Critical Inquiry


Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, by John M. Ellis, New Haven: Yale University Press, 262 pages, $25.00

The title of John M. Ellis's Literature Lost calls to mind a story about the novelist Bernard Malamud. Malamud was carrying the completed manuscript of a new book with him on a New York subway. Somehow or other, he got off the train, having left the manuscript behind. As with most things forgotten on a New York subway, it never surfaced again. There are other such cases of "literature lost": T.E. Lawrence famously mislaid his first version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (also on a train–perhaps writers should only travel by foot); a draft of Jean Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers, written on paper bags while in prison, was destroyed by malicious guards; Aristotle's legendary treatise on comedy–around which Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose revolves–has never turned up. In such literal instances of "literature lost," a text, or version of a text, is gone forever, living on only as a tantalizing possibility in the reader's imagination.

Ellis, of course, is making a different sort of allusion, one that invokes Paradise Lost, Milton's epic "of man's first disobedience." For Ellis, the original sin of today's academics is highly politicized criticism that seeks first and foremost to evaluate literature based on whether it conforms to current notions of social justice. Literature Lost is an eminently readable, insightful, and thought-provoking book that goes far beyond the often touristy and shallow journalistic critiques of academic political correctness by people such as Dinesh D'Souza, Richard Bernstein, Thomas Sowell, and Charles Sykes.

This should hardly be surprising: As a professor emeritus of German at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the author of 1989's Against Deconstruction, Ellis is not simply better versed in au courant academic argot; he has a much deeper knowledge of the culture of literature departments and of university life. And, to his credit, Ellis is anything but a reactionary ideologue. Indeed, the great virtue of Literature Lost is that it engages in extended, informed, and open argument. Hence, though he openly scorns deconstruction, New Historicism, and other forms of literary criticism that have risen to power over the past two decades or so, Ellis can also acknowledge that the influence of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault "energized" a "stagnant situation" in the field of literary studies. The result is a book that is both an excellent introduction to its topic and a nuanced polemic of interest to academic readers of all persuasions.

Ultimately, Ellis is writing less about literature being "lost" and more about its being displaced by other, nonliterary concerns. (His subtitle also misdirects the reader–though it invokes the "corruption of the humanities," the book is devoted exclusively to literary studies.) "In a comparatively short time, academic literary criticism has been transformed," he writes. "Many [critics] now regard social activism as the major purpose of literary criticism, and social activism of a very specific kind: the primary issue in all literary texts is the question of oppression by virtue of race, gender, and class." If possible, Ellis is understating things when he notes that the dictum "everything is `in the last analysis' political" has become a bedrock assumption in literary criticism.

Contrary to writers such as Roger Kimball, Ellis does not simply attribute the current emphasis on race, gender, and class to tenured radicals who came of age in the 1960s and their graduate-student protégés. Provocatively, Ellis suggests that although "those in the grip [of race-gender-class criticism] are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it…the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western."

Invoking such figures as Tacitus (the first-century A.D. historian who measured the decadence of his native Romans against fictively democratic and virtuous Germanic barbarians), Rousseau (who invidiously compared 18th-century Frenchmen to imagined, pre-social Noble Savages), and Margaret Mead (whose "sentimentalized Samoans" provided an ideological counterpoint to repressive Americans), Ellis sketches out a "uniquely self-critical" attitude of the West.

Indeed, he even notes that the crimes of which the West stands accused–racism, sexism, colonialism, etc.–are essentially transgressions against universal rights that are themselves products of the Enlightenment. In a sense, Ellis implicitly likens the current state of literary studies to another artifact of Enlightenment thought: the French Revolution. Just as that attempt to secure the "rights of man" ended in a bloody reign of terror, so too, suggests Ellis, are contemporary literary studies devouring their own.

Treating literature as exclusively–or ultimately–political yields various baleful effects, says Ellis, who wisely acknowledges that literature often does have a significant political dimension. From a professional perspective, such an approach denigrates the tools of literary analysis in favor of those from other fields. "Race-gender-class criticism belongs firmly in the category of activities that may involve literature but that center around something else," writes Ellis. "To put the matter simply, when you reduce literature to a single issue, your reasons for doing so must have nothing to do with literature, and consequently neither will your results." In this way, such critics not only undermine the legitimacy of literary studies as a distinct academic discipline, they often borrow indiscriminately from fields in which they are anything but expert. That's one of
the reasons why "psychological" and "economic" approaches to literature continue to rely heavily on outdated concepts derived from Freud and Marx.

