriately, plant
respiration. 

What does it all mean? Should the teaching of English
be given a decent burial, or is there life in it yet? 


1.


Literature in English has been a respectable university
subject for barely a century. The scholar of Scottish
and English ballads Francis James Child was
appointed to the first chair in English at Harvard in
1876; the English honors degree was not established
at Oxford until 1894. Almost from the start there have
been periodic announcements from a distinguished 

roster of Jeremiahs that liberal education, with literary
studies at its core, is decadent or dying. In 1925, John
Jay Chapman looked at American higher education
and, finding Greek and Latin classics on the wane,
proclaimed "the disappearance of the educated man."
Some fifty years later, not long before he died, Lionel
Trilling gave a paper on "The Uncertain Future of the
Humanistic Educational Ideal"--a title that
understated the pessimism of the paper itself.6 

Yet during this half-century of putative decline, the
study of literature--measured by the attraction it held
for students and young faculty--was booming. During
the unprecedented expansion of American higher
education in the 1960s, in my own department at
Columbia, scores of candidates registered each year
for the MA degree, and many went on for the Ph.D.
Today, all this has changed. The number of Ph.D.s in
English awarded annually in the United States peaked
in the mid-1970s at nearly 1,400. Since then, the
number has dropped by almost one third--a trend
consistent with the contraction of the humanities
(literature, language, philosophy, music, and art) as a
whole, which fell as a percentage of all Ph.D.s from
13.8 percent to 9.1 percent between 1966 and 1993.
In the same period, the percentage represented by the
humanities of all BAs granted in the United States
dropped from 20.7 percent to 12.7 percent.7 

Even if one takes consumer appeal as a measure of
value (as Chapman and Trilling did not), student
attrition does not necessarily amount to an indictment
of the field for some intellectual failing. For one thing,
the decline in humanities students relative to other
fields reflects the fact that the postwar expansion took
place especially in the previously underemphasized
fields of science and technology. With increased
access to college for many students whose social and
economic circumstances would once have excluded
them, vocational fields such as business, economics,
engineering, and, most recently, computer
programming have also burgeoned. Moreover, as the
historian Lynn Hunt points out, the average age of
American undergraduates has risen sharply in recent
years, and older students tend to pursue subjects that
have practical value for finding a job. 
But it is also true that many "traditional" students (the
new term for those who used to be referred to as
"college age") are turning away from literature in
particular and from the humanities in general already in
high school. Among the millions who take the
Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), usually
given in the tenth grade, only 9 percent indicate
interest in the humanities. Even at so-called elite
institutions, humanities enrollments have leveled off or
fallen (at Harvard College, 25 percent of the
students--and only 15 percent of male
students--now concentrate in humanistic subjects).8
Many who once might have taken time for reading
and contemplation now tend to regard college, in
Trilling's prescient phrase, "as a process of
accreditation, with an economic/social end in view." It
is always dispiriting to find young people feeling they
have no time to "waste"; and even at Ivy League
schools, where financial aid, though imperiled, remains
relatively generous, it is common nowadays to hear
students say they must find a way to finish in three
years in order to limit their indebtedness and to get on
to "real work." 

There is a correlation, if not a clear sequence of cause
and effect, between the decline in student numbers
and the dwindling job market for new professors of
literature and other humanistic subjects. Since science
and other competing fields now command a much
greater share of university resources than they once
did, humanities professors who earned their degrees
during the expansion of the 1960s are not being
replaced at the same pace at which they are retiring.
Therefore, at a time when the United States has
historically low unemployment rates, "the ratio of
dignified academic jobs to the number of doctoral
graduates" in the humanities, according to Robert
Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson
Foundation and formerly chair of the English
department at the University of Michigan, "is perhaps
one to three even when we count optimistically." 

One reflection of what Kernan calls the
"catastrophically depressed" job market was the
recent graduate student strike at Yale over wages and
benefits (in which humanities students played a large
part). Administrators and senior faculty tend to regard
the teaching duties of graduate students as part of their apprenticeship for
the career for which they are being trained. But
students facing a dead end at the conclusion of their
studies may reasonably regard their duties as
exploitation by a university that gets high-quality labor
from them at low cost, only to replace them with a
new supply of temporary workers in the persons of
the next crop of Ph.D. candidates.9 

While in the last ten years or so, the number of English
Ph.D.s has remained relatively constant or even risen
slightly, some English departments (including Yale's)
have responded conscientiously to the employment
crisis by reducing the number of incoming candidates
for the Ph.D. to as few as ten--which then creates a
shortage of teachers to staff composition and
introductory courses. Completing the circle, the
shortfall is made up by hiring, at minimal wages and
with no benefits at all, part-time faculty drawn from
the growing pool of unemployed Ph.D.s who were
"apprentices" just a few years before. 

These unsustainable trends tell us nothing about what
actually goes on in the classroom, where, if there is a
certain amount of gynecology-as-epistemology
nonsense, there is still plenty of intelligence and
passion on the part of both full-time and part-time
faculty. But these developments do help to explain the
fractious mood of the contemporary English
department. Literature is a field whose constituency
and resources are shrinking while its subject is
expanding. Even as English loses what
budget-conscious deans like to call "market share," it
has become routine to find notices in the department
advertising lectures on such topics as the evolution of
Batman from comic-book crusader to camp TV star
to macho movie hero alongside posters for a
Shakespeare conference. 

This turn to "cultural studies," which has not been
much deterred by any fear of trivialization or
dilettantism, means that English studies now venture
with callow confidence into the interpretation of visual,
legal, and even scientific "texts."10 As the young critic
Michael Bérubé reports, "English has become an
intellectual locus where people can study the text of
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from a Christian
perspective, the text of the O.J. trial from a
Foucauldian perspective, and the text of the Treaty of
Versailles from a Marxist perspective." 
Even conservative departments are beginning to take
account--belatedly--of the global literature of
decolonization, which followed the Second World
War. As a subject for study English now properly
comprises more than the literature of England, the
United States, Canada, and Australia. Authors from the
Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, and South Africa
now fall under the purview of faculty already
hard-pressed to staff courses on Milton, Spenser, or
Donne. Establishing a curriculum has become an
exercise in triage by which some writers can be saved
only if others are sacrificed--one reason why each new
appoint-ment promised by the provost or dean
provokes a fight among the beneficiaries. 

