I Would Have Had My Great Books, Too, If It Weren’t For Those Meddling Hippies

Mark Edmundson complains, again, that the dirty hippies screwed up the world and killed literature in the process.

Rather than a dreary point-by-point response to everything objectionable in the essay, I want to focus on one issue in it that Alan Jacobs and I were discussing earlier on Twitter, because it’s a problem that crops up in similar jeremiads against the culture of the present.

Edmundson complains that literary scholars stopped making judgments about the relative quality of literary and cultural work in the course of the 1960s, thereby instantaneously flushing the entirety of the Western tradition down the toilet in a matter of a decade or so. Why didn’t the public at large just keep at the discernment of quality thing? Because ultimately Edmundson, similar to some conservative or traditionalist humanists, believes in a command model. The public only valued literature because the critics told them to. The public only understood literature because the critics told them what it meant. The public only read literature because the critics lead them through the reading of it. Once the commandment vanished, so did the Western tradition itself, and with extraordinary rapidity.

For one, this doesn’t exactly square with claims about the immortal greatness of Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, etcetera. So self-evidently great, so full of incomparable majesty and worth, so important that they get tossed overboard for “Three’s Company” and some nachos the moment a small group of tweed-festooned men stop continuously churning out oracular instructions about how to read and honor the classics? That’s a picture of literary criticism that makes critics sound more like secret police for an authoritarian regime.

Second, of course, most of the canon as it stood in 1950 or so is still being read and valued by critics and general audiences alike. But I’m tired of trying to make that particular point to the “English departments only teach classes about the laundry lists of left-handed lesbian Iniut factory workers” crowd: you can hear a thunderous squoosh of fingers inserted into earwax every time this fact gets in the way.

Third, and most important, Edmundson and a small number of similarly-minded critics prefer to see criticism in terms of a command model, and their critical colleagues as betrayers, because the alternative is to actually make arguments about quality that are persuasive. If there’s anything that’s been forgotten (by Edmundson, apparently) it is that these are the hardest kinds of interpretation, not the easiest, at least if you want to make them as substantive, well-reasoned intellectual claims built on a systematic infrastructure that other critics could add to or disagree with. Arnold’s aphorism about the best that has been said and known stirs many a critical heart, but don’t forget the hard work that follows if you don’t want statements about quality to simply be a tea-sipping genteel version of The Argument Clinic from Monty Python.

When a critic with this complaint against the present moment actually ventures to anoint a literary work as having quality (or as lacking it), their assertion often comes down to one of three things: 1) of course this is great, because it is one of those works that was called great by those great literary critics we used to have; 2) of course this is great because the wrong kind of lesbo-Marxist-postmodernist critics hate it WARGLEBARGLE LOOK OVER THERE IT’S A UFO; 3) of course this is great because it talks about love and sadness and things that are very profound and makes me feel all philosophical and stuff, like when I was a teenager and did I ever tell you about how I felt in high school?

Go ahead, think about it for a minute. Why is one work of literature great and another not so much? For that matter, why is a work of high culture great compared to a work of popular culture? (Or is it?) The answers to those questions are never obvious. If you think you can tell me in a paragraph why Moby Dick is a greater work of literature than Northanger Abbey, I don’t think you really know what you’re talking about, even though I’d completely agree with the sentiment.

There is a reason that critics did stop making “is this great?” the first and last question of literary analysis (Edmundson is not wrong to say that this problem has been sidelined in cultural criticism, and this does indeed raise problems, as the concept of good and bad work is indispensible). The reason is that it’s a really hard philosophical problem that was made to seem easier through slight-of-hand when the answer was conflated with the preferences and tastes of a fairly narrow social class that held itself aloof from a wider public.

It is not a question that can be successfully answered through collecting data or assembling evidence. The history of critical judgment does not provide one with any confidence of steady improvement over time in the sorting of great from not-great, even before the dirty hippies and postmodernists wrecked the whole thing. Many works that traditionalists now commonly celebrate as self-evidently “great”, literature that makes its way into Great Books programs, was not infrequently once regarded by expert judgment as derivative, weak, pointlessly transgressive, vulgar, or lowbrow popularizing. Tell me that Dickens is great, and I’ll remind you that there were once expert critics who saw him otherwise. It works as well the other direction as well: there’s a long list of works once lauded as self-evidently great which even the most florid defender of the traditional canon would likely concede are now best forgotten.