An ultimately more damaging effect of race-gender-class criticism is that it reduces the "great range of opinion on social and political questions, as well as on any other kind of question" embodied in literature to a single dimension, a sort of up-or-down vote on the moral value of the author, the work under inspection, or the society that "produced" both. Despite their cutting-edge veneer, Ellis correctly notes, such attitudes are a return to "an older moralizing tradition…that was always mocked as the work of dull, pious middle-class folk who had no ear for what transcended their narrow understanding of the Bible."

P.C. moralizing, says Ellis, also misrepresents the "canon" as a fixed set of texts that pompously transmits univocal "wisdom." In fact, he notes, "few have ever thought the canon immutable." As for dispensing smug, transcendental truths: "It would be more true to say that we get eternal questioning, not eternal verity, from Shakespeare," writes Ellis. "Students of German literature will smile grimly at the notion that Goethe's Faust gives easy answers."

For Ellis, critics who focus on "a single factor" inevitably display a tin ear when it comes to literature. (He also rightly points out that such critical monomania is neither a recent nor an exclusively political phenomenon.) His critique of the hugely influential and stridently ideological critic Frederic Jameson, author of the "everything is `in the last analysis' political" dictum, illustrates the point.

In an analysis of the film Jaws, Jameson contends that Quint, the shark hunter played by Robert Shaw, represents "an older America–the America of small business…the New Deal and the crusade against Nazism, the older America of the depression and the war and the heyday of classical liberalism." (Collapsing such wildly disjunctive elements into a single category with the density of a dwarf star is a quintessentially Jamesonian move.)

We recognize this supposed symbolism, Jameson argues, because of Quint's "otherwise gratuitous reminiscences about World War II and the campaign in the Pacific." But as Ellis counters, "What Jameson calls gratuitous reminiscences provide the central motivation for Quint's place in the film as the obsessed shark hunter. His death is that of an Ahab, consumed with a desire for revenge and punished for it; it has nothing to do with the demise of the American past. Jameson's political interpretation of Quint is so arbitrary that it makes the bloodthirsty shark killer into a classical liberal."

In the end, Ellis suggests, the most pernicious problem with race-gender-class criticism is that, even as it revels in its subversion of received readings and its struggle against what it sees as wrongly dominant values, it does not seek to encourage ongoing debate as much as end it. Because race-gender-class critics conflate literary criticism with a moral appeal to a particular political program, Ellis argues, "dissenters [from the P.C. agenda] can expect to be not only criticized, as dissenters always are, but denounced as…moral outcasts."

Literature Lost is compelling in many ways, perhaps most forcefully simply as a performance: It embodies the critical dialogue it espouses. The very strengths of the book, however, make its failings loom larger. Given the resonance of its title, it's not surprising–but no less annoying–that Literature Lost is suffused with a relatively uncomplicated longing for the olden days when critics "prided themselves on using their language well" and "excellence was their watchword."

It's a safe bet that critics throughout history have always been fond of their writing and have believed themselves to be excellent at their various perorations. Without ever quite spelling out the terms, Ellis evinces a fairly narrow ideal of legitimate literary criticism, pooh-poohing thematic studies and the application of critical methods such as close reading and rhetorical analysis to nonliterary objects.

His fretting over the perceived lack of scholarly interest in major figures such as Shakespeare is unconvincing. The Bard still bestrides the critical industry like a colossus and, whether Shakespeare courses are required or not, it's tough to find an undergraduate English major who has not been exposed to him; similarly, the proliferation of mandatory "great books" and "intellectual heritage" college courses mean that students are more likely to encounter Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest of the old gang than they might have been 20 years ago.

More important, Ellis sometimes focuses on scholars who are peripheral to contemporary literary studies, although they may be influential in other disciplines. This tendency is most obvious in his discussion of feminist criticism. He spends a fair amount of time on people such as Marilyn French (author of The Women's Room), Catharine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, none of whom can be mistaken for a major player in literary criticism, feminist or otherwise.

He also calls attention to scholars, such as Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley's Center for Research on Women, who argue that men and women literally think along different lines: Men think "vertically"–logically, individualistically, competitively; women think "horizontally"–intuitively, socially, compassionately. While there is no dearth of silly ideas circulating in literary studies, such a schema is not one of the more widespread ones.

Conversely, Ellis ignores immensely influential figures such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Hélène Cixous–all of whom have had a profound impact on literary and cultural studies. Though he discusses Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's influential 1979 study of representations of women in Victorian literature, The Madwoman in the Attic, he seems to have little awareness of the acts of literary recovery it both reflected and helped inspire. Indeed, a great deal of feminist criticism focuses less on "theorizing" about gender differences and more on establishing what women actually wrote and under what circumstances.

