In his book In Plato’s Cave, Alvin Kernan describes a career crisis that he no doubt shared with many other literary scholars of his generation:
The canon of great books, authors and their powerful imaginations, the formal
perfection of the literary text, and the belief that literature was a central pillar of
culture—these foundations of Literature were all crumbling. . .Fine poems and
novels were still being written, but somehow they no longer became Literature.
Kernan’s lament for what in an earlier book he called “the death of literature” has been echoed often enough over the last decade (most loudly perhaps in John M. Ellis’s 1997 book Literature Lost), but the elegiac tone of his remarks suggest a resigned rather than a combative attitude toward the passing of the old order of literary study in which men like himself were entrusted with shoring up the “foundations of Literature.” In Plato’s Cave is Kernan’s attempt to account for his career in academe, but ultimately he is willing to cede the ground to those, by now a majority, who no longer share his assumptions about the status of literature and the role of literary study.
Now that the battle between the defenders of capital-l literature and the partisans of the iconoclastic styles of scholarship identified with what has come to be called cultural studies does indeed seem to be over, the outcome decidedly in favor of the latter, what seems most striking about comments like those just quoted is the clearly implicit association, as if it didn’t need to be stated, between literature broadly conceived as verbal works of art—poems and novels—and the academic study and analysis of literature. All of the features Kernan ascribes to “literature,” such as the unique formal elegance of the literary text, are actually the products of academic theories about literature, meant to foster a certain kind of literary criticism and to facilitate classroom instruction. So accustomed are we now to thinking of literature as the subject identified by that name in the curricula of various university departments, primarily the English department, that it is almost impossible to use the term as a way of describing specific works outside of that context. And this, of course, applies as much to the currently trendy styles of criticism and scholarship as to the old-fashioned kind of literary scholarship practiced by someone like Alvin Kernan. If anything, the champions of cultural studies are even more dependent on the exclusive right claimed by the academy to the brand name Literature—their work would be almost unintelligible without a previous academic literary establishment of which their own work is a needed corrective, and the new scholarship, at least that which seeks to historicize and politicize our notions of the literary, would itself hardly be sustainable if the idea of capital-l literature were simply to be abandoned.
Even though Alvin Kernan and other like-minded literature professors were largely unable to separate an appreciation of imaginative writing from the disciplinary imperatives of academic literary study, they nevertheless generally spoke of the qualities they most admired in works of literature as qualities that inhered in the works themselves, had clearly always been considered the salient characteristics of great literature, not as creations of the very discourse these professors had adopted for their own professional purposes. It is true that the urgently serious, at times even ponderous, approach to the “canon of great books” and much of the critical lexicon of the mid-century academic literary establishment were filtered through the writings of such poet-critics as Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and John Crowe Ransom, but by far the most significant development in the practice of literary criticism in the twentieth century was the investment of authority over literary matters in the figure of the academic critic, from such celebrated members of the order as Lionel Trilling, Cleanth Brooks, and Northrop Frye to current critics such as Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler, around whom is still draped some vestige of this authority, however ragged it has become. To the company of so eminent and formidable a group of “scholars” as this, no mere literary journalist or, worse, lowly book reviewer need apply: criticism would no longer be in the hands of the ink-stained wretches, namely writers, but would become almost entirely transformed into the job description of a professional class of literary experts.
As someone who once sought admittance to this class, who still considers it at its best to have embodied an attitude toward literature well worthy of respect and to have produced a body of scholarly work both present and future readers should continue to find entirely useful, I do not believe that the assumption of such expertise on the part of literature professors was necessarily self-interested or carried out in bad faith. By and large, the institution of literary study as administered from roughly the 1930s to the 1980s was dedicated to admirable goals, even if those goals—broadly speaking, to help provide students with a modicum of a liberal education, more specifically, to advance knowledge about the nature and history of literature and provide instruction to those interested in the formal analysis of literary texts—melded uneasily, if at all, with the overall curriculum of the university, which has always reflected American society’s intensely practical philosophy of education. Like any institution, however, it came to regard its established practices as settled and incontestable (how else to go about studying literature?), and
when doubting Thomases did indeed begin to speak out from within its own ranks, the response from what came to be regarded as the old guard was at first dismissive, later mostly incredulous, and finally simply enraged.
Kernan’s The Death of Literature (1990), comes from the second stage in the academic literary establishment’s response to the new ways of thinking about literature and its place in the academic curriculum. So mystified does he seem in this book by the assault on the literary values that once seemed to need no defense that he really offers none, propounding instead the idea that the era of what he calls “romantic and modernist literature” has simply passed, that literature itself as we have known it for the past 200 years or so has ceased to be relevant. In neither The Death of Literature nor In Plato’s Cave does Kernan seem able to admit what his analysis and experience clearly show: that Literature is a product of the academic environment in which it has been defined and scrutinized since national literatures became respectable subjects of academic study early in the twentieth century—that professors like himself deserve most of the credit, or the blame, for inventing Literature in the first place.