I’d welcome an investigation of what makes some cultural works great and others ordinary or bad that was consciously intended to provide a critical toolkit to other readers and critics. Note that to be useful as an infrastructure for future criticism, such a work couldn’t answer all questions of greatness in advance. Not a canon, but the foundation for making a canon. To be useful, it would have to be applicable to works that its creator had never read or considered, and to stimulate rather than close down debate about works that its creator knows well.

That’s a mighty work I’m imagining. I wouldn’t blame anyone for refusing to tackle it. I would blame those, however, who regard this kind of critical judgment as easy, blame all the rest of the world for failing to undertake it, and yet can’t seem to be bothered to do it themselves beyond a few one-liner declarations about the greatness of favored works.

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22 Responses to I Would Have Had My Great Books, Too, If It Weren’t For Those Meddling Hippies

  1. NickS says:

    “Go ahead, think about it for a minute. Why is one work of literature great and another not so much? For that matter, why is a work of high culture great compared to a work of popular culture? (Or is it?) The answers to those questions are never obvious. ”

    That’s very well put, I think, and I’m going to steal that. It isn’t a new thought, of course, but I appreciate you stating it so directly and bracketing out the natural tendency towards thinking, “of course we know X is better than Y”

    As you say, even if that conclusion is true (or defensible), the argument is likely to be complex and difficult.

  2. Western Dave says:

    “there’s a long list of works once lauded as self-evidently great which even the most florid defender of the traditional canon would likely concede are now best forgotten. ” You mean that’s why I’ve already forgotten which box I put The Corrections into?

  3. agl1 says:

    Wow, what a troll, and also recycling a 13 year old piece


    There should be a version of the quote “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” for this kind of imprisonment in a late 19th century petit-bourgeois middlebrow view of the world (this also applies to the Tiger Mom too, incidentally).

    The project you describe would quickly lose its moorings without a heavy dollop of social history of culture (the “rediscovery” of Greece by the Germans and British in any discussion of Homer for example), which I guess would be the point.

    The best place to start in any discussion of the canon would be of course be Carl Wilson’s classic “Let’s Talk About Love” about Celine Dion.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    It is indeed the point, and in some cases, I suspect this is precisely why certain faux-Edwardians don’t embark on the heavy lifting, because they’re smart enough to see why the load got dropped in the first place. In other cases, too dim to see the problem, but too dim for the same reason to begin trying in the first place.

  5. alonzo says:

    Where on earth did you get “dirty hippies” from? Edmundnson’s criticism is directed at what he sees as a pervasive self-satisfied complacency in our culture and at a failure of academics and critics to challenge that complacency. This criticism certainly includes plenty of “dirty hippies” but hardly singles them out. (And, by the way, he mentions neither the 1960’s nor “the Western tradition” — and I think he really means not to mention them.) Of course, on some points he does agree with some “dirty hippie” bashers. Just as, on some points (very important points!) concerning the current situation in Egypt, I agree with the Muslim Brotherhood (Islamic Jihad for that matter), but that doesn’t mean I support them, or that I am a secret Islamist.

    If anything Edmundson’s position is rather countercultural. He just finds his counterculture in old books. Look the names he mentions in one paragraph — Blake, Emerson, Wilde, Mill on Wordsworth. I somewhat suspect he threw in Arnold just to avoid seeming like too much like a dirty hippie.

    As for the “command model,” I will say that I have always, in my own quest to be influenced, sought out and valued cultural arbiters, authorities, enthusiasts, and critics to help me find and understand and appreciate the works I craved. But I never felt commanded and I would take as an insult the suggestion that I was. Cultural authority can always be rejected or ignored. (When it mingles with institutional authority things get problematic, but perhaps no more so for Edmundson’s position than for any other.)

    Edmundson does not show much interest in the theory of literary evaluation, he is a romantic pragmatist. He thinks Milton is better than Stephen King, not that Milton is really really scientifically swear-to-god better than Stephen King. If asked why he might just reply “Don’t you?”
    Beyond that he would talk about what this piece is ultimately about, apart the rather irritating jeremiad: the power of literature for self-discovery and self-fashioning. When you put a book down it leaves its traces in you, your reaction to it. How meaningful, how vital, how valuable are those traces? That is the question of evaluation. His question. Not an easy question. Your “mighty work” would be pretty tangential to it, so he is not inclined to go in that direction.

    As for the canon: it seems, roughly, to work as far as he can tell. I don’t think he gets much further than that, or needs to. It turns out that the great books really are great, the test of time seems to work. He thinks the canon is worth keeping. “Don’t you?”

