Academic moralism is one of the oldest traditions of the university, which began, after all, as an ecclesiastical institution whose students were mostly destined to be members of the clergy. In the early part of the twentieth century, the ethical voice in the American university was to be heard from the philosophy department as well as the divinity school, both of which were dominated by varieties of Protestantism. When William James or John Dewey spoke to the educated public on the conduct or meaning of life, they were only doing their job. They were not-so-terribly secular clerics, whose voices were heard alongside—occasionally even above—those of the official priesthood.
Sometime before the mid-century, however, professional philosophy in America became more centrally preoccupied with questions in epistemology and metaphysics, which were of less obvious relevance for their lay fellow citizens: the most influential figures in American philosophy in the decades after the Second World War were philosophers—some native, like W.V.O. Quine, some immigrant, like Rudolf Carnap—whose work was dauntingly technical and, by and large, not addressed to the moral life. In becoming national and then international, the university had had also to become less sectarian and more secular; and so, as a result, the withdrawal of the philosophers from ethical questions left a gap that could no longer be filled by the divinity school. Questions of public ethical concern were increasingly the subject of the social sciences. But psychologists, sociologists, and economists often proclaimed their “value neutrality.” (That was, to a degree, what made their pronouncements credible: they offered guides to living in the guise of technical, objective, scientific information.) And so when someone had to speak up for values the literature faculty increasingly took up the slack.
It did not always do so comfortably. As the literary scholar John Guillory has observed, modern English departments represent the confluence of two nineteenth-century traditions: belles-lettres and philology. The scientific aspirations of the latter discipline gave rise to an emphasis on interpretative method and theoretical speculation. That focus on literature’s mechanics—the medium rather than the message—now goes by the name of “literary theory.” But these theorists never had the field to themselves; the spirit of moralism in academic literary criticism has a long pedigree in twentieth-century America, ranging across the continent, and alphabet, from Irving Babbit to Yvor Winters. And in the postwar period, as the United States assumed more confidently its global leadership, a professor of English like Lionel Trilling could speak for American values, for liberalism and democracy, and find them embedded, already waiting for us, in the high literary canon. The tone was that of a (progressive) gentleman’s club; the signature color was tweed.
Today’s academic moralism in the humanities sounds rather different. In the Sixties and Seventies of the last century, the liberation movements of blacks, women, and homosexuals often found their voice in literary work; this social fervor crossed the threshold of the English department just as …