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The Decline & Fall of Literature’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

As a member and former chair of a department that has contributed significantly to the rise and triumph of theory in the US, I cannot let Andrew Delbanco’s smug vilification of theory in the name of literature pass without comment [“The Decline and Fall of Literature,” NYR, November 4, 1999]. While it is true that literary study is often practiced without any explicit theoretical self-consciousness at all, that practice is the scholarly equivalent of a blind pig looking for a truffle. Occasionally it works out, but usually not. Theory has been around ever since Socrates tried to persuade Ion that it might be a good idea if the rhapsode knew what he was doing when channeling Homer, and the great careers in our profession belong to people who have always known exactly what they are doing. That is how they are able to do it, over and over again, and how they are able to change what they do when the occasions, and the times, call for that.

Why, then, would Delbanco and the latter-day Jeremiahs whom he endorses celebrate the end of theory, or so fervently urge it? The answer, I think, lies in the remark quoted from Lentricchia’s “renunciation of theory”: “Tell me your theory and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say.” Although not what Lentricchia was looking for, there is a truffle of truth in that statement. Theory is, in its simplest sense, an explanation of how they do it, the “they” being poets, dramatists, novelists, and the people who write about them and their work. That is why theory has always been so appealing to students and younger scholars at the beginning of their careers, and why it is so often identified with those whom Delbanco ridicules for pushing the limits of respectable academic inquiry: theory demystifies the objects and methods of scholarly practice, and it gives newcomers some tools to work with.

The only people who would celebrate the demise of theory in that sense are those “evangelical” critics Delbanco invokes as the salvation of our profession and whose role, as he admits, is modeled on religious proclamation, “illumination and deliverance.” Unfortunately, all too often these academic messiahs are driven less by religious ecstasy than by a considerably more mundane and worldly desperation to protect a tenuous professional status built on theory-less appreciations of great works—the works in this case usually being, of course, the empty flourishes of the appreciator himself. Like the Wizard of Oz, the anti-theorists have a great deal at stake in keeping the curtain tightly drawn. Not only do they suffer from a justifiable fear that they might not be able to live up to the image they project, there is always the chance that some of those young faces gazing up in mute admiration might actually be able to do it better—if only they were shown what “it” is.

Theory” in the contemporary sense began with the New Critics and first flourished in the US right after World War II, and that is not a coincidence. At that time, an entirely new and more diverse population suddenly appeared on the doorstep of the universities, emboldened by the GI bill and naively believing in the rhetoric of freedom and liberal pluralism for which they had fought—and that was mirrored by New Critical theory. This population transformed literary education in the US in the early 1950s, and in the late 1960s and 1970s yet another wave of new students swept through the universities and embraced theory of another sort. Today, the student population is changing again, and again theory is enabling them to say something new and different. As Socrates knew, theory is and always will be an engine for difference and change. That is what got him killed, and that is what Delbanco and his crew really want to bury.

Fortunately, after being around for 2,000 years, theory is probably tough enough to resist the current attack, and its enemies usually either relent or at least tire of their campaign. Even the Wizard finally ‘fesses up at the end of the yellow-brick road and shows Dorothy and her friends where the knobs and switches are. Given Delbanco’s gleeful ridicule of a fictional “new appointee” for urging his colleagues to include “she” in their pronominal references, I supposes Dorothy has no place in literary departments as the anti-theorists imagine them. I do suspect, though, that the scarecrow may have a chance to get in, given the endless need for straw men for this group to vanquish.

Michael P. Clark

Professor of English and Comparative Literature

University of California, Irvine

To the Editors:

Decline-and-fall stories like Andrew Delbanco’s “The Decline and Fall of Literature” will always be suspected of secret self-aggrandizement. These narratives can take paradoxical pleasure in how low their subject has fallen because their real aim is to insinuate, often against the evidence, that once upon a time their subject used to soar high over other, more pedestrian fields, and still deserves that lost eminence. Historians, philosophers, and other non-critics will see at once that it’s better to stand accused of declining and falling than not.

Delbanco avoids the worst excesses of the jeremiad by putting some of the blame for the decline in English Ph.D.s on matters outside the control of English departments, like a “dead end” job market that justifies graduate students in regarding their duties as “exploitation.” The state of the humanities, sad or not, cannot be abstracted from the much larger story of our society’s refusal to fund adequately research projects and institutions that aim at its own long-term interests. Scientists as well as humanists suffer from the pursuit of short-term profit at all costs. To pretend that literature and its critics are unique victims is to indulge in a sort of literary identity politics.