Thus what drives Alvin Kernan and his generational cohorts crazy is not just that the discipline they helped to build has fallen so easily into the hands of a new breed of scholar who question the integrity of what was built, with furthermore an insufficient appreciation of the ramifications of this development on the part of college administrators or the public at large, but that what may have been their greatest achievement, the creation of a fascinating cultural artifact out of old books, poems, and play scripts has lost so much of its luster as to be no longer recognizable. Because most of them found their way into the discipline out of a genuine belief in the importance of these texts (In Plato’s Cave succeeds in affirming this impression), their dismay at witnessing a decline in respect for the great books must be taken as sincere, although it is tempting to judge their enmity toward the currently dominant forms of scholarship as largely a case of professional resentment. Their failure to understand their own role in summoning Literature into being at all, however, making it almost inevitable that its exalted status would come to be challenged, is less easy to justify.
A succinct statement of the way capital-l literature was constructed as an essentially academic subject is provided in another book, John M. Ellis’s Literature Lost. Against the “utilitarian” view of education held by many in American society, the professors responded with an alternative, although not incommensurate, view, according to Ellis:
The standard defense of the humanities. . .was that humanistic education
provided all kinds of rewards, but the least important [emphasis mine] was the
enrichment of our leisure through great literature and the arts. The most weighty
arguments were that the humanities enabled us to see ourselves in perspective, to
become more enlightened citizens, and to think more deeply about important
issues in our lives. A society of people educated not just for a vocation but for full
and intelligent participation in a modern democracy would be a far better and
happier society—so ran the argument—and this overriding social usefulness of
humanistic education compensated for its not leading directly to a means of
earning one’s living.
It is hard to imagine that many of the writers who actually left us with what Ellis would accept as “great literature” could have used language like this to describe their own sense of what their work was meant to accomplish. (Especially surprising would be the suggestion that the “enrichment of our leisure” should be at the bottom of our list of expectations of poems, plays, or novels.) Not even Matthew Arnold, perhaps the first great literary critic to postulate the existence of capital-l literature in anything like the terms delineated here by Ellis, could really have envisioned a formal course of literary study with ambitions quite like these. The extent to which the notion of “great literature” has been transformed into an entire system of interlocking texts is manifestly clear when Ellis further remarks that “[t]he body of enduring literary and philosophical books of the Western tradition is. . .a remarkable set of fascinating struggles with problems and issues. Always prominent is the conflict and competition between the ideas and vision of one writer and those of others, and there is often a high degree of self-criticism.”
John Ellis believes that literature has been “lost” because this system is no longer taken for granted. Unlike Alvin Kernan, who ultimately seems mostly wistful about the dismantling of the system that once sustained him, Ellis is one of those compelled to vent his rage over what has happened. All of the usual suspects—multiculturalists, deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists—are brought forth and denounced for their apostasy, their refusal to acknowledge the supreme authority of Literature, and by the end of the book Ellis has in effect declared that with the overthrow of the traditional Western Literature syllabus, civilization itself is nearing its end. While some of his analyses of current scholarly methods and classroom practices are cogent enough (he is right in claiming that what passes now for literary study in many of the elite colleges and universities is little more than crude political posturing), Ellis is even less able than Kernan to imagine works of literature being read and appreciated outside the academic walls he has helped to put up, much less to think of literature as a still vital activity carried on by living fiction writers, poets, and playwrights. That he finally lays the blame for the perceived affront to the dignity of Literature on affirmative action, both in admissions and faculty hiring, only underscores the impression that for literature professors like John M. Ellis, the “body of enduring literary and philosophical books” properly belongs to a select group of academics teaching a similarly select group of compliant students suitably grateful for the honor.
In arguing that those currently in charge of literary study in American universities have banished, killed, or otherwise discredited literature, however, Kernan, Ellis, and company misleadingly suggest the new literary scholarship no longer accepts the academic concept of capital-l literature and its attendant history. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Literature remains a significant category in scholarly publishing, and most of the books published in this category do little to challenge the legitimacy of the underlying idea—especially not those books that explicitly claim to question the “hegemony” of canonical literature. Take, for example, Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (1998). Radway presents her study of what might be called the book club aesthetic as an alternative to the conventional kind of literary analysis that emphasizes “intricacy, subtlety, and complexity.” Radway’s problem with “serious” literature, especially the more formally complex works of modern literature, is their lack of immediate accessibility:
The books that came to me as high culture never seemed to prompt the particular shudder, the frisson I associated with the books of my childhood, because they
carried with them not mere promise alone, but also a threat, the threat that
somehow I might fail to understand, might fail to recognize their reputed meaning
and inherent worth. I developed, as a consequence, an aloof, somewhat puzzled
relationship to “Literature” and to the ways of reading required and rewarded in
my graduate seminars.
