The Chronicle Review

Barbarians vs. Centurions: Coming to a Classroom Near You

Douglas Paulin for The Chronicle Review
October 02, 2011

One Saturday morning not long ago, I woke up to find myself a symbol of the decline of American higher education. The source of my new status was a review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel, which I edited along with Clare Virginia Eby of the University of Connecticut and Benjamin Reiss of Emory University. The book had attracted the distinct disapprobation of the cultural critic Joseph Epstein, who declared in The Wall Street Journal that it was the work of "barbarians." In "What Killed American Lit." he declared that those barbarous hordes have stormed past "the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture" and "it is they who are running the joint today." What had we loosed upon academe? An "automatic leftism" preoccupied with "every kind of prejudice and class domination."

As someone who had never before tipped over anything larger than a coffee table, I've been trying to adjust to life as a leader of the new savagery that has overturned the good old world order. Never mind the specific charges—I'm confident that our Cambridge History is a pretty good book, and I invite curious readers to check it out for themselves. (The table of contents and sample chapters are available online.) But more important, Epstein's review highlights a familiar debate, old but evidently not forgotten. The culture wars over the canon raged hot during the 1980s and '90s. Some of us may have thought they were over, or at least in a state of détente. I wonder if what we're seeing now is a new appeal by old-canon warriors to public support that's attuned to mounting public frustration with higher education.

We should not ignore such fire-stoking, however misguided it may be. We all have a lot at stake—and when I say "we," I mean all the combatants. For both sides want to protect the humanities. This time around, let's concentrate on conducting the canon debate better. It's time that the barbarians and the centurions had some dialogue, instead of calling each other names.

Epstein conjures up a volatile mixture of vitriol and nostalgic longing for a time when everyone presumably agreed about which were the great books—and more important, on why they were great. He pointedly excludes popular literature from consideration, and he particularly detests the way that our History takes genre fiction (like detective stories, science fiction, and romances) seriously and traces the historical relations between high and low literary culture.

But literary criticism has always been a messy business, and Epstein's good old days weren't as harmonious and elevated as he remembers. The great critics who strode the earth at mid-20th century had to defend themselves against their own detractors. The complicated liberalism of Lionel Trilling, for example, generated sharp debate in his time that continues beyond it. And two other members of Epstein's pantheon of centurions, Marjorie Hope Nicolson and Joseph Wood Krutch, wrote essays on detective fiction. (So did Jacques Barzun, another venerated member of that generation.)

The high-low divide was simply not as secure as Epstein would have it, and it never has been. Herman Melville started out writing genre fiction, but that's not obvious today because the genre that he wrote in—the maritime novel—is in eclipse. Henry James wrote ghost stories. Part of the job of literary history is to show the origins of things, and the canonical novels of many of America's literary greats have deep roots in popular genres.

False nostalgia can be an intoxicating tonic. It requires but small quantities to have an effect: Scores of Wall Street Journal readers responded readily to Epstein's warnings of culture and education come undone. Their online comments make for sad readingsad because of the hatred on display. One of the contributors to our volume, Russ Castronovo of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, lamented in an e-mail to me: "The responses display a deep suspicion toward and resentment of academia, and they reiterate the gulf between the academy and other media institutions." Beneath the resentment, he noted, is a longing for a time when people were confident they knew what to read—and what education would get them. Resentment breeds despair, and despair, when viewed across what appears to be an unbridgeable gap between us and them can turn into venom.

That gulf between academe and the general public is obvious in many fields, and it suggests that we professors and critics—you too, Mr. Epstein—have a job to do. Many colleagues suggested that my coeditors and I ignore the review; to acknowledge the attack would be to dignify it. More than one suggested that we should treat it as a mark of honor, like being named to Richard Nixon's enemies list.

But we're teachers, and we need to get the word out about what we do. Some years ago, Gerald Graff, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, proposed that literature professors teach the conflicts in literary criticism. The one between the barbarians and the centurions evidently still requires our attention.

Epstein was not wrong to suggest that The Cambridge History of the American Novel reflects a change over the past 50 years in how English professors teach, and he's entitled to deplore that shift. But reviews like his show that we're not doing a good job of explaining it. There's a strong (and righteous!) case to be made for teaching beyond the old canon, but why isn't it being made to general audiences, the way that Epstein is making his?

I don't mean that English professors should aim to publish apologias in The Wall Street Journal, or even in Mother Jones. Instead, we're fortunate to face general audiences of students in our classrooms every week. Not that we should preach to them. Let's teach the debates—all sides of them—that animate our intellectual culture. If those debates still include why we have expanded the literary canon, then let's continue to teach that, by putting old and new ideas into conversation.

We're trying to do that in The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Take the bête noire of centurions like Epstein: identity politics. There's no question that identity politics provides an influential taxonomy for many novels of the late 20th century. But do those categories overdetermine or balkanize literary studies? To debate that question, our History juxtaposes analyses that stay within identity categories with essays that criticize them—and we arranged for the authors to read each others' chapters and talk to each other within the pages of the volume. That dialogic method is also something to pursue in our classrooms.

Polemic, on the other hand, polarizes—I was disappointed that Epstein resorted to it. The humanities can surely be criticized. Moreover, we should see the stake that general readers take in the workings of English departments as a good thing, because it means that people care about what we do.

It is likewise important that we show that we care about it too. The idea that English professors somehow don't like literature is an assumption that has gone unchallenged for too long in our public sphere, and it contributes to the antipathy that's out there. We need to make clearer—in and out of class—that:

  • Barbarians like some books better than others, just as centurions do.
  • More important, there's more than one reason to like a book and more than one way to show it.

Epstein says that great books are marked by their "high truth quotient." Even if we could agree on what that means (and history suggests that slaveholders from the antebellum American South would have had a different idea of truth than I), that can't be the only way to separate the books you like from the ones that you don't.

The supposedly timeless aesthetics Epstein yearns for were of a particular time, and they were challenged in their own day. They were preceded and succeeded by other ways of loving books, and different books that were loved. The supposedly eternal criteria of truth and beauty owe more than a little to the New Criticism of the postwar era, which supplanted philologically based methods of literary history. Literary theory succeeded the New Criticism, and today's contextually centered readings have come after. Maybe we're progressing in our understanding of literature, or maybe, as Epstein suggests, we're becoming uncivilized—we might hold that up as a difference of opinion.

But it's a fact, not an opinion, that we have always changed the way that we read and think about literature and its value. It would be a terrible thing if we restricted "the best which has been thought and said" to the books that Matthew Arnold had in front of him when he defined culture in those terms.

A little generosity will help us argue more thoughtfully and productively. Even when we don't agree on the choices we make, everyone who believes in higher education, literary culture, and the humanities is still part of a larger partnership. And we all have a lot to lose from the deepening suspicion with which the public views not just academe, but the life of learning and the mind that it sustains. This barbarian suggests that we all make more of an effort to understand each other better.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, is general editor of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011) and author of Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories (Columbia University Press, 2008).