What is at stake in these squabbles? For one thing, a
college education has become very expensive--about
$140,000 for four years at a first-rank private
university. And since a rise in purchase price tends to
raise consumers' demand for some testimony to the
worth of what they are buying, old questions are being
asked on and off campus with new urgency. Does an
English BA still have value? What does it matter if the
action shifts to cultural studies and English becomes, as
Harold Bloom (among others) sorrowfully predicts, a
minor department harboring a few aesthetes who like
to read what Scholes calls "a foreign literature [written]
in a (relatively) familiar language"? 

One response to such questions has always been a
calculated insouciance. The academy, some say, has
never mattered much to the fate of literature, and
literature may even be endangered when professors get
their hands on it. This idea has a good pedigree ("We
see literature best from the midst of wild nature,"
Emerson wrote in his essay "Circles," "or from the din
of affairs") but today this would be a glib answer, and
an anachronistic one, in view of what Kernan calls "the
waning of book culture" even within the university. 

Kernan's work is an elegy for the "single figure, sitting
alone, silently reading to himself or herself." He takes
no comfort from the reading groups and chain-store
coffee bars that are giving old books new life--many of
whose members and patrons seem to be adults whose
taste in reading was stimulated in college at least a
generation ago. And he overlooks the 


sales boost that follows every TV or movie "remake" of
a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Dickens or
James. (It is a conspicuous irony that while English
departments turn toward popular culture, popular
culture is turning toward classic writers.) But he is
fundamentally right that fewer of today's booted-up,
logged-in, on-line college students are having an igniting
experience with books. And professors of English have
never done a poorer job than they are doing now at
answering the question, "So what?" 


2.

An answer that leads back, I believe, to the core of a
literary education is to be found in an entry Emerson
made in his journal 165 years ago. "The whole secret
of the teacher's force," he wrote, "lies in the conviction
that men are convertible. And they are. They want
awakening." Having left the ministry two years before,
Emerson was still in the process of transforming himself
from a preacher into a lecturer, and of altering the form
of his writing from the sermon to the essay. But his
motive for speaking and writing had not changed with
the shedding of his frock. Like every great teacher, he
was in the business of trying to "get the soul out of bed,
out of her deep habitual sleep." 

None of us who has ever been a student can fail to
read this passage without remembering some teacher
by whom we were startled out of complacency about
our own ignorance. For this to take place, the student
must be open to it, and the teacher must overcome the
incremental fatigue of repetitive work and somehow
remain a professor in the religious sense of that
word--ardent, exemplary, even fanatic. 

Literary studies, in fact, have their roots in religion.
Trilling understood this when he remarked, in his
gloomy essay about the future of the humanities, that
"the educated person" had traditionally been conceived
as 

an initiate who began as a postulant,
passed to a higher level of experience,
and became worthy of admission into the
company of those who are thought to
have transcended the mental darkness
and inertia in which they were previously
immersed.


Such a view of education as illumination and
deliverance following what Trilling called "exigent
experience" is entirely Emersonian.11 It has little to do
with the positivist idea of education to which the
modern research university is chiefly
devoted--learning "how to extend, even by minute
accretions, the realm of knowledge."12 This corporate
notion of knowledge as a growing sum of discoveries
no longer in need of rediscovery once they are
recorded, and transmittable to those whose ambition it
is to add to them, is a great achievement of our
civilization. But except in a very limited sense, it is not
the kind of knowledge that is at stake in a literary
education. 



Those who brought English literature into the
university late in the nineteenth century knew this. And
lest they forget, colleagues in established fields were
glad to remind them--as did the Regius Professor of
Modern History at Oxford, in a broadside published
in 1887 in the London Times: 

There are many things fit for a man's
personal study, which are not fit for
University examinations. One of these is
"literature."...[We are told] that it
"cultivates the taste, educates the
sympathies, enlarges the mind." Excellent
results against which no one has a word
to say. Only we cannot examine in tastes
and sympathies.

English, in other words, amounted to nothing more
than "chatter about Shelley." 

One way some English professors defended
themselves against this sort of attack was to stick to
the business of establishing dates, allusions, and the
historically contingent meanings of words--the sort of
foundational work that had previously been done for
the Greek and Roman classics. In the stringent form of
philology, this was the tactic by which English teachers
managed to make room for themselves in the
university in the first place--though the status of
philology as empirical knowledge was never entirely
secure. Kernan tells how, as a student at Oxford after
the war, he was trying without much success to master
the history of the English language until his tutor took
pity on him and advised, "When you hit a word in a
text that you cannot identify, simply correlate it with
some modern word that it sounds like and then invent
a bridge between them. Most of the examiners will be
suspicious, but may consider, so imprecise is linguistic
science, your little word history an interesting
possibility." 

Since then, literary "science" has yielded many genuine
discoveries. Biographical scholars have uncovered
salient facts about authors' lives; textual scholars have
hunted down corruptions introduced by copyists,
printers, or intrusive editors into what authors
originally wrote. But for most students, especially
undergraduates, the appeal of English has never had
much to do with its scholarly objectives. Students who
turn with real engagement to English do so almost
always because they have had the mysterious and
irreducibly private experience--or at least some
intimation of it--of receiving from a work of literature
"an untranslatable order of impressions" that has led to
"consummate moments" in which thought and feeling
are fused and lifted to a new intensity. These ecstatic
phrases describing aesthetic experience come from
Walter Pater, who was writing in Oxford in the
1870s--at just that "point of English history," as T.S.
Eliot put it, marked by "the repudiation of revealed
religion by men of culture." This was also the moment
when English first entered the university as a subject of
formal study. 