Radway clearly wants us to believe that the sort of book traditionally offered by the Book-of-the-Month Club (the sort that might excite in its reader the “shudder, the frisson”) deserves the same kind of respect as those books associated with “high culture,” but no one reading A Feeling for Books could conclude that its author advocates giving up either the class of books she learned to regard as Literature or the modes of analysis the study of such books gave rise to in the academy. For one thing, it is only in opposition to high-brow notions of literature that the competing notion of the middlebrow that informs Radway’s account of the Book-of-the-Month Club can even be formulated.
Paradoxically, those who most want to topple literature from its high culture pedestal are obliged to keep it fixed there in order to extol the equal value of popular or non-canonical forms of writing. Further, Radway’s chosen critical method could not be more immersed in the conventions of the academic style. Indeed, the dense and jargon-choked middle section of A Feeling for Books (a laborious examination of her subject’s “ideological position”) seems to presume a reader at least as specialized as any unrepentant formalist, and Radway doesn’t really invalidate qualities such as “intricacy, subtlety, and complexity” as standards by which to appraise some forms of expression. Instead, she simply elevates what seems a question of taste—a preference for poetry and fiction that are more emotionally direct, that provoke the “shudder, the frisson”—to a level of purported theoretical reflection that itself manifests a formidable degree of complexity.
Despite the inability, or unwillingness, of writers like Janice Radway and John Ellis to inquire into their own deep-seated and mutually unexamined assumptions, it is nevertheless certainly true that literature as an academic subject has been radically transformed in most upper-tier colleges and universities, and its survival in something resembling its orthodox form in some lower-rung schools is not likely to save it from eventual obsolescence. As traditionalists like Kernan and Ellis maintain, literature has lost the respect it once enjoyed from those devoted to its study, and it is not likely to regain that respect any time soon. And, as radicals like Radway would have it, capital-l literature has been promulgated with at best an overly reverent solemnity, at worst a kind of smug elitism that made the appearance of A Feeling for Books and similar rebellious efforts wholly predictable. However, while I could agree with the radicals that the institution of literary study came to be enveloped in an atmosphere of pretension and self-satisfaction, their current occupation of the grounds has hardly been an improvement.
Only if one accepts that literature and the academy are linked in some necessary and unavoidable way will one also feel that Literature’s fall from academic grace is quite the catastrophe the traditionalists make it out to be, however, or that its influence had to be counteracted in the name of other causes one values more highly. Once this link is broken, Literature ceases to be, and the forms of writing that have long been held hostage to it—“fine poems and novels”—would then no longer be subject to any of the agendas academic scholars and critics bring to the discipline-based study of capital-l literature. I am convinced that this would be the best possible outcome of the curricular wars, both for the survival of those older works that once formed the core of the academic canon and for the work of living writers, which has generally either been considered unworthy of attention at all or otherwise made the objects of the most politicized, coarsest forms of analysis. Freed from the pomposities and prejudices of the literature professors, perhaps the books that have been drained of interest to all but those who want to believe in Literature can find the audience they still deserve, and, more importantly, perhaps even small-l literature might continue to be a meaningful term, especially if it were used to describe a continuum of “literary” activity that, if anything, privileged contemporary writers whose work is able to extend and replenish the genres comprising what can truthfully be called an enduring tradition of imaginative writing.
Cutting the ties that have kept literature bound to the academy could in addition have the salutary effect of reviving literary criticism as part of the potential renewal of an authentic literary culture apart from the enervating influence of the academic critics. While some may question whether the United States has ever had, or ever really could have, a literary culture worthy of the designation, certainly the invention of Literature has proved to be at best a synthetic substitute. One could easily conclude from the lively coverage of the literary scene by the multitude of blogs and online book reviews, from the proliferation across the country of book discussion groups, that an interest in small-l literature persists among non-academic readers, that were the remaining superstructure supporting academic Literature to collapse entirely from its own dead weight (which may already be happening), a more finely-tuned, less grandiose kind of literary criticism would soon enough emerge from its ruins. Such criticism might even be practiced by many of the would-be critics who currently regard academe as the only plausible option for anyone who takes literature seriously; professional without being professionalized, this sort of criticism would ideally combine an immediacy of response not often to be found in even the best academic criticism with an ability, developed through simple attentiveness, to contextualize and to read closely, as surely any seriously conceived and executed attempt at literary art deserves.
It is certainly possible, of course, that nothing like what I am describing here will ever come to pass. Capital-l literature will continue, in however debased and beleaguered a form, as the self-claimed domain of academic “experts,” and non-academic criticism will remain a scattershot affair, confined to routine book reviews in the usual periodicals, at best to the websites and journals most committed to the informed discussion of new writing. It is even possible that what we now call literature will simply vanish into the virtual ether of cyberspace, recognized only as an artifact of intellectual history, if at all.
Such a fate seems to me almost inevitable, in fact, if those who retain an interest in the possibilities of literature (small-l) hold on to the assumption that the responsibility for ensuring its survival lies with the academy. The folly of this assumption cannot now be more apparent. Fine poems and novels are still being written, and we can only hope they never become Literature.