    His criticism is directed not at people who disagree with him the quality of this book or that. That would be something you argue with people about, not criticize them for. The criticism is directed at those shy away from evaluation.

    The above is an attempt to understand Edmundson. I can move on to criticize him. I can attempt to situate him. I can offer thoughts of my own that he brings to mind. But first a good faith attempt to understand him. This is what you don’t seem to have done. And yet you feel free to sneer at him, in public.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Two passages in the Edmundson:

    “. Not much more than 20 years ago, students paraded through the campuses and through the quads, chanting variations on a theme. Hey, hey, ho, ho—they jingled—Western culture’s got to go. The marches and the chants and the general skepticism about something called the canon seemed to some an affront to all civilized values.”

    followed by

    “Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media—figures of great interest. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?

    It was true—and there was more, the rebels yelled. They thought they would have the microphones in their hand all day and all of the night. They imagined that teaching Milton with an earring in one ear would never cease to fascinate the world.”

    Ok? See it now?


    Otherwise, I’m not really understanding your absolution of Edmundson. Much of the piece is taken up by a complaint against those that he thinks have sacrificed the canon, and that because of that, the canon has no status. I don’t see how you don’t see that. You say he doesn’t care to have a conversation about what makes Milton great, only that he can say, “Milton is great, is he not?” and have me agree or demur. So he can say it. If he feels there is something more, something lacking, something lost, and he very evidently does, then what is it? If the canon works as it stands, what is the problem? From your reading, it’s hard to see what the point of the first 3/4 of the essay is. (Or Edmundson’s book on reading: the last time I posted on him, I think you showed up with roughly the same complaint, implying that I haven’t read or tried to understand Edmundson’s larger argument. Which I have. Perhaps I’ve failed, but I’m not seeing that at the moment.)

    The material on self-fashioning in your reading becomes especially bafflingly disconnected from the rest of the piece. If the point is that literature does the work of self-fashioning, then where’s the fire? That, even by Edmundson’s own reading, is going on as we speak. But as I read the piece, the argument is that once literature, recognized with a properly maintained critical canon and critics who did their jobs properly, fashioned selves who were not narcissistic, selves that had complexity and humility and an awareness of what they were not. It is a bit hard to resist the thought that Edmundson’s writing in general displays something of the narcissism that he describes, as he tends to see in the culture of the present precisely that which he needs to see in order to confirm his anointment of himself as the last cultured man. But more to the point, I neither see the evidence that past readers of literature were pointedly non-narcissistic in contrast to present consumers of culture nor that the self-fashionings of the present are nothing but the narcissism that he describes.

  7. Withywindle3 says:

    I hate your WordPress. Or my computer. Some evil combination means my password is never remembered, and I have to register with some new username and password each time I want to comment, which means (oh, woe) I comment less often than I would otherwise. Couldn’t you switch to something high tech and spiffy like Blogspot? Anyway.

    Interesting link; I shall Blog about it anon; thank you for the link. I do want to echo Alonzo: I don’t think Edmundson’s essay was centrally concerned with what you’re critiquing. If you like: I think if he had deleted all references to the 1960s, he would still have an interesting point about literature, and how we are supposed to approach it. Indeed, a point I think you would find sympathetic. I grant you he raised a red flag of Culture War; but I think it is irrelevant to a good part of his argument. I rather think there is less distance between the two of you than you argue–although still some interesting differences. But more later, over at A & J.

  8. alonzo says:

    “But maybe not. Maybe this was a moment of real inquiry on the kids’ part. What was this thing called Western culture? Who created it? Who sanctioned it? Most important: What was so valuable about it? Why did it matter to study a poem by Blake, or ponder a Picasso, or comprehend the poetry latent in the religions of the world?

    I’m not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing.”

    I think it is only fair to include what you elided, which complicates the picture. I winced myself at Edmundson’s caricatures. I have very mixed feelings about the glibness of his style. There is definite irony in it but it is an irony that can be hard to read. I think he might defend himself by saying that whatever serious and sincere debate went on during the Academic Culture Wars, it was the caricatures that were triumphant. And a lot of it was self-caricature, on both sides. I take his point here to be that the Culture Wars were a sideshow, a lot of sound and fury over very small stakes, missing the larger picture. Eventually the world moved on and nothing much came of it but a loss of cultural authority.

