In 1956, Yvor Winters, a poet, critic, and professor at Stanford, published an essay (later collected in a slim, quarrelsome book called The Function of Criticism) addressing "Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature." The first of these, he wrote, "is to find a mode of living which will enable him to develop his mind, practice his art, and support his family. The universities offer the obvious solution, but the matter is worth at least brief discussion."
In the ensuing decades — from the post-Sputnik, post-GI Bill higher-education boom of the early 1960s, through the campus revolts later in that decade and the periods of expansion, retrenchment, crisis, and reinvention that followed — the discussion has been extensive, not to say exhaustive. The study of literature, a cornerstone of the liberal-arts curriculum through all of this time, has also been a flash point in the intellectual and cultural battles that periodically inflame the university. Even as the dubious employability of English majors is a perpetual source of humor, the question of what and how those students should be studying is treated as a matter of deadly political seriousness.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the literary academy would be seized by spasms of irritation about "theory," meaning approaches to prose and poetry rooted in esoteric European philosophy. In the ’90s, the battle was over the canon of established great authors (most of them dead, white, and male) and efforts to expand the syllabus to cover not only previously ignored writers and books, but also nonliterary products that could be taught under the new, excitingly broad (or maddeningly empty) rubric of "cultural studies." More recently, the ground has shifted again, as proponents of a technologically savvy, forward-looking "digital humanities" approach have squared off against defenders of the old-school liberal arts.
But Winters divined a more basic problem, a contradiction that would determine much of the unsettlement that came after. The critic’s home in the university was built on a philosophical fault line that was also a highly contested piece of disciplinary turf. The departments where the critic might find his mode of living had been dominated by scholars, by analysts of the various arts — poetry in Winters’s case — whose labors were undertaken according to quasi-scientific, objective methods. Winters himself was a credentialed member of this guild, having received a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1928. Its members were researchers and philologists, historians and bibliographers, disinclined (at least in principle) to pass judgment on the merits and even the meaning of the things they studied.
More than that, they were temperamentally and morally distinct from the artists whose work furnished material for their own: "The professors have made a living by what they have regarded as the serious study of literature; but the men who have composed the literature were not serious, in the professors’ opinion and sometimes in fact, and hence have been considered unfit to study or teach it. Each group has traditionally held the other in contempt." The campusbound critic ambles into a crossfire. The scholars will regard him as an interloper from the wild, irrational, intellectually suspect land of the artists, who may in turn suspect him of treason.
If critics are going to be professors, they need something to profess: a body of doctrine and procedure rather than a congeries of impressions and whims. Leaving intact the idea that part of the fundamental business of criticism is judgment, Winters proposes that the aesthetic quality of a given poem is not just arguable, but provable. Elsewhere, in The Anatomy of Nonsense, he expands this claim through a series of axioms and syllogisms:
Is it possible to say that Poem A (one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, or one of the poems of Jonson or of Shakespeare) is better than Poem B (Collins’ Ode to Evening) or vice versa?If not, is it possible to say that either of these is better than Poem C (The Cremation of Sam Magee, or something comparable)?If the answer is no in both cases, then any poem is as good as any other. If this is true, then all poetry is worthless; but this obviously is not true, for it is contrary to all our experience.If the answer is yes in both cases, then there follows the question of whether the answer implies merely that one poem is better than another for the speaker, or whether it means that one poem is intrinsically better than another. If the former, then we are impressionists, which is to say relativists; and are either mystics … or hedonists. … If the latter, then we assume that constant principles govern the poetic experience, and that the poem (as likewise the judge) must be judged in relationship to those principles.
This argument, at once airtight and preposterous, has a certain "Kant for Dummies" appeal. It is attached to opinions that have a durable contrarian charm. Winters expended enormous polemical energy in the promotion of an idiosyncratic countercanon, insisting that obscure and marginal pamphleteers and versifiers were superior to their better-known contemporaries. The great poet of the English Renaissance was Barnabe Googe. The titan of 19th-century American letters was not Emerson or Whitman but the unsung sonneteer Jones Very. Winters could prove it.
My intention in dragging Winters out of his own unmerited obscurity is not to mock his certainty, but rather to celebrate his singular honesty. (I will add that his prose, his verse, and his teaching deserve wider recognition than they currently enjoy.) As criticism began its partial migration, starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the midcentury, from Grub Street to the Arcadian groves of the American campus, Winters wanted to make sure that its place was well earned, and that it could sit comfortably and respectably amid the other arts and sciences.
It did, but not quite in the way he thought it would or should, and as a result of forces much larger than the persuasive authority of any single critic.
After World War II, on the newly thriving campuses — state and private research universities flush with government and foundation money; small, progressive liberal-arts colleges; public satellite institutions created to meet the needs of an expanding and aspiring middle class, an increasingly technocratic society, and a growing, mobile, and diverse population — literary study underwent a series of fissures and mergers. Critics like Winters joined poets, novelists, and other "creative" writers seeking shelter from the literary marketplace in the state- and patron-funded sinecures of academe.