The idea that reading can be a revelatory experience
stretches back in its specifically Christian form at least
to Saint Augustine, who wrote of being "dissociated
from myself"13 until he heard a child's voice beckoning
him to open the Gospels, "repeating over and over,
'Pick up and read, pick up and read.'" 

A millennium and a half later, Matthew Arnold wrote
in the same spirit when he defined culture (in a phrase
that has often been misconstrued and
misappropriated) as the "pursuit of total perfection by
means of getting to know...the best which has been
thought and said in the world, and through this
knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought
upon our stock notions and habits." For Augustine,
"the best which has been thought and said" was to be
found exclusively in scripture; for Arnold, it was more
various--scattered throughout all works capable of
leading readers beyond the "bounded intellectual
horizon within which we have long lived." 
13 This is Henry
Chadwick's recent
translation of
Augustine's phrase
"Ideo... dissipabar a
me ipso." (back) 



Like any religion that has been codified and
institutionalized, this "religion of culture" (as Arnold's
detractors called it) has been susceptible to
deformations--proselytizing the impressionable young,
degenerating into idolatry, clinging to rituals long after
the spirit from which they originally arose is attenuated
or gone. Yet something like faith in the transforming
power of literature is surely requisite for the teacher
who would teach with passion and conviction. It is a
faith expressed uncommonly well by Emerson some
thirty years before Arnold: 

Literature is a point outside of our
hodiernal [present-day] circle through
which a new one may be described. The
use of literature is to afford us a platform
whence we may command a view of our
present life, a purchase by which we may
move it.

This large assertion links aesthetic response with moral
(or what Kernan prefers to call "existential")
knowledge, and even with the imperative to take
reformist action in the world. For Arnold, culture had
nothing to do with the motive "to plume" oneself with "a
smattering of Greek and Latin," or to wear one's
education as a "badge" of "social distinction." To
acquire culture was, instead, to become aware of the
past and restless with complacencies of the present,
and to be stirred by the "aspiration to leave the world
better and happier than we found it." As long as
teachers of literature acknowledged their responsibility
for transmitting culture in this sense, they held a
dignified position in the university. In fact, since the
decline of classics and theology, and the takeover of
philosophy departments by technical analytic
philosophers, they have stood, along with those
historians who continue to practice narrative and
cultural history in the grand nineteenth-century style, as
the last caretakers of the Arnoldian tradition. 

Today, when students are more and more focused, as
Scholes puts it, on acquiring "technological truth in the
form of engineering, computer science, biotechnology,
and applications of physics and chemistry," the
university's obligation is surely larger than ever to see
that students encounter works of literature in which the
human "truths" they bring with them to college are
questioned and tested. There is no inviolable reason 




why this sort of education must proceed chiefly in the
English department; and to some extent it has already
migrated at some institutions into "core curricula" where
the Jewish and Christian Bibles and Greek and Roman
classics are read in translation (inevitably at some loss),
along with later works of philosophy and history. But
for the foreseeable future, the English department will
remain a main source and training ground for most
college teachers of literature, and the condition of the
English department is a pretty reliable measure of the
state of liberal education in general. 




Kernan gives a moving account of how he taught
Aeschylus' Oresteia (in Richmond Lattimore's
translation) in a "Great Books" course at Yale--with a
teaching method that runs close to the pulpit technique
of "opening" the text and that accords with Arnold's
idea of what culture should mean: 

I analyzed the trilogy in a formalist
manner, mainly following a scenic and
imagery pattern in which again and again
light and hope flare up, only to expire in
darkness and despair, and then to be relit
once more. A play that begins in darkness
lit by the small, distant fire announcing the
fall of Troy ends at last in the full blaze of
noon of the Athenian theater and the
Athenian court. I did not hesitate to point
out to the students that the struggle for
justice that is Aeschylus's subject is still
played out every day in our courts, where
rational laws free murderers because
there is a shred of reasonable doubt, and
the families of the murdered cry out and
demand what we have come to call
"victim's rights." This, I told them, or most
often tried to extract from them in
discussion, without apology for
connecting literature with life, is where the
real power of great literature lies, in its
ability to portray feelingly and
convincingly critical human concerns in
terms that do not scant its full human
reality and its desperate importance to our
lives. All the aesthetic formalist aspects of
the play--Aeschylus's extraordinarily
tangled language, the profusion of
imagery, the repetitive hope-failure
pattern of the plot, the intense and
brooding characters--were, in my
opinion, ultimately in the service of the
play's presentation of the human need for
full justice and explanation of why it is so
difficult to achieve. I was not arguing that
the play has a "message," that it carries
some social



argument for a better court system;
rather, it offers a universal description of
where we humans live always in relation
to justice. This is, I suppose, a view of
the purpose of art that would most
readily be called "moral," and I would
not repudiate the term entirely, but I
think that "existential" would be a far
better term, for "moral" carries with it the
suggestion of some rigid prescription, of
a limited and coercive point of view,
which is not the way great literature
works.

This way of teaching may strike the resolute historical
scholar as too "presentist," and the present-minded
theorist as too "universalist." But these objections will
never vitiate the gratitude of a student who has been
touched by such a teacher. 

The sad news is that teachers of literature have lost
faith in their subject and in themselves. "We are in
trouble," as Scholes puts it, "precisely because we
have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that we
cannot make truth claims but must go on 'professing'
just the same." But what kind of dubious "truth-claims"
does literature make? Literature does not embody, as
both outraged conservatives and radical debunkers
would have it, putatively eternal values that its
professors are sworn to defend. It does not transmit
moral certainty so much as record moral conflict. Its
only unchanging "truth-claim" is that experience
demands self-questioning. 

