Tokens of Ruined Method

Does literary studies have a future?

Lucas Simões, White Lies. 2017, concrete, paper, and steel. 40.25 x 20.75 × 8.75”. Photo by Photo by Colin Doyle. Courtesy of the artist.

Joseph North. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Harvard University Press, 2017.

A student of literature in the university today can be forgiven a certain bafflement about what constitutes the function of the discipline. What, exactly, is literary studies? Is it a kind of history, a branch of philosophy, the study of rhetoric? Is it about becoming a better reader, in an ethical or technical sense? It’s not about learning how to write; that’s what MFA programs are for. One might turn to histories of the discipline in an effort to clear things upbut here, too, the same confusions apply. The history of methods of scholarship and criticism is its own subfield, and one can find convincing arguments to suit most any purpose.

In practice, what one believes literary studies is, or should be, often depends on where one went to university. Certain figures loom larger in the imagination of one institution than another. The history of literary studies at Columbia must include Lionel Trilling and Edward Said; at Yale, the genealogy needs to account for a transition from William Wimsatt to Harold Bloom and Paul de Man. The fact that almost no one currently teaching at Yale wants to claim these ancestral figures as influential is itself part of the story. Influence is cunning and seldom direct. But even a perfect genealogy would not imply that the methods and traditions these figures espoused were handed down in an unbroken line. It turns out that no one has really measured how accurately or effectively any understanding of how to read literature propagates throughout a culture. The Modern Language Association does not own a patent or have a monopoly on reading practices. Mutations happen often. And there remains the uncomfortable fact that most people’s deepest reading habits are developed in a secondary education system, not the university.

Imagine a “people’s history of literary studies” as unglamorous and antiheroic as the accounts of Austerlitz and Waterloo sketched by Tolstoy and Stendhala chronicle of mixed intentions and earnest people, a hundred high school classrooms steeped in adolescent hormones, misunderstandings, weirdos, conscripts, mediocrities, two hundred Lucky Jims and Janes for every J. Hillis or D. A. Miller. Moments of brilliancethe founding of new schools and new ways of readingwould be of less import than the countless hours spent plodding through conferences, faculty meetings, and exams. It would be something like social histories of epidemics, focused on describing the multiple points and routes of contact and transmission, the conditions and practices that facilitated or forestalled the spread.

Joe North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is not quite this book. North does profess a suspicion of great-person (or great-author) theories, always warning us to understand them as “emblems” of larger tendencies at work, but his project remains an intellectual history of recognizable names and schools. The adjective political, in the title, is dangled as bait to North’s intended audience: comrades on the left, both inside and outside the university, who’ve lost the knack for understanding each other when the subject turns to culture. But for all his careful signposting, North, a young professor of English at Yale, does take several strides in the direction of my fantasized path, mostly because he’s openly expressing bewilderment about the direction of the discipline. Like Fabrizio del Dongo looking at the pile of abandoned caissons and rifles at Charleroi, unsure if he has really been in battle, North wonders if everything he and his colleagues have been trained to do, over the years, really counts as “literary studies.” He feels his way toward an answer to a large and important question: How did literary studies come to turn away from an “institutional program of aesthetic education” and embrace what he terms the “historicist/contextualist paradigm”?

Those recently acquainted with university literature courses will grasp this distinction intuitively, even if most people under 40 have only a dim idea of what “an institutional program of aesthetic education” might mean in real life. For those outside the high paywalls of the academy, a brief version of the historicist/contextualist paradigm runs something like this: The vagaries of genre, style, and narrative make literature a special record of resistant, oppressed, and marginal subjectivities. This is literature’s value. Sometimes the literary text excludes or hides these voices; sometimes, inadvertently or programmatically, it amplifies them. Research into the text’s period can disclose its latent or overt political meaning. The work of scholarship, or criticism (the conflation of the two is part of the problem North diagnoses), is therefore to show the encoding of specifically and exclusively political desires within and through literature.

Under the reign of historico-contextualism, literary study has merely become another means to learn about political or economic history.


