NEWS FLASH! In the last days of the last year of the twentieth century, The New York Review of Books has made an amazing and horrifying discovery: that the teaching of literature in our university English departments is in deep—well, let us say trouble. Just imagine! So grave has the situation now suddenly been discovered to be by the New York Review’s editors that they have thrown all caution to the winds and actually published an article in their issue of November 4 that poses the question: “What does it all mean? Should the teaching of English be given a decent burial, or is there life in it yet?” While the answer to this question remains moot, both in the article and in the academy itself, its author— Andrew Delbanco, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University—doesn’t hesitate, except in one important regard, to describe the wounds that have been inflicted on the patient he has been called upon to attend under emergency conditions.

What now passes for the teaching of literature in our university English departments, writes Professor Delbanco, “has come to reflect some of the worst aspects of our culture: obsessing about sex, posturing about real social inequities while leaving them unaddressed, and participating with gusto in the love/hate cult of celebrities.” And further: “In what is perhaps the largest irony of all, the teaching of English has been penetrated, even saturated, by the market mentality it decries. The theory factory (yesterday’s theory is deficient, today’s is new and improved) has become expert in planned obsolescence.” There is even a good word for Lionel Trilling in this article, and a hint, quickly balanced by equivocation, that some of the new fields of study in the English departments—“feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial studies, the New Historicism … and, most recently, ‘eco-criticism’”—might just not be as wonderful as they have been claimed to be.

Let us acknowledge, then, that there is much that is excellent in Professor Delbanco’s article, which is called “The Decline and Fall of Literature” and reviews a slew of recent publications on the subject. Yet it must also be said that there is not much in the article that will be new to readers of The New Criterion. It was in our issue of December 1983, after all, that we published René Wellek’s essay “Destroying Literary Studies,” which sounded the alarm about the very developments that have now brought the study of literature in our universities to the brink of extinction. From his position as a scholar in comparative literature at Yale University, Professor Wellek understood exactly what was at stake:

Today [the] whole edifice of literary study has come under an attack that is not merely the normal criticism of certain aspects of a changing discipline but an attempt to destroy literary studies from the inside. The attempt seems to have succeeded in certain academic circles; it has enlisted the support of a number of journals and has affected many students, apparently all over the country. It has hardly dislodged or even modified up till now the practice of the vast majority of teachers and students of literature. But it has had considerable publicity and, if it should be generally effective and find many adherents among the younger generation, may spell the breakdown or even the abolition of all traditional literary scholarship and teaching.
For issuing this warning, René Wellek was denounced by the then president of the Modern Language Association, Professor Helen Vendler, as an “old-fogey”—so was another eminent literary scholar, W. Jackson Bate—as the rush to complete “the breakdown or even the abolition of all traditional literary scholarship and teaching” proceeded on its merry, nihilistic course.

Why was it left to a few conservative writers—our own Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals, prominently among them —to resist this destructive course, which began in the literature departments of the universities and soon spread to virtually every branch of the humanities and even into the law schools? The truth is, the liberals both in and out of the universities felt obliged to lend support to this anti-literary, anti-humanistic, anti-social cultural movement because it was correctly seen to be a coefficient of the radical counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. To take up a position against the campaign to “deconstruct” the legacy of Western civilization was tantamount to declaring oneself to be of a conservative turn of mind, and, in the universities in the aftermath of the 1960s counterculture, that meant professional suicide in all but very exceptional circumstances. It is because Professor Delbanco could not bring himself to confront the patently political character of this assault on literary study that his article on “The Decline and Fall of Literature” remains a flawed and, in some respects, an even cowardly critique. It is also remarkably ungenerous, if not actually unforgiving, in its refusal to acknowledge that, until recently, it was largely left to writers outside the academy to sound the alarm about a development he new regards as dire. But had he openly acknowledged these conservative precursors, would The New York Review have published Professor Delbanco’s article? We doubt it. Still, though the hour is late and the patient barely breathing, we welcome even this flawed attempt to set the record straight.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 3, on page 1
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