"Literature," as Carl Woodring puts it with typical
understatement, "is useful for a skeptical conduct of
life." If the English department becomes permanently
marginal, students will have been cheated and the
university left without a moral center. This is why the
state of literary studies is a problem not just for
literature professors, but for everyone.14 


3.


One irony in the marginalizing of English studies is that
they enjoyed their greatest prestige in the secular
academy when they held most closely to the tradition
of scriptural exegesis from which they derive. In the
immediate postwar decades, when English
departments were flourishing, intellectual energy was
concentrated in something called the New
Criticism--a reductive term often taken today to
designate a narrow formalism and stipulative method.
In fact, many who accepted the rubric 
were engaged in a broad resistance to what one of their
leaders, Cleanth Brooks, called the "quixotic desire" of
humanists "to be objective and 'scientific.'" The New
Criticism was still, and unashamedly, driven by an
essentially religious impulse--as expressed in the
quasi-theological title of Brooks's notable essay "The
Heresy of Paraphrase," which argued that trying to
distill "'a prose-sense' of a poem" as if one could build
"a rack on which the stuff of the poem is hung" amounts
to a kind of blasphemy. As his Yale colleague W.K.
Wimsatt explained in another famous essay, "The
Intentional Fallacy," the poet--the mind behind the
creation--remains an inscrutable creator whose
intention can never be fully known, but in whose
handiwork one may glimpse something of the sublime
idea to which the poem gives form. 

At the height of the New Criticism in the 1940s and
1950s, some of its most respected practitioners taught
in small colleges, and even those in the research
universities, such as Reuben Brower at Harvard (to
which he had come from Amherst), were primarily
undergraduate teachers. Under their spell, the
classroom became something like a Quaker meeting,
not so much a place of compulsory recitation as of
open invitation for students to contribute toward the
goal of building, collectively, new insights into the work
under discussion. 

Ultimately, the New Criticism was a mood more than a
methodology. And it was, not incidentally, the last time
that practicing poets--T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert
Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and, later,
Richard Wilbur, among others--had a significant
impact on academic criticism. Pater's belief that "lyrical
poetry...is...the highest and most complete form of
poetry" had been transmitted by Eliot to the New
Critics, who regarded a work of literature--which they
described in language close to that with which
Augustine had described creation itself--as "a pattern
of resolutions and balances and harmonizations,
developed through a temporal scheme." 

Contemplating these patterns and harmonies under the
guidance of a good teacher could (and can) be a
wonderfully vertiginous experience. But in
acknowledging what every true writer knows--that
words are never quite governable by the will of the
author--the New Critics were planting seeds of future
trouble for English studies. Paul deMan, who introduced
the deconstructionist theory ofJacques Derrida to American
readers after the NewCriticism had become a received
orthodoxy, detectedin the New Critics a "foreknowledge"
of what he called, borrowing a phrase from the Swiss critic
Georges Poulet, "hermeneutic circularity." 

There is a hint of what he meant in Kernan's charming
story about a retirement party for one of the elder Yale
eminences he had known only slightly during his
graduate years. "You were never my student, I
believe," said the older man. "No," Kernan concurred,
to which came back the indecipherable reply, "A pity."
Was there a compliment in that answer? Or was it a
dig? How could one know if either was intended? A
pity for whom--teacher or student? 

Writers and good critics have always reveled in
language play; but in the 1970s academic criticism got
terribly solemn about it. Suddenly, the professor's "a
pity" was no longer a joke; it had become a
"multivalent," "indeterminate," and "undecidable"
"speech act" construed differently by different
"interpretive communities," all of which was evidence
that the "referentiality" of language to anything outside
itself is an illusion, and that sequences of words to
which we assign meaning are actually "gaps" filled by
the "subjectivity" of the reader. Captain Ahab's second
mate on the Pequod, Mr. Stubb, had pretty much
summed it up a long time before: "Book!...you'll do to
give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to
supply the thoughts." 



Deconstruction fit the darkening mood of the Seventies,
when all claims to timeless or universal truth became
suspect as self-serving deceptions perpetrated by
wielders of power. It was an effort, as we used to say,
to heighten the contradictions and raise them to the
level of consciousness. Along with its offshoot,
"reader-response" criticism, it was a mischievously
extreme skepticism that regarded all meanings and
judgments as contingent on the "subject-position" of the
reader. Deconstructionists rejected the idea that a
work of the imagination manifests any "presence" (a
rubric under which they gathered such notions as
meaning, beauty, and authorship), and, with the atheist
zeal of erstwhile believers, they substituted terms like
"aporia" and "absence." 


One of the implications was that literature was no more
or less worthy of study than any other semiotic system;
fashion, gestures, sports could now serve as a "text" for
the game of interpretation. But this view soon lost its
playfulness, and turned into the dogma that literature,
like any constructed system of meaning, must be
assessed in relation to this or that "identity" (race, class,
gender, etc.) to the exclusion of every other point of
view. Here began in earnest the fragmentation of
literary studies that is so evident today--and that has
left a legacy of acrimony, and of intellectual and
professional fatigue. 

Deconstruction can also be seen as simply another
phase in the continuing effort by literary studies to get
respect from "hard" disciplines by deploying a
specialized vocabulary of its own. Long before its rise,
in an essay entitled "The Meaning of a Literary Idea"
(1949), Trilling had remarked that "people will
eventually be unable to say, 'They fell in love and
married,' let alone understand the language of Romeo
and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, 'Their
libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their
individual erotic drives and integrated them within the
same frame of reference.'" Trilling's parody of the
Freud fad of his day was intended to illustrate how
"ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology," and by
ideology he meant 

the habit or ritual of showing respect for
certain formulas to which, for various
reasons having to do with emotional
safety, we have very strong ties of whose
meaning and consequences in actuality we
have no clear understanding.

Today's rendition, to which the requisite dash of
Gramsci and sprinkle of Foucault (among the biggest
post-deconstruction influences on literary studies) are
added, would go something like this: "Privileging each
other as objects of heterosexual desire, they signified
their withdrawal from the sexual marketplace by
valorizing the marital contract as an instrument of
bourgeois hegemony." Who knows what tomorrow will
bring? 