    Now let me add something that is not explicit here but I that think he would agree with. The Academic Culture Wars were a sideshow because the real story was, in a phrase, the Age of Reagan. Edmundson comes closer to Yuppie bashing than Hippie bashing. And this is why it is very important that he refers to the 80’s and not the 60’s. Your mistake is understandable, because the Culture Wars of the 80’s would seem to flow quite directly from the Culture Wars of the 60’s (via the Culture Wars of the 70’s). But it is a mistake.

    Edmundson’s critique is of narcissism, superficiality, consumerism, the self-satisfaction of the privileged, and plain boringness. Not of rebellion, disorder, and Dionysian recklessness. He complains that authorities do not challenge students, but elsewhere he has complained that students do not bother challenging authority. He wants both. It is a complaint against a culture that people generally think of as emerging in the 1980’s, not the 1960’s. It is, if anything, a left critique.

    A little background: I took a class devoted to the 60’s with him about 15 years ago. I have read both of his memoirs that cover the period (he was born in 1950). I think I can speak with authority when I say that Mark Edmundson is not anti 60’s counterculture, despite some typical reservations and his own personal complications. It was an explicit goal of his class to encourage us to find value and inspiration in that counterculture. He was not obnoxious about it, not a 60’s bore, but it was clear he was rather disappointed that our generation was not as passionate as his. Now his thinking has evolved over the last 15 years. I guess he does not teach classes about the 60’s anymore. But I don’t see any sign that he has moved so far as to become a Dirty Hippie Basher. It ain’t in the text and it ain’t in the person.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I hear you. And I think you and Withywindle are right in some respect that this is a bit of a sideshow, which is why for me the far more important matter is the way in which Edmundson assigns the work of quality as something which pre-1960s critics did and post-1970s critics eschew, and in the process, grossly simplifies the act of thinking about “quality”. I do think in his larger work, he does pretty much the same thing, focusing less on how to read and more on readers, in order to complain about them. This is the fundamental problem–whomever Edmundson is complaining about, he is still complaining about other people: the fault lies in them, they aren’t doing it right–and as a result, complimenting himself as one of the last true readers, the last who really read as they should. Which, seriously, is a kind of narcissism.

    He tells us that in the act of reading we should find something more than entertainment, more than comfort, and more than a mirror of our consumer-satisfied souls, more than a confirmation. And again, I’m struck at his inability to start following that advice with the subject closest at hand, himself, and thus to investigate: what is really in those newer texts, some popular, that I disdain? Is it possible that people are reading them for reasons other than what I surmise? What is really in mass consumption, is it possible that it has more in it than I imagine it to have, than I require it to be? What is in the practices of discerning “quality” that I cherish? Why am I so sure that they work the way that I think they do?

    Now, aside from these deeper challenges, honestly, I think that the Culture Wars gambit that he seems to have a deep attachment to (because that IS in his earlier works, both short and long) has a sublimation of the Dirty Hippies-ruined-it-all idea. It goes roughly like this: 60s protesters were committed to real social change and the early counterculture was genuinely about exploring spiritual meaning, the 70s turned that towards self-satisfaction and narcissism, and the 80s completed that turn because the “new leftists” were just hollowly playacting at being 60s counterculturalists because it self-flattered. Somewhere along the way, in this version, the dirty hippies are at fault because they didn’t understand the long-term consequences of abandoning the great works or failing to respect authority or telling people to drop out and turn in; there’s a backhanded compliment in this typical narrative to the 60s folks for their authenticity and then a slap for their destructive naivete.

    In short, it’s another bit of baby-boomer narcissism: that the story of our times is all about them, always about them: everyone else later is just enacting their story, trapped in their story, etc.

  10. Withywindle3 says:

    My initial response is here.

  11. alonzo says:

    I will have one more go at it. You mention my “absolution” (a curious word choice!) of Edmundson (b. 1952 actually). In truth, I don’t particularly like this essay, although it has grown on me as I have defended it. I generally do not think much of jeremiads against contemporary culture. Or simple pop sociology a la David Brooks. So that aspect of it, which is all of it except his positive recommendation for deep reflective reading, does grate. And yet I think his points have merit and may justify the irritation. On the face of it, condemning broad aspects of a culture seems pointless because they are not going away and you must learn to live with them. But I suppose it might help you and anyone who cares to listen situate yourselves in that culture and find a response to it. For Edmundson, his critique of the culture provides him with a perspective in his task as a teacher. Whether that makes him a better teacher is a question that we are not in a position to say.

