The New Americanists

In putting together for a book a number of essays and reviews published mostly in these pages,1 I was struck by how deeply their connecting theme—the way American novelists are being apprehended and misapprehended in the academy—has become involved in a larger and quite acrimonious debate. I mean, of course, the furor over “political correctness” and the alleged betrayal of our cultural heritage by professor-theorists bent upon egalitarian leveling. Inevitably, some of the conclusions drawn in my book will be read as corollaries of a more general stand against the politicizing of literary study—a phenomenon I am on record as deploring. But though that book is indeed meant in part as a report to nonacademic readers about shifts of opinion in the English departments, it is driven by no conscious agenda other than a concern for understanding American fiction with as few illusions as possible. And the particular illusions I examine originate in conservative as well as radical impulses—in, for example, New Critical formalism, orthodox intentionalism, Christian or Agrarian moralism, and outright hero worship of the sort that transforms an Ernest Hemingway or a John Updike from a spiteful, ethically confused, yet often powerful writer into an icon of pure masculinity or matchless sophistication.

This interest in pinpointing the limitations as well as the peculiar strengths of famous American novelists sets me at cross-purposes with the contemporary academy’s most implacable adversaries. I am thinking of such cultural nostalgics as William Bennett, Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, and Roger Kimball—people who conceive of the ideal university as a pantheon for the preservation of great works and great ideas.2 All of those commentators implicitly subscribe to a “transfusion” model of education, whereby the stored-up wisdom of the classics is considered a kind of plasma that will drip beneficially into our veins if we only stay sufficiently passive in its presence. My own notion of learning is entirely different. I want keen debate, not reverence for great books; historical consciousness and self-reflection, not supposedly timeless values; and continual expansion of our national canon to match a necessarily unsettled sense of who “we” are and what we ultimately care about. Literary culture, I believe, ought to be an instrument not of fearful elitism but of democracy—and this means that a certain amount of turmoil surrounding the canon should be taken in stride. In my view there can be no such thing as a sacrosanct text, an innately civilizing idea, or an altogether disinterested literary critic.

I emphasize these disagreements with the cultural nostalgics because a casual reader might otherwise perceive my essays as a contribution to their cause. The truth is that we have in common just one attitude, an opposition to what I have elsewhere called Left Eclecticism, or the idea that educational diversity is best served by filling literature departments and their course offerings with representatives of each currently popular radical doctrine.3 And even here my reasoning diverges from that of the conservatives. For Roger Kimball, left-wing convictions are inherently…

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