The point of calling this a paradigm rather than a program or method is to suggest that certain basic assumptions function almost subliminally, or subconsciously, across the length and breadth of academic literary study. Although, for instance, Joel Fineman’s psychoanalysis-influenced study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, and Lee Patterson’s work on The Canterbury Tales would seem to have little in common in terms of content, North is able to showvia a montage of quotations from the introductions to these and other works that academics would recognize as “canonical” or “foundational” to different literary subfields over the past half-centurythat all of them link literature’s formal qualities to an analysis of power structures. Literary study is meant to produce a specific kind of knowledge about, or dialogue between, art and politics, North writes. Whether this knowledge is primarily knowledge of literature or whether this conversation is between equals is unclear. Under the reign of historico-contextualism, literary study has merely become another means to learn about political or economic history.

Though the historicist/contextualists have triumphed, the rout of aesthetic education, North argues, was not preordained and may be reversible. Once upon a brief time in the 20th century, there was something called literary criticism, sustained at universities through courses in critical practice and literary form. The work of criticism existed alongside the drier duties of scholarship, which consisted of archival sorting; manuscript contrast; annotated editions of minor works; studies of period, genre, or single author; and so on. While formalism and scholarship both survive in pockets of the contemporary university, the dominant trend over the past half-century has been toward the production of hybrid critical-scholarly works, like those mentioned above, aimed at an increasingly small audience of similarly trained “professionals in the field.”

The way we do literary studies now, in North’s genealogy, has its roots in a series of misreadingssome willful, some merely erroneousof one of its foundational figures: the Cambridge-based proponent of “practical criticism,” I. A. Richards. Richards seems an odd choice of primal ancestor. Those casually familiar with his name are likely to associate it with some dreary practice of “close reading” propounded by the midcentury New Critics in the United States, or with F. R. Leavis’s Scrutiny coterie in England. The dread textbook used to kill the imaginations of boarding school boys in Dead Poets Society borrows its titleUnderstanding Poetryfrom Richards’s New Critical antagonist, Cleanth Brooks, attributing it to some English guy with an initial for a first name. These associations and confusions are not limited to Hollywood. As North sets out to illustrate, they comprise various idées reçues and academic shorthands, which have sunk so deeply into literary studies as to be nearly ineradicable.

The Richards who needs to be exhumed from this morass is of a more radical character than posterity has allowed. During his prime at Cambridge in the 1920s and early ’30s, Richards was interested in developing an empirical groundwork for readers’ aesthetic emancipation: an approach to literature that would free them from feeling duty-bound to think or talk about it in a prescribed way. Much of Richards’s drily titled Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) stages a wry but captivating argument against the popular jargon of its era, which happened to include terms like aesthetic. Although North doesn’t say so, Richards’s often laconic mode of investigation was developed as an antidote to, and reaction against, the assertive criticism of T. S. Eliot, as well as the seductive stylings of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and other fin-de-siècle aesthetes still en vogue among the Cambridge literary scene when Richards arrived there. To read the student responses to Richards’s literary exercises, and his own commentsboth published in Practical Criticism (1929)is to be ushered down the corridor to the perfect tutorial we never attended. We catch echoes of a now-vanished conversational mode: teasing but not cruel, ironic without antagonism, respectful yet suspicious of the operations of human intelligence.

Not averse to a bit of historico-contextualism in his own work, North puts Richards back in tune with a global modernist moment of criticism and philosophy that cherished the reception of literature as a form of production by complex human beings, rather than mere consumption by limited or inhibited subjects. Practical Criticism, Richards’s most influential work, shares this interest in the activist and enlivening potential of attentiveness with works by his close contemporaries, including the American Pragmatist John Dewey’s Art as Experience, Walter Benjamin’s cryptic and heterodox “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and the Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky’s study of estrangement. With his skeptical style and manner of conducting thought experiments, Richards, at times, also resembles his Cambridge colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein. Criticism, for Richards, was a two-part dance that North characterizes as “diagnostic” and “therapeutic.” Richards referred to the diagnostic part as “fieldwork in comparative ideology.” He handed his students poems and fragments of larger works, presented without authors, titles, dates, or other paraphernalia, and asked them to write brief responses and to note how many times they had read each excerpt. Then he would parse the responses for tendencies, hobbyhorses, streaks of enlightenment or blockage (similar to Freud’s approach to free association), with the ambition to develop “a natural history of human opinions and feelings.” The therapeutic aspect aimed to unshackle the students from the imperatives to do “crit” in the ways they imagined it should be done. As happened in the case of psychoanalysis, this approach resulted in a number of students who adopted the language of Richards’s observations and manners as unreflectively as they had taken on the ideology of previous critical methods. Any liberationist movement will unfailingly produce its dogmatists, but the “practical critic,” in theory anyway, was meant to be a synonym for a free person, judging freely but not in ignorance. One didn’t study literature because one cared for dead letters, but because, as Richards believed, “the arts, if rightly approached, supply the best data available for deciding what experiences are more valuable than others.”