    And the value of the critique does not necessarily depend on how accurate it is about the specialness of the present moment. Somehow people are very attracted to the notion that the badness of now is a particularly bad badness. They tend be wrong. But an ordinary badness is still worth addressing. The main danger is the temptation to want to recreate the past in search of its superiority. But I do not think Edmundson falls into this trap. He does not really talk about a Golden Age. I think he is fairly well protected by his pragmatism and by an awareness of the forces in the past inimical to his approach (the New Criticism, for example, was too aloof for it.)

    What I really object to in you post is that you seemed intent on fitting Edmundson into a simple ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dichotomy, ‘them’ being the reactionary haters and stick-in-the-muds. Then you treat him as simply a vessel of ‘them’ and attack him for the qualities of ‘them,’ which are not necessarily his. He is not someone who wants to preserve the Great Works of Western Civilization as a bulwark of the the social order, or to hold them up for simple admiration and reverence. His goal is not produce students who are ‘cultured,’ merely acquainted with the classics. All these notions are antithetical to his purpose. But you fail to make that distinction. And whatever his sublimated state, he is quite different from the proud, authentic, straightforward Dirty Hippie Hater. You fail to make that distinction. “[I]ncomparable majesty and worth”? That is not Edmundson and you ought to know it. (If you really want to mock the man go for the Dead Poets Society angle rather than tweed and a five-foot-shelf — that at least hits the target.)

    The problem with this, beside being unjust to Edmundson, is that you are drastically restricting the possibilities of thought. You are like those people who cannot fathom how a perfectly nice liberal could be against legal abortion, or how a white Southern Baptist could vote for Obama. You seem particularly reluctant to see any non-ideological elements at play. Edmundson claims to have modified his teaching approach in response to it’s effect. My simple version of the story:

    {He was dissatisfied with how things were going in the classroom, so he tried to be less eager to cater to his students’ pre-existing tastes, less cool, to stop making them watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and add more Milton. It worked. He decided to share his secrets of teaching with the world.}

    Isn’t it possible that this simple story is a significant part of the full true story? Edmundson’s goals as an educator reflect his own preferences and ideals. But the means must in part draw from experience, from trial and error. And the canonical works, are, in his account, the means. Of course it is more complicated than that. I am sure a certain warm and fuzzy feeling toward the good old books plays a part. The need to fill a niche as an education writer. All the usual human factors. But it seems reasonable to think that he really has found, in his own experience, that books that are traditionally thought of as ‘great’ are particularly well suited to the kind of teaching he wants to do and would like to see others doing. And if we accept this then he becomes an even less plausible ‘them’ and more like a guy talking shop (The Shop of Soulcraft). “This canon I got here, it works like a dream. Everyone’s got one in their kit, but not enough are actually using it, or using it right.” “The canon again! You keep talking like you invented the damn thing. I was using that when you were just a kid. But eventually, I got bored with it, tried a few of these other things, a little variety, and started doing much better work.” etc.

    About the accusation of narcissism you make against Edmundson. One thing I admire is his willingness to walk into that trap, a very obvious one. In doing so he is just living up to his own precepts. I would say there is a difference between the way he uses the word “narcissism” (a word I find of very little use and a great deal of misuse) and the way you use it here. He is applying it to contemporary American culture, writing about the ways it shapes our lives. If I buy into his diagnosis (which I am not inclined to do) the upshot could be quite great, affecting the way I see large aspects of life. You are applying it to Mark Edmundson. If I buy into your diagnosis of him (which I am not inclined to do) the upshot is just that Edmundson is a bit of a shit. And who cares? It does not even mean he is wrong about anything.

    Thanks for the forum and your thoughtful and patient replies.

  12. Western Dave says:

    Coincidentally, I’ve been trying to guide some of my High School students through this discussion. They were bitching about a teacher and the main complaint was, “She didn’t even finish the second Harry Potter book.” Now, they know that I am a huge HP fan, so imagine their surprise when I said, “that’s understandable.” Indignation, protest. “But,” says I, “if you value descriptive sentences, you’re just not going to like Rowling. She does many things well. Great plotter, fabulous creator of a believable world. The characters grow in realistic but not necessarily predictable ways, good use of dialogue to move the plot forward, the stories get more complex and the point of view more complicated as Harry gets older, although upon re-reading you realize it was more complex all along and you just missed it just like Harry did, but for all those strengths I have know idea what Harry looks like beyond unruly black hair, his mother’s eyes, glasses and a scar. You read it next to Lloyd Alexander’s Taran books and you realize that Alexander writes much better sentences, even if the plot is kind of a retread and at times makes no sense whatsoever.” At least one, and possibly more, of these girls is heading to Swat next year, and they are so ready to have this conversation about what makes great work great. I certainly don’t have the answers for them.