In view of the French provenance of much recent
literary theory, one might simply say of English studies,
plus ca change..., and leave it at that. There is much to
be said against indulging in golden-ageism whereby the
acerbities and absurdities of the past disappear into the
glow 

of nostalgia. Carl Woodring is particularly good at
documenting how the old guard has always moaned
that literary studies are going to hell. And Kernan,
whose memoir revisits old Yale quarrels that still
rankle after forty years, devotes pages to settling old
scores, and to ungenerous portraits of rivals living and
dead. Yet they are both right to claim that literary
studies are riven today more deeply than ever before,
and that they have fallen into the grip of a peculiarly
repellent jargon--repellent in the literal sense of
pushing readers away. The question remains, Why has
this happened? Was there some singular force behind
the multiple events that Scholes sums up as the "fall of
English"? 


4.


In Literature Lost, the shrillest of recent books on the
crisis, John Ellis blames the whole mess on the
dynamics of professionalization--on, that is, the
pressure to publish something, anything, that is novel
or startling or upon which a reputation can be built.
The publish-or-perish desperation has only increased
as the readership for what is published declines.15
"This is rather like the Irish elk syndrome," Ellis says,
by which "competition for dominance within the
species led to the evolution of ever larger antlers, but
the larger antlers caused the species as a whole to
become dysfunctional and dragged it down." 

The analogy has a certain force, but it encourages too
internal a view of the situation. In fact, universities had
little control--perhaps institutions never have
much--over what was happening around and to them
in the tumultuous years between, say, the publication
of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and
the appearance of de Man's Blindness and Insight
(1971). The surge in student enrollments reflected the
size and prosperity of a new generation (today's
tenured faculty) that had grown up in the blue glow of
television, which, in a fierce chapter, Kernan calls "the
technological actualization of Plato's cave, a mass
medium controlled by advertising and playing
therefore to a mass market, throwing on the screen
almost totally false images of the world." The Pill
turned sexual prudence into prudery. Postwar
promises of technological utopia (labor-saving
machines would liberate people for untrammeled
creativity and leisure) turned into intimations of
dystopia (Strontium 90, Thalidomide, the Bomb). The new political
engagement, inspired by the civil rights movement and a
terrible war, collapsed into cynical indifference after a
series of assassinations--and, it should be said, after
the threat of the draft was lifted. 

The best we usually manage in trying to grasp even a
few of these profound changes is to lump them together
under the term "the Sixties." Perhaps one might venture
the generalization that the two great themes of the time
were retreat from the wicked world into pastoral
pleasures and distrust of all claims of truth as ruses
performed on behalf of power. Inside the academy, the
first theme (they were roughly sequential) found
prophetic expression in a best-selling book by Norman
O. Brown, Life Against Death (1959), which called
half-whimsically for a culture free of repression, and the
second expressed itself, rather grimly, in what came to
be known as the "hermeneutics of suspicion." 



Much of what happened in "the Sixties" was salutary.
Critics became more alert--though not more so than
pioneer scholars such as William Charvat and Ian Watt
had been in the 1950s--to how writers, especially
novelists, could be understood as producers of
consumer commodities. The question of literary
reputation (the much-fought-over "canon") was forced
open in a healthy way. Criticism took on new
excitement as the critic's debilitating worry about being
a literary parasite was swept away in a surge of
confidence--or of self-love, depending on how you
looked at it. And perhaps most important, the
Arnoldian idea of culture, which had become something
of an academic piety, was challenged by a
more-or-less Marxian idea of culture as false
consciousness--as a constellation of unexamined
assumptions, attitudes, institutions, that has the power
to suppress one's awareness of one's "true" condition.
Culture began to be understood as a force that can limit
the imagination as well as enlarge it. 

All this took place against the background of a
booming economy (driven, in an often overlooked
irony, by cold war military spending) that expanded
university faculties, and, since compulsory retirement
was still in force, made them younger. Even at places
like Yale, the students whom this renovated faculty
taught were no longer exclusively white, male, and 
prosperous. Until passage of the GI Bill (which had
enabled Kernan to go to Williams in the Forties), Ivy
League and other established Eastern colleges had
been essentially finishing schools for children with old
money; but now, applicants from public schools
competed with candidates from the prep or "feeder"
schools, the number of minority students began to rise,
and the percentage of women in historically male
institutions (Yale first admitted women in 1969)
quickly reached 50 percent. 

And so the relation between students and teachers
had to change. The Yale at which Kernan first taught
in 1954 had been a training ground for future "old
boys," where students regarded professors as
"servants hired by their fathers at low wages to give
them culture" and professors returned the sentiment
with the condescension of the intelligentsia for the
leisured class. Fifteen or twenty years later, professors
no longer barked or glared, and were less inclined to
try (it could never have been easy) to make their
students feel unworthy before the literary treasures
they were offering them.16 



The process of changing the assump-tions of literary
studies began in the late 1950s under the name
"structuralism"--a technique by which culture was
analyzed as a collection of codes and rituals denoting
tribal boundaries that protect against transgression by
a threatening "other." Words like "high" and "low"
(along with other evaluative terms such as "primitive"
and "advanced," or "savage" and "civilized") acquired
obligatory quotation marks, and literature, in effect,
became a branch of anthropology.17 By the 1970s,
leading figures in literary studies were calling into
question even the residual aspiration to positive
knowledge that structuralism expressed. "A literary
text," de Man wrote in 1970, is so dependent on
changing interpretation that it "is not a phenomenal
event that can be granted any form of positive
existence, whether as a fact of nature or as an act of
the mind." Nor could literature any longer be
understood, on the model of religion, as a body of
inspired writings with discernible meanings. "It leads,"
de Man declared, "to no transcendental perception,
intuition, or knowledge...." The very
subject--literature--that gave the English department
its claim on the university was now revealed to be a
mystifying name assigned to texts so designated by
those with the power to impose their tastes on
impressionable readers. 

