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The Decline and Fall of Literature

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 appointment 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?”


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.”

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.

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 13

    This is Henry Chadwick’s recent translation of Augustine’s phrase “Ideo… dissipabar a me ipso.”

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