    (PS, Withywindle, loved your post, but what does FLG stand for?)

  13. Neb Namwen says:

    Have you read J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey? I highly recommend it, and it speaks to a lot of these issues as particularly concerning the literary establishment’s cool reaction to Tolkien.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, Alonzo. That’s very helpful and interesting, and (I think as in the last time we spoke about Edmundson) you certainly persuade me that his convictions are honestly meant and passionately felt.

    But let’s leave aside the culture war stuff, and here’s what I still think remains:

    That he thinks the work of judging the quality of culture is important, that he thinks contemporary readers do not do this work, but that he doesn’t really give any guidance about how it ought to be done other than the inference that it once was done properly.

    So I think my objection to him (and some other critics like Mark Bauerlein) remains: that they imply that a kind of work which is profoundly difficult both in technical and philosophical terms is in fact easy to do, that there are no authentically skeptical questions about the value of that kind of critical effort which might be asked.

    I also think, honestly, that if I were to complain of the narcissism of others that I would either work very hard to demonstrate that I had found a way to overcome that tendency, or confess with some humility that I, too, am a child of my place and time. I don’t think he does either. To do the former, he has to demonstrate how his view of contemporary readers is not just a stereotype that conveniently confirms his own contrasting virtues. I really think one obligation of an intellectual is to be suspicious of our own perceptions.

  15. Brutus says:

    I’m quite late to the discussion, which is both interesting and frustrating for including so many blind alleys and tangential picking of nits. So let me respond to Prof. Burke’s summary from the previous comment:

    he thinks the work of judging the quality of culture is important, that he thinks contemporary readers do not do this work, but that he doesn’t really give any guidance about how it ought to be done other than the inference that it once was done properly.

    Americans feels so much impatience in their needs (intellectual or otherwise) that to recognize a problem conjures the implicit responsibility to solve it, and quickly! So Prof. Burke at the end of the blog post calls for a system of evaluation then admits it’s too big a task. Nice trick hoisting that monkey onto someone else’s back.

    Back to the issue at hand: failure to judge/critique/evaluate/analyze. I find it blunderingly obvious that outside the academy, where students are compelled to read from prescribed lists, the general public has moved on to other cultural offerings that have largely displaced the canon (which some of us still hold dear) but yet require little or no real engagement. Although one can cook up quite an elaborate thematic treatment of Lady Gaga or Harry Potter or Freddy Krueger, these presentations arrive predigested and merely titillate the senses rather than feed the soul. Whereas there exists no commandment that one’s soul must be nourished by wholesome, quality stuff (eat your beets!), the tsunami of populism that has accompanied the electronic age (commencing with radio) has driven cultural values inexorably down to the point that great books (and other media) no longer exhibit much gravitational pull on our attentions and in fact seem positively alien, since they don’t goose us every few pages or minutes. Many of us have simply lost the capacity to hear history speak to us, much less fit ourselves into the context it provides.

    I’m not trying to restate Edmundson, but his complaint makes far more sense to me than does turning his argument back onto him.

  16. Timothy Burke says:


    Since I don’t think we’ve lost our collective OR expert ability to recognize quality, and that a good deal of “popular culture” is actually quite excellent, I have no desire to hoist that monkey because I don’t see that there’s really much of a problem, or at least not the problem that Edmundson perceives. I think the question of how to talk about quality within literary criticism is an interesting one, mind you, but it’s one of many interesting questions and can be explored in a relatively leisurely way.

    Edmundson thinks otherwise. My thought is that if you’re going to excoriate other people for failing to hoist monkeys but aren’t willing to demonstrate proper monkey-lifting techniques, then you’re the one with the problem.

    You might want to consider the basis of your intuition that some past “us” used to regularly devote most of their cultural attention to what you view as wholesome, quality stuff: what exact historical moment and which exact historically real public are you thinking about? Here’s a story to consider which might begin to complicate your assumptions.

  17. Brutus says:

    We disagree about the ability to recognize quality. Have you seen how people view paintings in museums or hear classical music? And whatever excellence can be found in pop culture is quite beside the point. You have reiterated your point that to make a criticism requires offering a solution. All well and good enough.