Under these "postmodern" conditions, what was left for
English professors to believe and do? The point of
writing and teaching was now less to illuminate literary
works than to mount a performance in which the critic,
not the instigating work, was the main player. The idea
of rightness or wrongness in any reading ("there is no
room," de Man wrote, "for...notions of accuracy and
identity in the shifting world of interpretation") was
rendered incoherent. 

Yet even as English departments absorbed and
institutionalized the so-called counterculture in the
forms of structuralism, deconstruction, and their various
descendants, they lost none of their eagerness for their
subject to be recognized as a mainstream discipline in
universities driven by the quest for new, empirically
testable, knowledge. The result has been a growing
contradiction between the evaluative mechanisms of the
modern university (peer review of research proposals,
assessment of the impact of research results) and the
increasingly subjective, personal, even confessional
writing that has become a standard part of "scholarly"
discourse in literary studies. 



English has become, as Louis Menand says (following
a suggestion from David Bromwich) in What's
Happened to the Humanities?, "'hard' and ironic at the
same time," emphasizing "theoretical rigor and
simultaneously debunk[ing] all claims to objective
knowledge"--an inner conflict that has proven costly to
its standing in the modern university. It will never be
able to submit its hypotheses to the scientific test of
replicable results, and it can never be evaluated
according to some ratio between the cost of the service
it provides and the market value of its results. It has
reached a point of diminishing returns in proportion to
the scale of its operation: the texts of the major writers
have been established; the facts of their biographies are
mostly known. And while old works will always attract
new interpretations from new readers, and the canon
will continue to expand with the discovery of
overlooked writers--a process that has accelerated
enormously over the last twenty-five years with the
entrance into the profession of women and
minorities--the growth of English departments at
anything like its former pace cannot be justified on the
grounds that literary "research" continues to produce
invaluable new knowledge. 

Yet even as they lose respect in-side universities,
English departments are still refurbishing themselves as
factories of theories and subfields. All of
these--feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial
studies, the New Historicism (which acquired its name
when Stephen Greenblatt used a phrase that proved
infectious, but that he never intended as a big claim for
novelty), and, most recently, "eco-criticism"--are
yielding some work that illuminates aspects of
literature to which previous critics had been closed
and that merits the Arnoldian description, "fresh and
free thought." But much of the new theory is
tendentious or obscure, and the imperative to make
one's mark as a theoretical innovator has created what
John Guillory calls a "feedback loop": "The more time
devoted...to...graduate teaching or research, the more
competition for the rewards of promotion and
tenure... [and] the more pressure to withdraw from
labor-intensive lower-division teaching."18 Despite the
job shortage, the prestige of graduate teaching rises at
the expense of undergraduate teaching, and English
departments thereby cut themselves off from the best
reason for their continued existence: eager
undergraduate readers. 

That the English department is a weak force in the
politics of the university is nothing new. It will
probably survive, if only because it still provides the
service of teaching expository writing to
undergraduates.19 A more serious threat comes from
outside. This threat stands in the background of all
these books (only Kernan brings it forward), and,
now that all the shouting about the culture wars seems
to be dying down, it takes the form, beyond the walls
of the self-absorbed academy, of earned indifference.
Disputes that once seemed vitally important have
settled into a family quarrel about which no one
outside the household any longer cares. 

Meanwhile, inside, the bickering goes on. When
Kernan complains, for instance, about "the violence
and even hatred with which the old literature was
deconstructed by those who earn their living teaching
and writing about it," younger critics reject the charge
as slander--as does Bérubé, who begins his book
with the remarkable protestation, "I love literature. I
really do." Woodring describes the situation as "a 

Yet even as they lose respect in-side universities,
English departments are still refurbishing themselves as
factories of theories and subfields. All of
these--feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial
studies, the New Historicism (which acquired its name
when Stephen Greenblatt used a phrase that proved
infectious, but that he never intended as a big claim for
novelty), and, most recently, "eco-criticism"--are
yielding some work that illuminates aspects of
literature to which previous critics had been closed
and that merits the Arnoldian description, "fresh and
free thought." But much of the new theory is
tendentious or obscure, and the imperative to make
one's mark as a theoretical innovator has created what
John Guillory calls a "feedback loop": "The more time
devoted...to...graduate teaching or research, the more
competition for the rewards of promotion and
tenure... [and] the more pressure to withdraw from
labor-intensive lower-division teaching."18 Despite the
job shortage, the prestige of graduate teaching rises at
the expense of undergraduate teaching, and English
departments thereby cut themselves off from the best
reason for their continued existence: eager
undergraduate readers. 

That the English department is a weak force in the
politics of the university is nothing new. It will
probably survive, if only because it still provides the
service of teaching expository writing to
undergraduates.19 A more serious threat comes from
outside. This threat stands in the background of all
these books (only Kernan brings it forward), and,
now that all the shouting about the culture wars seems
to be dying down, it takes the form, beyond the walls
of the self-absorbed academy, of earned indifference.
Disputes that once seemed vitally important have
settled into a family quarrel about which no one
outside the household any longer cares. 

Meanwhile, inside, the bickering goes on. When
Kernan complains, for instance, about "the violence
and even hatred with which the old literature was
deconstructed by those who earn their living teaching
and writing about it," younger critics reject the charge
as slander--as does Bérubé, who begins his book
with the remarkable protestation, "I love literature. I
really do." Woodring describes the situation as "a 

seriocomic scenario in which sodden firefighters spray
water on each other while the house burns down." If
the humanities are in danger of becoming a sideshow in
the university, it is we the humanists who, more than
demographic changes or the general cultural shift
toward science, are endangering ourselves. 


5.


