Is There Hope for English?

English in America: A Radical View of the Profession

by Richard Ohmann, with a chapter by Wallace Douglas
Oxford University Press, 344 pp., $4.50 (paper)

F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement

by Giles Gunn
University of Washington Press, 248 pp., $9.50

F.O. Matthiessen
F.O. Matthiessen; drawing by David Levine

Richard Ohmann’s English in America: A Radical View is a very insistent book. It insists that the English teaching profession serves destructive capitalism and cannot do anything else unless “we teach politically with revolution as our end.” Wallace Douglas contributes a chapter on “Rhetoric for the Meritocracy” in which he describes the change from the small nineteenth-century college for the propertied class to the pluralistic, departmentalized modern university, along with the change from gentleman’s Latin and Greek to English. What Eliot created at the new Harvard in the 1870s was an institution to train organization men to serve property in the industrialized society. Ohmann argues that the modern English department grew fat in this situation primarily because it met the need to teach composition as a managerial skill. Literary studies were shaped by the need for English scholars to justify themselves as professionals by making “contributions to knowledge,” in competition with other specialized departments.

Ohmann has a retrospective essay on the boom in literary studies in the Fifties and Sixties, which uses the New Criticism to convict the profession of separating literature from politics. The university

is where the administrative class learns to think, where the scientific foundations of technology are laid, and where ideology is built to sanction the distribution of power and wealth. In this last task the American literary profession has cooperated, in part by insisting that the means to personal well-being and wholeness is through withdrawal from social action and the achievement of all-embracing states of mind. That is where the New Criticism pointed us, and where most of us, under the banner of humanism and the advancement of knowledge, gladly went.

Anything that the new apologists for literature (or the old, for that matter) say about its positive influence on individual lives or society Ohmann puts aside. The individual can only be “a comfortable man of letters within society” and “this has to mean society as it is.” “Now, against any substantial analysis of society, all of this is a parlor game, and the social pieties of the New Critics themselves are the sort of horn-tooting that you might indulge in while asking the National Endowment for the Humanities for some money.”

Ohmann is himself a very successful academic, with experience as a senior administrator at Wesleyan and as the very able editor of College English, in which he has published articles asking all sorts of hard questions. He is remorselessly determined not to let us off the hook of bad conscience. The hook is in us. To counter that we cannot be responsible for a world we never made will not do in a time when the mood of desperate protest about Vietnam is being succeeded by profound dismay about the huge organization for exploitation, at home and abroad, of which we become increasingly aware as its failure to function becomes more obvious.…

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