Despite the apocalyptic tone, Delbanco knows that English has taken on a number of diverse identities during its relatively brief existence and that at each transition “the old guard has always moaned that literary studies is going to hell.” But perdition is still what he is trying to save us from. For him, the right answer to criticism’s “So what?” question is the fact that literary studies “have their roots in religion” and that our students are “convertible.” I too would like to think what I teach and write is of some significance to the world at large. But conversion? Can’t we startle our students out of their complacencies—a more felicitous formula, and one that applies equally well to good teaching in fields other than literature—without so much dogma or missionary zeal? Matthew Arnold, who professed poetry but also did the cultural studies of his day, would surely call for less fire and brimstone, more sweetness and light.

Bruce Robbins

Department of English

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Professor Delbanco correctly notes grade inflation as a feature of the market mentality of English departments today. But he avoids blaming college presidents and their appointed deans for policies that encourage grade inflation as a primary route to higher enrollments and higher levels of discretionary spending. I have never known, for example, a professor to be penalized for handing out grades to indolent students; but I could right now reel off the names of at least ten luckless wretches who got into big, big trouble for their misguided insistence upon legitimate academic standards.

Since low-budget community colleges have far less motivation to build enrollments through grade-inflation policies, it’s not surprising that community college students who transfer to four-year schools now do just as well at UC as their competitors who entered as high-SAT freshmen, as pointed out recently by UC president Richard Atkinson. Even as far back as 1993, the enrollment records of the Cal State University system indicated 50,000 freshmen, 30,000 sophomores, 85,000 juniors, and 115,000 seniors—a clear sign that most CSU graduates now begin their careers at neighboring low-cost open-access community colleges.

Since two-year community colleges are now an academically legitimate low-costalternative to the overpriced freshman-sophomore programs of four-year schools, larger and larger numbers of able students are now electing the CC-transfer option, creating a domino impact via which many four-year schools are now cutting back on their lower-division programs, and legislators are talking seriously about public junior-senior universities for tomorrow’s students and teachers. So the future for academic legitimacy may not be as dismal as Professor Delbanco suggests.

The true enemies of academic legitimacy are, and have been, the college presidents and deans who make the key decisions, spend the money, and cook the books. In glossing over their culpability, Professor Delbanco has done a disservice to the serious study of literature. If he wants to make amends, he should assign his students essays topics like “Why we need to fire our provost—right away!”

Robert Oliphant

Executive Director

Californians for Community College Equity

Cambria, California

Andrew Delbanco replies:

Having been compared by Michael P. Clark to the Wizard of Oz, the prophet Jeremiah, a false messiah, and a blind pig, I’m prompted to make a few more oinks. Clark seems to think that I and my “crew” don’t believe in theory, and that I practice teaching and writing as a mindless form of cheerleading. Nonsense. The problem with contemporary English studies is not theory, which all serious thinking requires (thank you, Professor Clark), if by theory we mean a reflective awareness of method and purpose, and the development of general rules of interpretation. The problem—to borrow some of Clark’s own phrases—is that “empty flourishes” expressing “desperation to protect a tenuous professional status” are more and more substituting for genuine engagement with literature. It is ironic that Clark invokes Socrates, a thinker rather than a posturer with whom today’s students are unlikely to spend more than a fleeting moment. As for his inference that I must be hostile to women scholars because I find Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man an amusing rendering of a quarrelsome English department, he should lighten up and enjoy the book. It’s very funny.

Bruce Robbins seems to think that because I maintain that literary studies derive from religion, I confuse literature classes with revival meetings. He doesn’t like the term “conversion.” OK. How about the modernist term “epiphany”? Or the postmodernist notion of “de-centered” consciousness? Whichever vocabulary one prefers, no one is likely to disagree—to use Robbins’s less freighted terms—that while “the pursuit of short-term profit” overwhelms other motives in American life, English professors ought to “startle our students out of their complacencies.” With universities no longer encouraging students to get a literary education before they join the money scramble, English professors—as the wizard behind the scoreboard urges when the home team is losing—ought to GET LOUD on behalf of the imperiled cause.

Robert Oliphant’s letter is interesting and illuminating. But I cannot grant that faculty cravenness in evaluating students should be blamed chiefly on administrators. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

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