    Then you send me on an errand to identify a supposed Golden Era. I don’t believe in that halcyon past any more than you apparently do, so there is no need for me to rise in defense of it. My point, supplementing Edmundson’s, is that we’ve turned our attentions away from canon, which is say, the past (golden or not). His starting point was those few still reading; mine is the general population. Restated by way of analogy, our collective ability to cook and our tastes for fine dining (to say nothing of our health) are considerably diminished in an era where fast and prepared foods (populist fare by definition) are the rule.

  18. Western Dave says:

    Brutus says:
    Restated by way of analogy, our collective ability to cook and our tastes for fine dining (to say nothing of our health) are considerably diminished in an era where fast and prepared foods (populist fare by definition) are the rule.
    You might want to rethink that analogy since there has been an explosion of fine dining and more widely available wholesome food. I live in a relatively poor section of Philadelphia and have access to multiple farmer’s markets. Further, grocery stores that 10 years ago stocked little to no vegetables or fresh/healthy food much less organic anything are now filled with quality food products that were unthinkable from the 1950s-1990s. Not to mention localvore movements, urban gardening, and food equity movements that have gained significant traction in the last few years.

  19. David C says:

    I’m also just coming to this exchange; and it’s been great to read it (and to read Edmundson’s original essay in the Chronicle). This is one of the things that I love about this blog: thanks everyone. My own intellectual sympathies and personal inclinations (“Watchmen” stands at the pinnacle of my own private canon) push me unerringly towards agreement and head-nodding as I read TBs thoughtful critique.
    But I would add one major caveat, namely, I agree that a multi-directional, broad-minded approach to criticism, literature and even culture is the way to go in the company of reasoned, informed people who care (like Burke and Edmundson and college students and passionate amazon.com reviewers). But there is a wider America “out there.” I feel badly about hijacking this sophisticated reflection on culture and dragging it into politics, but I do think that “politics” is an implicit backdrop here (and in Edmundon’s original essay, too.) But politics is more than marching students from the ’60s or earring-ed professors from the ’80s. The apocryphal Göring* position (“when I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”) has been a persistent strain of our national ethic for a very, very long time, but it seems to me (based on not just on recent electoral rhetoric but on the two-decades long jihad against public funding of state universities) to be on the march. There are all sorts of reasons for this: but one, perhaps, is that it is more difficult now for the intellectual elites (in the academy or outside) to confront persistent anti-intellectualism from a position of (assumed/presumed) power.
    In other words: a short, easy, powerful (?) response in decades past was “Oh, you don’t see the need for a literature program at the University of Nebraska, do you?! Spoken like a true philistine—I’ll bet you don’t even read Shakespeare! Do you even know who Milton is??!” I don’t want to overstate the effectiveness of that position—but I also don’t think we should ignore the role that it (and intellectual snobbery in general) helped to play in building our top-notch university system in the first place.
    The accusation of the left-handed-lesbian-Inuit-factory-worker-self-discovery-seminar is indeed pathetically misinformed…. but it is politically powerful. I work in state university in a conservative part of Ohio. This is a VERY different environment from those college towns in the East Coast (where I worked for years) or those other oases of open-mindedness (Madison, etc.) My students are mostly apathetic and occasionally inspire-able (moments I live for!); but Burke’s and for that matter Edmundson’s entire willingness to even think about the topic is anathema to much of the surrounding population. And, facing this hostility, state universities are eagerly refashioning themselves into professional sports teams, business-technical training webinar hosts, and patent-generating corporate labs.
    So I’ll just throw this out there (and I do not claim to have an answer myself):

    Do we NEED a non-nuanced canon (or a command-model of greatness or a Big Stick of “indisputable” quality) politically, even though it may not suit our own personal, intellectual, educational, or even moral agendas?
    If not… then what simple sound-bite do we have to replace quality or the canon in the barroom brawl of American politics and statehouse budgeting?

    *The phrase is actually from a play by Johst; my sincere apologies for Godwinizing: my lame excuse is that I’m a historian of Germany, and so it’s hopefully understandable that I see Weimar everywhere.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is an extremely good point: that a shorthand definition of “quality” and a kind of consensus canon that rests upon historically-derived understandings of what constitutes “great literature” serves an important political purpose, a bridge to a wider public which could have the potential to re-initialize a broader conversation about humanistic knowledge.