At the gates, they were sorted according to a new and often unstated set of functions, one that was to be replicated in other disciplines. Through one portal poured the doers, the artists, not entirely free of the stigma of unseriousness but nonetheless hired as role models for the young. Their classes were typically called workshops, and they were devoted to the honing of skills rather than the transmission of knowledge.
Criticism was part of their pedagogy, criticism of an especially focused and practical kind, one that Winters the poet would have recognized, endorsed, and inflicted on some of his students. Studio art majors endure the "crit," an ostensibly constructive, frequently brutal rite of ego demolition conducted by instructors and peers. Creative-writing workshops have their own version of this, during which the fledgling author, usually after reading something aloud, remains silent as the teacher and the other pupils dissect what does and does not work at the level of the sentence, the line, the image, or the overall structure. This is evaluative criticism at its most direct and functional, and it is also criticism from which larger questions of taste — and broader ideas about the world — have been excluded. We are here to figure out what is better or worse (Poem A or Poem B), not to interpret, contextualize, philosophize, or otherwise wonder about what it all might mean.
That kind of criticism occupies its own place on campus, sometimes in a whole other department. Rather than healing the divide between art and scholarship by revealing its irrelevance, criticism was installed as a newly empowered but always embattled form of scholarship. Professors of literature — historians of language, editors of annotated editions, authors of learned monographs on writers famous and obscure — began to call themselves critics. University presses published their work under that label. Their field blossomed with energy and contention, as the new discipline tried, simultaneously, to figure out its basic principles and to satisfy a burgeoning demand for new courses, textbooks, and conference topics.
The English writer Geoff Dyer has railed against "dimwit academics shovelling away at their research, digging the grave of literature," and against professors who strangle their students’ delight in works of imagination. He is hardly alone. The idea that education has a soul-killing effect on art — on its potential makers and its eager appreciators — is a recurrent theme in modern education itself. The academy’s relationship to art is deeply paradoxical. Art has always needed shelter from the marketplace, and the academy is a source of patronage and protection. This safety is purchased at considerable risk, though. The university is a place where the enthusiasm and energy of the young are disciplined and channeled by credentialed bureaucratic functionaries whose real work is to churn out papers and books that no one outside their own disciplinary circle will read. The normalization and standardization of intellectual activity is the goal.
That’s not what the brochures say, of course. The university advertises itself, to prospective students and to the society at large, as a place of self-discovery and expanded possibility, where young minds, having snoozed and struggled their way through the routines of elementary and secondary schooling, are opened up and set free. The campus is a place of challenge and self-discovery, whose promotional key word is "passion," our new, touchy-feely term for what used to be called ambition.
An acute and early diagnosis of the contradictory state of the modern university came from Lionel Trilling, a Columbia English professor and eminent literary critic who straddled, from the 1930s to the ’60s, the worlds of public intellectual journalism and academic scholarship. In his 1961 essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," he noted a radical disjunction between much of that literature’s "hostility to civilization" and the inherently civilizing mission of liberal-arts instruction.
"For some years I have have taught the course in modern literature in Columbia College," he wrote. "I did not undertake it without misgiving and I have never taught it with an undivided mind. My doubts do not refer to the value of the literature itself, only to the educational propriety of its being studied in college." The incompatibility of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, and even Henry James with the mind-set of 20th-century American youth instilled in Trilling and his colleagues "a kind of despair."
It does not come because our students fail to respond to ideas, rather because they respond to ideas with a happy vagueness, a delighted glibness, a joyous sense of power in the use of received or receivable generalizations, a grateful wonder at how easy it is to formulate and judge, at how little resistance language offers to their intentions.
Trilling’s concerns are a mirror image of the ones Winters identified. The problem is not that scholarship — at least the apprentice version practiced by bright young students at fine old schools — is serious but that it is not serious enough. It is the art that is grave and difficult. Winters solved this problem by insisting that the split between art and learning was based on a romantic delusion about the emotive, expressive, and personal essence of art. Trilling, while noting that "nowadays the teaching of literature inclines to a considerable technicality," found it impossible to contain the discussion of modern writing within the ambit of technique. To do it justice was to grapple with painful and personal matters, with one’s own thoughts about sex, alienation, injustice, and death, to "stare into the abyss" and then write a term paper about it.
The wonder of modern American higher education is that it has managed to have it both ways, to emancipate and to regiment, to slot armies of dreamers, mavericks, and iconoclasts into their assigned roles in a highly technocratic society, to turn the most uncompromising and incandescent works of imagination — the poetry of Trilling’s erstwhile student Allen Ginsberg, say — into fodder for classroom discussion and assigned writing. If nobody quite regards this as a triumph — if the university remains an object of scorn and suspicion as well as celebration, including from its own denizens — that may be a further sign of how well the whole thing works. Like the literary marketplace that is its pretend rival, the academy makes room for oddballs and outliers, for thinkers and writers who cut against the grain. It does this by giving them jobs that are actually impossible to do.