NYT on the culture wars and traditional literary study

Someone on my student listserv brought our attention to this article, which looks back at Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and its offspring. It’s started an interesting conversation among students about how we feel about “multi-culturalism” and the study of historical literatures. Why are the approaches to historical lit so apparently hostile to the politics of race, gender, and class?

Our conversation reminded me of several times when students in various Ph.D. programs have said they often feel uncomfortable bringing up, e.g., race or gender in the context of Shakespeare or Milton. While some professors actively encourage “political” conversations about literature, there is no shortage of those who assume that to politicize a text is to demean (or at least ignore) its formal/aesthetic value.

This is something I’m obviously interested in keeping an eye on. Beginning graduate students who have studied postcolonial theory or queer theory in undergrad often go on to take graduate courses in historical literature, and sometimes find that their usual methods of analysis are taken as immature or knee-jerking, and instead of being encouraged to apply them in a more historically conscious way, they often feel that the application is seen as inappropriate altogether.

My more generous side wants to reply that historical-lit professors are particularly wary of students fitting late-20th-century terminology to periods in which those categories have not been fully formed. When a student calls attention to a “racist” passage in a 17th-century poem, the professor will usually respond by trying to tease out the history of the construction of “race,” which may, unfortunately, come across as invalidating what could be a very fruitful conversation about colonialism and early modern cross-cultural confrontations.

But my less generous interpretation fears that the unwillingness to talk about global contexts and non-heteronormative sexuality in historical lit is an effect of politics not being within a professor’s particular interests, and that they may feel like these conversations are best saved for contemporary lit classes. Semesters can feel very crowded, and since so much of class time in historical lit must be taken up with hermeneutic and rhetorical analysis, a conversation about politics may feel like a derailing.

The effect, then, is that young scholars who may want to learn how to apply their interests to historical lit feel marginalized to the point that they eventually return to studying late 20th-century texts. (I have an acquaintance who had hoped to do an MA thesis on Defoe and enslavement who got so discouraged by the apparent resistance of his professors that he “retreated”—his word—to African-American Studies.) And I think the early modern period, especially the eighteenth century, suffers from the loss.

We have all seen clumsy applications of gender and race theory to texts in our period, but I’d argue that it’s a problem of failing to sufficiently historicize gender or race, not a problem with the desire itself, and the encouragement to historicize these approaches has to come from somewhere. The white masculinist academy has often sidestepped these issues in historical literature, even when the authors themselves explicitly address them. To politicize a reading of Defoe, in my opinion, is not to ignore what Defoe is doing, but to do justice to it.

The good news is that this is changing. Many young scholars of my acquaintance are starting to see this battle between “identity politics” on the one hand and “traditional literary scholarship” on the other as a false binary. Surely this is because people like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have been troubling it all along by working on queer theory that isn’t just robust enough to analyze Jeannette Winterson, but also robust enough to analyze John Donne. (Post)colonial theory, too, is becoming incredibly useful, not just for Nigerian lit, but also for Milton. This year, Queens College welcomed a new Asst. Professor, Eric Song, whose work analyzes English nativism in the context of early globalization in seventeenth-century poetry.

When I think about the scholarly possibilities that arise not from breaking down traditional approaches to historical lit, but supplementing them with long-overdue political awareness, I get very excited for our field and the scholarship that can come out of graduate students and young scholars over the next twenty years.


3 responses to “NYT on the culture wars and traditional literary study

  1. The defunding of the humanities coincided with a tremendous de-skilling of the bottom 80% of the undergraduate population and one of the most regressive periods in American politics since the Gilded Age. Now I’m supposed to believe that all this was caused by somebody’s decision to put Toni Morrison on a syllabus?

    There are real problems here, but the NYT’s analysis just hands over the mic to a handful of academic celebs whose experiences are simply not representative. It’s not all fun and games out there, but this problem deserves more considered treatment.

    To reply to some of your concerns, Carrie, I agree that this supposed standoff between historical criticism and identity politics is a false binary. And I get awfully suspicious when I hear people in privileged positions talking about the “need for consolidation.”



  2. Your comment about de-funding is dead-on, Dave, and I wonder which direction it moves in. Have humanities departments been de-funded in isolation from their move to incorporate contemporary lit, or are they de-funded because administrations can’t respect the work that’s done on contemporary lit, especially authors of color, and women authors?

    Is it much easier to fund a department that promises heathy doses of traditionally canonical authors than it is to fund a department that hires professors of contemporary “multicultural” lit? Even if the department itself finds contemporary lit and theory to be essential to an undergraduate education, to whom does this make an English major seem “fluffy”?

    Is it trustees? Students themselves? Their parents, who have a copy of Cultural Literacy in the nightstand drawer? Somewhere, I suspect the devaluation of humanities studies can be traced to books like Bloom’s and Hirsch’s, insisting that “nothing” is happening in English classes these days. And that “nothing” is a hasty (and, if I may say it, racist and masculinist) response to what is still an (always) ongoing struggle to develop a canon that reflects a more accurate understanding of the place of English literature and language with respect to the world.

  3. Laura Rosenthal


    That’s a huge, interesting, and complex question, but clearly the ‘canon wars’ are only related to a small part of the defunding. My sense is that the biggest factor has not been parents, students or trustees, but rather state governments, which have in recent year severely retreated from their funding of higher education. The most obvious connection I can make is that the defunding of higher education and attacks on multiculturalism came from the same place, but I’m not sure they are in any kind of one on one relationship (at least not a simple one). In the scheme of things, English majors make up only a tiny fraction of college students these days, although perhaps multiculturalism gave defunders a kind of rhetoric to use with voters–ie, they don’t want to be seen to be attacking Shakespeare, so we have become the Willie Horton of higher education. Most studies (and your experience) show that the actual change in the canon has been rather modest. Having said that, though, I do think we in academia could do a better job communicating our value and our project to the public.