An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2009

A world without literature?

Michael Wood
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Michael Wood, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2003, is the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. His publications include “Literature and the Taste of Knowledge” (2005) and “The Road to Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles” (2003).

Just over ten years ago, the mood of a large section of the North American academic world was caught in the title of a volume published by Princeton University Press with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The volume asked, What’s Happened to the Humanities?–not, what are the humanities doing these days? or even, what are they doing to themselves? Instead, the pure passive dilemma: what has happened to them?1 The volume contains wonderful essays full of intelligent commentary and ideas, but the effect of the work as a whole is a scent of sophisticated disarray. Prestige, centrality, tradition, students, a public, and financial support: all gone. And for no reason that we could see–except for a more than slight tendency to blame a few of our own colleagues and their softness on “postmodernism” for doing us in. But even this sort of supposed appeasement couldn’t single-handedly have caused such a collapse: history, or something, had happened to us, the humanities, with the study of English literature often at our stated or implied core. After all, literary study is where “elaborate exercises in various kinds of reading and writing” have long been most immediately visible, according to the volume’s editor, Alvin Kernan.2

Of course, all had not gone, and has not gone yet. But the bewilderment of the profession was real, only partly reduced by a series of very good books that set out to explore the logic, history, and sociology of our condition. I am thinking especially of John Guillory’s Cultural Capital (1993), David Simpson’s The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature (1995), and Marjorie Garber’s Academic Instincts (2001), among quite a few others. There was a real crisis, and even those of us who believed the crisis might be an opportunity rather than a doom had to do some hard thinking. It wasn’t a matter merely of offering sunniness instead of sorrow, for as Simpson bitingly puts it, we cannot “afford the mere celebrations of the literary as a new lease of cultural political hope.”3 . . .

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  • 1Alvin Kernan, ed., What’s Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
  • 2Ibid., 9.
  • 3David Simpson, The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 180.