The results can be quite fascinating, for they often fill out a literary history that, while not completely excluding women writers, was quick to dismiss such figures out of hand. For example, generations of professors have passed on to students Nathaniel Hawthorne's infamous remark that his work was scarcely noticed because of the "damned mob of scribbling women," the female authors who had a strong, perhaps even dominant, position in the literary marketplace of antebellum America. But it has only been in the past couple of decades that scholars have begun to actually look at the works written by Hawthorne's female, and often more popular, counterparts, such as essayist Margaret Fuller, editor and author Lydia Maria Child, and novelist Susan Warner. The result is a far richer literary tradition, not merely one that pays obeisance to identity politics. Child's 1824 novel Hobomok, for instance, is interesting in its own right and provides a compelling contrast to both Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and Hawthorne's depictions of the Puritans.

Ironically, such research–under way in many periods and genres–seems to comport pretty well with Ellis's appreciation for literature. "Literature," he writes, "can be thought of as a kind of forum in which the members of a society reflect together and brood upon the many issues that arise in their lives." Indeed, such an understanding of the function of literature (or, for that matter, culture in general), suggests that the "issues"–and the texts–being brooded upon are likely to change as readers themselves change: The increase in the number of women in literary studies over the past few decades brings with it greater attention to, or a different perspective on, writing by and about women.

This is not to endorse a simplistic notion of identity politics along the lines of, "Women want to read about women, blacks about blacks, working-class people about working-class people." Certainly one of the great reasons to read literature is to experience the unfamiliar. But readers are also drawn to works that have some real or imagined relevance to their lives, and often that relevance has something to do with the reader's personal background (how else to explain that a disproportionate number of American critics of Irish literature have names like Moynahan and O'Hara? Or that universities in the South are more likely to teach something called "Southern literature"?).

In fact, Ellis consistently acknowledges that literary studies is an ongoing, decentralized process, driven largely by readers' various interests: "The canon is…the result of the actions of all kinds of readers….Professors whose reading lists consist of books that students find uninteresting or directors who put on plays the public won't pay to see soon find their cultural influence declining sharply, if they ever had any."

Although such a dynamic incorporates a feedback mechanism that should soothe Ellis's worries–he even notes that "far too many people are involved to make…control possible in anything but the short run"–he seems highly ambivalent about any specific instance of change. Given his apparently conservative inclinations–"resistance to change is a notion that is valid in many human contexts," he writes–and his knowledge of literary history, he may be able to embrace change in the abstract while rejecting it in the concrete.

A reason for that may be that, although he recognizes that the literary canon (and by extension, the proper methods, scope, and objects of literary study) is always under revision, Ellis fails to articulate a method by which legitimate (to him) change occurs, opting instead for what Marxists would call "mystification"–that is, the attributing of social process to vague, ineffable forces. "To be sure, new additions to the canon occur from time to time," he writes at one point; at others, he speaks of "natural change" and changes occurring "naturally through readers' decisions." What bothers him, he says, are "changes brought about by fiat."

But such an opposition fails to do justice to how authors and books get added and subtracted from "the canon." All such changes are "natural" in that they happen over time and create a sorting process that, as Ellis points out, is difficult to rig to any ideological or even aesthetic agenda. But all such changes are done by "fiat" in that one can point to specific decisions to include a writer on a syllabus or drop him from an anthology.

Consider the case of Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep. Published in 1934 to excellent notices, it sold poorly and vanished down the literary memory hole until 1956, when influential critics Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler named it one of "the most neglected books of the past 25 years" in a symposium in The American Scholar, the journal of Phi Beta Kappa. Both went on to champion the book at length in other forums. The first paperback edition of Call It Sleep–a direct result of renewed critical attention–came out in 1964, and since then the book has worked its way into the syllabi of many college courses on the 20th-century American novel.

Over time, Roth will disappear again, replaced by some other now-marginal writer. This is a "natural" process, but also one made up of "fiat" decisions. Certainly it is a process we can analyze.

It's also worth recognizing that the current race-gender-class emphasis did not happen overnight. Though its practitioners may fancy themselves revolutionaries, they did not simply take over the university system like a band of guerillas storming the palace gates. As with prior critical movements, race-gender-class scholars made a long, slow march to a position of power. (And when their fall comes, they will doubtless see it as the result of a swift, brutal plot, just as Ellis views the current "corruption of humanities.")

Interestingly, Literature Lost itself is an argument for change, or at least a re-evaluation of major premises in contemporary literary studies. In articulating his case as well as he does, Ellis also underscores the primary way change happens, at least in the intellectual marketplace: through the force of ideas.