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 anti-academic, and there can be no excuse for allowing “tenured radicals” to woo students away from “Western civilization” and “literature.” In contrast, I see political belief of one kind or another as part of the motive force behind most intellectual and cultural interests. The problem with Left Eclecticism, in my opinion, is not that it allows “subversives” access to the academy but that it makes for a closed shop in which scholarly questions tend to be answered aprioristically and in which only a small band of opinion is considered tolerable. This divergence of outlook from the defenders of great books may appear slight, but it is really fundamental; whereas they want the literary academy to be set apart as a temple for initiation into high culture, I want it to remain a pluralistic arena.

Above all, I reject the rightists’ apocalyptic account of the current state of criticism, whose complexities altogether escape them. To hear them tell it, something comparable in gravity and finality to the 1949 “loss of China” is occurring before our eyes. Already, they say, a guerrilla band of Marxists, feminists, homosexuals, and professional ethnics, armed with lewd concerns and self-evidently preposterous but destructive theories, has seized control of the scholarly societies, the university presses, and the leading departments of literature, leaving those who care about intellectual and aesthetic standards utterly disenfranchised. Although this image provides a certain Spenglerian thrill, it grossly misrepresents the contemporary literary academy’s balance of interests and movements—a balance that has indeed been shifting to the left, but much less decisively and irreversibly than the conservatives would have us believe.

It is an old story, really: academics who sense that their hour has passed, or malcontents who have failed to find or keep the academic careers they once dreamed of, have always identified their outmoded school of thought with the lost cause of civilization itself. When my own career began in the 1950s, for example, the forebears of today’s conservative Jeremiahs—the old-boy “humanists” who favored impressionistic immersion in the ennobling beauties of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Keats, and Browning—regarded the ascendant New Critics as barbarians who would reduce the universities to factories for the production of soullessly mechanical “readings.” Later, when the Gallic “theorists” and their disciples arrived on the scene, it was the New Critics’ turn to cry doom. But no faction ever took over completely, and none is likely to now.


Instead, we can be fairly sure that the most prestigious emergent schools will undergo jealous scrutiny, be obliged to modify some of their more vulnerable premises, and be further diluted through the practice of uncommitted critics who have been attracted—but warily—to fresh intellectual possibilities. What outsiders like Kimball can’t perceive is that the real story of “what they are doing to literature” is chiefly this work of negotiation, whereby advanced methodological trends are subtly but inexorably drawn back toward the empirical center. Moreover, the most vigorous and telling critiques of ostensibly left doctrines usually come from segments of the left itself that continually deflate fashionable theories for their failures of social inclusiveness, concreteness, and practical utility. To treat all academic radicals as partaking of a single conspiracy against literary art is therefore to miss the point disastrously.

This holds doubly true because the left, unlike the right, has made some indisputably fertile contributions to the recent evolution of literary study. It is radicals who brought about today’s general realization that criticism must become more self-aware about the ideological coordinates of the positions it takes. Again, it was their insistence on historicizing—that is, on tracing the contingent socio-political interests served by given beliefs and practices—that broke the hold of a timidly moralizing, unity-minded formalism that had long outlived its usefulness. And of course we have the left to thank for launching a fundamental debate about the canon and for bringing minority concerns into the foreground—developments that are especially striking and revivifying in my own field of American literature.

The New Americanists, as I have called the now dominant faction in my field, all take their bearings from a rejection of the “liberal consensus” about American literature that prevailed in academic criticism from the Forties through the mid-Sixties.4 The liberals had rallied around a small core of classics by (on the whole) well-connected white males, using those texts to celebrate moral earnestness, dense aesthetic texture, and a genially democratic idea of the American dream and its gradual fulfillment in history. In the eyes of New Americanists, that consensus reflected not an objective apprehension of our nation and its literature but a passing ideological moment—a snuffing out of Depression-era social consciousness and a projection of postwar America’s hegemony and self-regard onto the literary-historical screen. Who, the New Americanists have been asking, was excluded from the liberals’ patriotic literary feast, and to whose advantage? What struggles and oppressive deeds became invisible when America and democracy were treated as virtual synonyms? And how did formalism and national chauvinism reach their strange entente—whereby, for example, the anti-abolitionist politics of Nathaniel Hawthorne could be overlooked while his aesthetic greatness was located in New Critical ironies and paradoxes beyond the reach of a mere “propagandist” like Harriet Beecher Stowe? These are essential questions, and their effect on academic discussion of American literature and on most of us who deal professionally with that literature has been far-reaching.

