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The Decline and Fall of Literature

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 ça 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”?


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 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.


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. 15

    A number of university presses have recently cut back on titles in literary theory for lack of a market.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 18

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

  5. 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.”

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 22

    Weber provides the elegiac theme for David Bromwich’s essay, “Scholarship as Social Action,” in What’s Happened to the Humanities?

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