English Majors, High/Low Culture, and The American Novel

The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking book review/op-ed from Joseph Epstein: “What Killed American Lit.” It begins as a relatively straightforward review of massive scholarly production, The Cambridge History of the American Novel (1272 pages, $185.00):

“In 71 chapters, the book’s contributors consider the traditional novel in its many sub-forms, among them: science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels, Jewish novels, Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability … Other chapters are about subjects played out in novels — for instance, ethnic and immigrant themes — and still others about publishers, book clubs, discussion groups and a good deal else. “The Cambridge History of the Novel,” in short, provides full-court-press coverage.”

More interesting than the review of the book (which doesn’t itself seem to be interesting, according to Epstein’s review: “All that the book’s editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others. But, then, this is a work of literary history, not of literary criticism.”) is the larger discussion about the state of literary study in the U.S. This is at least a little different from one of those other ‘Death of American Literature” jeremiads, though.

For one thing, Epstein argues that the zeitgeist of the American literary academic world signifies a breakdown of the distinction between high and low culture — which just happens to be the topic I wrote about in the upcoming book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy).

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.

The study of popular culture — courses in movies, science fiction, detective fiction, works at first thought less worthy of study in themselves than for what they said about the life of their times — made the next incursion against the exclusivity of high culture.”

Not to get all postmodern here, or post postmodern, but is the collapse of the high/low culture really such a bad thing? Or, let’s look at this way — would we really be better of reverting to the Matthew Arnold mode of drawing a hard line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, a distinction supposedly to be taken care of my the ‘critics’ as experts? I do generally agree that a distinction between high and low culture is a valuable thing and should be respected; but I also think there is such a thing as making too much out of it. It seems an awful big jump to take from a flattening out of high/low culture distinctions, to a sort of literary cultural relativism:

“In today’s university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren’t fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing. Too bad, for even now there is no consensus about who are the best American novelists of the past century.”

Is that true? Really?

There is a larger discussion made about the state of the English in the modern university. Certainly what caught my eye were the numbers comparing the decline of students choosing to pursue that English undergraduate degree. I’d be curious what date range this decline is referencing (probably should google it), but it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow, or possibly both, at seeing that number halved:

“Some indication of what it must be like is indicated by the steep decline of American undergraduates who choose to concentrate in English. English majors once comprised 7.6% of undergraduates, but today the number has been nearly halved, down to 3.9%. Part of this decline is doubtless owing to the worry inspired in the young by a fragile economy. (The greatest rise is in business and economics majors.)”

Do I think that this means the English department in academia is in trouble? Yes, but not necessarily from the same conclusions that Epstein draws possible sources of decline. But I get the sense that he is of the mindset that would find ‘interdisciplinary’ to be a dirty word. And if anything, that interdisciplinary approach, to me at least, seems to be one of the keys to reversing those trends of decline. Many if not most other fields are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in their approaches and good work is coming as a result of it. Why should English be any different?

Interesting questions raised, to be sure. The answers are certainly going to be open-ended for the time being, but these questions and the ensuing debates can be productive assuming productive outcomes result from those debates. By the way — at the end of the article, a paean of sorts for the undergraduate English major:

“Undergraduates who decided to concentrate their education on literature were always a slightly odd, happily nonconformist group. No learning was less vocational; to announce a major in English was to proclaim that one wasn’t being educated with the expectation of a financial payoff. One was an English major because one was intoxicated by literature — its beauty, its force, above all its high truth quotient.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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