At the same time, however, a growing restlessness within New Americanist ranks portends a much sharper break with tradition. The founding members of the group, writing in the late Seventies and early Eighties and struggling to make a break from their liberal mentors, were so successful that they gave rise to a second cohort of zealous followers who, lacking even an ambivalent recollection of the former dispensation, now accept a new conventional wisdom based on emancipatory values and a dismissal of “artistic” issues as inherently retrograde. These young academics launch their arguments from a base of egalitarian pieties about race, class, and gender as routinely as the cold war liberals started from formalist aesthetics, the founding fathers, and the canon according to F.O. Matthiessen. Predictably, then, the latest New Americanists are now beginning to turn against their mentors for continuing to dwell ambivalently on the old canon and the forgettable academic giants of the Forties and Fifties.

Although no one—not even the editors of the quintessentially New Americanist Heath Anthology of American Literature—has as yet proposed that classic authors be banned outright, the most militant young academics are increasingly inclined to demand primary allegiance to the ethnic- and gender-based anticanon.5 In doing so, they strangely resemble their opposite numbers on the cultural right. Both parties prefer to keep politically noxious books out of students’ hands so as to allow the beneficial works to inculcate correct ideas without distraction. Both are overwhelmingly preoccupied with social order—on one side with maintaining it, on the other with inverting it. And both are convinced that the ideals and textual operations of literature professors greatly matter to the structure and future direction of society at large.


On this last point, however, they are surely mistaken. Whether on the left or right, literary indoctrination today stops absolutely at the university’s gate. Its field of operation is simply the curriculum and the faculty’s makeup—areas of importance, surely, for students’ sense of cultural inclusion or exclusion, but still Lilliputian terrain compared to the realms of business and popular culture to which those students remain continuously oriented. Except for the tiny minority who themselves seek careers in “English,” undergraduates of the nineties are proving indifferent to their professors’ blandishments, which detain them only insofar as they signal what tone it would be prudent to take in papers and exams. Even when students distrust the society’s promises, their reaction is not to spurn the bureaucratic-technological-capitalist order but to redouble their efforts to find employment and security in a time of reduced expectations.

But a still more disappointing irony lies embedded in the literary-critical evangelizing undertaken by many New Americanists. It has to do with their habitual recourse to the dense vocabulary and esoteric postulates of poststructuralism, a body of thought and method that lies beyond the comprehension of the students they hope to wean from bourgeois errors. If those students could catch the true poststructuralist spirit, furthermore, they wouldn’t necessarily be led toward revolutionary consciousness. Taking its cues from such thoroughgoing enemies of democracy as Nietzsche and Heidegger, poststructuralism projects a deep negativity about the possibilities of both knowledge and social progress—a negativity so unrelenting that it decomposes the individual human “subject” into a helpless vector of forces that typically cannot even be located, much less stemmed. Obviously, you can’t be a very effective spokesman for freedom when your philosophy tells you that it doesn’t exist.

As John Patrick Diggins has recently argued, it is not coincidental that poststructuralism took hold in Western universities immediately after the theatrical student revolutionism of 1968 came crashing down. 6 Poststructuralist fatalism toward established power served a consoling function, assuring the disillusioned survivors of the New Left that the collapse of their emancipatory dreams was built into the nature of things. At the same time, its private jargon, its token allegiance to all things “marginalized” by the capitalistic West, and its vision of interpretation without ground or end fostered a clannish leftism-of-the-library that promised immunity from further rude surprises.