The field of English has become, to use a term given
currency twenty-five years ago by the redoubtable
Stanley Fish, a "self-consuming artifact." On the one
hand, it has lost the capacity to put forward persuasive
judgments; on the other hand, it is stuffed with dogma
and dogmatists. It has paid overdue attention to
minority writers, but, as Lynn Hunt notes in her essay in
What's Happened to the Humanities?, it (along with
the humanities in general) has failed to attract many
minority students. It regards the idea of progress as a
pernicious myth, but never have there been so many
critics so sure that they represent so much progress
over their predecessors. It distrusts science, but it
yearns to be scientific--as attested by the notorious
recent "Sokal hoax," in which a physicist submitted a
deliberately fraudulent article full of pseudoscientific
gibberish to a leading cultural-studies journal, which
promptly published it. It denounces the mass media for
pandering to the public with pitches and slogans, but it
cannot get enough of mass culture. The louder it cries
about the high political stakes in its own squabbles, the
less connection it maintains to anything resembling real
politics. And by failing to promote literature as a means
by which students may become aware of their
unexamined assumptions and glimpse worlds different
from their own, the self-consciously radical English
department has become a force for conservatism. 

English, in short, has come to reflect some of the worst
aspects of our culture: obsessing about sex, posturing
about real social inequities while leaving them
unredressed, and participating with gusto in the
love/hate cult of celebrities. (At the conventions these
days, resentment is palpable, as celebrities hold forth
before colleagues frightened about their chances of
getting a job or keeping the one they have.) English
today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion
in its late phase--a certain desperation to attract
converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced
belief in its own scriptures and traditions. 

In what is perhaps the largest irony of all, the teaching
of English has been penetrated, even saturated, by the
market mentality it decries. The theory factory
(yesterday's theory is deficient, today's is new and
improved) has become expert in planned
obsolescence. And though English departments are
losing the competition for students, they have not
resisted the consumerism of the contemporary
university, where student-satisfaction surveys drive
grade inflation (it is the rare student whose satisfaction
is immune to a low grade), and the high enrollments on
which departments depend for lobbying power with
the administration can sometimes be propped up by
turning education into entertainment. 

Forty-three years ago, the great intellectual historian
Perry Miller wrote, in his characteristically
self-dramatizing way, that he "tremble[d] for the future
of our civilization when the methods of Madison
Avenue penetrate the scholar's sanctuary."20 Anyone
who has read a David Lodge novel knows that the
scholar's "sanctuary" moved some time ago out of the
library into the airport, the convention hotel, and the
TV talk show. And despite scoldings from deans
about "faculty flight" from the classroom, too many
universities like it this way, since the public visibility of
the faculty is a selling point in the ever-increasing
competition for the bright and ambitious students who
will determine the future solvency of the institution. 

In the end, the surrender by English departments to
principles of the marketplace will not save
them--even if one computes salvation in numerable
units like faculty positions and student enrollments.
Until now, in the internal university struggle for
resources that the Berkeley provost describes,
professors of literature have found support from
alumni (some of whose names are attached to
libraries, lecture series, and endowed professorships)
who think back gratefully to teachers who introduced
them to genuine literary experience. Future
benefactions will depend on whether today's and
tomorrow's students leave college with the same
feeling of indebtedness. 


If I have been harsh in some of what I have said, I
have tried not to be disloyal to a profession I love. It
is important to remember, as Kernan stresses, that the
image of the overpaid, underworked English professor
is almost always cruelly wrong. "Large numbers of
intelligent, highly educated young people," Kernan
writes, "who had expected to become scholars and
professors of literature at distinguished universities
[have] slipped back down the social scale to being
poorly paid writing masters at marginal colleges with
minimal admission and retention standards." English is
still a field full of dedicated teacher-scholars, and one
of the results of the decline in jobs is that excellent
people are more widely distributed among institutions
of all ranks than ever before. 

But full-scale revival will come only when English
professors recommit themselves to slaking the human
craving for contact with works of art that somehow
register one's own longings and yet exceed what one
has been able to articulate by and for oneself. This is
among the indispensable experiences of the fulfilled
life, and the English department will survive--if on a
smaller scale than before--only if it continues to coax
and prod students toward it. 

While one stands and waits, there are hopeful signs.
One hears talk of "defending the literary," and of the
return of beauty as a legitimate sub-ject for analysis
and appreciation. The flight from undergraduate
teaching seems to be slowing, and the best graduate
students are restless with today's tired formulas.21
Many of them, if they find a job, may yet be destined
to fit Max Weber's description of the true professor
(this is Emerson's evangelist groomed to German
standards) who hates cant and leads "students to
recognize 'inconvenient' facts--I mean inconvenient
for their party opinions."22 Now and then, on good
days, I think I hear a distant drumbeat heralding the
return of such evangelical teachers. They cannot come
back soon enough. 

1 Carol Christ,
"Retaining Faculty
Lines," Profession
1997 (Modern
Language
Association, 1997), p.
55.


2 The first (fictional)
title is from James
Hynes, Publish and
Perish: Three Tales of
Tenure and Terror
(Picador, 1997), p. 51;
the second is from the
program of the 1996
MLA convention.
(back)

3 Richard Russo,
Straight Man
(Random House,
1997), p. 15.

4 Edward Said,
"Restoring Intellectual
Coherence," in
MLANewsletter, Vol.
31, No. 1 (Spring
1999), p. 3. (back)

5 These books are by
older scholars. But, as
Thomas Nagel has
noted (The New
Republic, October 12,
1998, p. 34), there has
been "a shift in the
climate of opinion,"
including that of
younger critics, "so
that insiders with
doubts about the
intelligibility of all this
'theory' are no longer
reluctant to voice
them." An early sign
of the change was
Frank Lentricchia's
renunciation of theory
in Lingua Franca
(September/October
1996, p. 64): "Tell me
your theory and I'll tell
you in advance what
you'll say about any
work of literature,
especially those you
haven't read." More
recently, leading
critics (in this case,
Margery Sabin, in
Raritan, Summer 1999,
p. 140), have begun to
lament that "it has
become so much
easier to identify what
is not literary study,
and what are not
humanistic values,
than to say what they
are or ought to be."
6 Chapman, "The
Disappearance of the
Educated Man,"
Vanity Fair, July
1925; Trilling, The
Last Decade: Essays
and Reviews, 1965-75
(Harcourt, Brace,
Jovanovich, 1979), pp.
160-176. (back)

