Thursday, March 20, 2008

Deresiewicz, William. "Professing Literature in 2008." THE NATION March 11, 2008.

Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: an Institutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Rpt. 2008. Professing Literature, Gerald Graff's history of American English departments, has just been reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition (Chicago, $19). Published at the height of the culture wars--it came out a month before Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind--Graff's book brought a cooling sense of historical perspective to the inflamed passions of the moment. We'd been having the same arguments, it turned out, since universities started teaching English literature in the middle of the nineteenth century. The positions may have changed, but the issues had not. Classicists had been deposed by humanists, humanists by historians, historians by critics and now critics by theorists, but across the barricades of each revolution, the same accusations were flung: obfuscation, esotericism and overspecialization; naïveté, dilettantism and reaction. Teaching versus research, humane values versus methodological rigor, "literature itself" versus historical context. What's happened since? Graff's new preface reaffirms his belief that the answer to the mutual isolation of competing critical schools is to "teach the conflicts," but it doesn't tell us what's happened in the past twenty years (which happen to be the twenty years since I decided to go to graduate school). Broadly speaking, the past two decades have seen a move back toward historicism from the purely rhetorical realms of deconstruction: postcolonialism, New Historicism, cultural studies, history of the book. But the uniqueness of Graff's study was its attempt to offer, in the words of its subtitle, an "institutional history," not merely a chronology of intellectual trends. What's been going on there, at the more fundamental level of institutional structure and practice? . . . Read the rest here:

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