Methodologically, the key feature of poststructuralist criticism is its downgrading of what Michel Foucault belittled as “the author function.” Once writers have been discounted as the primary shapers of their works, critics are free to “liberate signifiers from the signified”—that is, to make a text mean anything or nothing according to whim. From Roland Barthes through Jacques Derrida to Foucault himself, poststructuralism has conflated such quasi-libidinal linguistic play with political liberty, as if a carnival of unconstrained textuality could somehow serve as a proxy for the actual release of oppressed social groups from neglect and exploitation. As many observers have noted, however, the Foucauldian model of social action—now the leading paradigm for New Americanists among other theorists on the academic left—is rigidly deterministic. If even major authors are to be regarded as altogether “socially constructed” from the “discourses of power” surrounding them, what hope can the rest of us entertain for taking some control over our lives?

Not all New Americanists, it should be emphasized, have ensnared themselves in these debilitating contradictions. Those who have personally experienced being considered marginal—feminists, lesbians and gays, members of ethnic minorities—tend on the whole to be wary of doctrines that conceive of society as a seamless fabric of undifferentiated and mystified oppression. Classical Marxists, too, often fault poststructuralism for its neglect of “uneven development” among different underclasses at any given historical moment. As the social ineffectuality of Foucault’s world view becomes more generally apparent, New Americanism will surely evolve toward a less quixotic critical style.

The main weakness in New Americanist criticism today, however, is not poststructuralism but intellectual opportunism—the ad hoc adjusting of investigative premises to forestall politically unwelcome implications. New Americanists tend, for example, to treat the authors of slave narratives, sentimental novels, and other approved works as fully conscious, socially engaged agents whose writings indict the whole scheme of dominant values; elements of conventionality and conformism in such works are simply put under the rug. But the same critics often refuse to grant any real autonomy to mainstream authors, brushing aside overt themes and cutting straight through to the racism, sexism, and class rule that they regard as the liberal order’s secret essence. Or, conversely, a New Americanist may decide to rescue a seemingly offensive work from shame by ascribing to the text itself a Spartacus-like unconscious that is said to resist the oppressive manifest content. Some intrepid critics are even ready if necessary to undertake a total theme transplant, whereby, for example, Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic theology is allegorically replaced by a more pleasingly modern and disruptive viewpoint, such as Lacanian psychoanalysis.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that New Americanists will induce many readers to believe that literary value coincides with the presence of politically acceptable notions in a text. Will we really want, say, a William Faulkner who has been purged of his saturnine resentment of women or his deep ambivalence toward blacks? For now, increasing numbers of critics seem to be answering yes, even if that means rating Requiem for a Nun above The Sound and the Fury. Common readers, however, unless they have been academically retrained to distrust their pleasures, sense the difference between calculatedly progressive pap and art that flows from a vision, albeit a feverish one. I prefer to honor that distinction, even while exploring the challenge to criticism posed by a major writer’s blatant prejudices.

I mentioned earlier that no critic can ever claim with justice to be politically disinterested, and I hardly constitute an exception to the rule. By situating my work as far as possible from great-thoughts conservatism on one side and death-of-the-author theory on the other, I am expressing my unshaken allegiance to liberalism in the broadest meaning of that term. I do not mean simply that I favor secular skepticism, ample social sympathies, and expanded civil liberties; a “discourse radical” could go along with me that far. I also mean that I value singular departures from established belief and practice, even when those efforts produce clouded results. The best American novelists have themselves been liberal in this sense, courting isolation and risking incoherence in the hope of making something new.

I believe that critics, without abandoning their sense of history, should be ready for a parallel if lesser effort, putting preconceptions in abeyance and following the writer’s individual path wherever it may lead. The suggestion is unfashionable but by no means utopian. My discussions of American novelists and their professor-critics will show, I trust, that even within the theory-saturated academy, truly liberal criticism still exists—and that it is all the more praiseworthy for being rare.

This Issue

September 24, 1992