7 These figures come
from a 1999 MLA
report on "Ph.D.
placement and
production," and from
the statistical
appendix to What's
Happened to the
Humanities?,
Kernan's collection of
essays by twelve
leading scholars. In
the same period,
English majors
actually show a
modest increase as a
percentage of the
declining portion of
humanities
degrees--in part
attributable, as Frank
Kermode remarks
(What's Happened, p.
169), to the influx "of
women students still
denied the early
training required for
the sciences," and, it
might be surmised, to
the fact that as
American students
became
overwhelmingly
monolingual, classics
and foreign literature
departments shriveled
into tiny
enclaves--leaving
English on most
campuses as the only
literary game in town.
To put the statistics in
perspective, it should
be noted that in many
universities, history is
classified as a social
science. 

8 Lynn Hunt,
"Tradition Confronts
Change: The Place of
the Humanities in the
University," in The
Humanist on Campus:
Continuity and
Change, American
Council of Learned
Societies, Occasional
Paper No. 44, p. 8;
James Engell and
Anthony Dangerfield,
"The Market-Model
University," Harvard
Magazine (May-June
1998), pp. 50, 54. One
striking sign of these
trends is that in the
latest version of the
widely derided, but
widely read,
university rankings
published annually by
US News and World
Report, the California
Institute of
Technology has risen
to first place
(dislodging Harvard)
and the
Massachusetts
Institute of
Technology to third.
While the criteria for
these rankings are
highly suspect, they
both reflect and
influence public
opinion.
9 Robert Weisbuch,
"The Humanist on
Campus--and
Off-Kilter," in The
Humanist on Campus,
p. 1; on the Yale
strike, see Andrew
Hacker, "Who's
Sticking to the
Union?" The New
York Review,
February 18, 1999, pp.
45-48. (back)

10 Lynn Hunt makes
the interesting
observation that
"cultural studies...may
end up providing
deans with a
convenient method
for amalgamating
humanities
departments under
one roof and reducing
their faculty size."
("Democracy and
Decline: The
Consequences of
Demographic Change
in the Humanities," in
What's Happened to
the Humanities?, p.
28.) 

11 Trilling, it should be
said, preferred to
associate himself with
the German Romantic
conception of
disciplined
self-creation
(Bildung), rather than
with the American
version of ecstatic
self-discovery. (back)

12 The phrase comes
from Daniel Coit
Gilman (quoted in
Gerald Graff,
Professing Literature:
An Institutional
History, University of
Chicago Press, 1987,
p. 57), the first
president of the first
genuine research
university in the
United States, Johns
Hopkins. 

13 This is Henry
Chadwick's recent
translation of
Augustine's phrase
"Ideo... dissipabar a
me ipso."

14 Some educational
leaders are showing
concern that this may
be happening,
including the
president of Harvard,
Neil Rudenstine,
whose degree is in
English, and who
devoted his 1998
commencement
address to a defense
of the humanities as
"essential ...to any
serious definition of
education"--a
statement that, by the
felt need to make it,
constitutes a
noteworthy alarm.
Harvard, after all, was
founded by clergymen
who "dread[ed] to
leave an illiterate
Ministry to the
Churches, when our
present Ministers
shall lie in the Dust."
15 A number of
university presses
have recently cut back
on titles in literary
theory for lack of a
market.

16 This was also the
time when some
universities
introduced the
"pass/fail" option
(virtually no one
failed) and others
eliminated grades
altogether. Kernan
reports that at
Princeton, the faculty
passed a rule that
course offerings
proposed by
professors required
formal approval by
graduate students in
the relevant
department before
they could be taught.
(back)

17 One reason
structuralism caught
on was that it was
assimilable to the
existing traditions of
philology (which
studied languages as
linked systems), the
New Criticism (with its
veneration of intricate
verbal structures), and
the "myth" criticism
that had arisen earlier,
particularly among
scholars of American
literature such as
Constance Rourke,
Henry Nash Smith,
and Leslie Fiedler,
many of whom were
studying pulp novels
and mass-market
romances well before
scholars of English
literature ventured
much beyond the
certified classics.

18 Guillory, quoted in
the Final Report of
the MLA Committee
on Professional
Employment
(December 1997), p.
13. (back)

19 Teaching
composition has long
been regarded as a
kind of internship
obligation for
graduate students and
junior professors. As
Scholes puts it, "The
one thing...English
must do... is to lead
students to a position
of justified confidence
in their own
competence as textual
consumers and their
own eloquence as
producers of texts." It
is a symptom of the
current state of
English that Scholes
cannot bring himself
to say, "to teach
students to read and
write."

20 Perry Miller, "The
Plight of the Lone
Wolf," American
Scholar, Vol. 25, No. 4
(Autumn 1956), p. 448.
In the interest of full
disclosure, it should
be said that the
belligerently highbrow
Miller was
disappointed when
The New Yorker
declined to serialize
his book The Raven
and the Whale.
21 Stanford has
recently established a
policy granting new
faculty positions to
departments whose
senior faculty
regularly teach
freshmen and
sophomore seminars,
and Harvard has
announced the
endowment of
twenty-five
professorial chairs
carrying sum-mer
funding and periodic
research leaves (in
addition to normal
sabbatical leaves) for
faculty who
emphasize
undergraduate
teaching. (back)

22 Weber provides the
elegiac theme for
David Bromwich's
essay, "Scholarship
as Social Action," in
What's Happened to
the Humanities?