    However, a few problems that I can see with this proposition:

    1) It’s not clear to me that there is any ground on which a non-nuanced canon of “great books” can actually satisfy some of the more aggressively hostile dismissals of academic humanists because those aren’t really motivated by a rejection of the specific content of academic humanism, but instead by deeper social cleavages. E.g., potentially, it doesn’t really matter what the eggheads decide they like, certain kinds of hostility towards them precedes any specific critical commitments. So an English Department could en masse convert to an exclusive diet of Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens and Faulkner and find themselves no more beloved than when they were also speaking about the experimental novels of late 19th Century Filipino millennarians.

    2) It’s also not clear whether you can get any kind of meaningful cultural credit for having a non-nuanced canon unless you also adopt a non-nuanced command-driven practice of interpretation, e.g., that instruction largely insists of a lecturer telling students what a great work says, why it is great, and then testing students for knowledge of content and for the ability to repeat a concise description of the greatness of canon. Since you mention Weimar, I can’t help but think of the next step: this is, in some sense, how the Nazis approached aesthetics: the interpretative interior of praise-worthy art and architecture didn’t matter, only that you acquired, displayed and declared “greatness”.

    3) It’s also not clear to me that the people who feel the most populist anger about reports of cultural studies scholars studying comic books, pornography or video games actually feel any real affection for “Great Books” canons, and in fact see those as the tool of another, more unspecified, group of snobs and gatekeepers. Look at the sort of discourse that surrounds Sarah Palin, where cultural elites spend a certain amount of time looking for “gotchas” where she bluffs at knowledge of very traditional canonical touchstones and then receives a lot of sympathy from a certain kind of populist who also feels persecuted for not knowing who Hamlet is or remembers hating The Mill on the Floss when they were forced to read it. In a way, the fight over the Great Books canon is more of an intramural scrimmage between two fractions of the cultural elite. The wider fight is over whether there is in fact ANY specialized knowledge or expertise which enhances how we read or use or make culture.

    4) On this last point, though, this is definitely a place where the “crisis of the humanities” comes back to roost in our own nests–because from another direction, many humanists have spent the last thirty years either subverting that idea themselves OR in creating a dense rhetorical and expressive practice intended to signify expertise without really believing substantively that there could be such a thing. So on some level, I think you are very much right. The tricky move is that we have to both engage a wider public from a different vantage point and yet in such an engagement convince them that there is something about our knowledge or practice which gives us expert insight or legitimate authority about culture.

  21. Western Dave says:

    I think the way out of the mess is to start with what kinds of questions do the Humanities answer (or as we say on our curriculum maps in the K-12 biz, “What are the Essential Questions?”). A clearer articulation of these questions makes it easier to discuss both what should and should not be in the canon and what is non-canonical but worth studying, and why what humanists do is important. My favorite example of this is in the financial industry. The recent frauds weren’t necessarily discoverable by the lawyers, but they were easily discoverable by folks used to trying separate fiction from reality and who understand the concept of the unreliable narrator. Also, math geeks trained to ask the right questions (are these returns possible?) actually caught Madoff a couple of years before he got busted but the lawyers insisted the paper work was OK. In other words, the Humanities teach us how to be skeptical of other people and a variety of ways to evaluate their claims. The Humanities do other important things as well, like teach us how to relate to people who aren’t like us (empathy), and how to understand ourselves better in all our multiple roles (worker, parent, child, etc. etc.).

  22. Brutus says:

    Lots more to think about in this discussion, but I’ll limit my comments.

    My food analogy may well be imperfect. I wonder, however, if the “explosion of fine dining and more widely available wholesome food” mentioned by Western Dave is not a combined effect of bourgeois interests and an emerging niche market rather than a widespread refinement of taste.

    Dave C says, “it is more difficult now for the intellectual elites (in the academy or outside) to confront persistent anti-intellectualism from a position of (assumed/presumed) power.” Quite true, I think, and this accounts in part for why intellectual elites have suffered a failure of nerve and inability to withstand sloppy criticism from the gallery. Charges of snobbery and elitism find such receptive ears, ya know. So expertise is now mostly irrelevant, even when some TV news channel goes in search of an authority to buttress a story.

    Western Dave’s appeal to pragmatism, namely, that only humanities types can be expected to possess the necessary wherewithal to recognize certain (criminal) human behavior patterns, is a wise observation, but then, I would never have expected a technocrat to do that anyway.

    Finally, the interaction of cultural canon with realpolitik is an awfully big nut to crack, and Prof. Burke’s four initial objections already put me in a tailspin. For example, I’m pretty unclear what distinguishes nonnuanced canon from nuanced canon. The degree of proscription? Considering how completely canon of even the most conservative sort has been ignored as irrelevant or useless, this seems pretty far off the central issue.

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