Lit in Trouble

Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society

by Gerald Graff
University of Chicago Press, 260 pp., $15.00

Celestial Pantomime: Poetic Structures of Transcendence

by Justus George Lawler
Yale University Press, 270 pp., $18.95

In colleges and universities today, the study of literature is a troubled discipline. Undergraduates drawn to it press into courses dealing with the twentieth century. The competition of other kinds of entertainment has narrowed their experience, and the diversified curricula of their high schools have not supplemented the meager diet of recent novels that constitute imaginative literature for them.

Meanwhile, the postgraduate students feel demoralized by the lack of opportunity in the profession they would like to enter. For all their attachment to criticism and scholarship, they have no such certainty of an academic career as their forerunners possessed in the mid-Sixties. Many older, well-established scholars and teachers feel themselves competing with one another for a shrinking body of apprentices.

The effect is a loss of the uneasy confidence that supported the discipline in the past, and a search for new philosophies of culture that will refresh and strengthen the failing spirit. In such an atmosphere it is peculiarly unfortunate that literary journalism and academic instruction should be so remote from each other. The free-lance critic with some money of his own and an eagerness to win readers over to his judgments is less common than ever. When the academic scholar-critic writes for a miscellaneous audience, he is unsure of his ground. Spiritually, he remains in the lecture hall, or else he becomes a reporter, giving an account of a book that mixes a few impressions with a few facts.

Serious attention to literature tends to direct itself to an audience of specialist students and teachers. The school, rather than the marketplace, is the forum of discussion. Instead of appealing to persons of taste, curious about reappraisals of established works or wanting informed judgments of new ones, the critic speaks to readers with a vested interest in his professional discipline. It is against this background that one should ponder the extraordinary fascination of professors of literature—in France, Germany, Britain, and this country—with theories of criticism.

The nonspecialist reader of verse and fiction can find no nourishment in the controversies rising from the state of affairs I have sketched. If the defense of learning and culture must be made before an audience of priests and neophytes, it must take the form of partisan, esoteric discourse. The high aesthetic tradition of Western culture deserves a broader foundation.

Gerald Graff, in Literature Against itself, starts from an admirable position. He believes that the proponents of far-reaching reorientations of criticism and scholarship are destroying the values for which imaginative literature stands in the eyes of those who cherish it. The theorists whom he attacks belong together for sharing profound doubts about the possibility of interpreting or judging literature with any validity.

In the old view an author’s intention stood at the center of meaning of a literary work. The reader’s job was to come to terms with it. In the opinion of prominent theoreticians today, each reader establishes his own meaning and frees himself from concern with the author’s …

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Letters

Geography November 8, 1979