It’s the sentiment of this last part, in North’s account, that appears to have caused most of the trouble with Richards’s reception and later reputation. For the American school of New Critics, who adapted Richards’s exercises but ignored or confounded their purpose, the open question of which readerly experiences were more valuable to an individual reader than others became which works were more valuable to a culture or society than othersresulting in the notion that only texts already deemed to have intrinsic value could produce valuable reading experiences. This was, North points out, getting Richards backward. The old hermeneutic carousel started up again, but with Richards’s name attached to it forevermore (at least until North or one of his fans gets around to editing Richards’s Wikipedia page).

For F. R. Leaviscofounder of Scrutiny, the most influential journal for a generation of interwar British critics, as well as Richards’s student, colleague, and successor at Cambridgevalue came to mean moral value, and experience the experience portrayed in a text, rather than the reader’s experience of reading it. Literature was, to Leavis’s way of thinking, itself a form of criticism, “the criticism of life.” If we read primarily to discover how to live, we also read to discover how not to. This allowed Leavis to reintroduce a strain of ethical puritanism and implicit class and racial snobbery to the practice of textual analysis, even though much of his career was devoted to elevating the reputation of D. H. Lawrence, whose works were considered the height of immorality when Leavis defended him.

Both New Critics and Scrutineers, North suggests, sought to root literary studies on culturally (if not always politically) conservative grounds, interpreting the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility to be synonymous with its restriction and policing. Whereas Richards often found his students to be misguided or preprogrammed in their responses, his attitude toward error was more generous than New Critics William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s, with their catalog of reading “fallacies” that young critics must avoid. The American New Critic was supposed to arrive at the correct level of cultivation by following correct reading practices, which would inevitably entail correct moral, social, and aesthetic judgments about which texts could be deemed valuable and therefore worthy of emulation or preservation. Inevitably, this disciplinarian approach transformed Richards’s open-ended exercises into tests with right answers; a canon came to be proposed or implied from a selection of poems and novels that, in the New Critical lexicon, “worked.” Behind the practice of what came to be called close reading stood the usual power relations, both extra- and intracurricular, that closed off what was intended as a process of meaning-making and independent judgment.

Also lost in this turn from method to doxa were the aspects of Richards’s work that anticipated, by more than thirty years, the outlook of what we’ve come to call cultural studies:

When we look at a picture, or read a poem, or listen to music, we are not doing something quite unlike what we were doing on our way to the gallery or when we dressed in the morning. The fashion in which the experience is caused in us is different, as a rule the experience is more complex, and, if we are successful, more unified. But our activity is not of a fundamentally different kind.

North’s argument, in essence, is that a false binary was created, misaligning Richards with various schools of reactionary “highbrow” aesthetics, which were counterposed with more politically and historically minded schools. Because practical criticism, like close reading, was claimed by the right and the moralizing center, it ultimately had to be disavowed and consigned to oblivion by the leftmost notably in the work of Leavis’s pupil Raymond Williams. Although Williams described his generation’s exposure to practical criticism as “intoxicating” and recalled, in a late interview, that “at the time we thought it was possible to combine this with what we intended to be a clear Socialist cultural position,” the idea proved “ludicrous, since Leavis’s cultural position was being spelt out as precisely not that.” As North sets things up, Williams is the hinge figure who most clearly embodies the transformation of literary studies from Cambridge criticism to the engaged critique offered by various kinds of left historicisms (Politics and Letters and the New Left Review, Fredric Jameson, postcolonial theory, feminist criticism, queer theory) and is unintentionally complicit in forming the institutional, professionalized version of these that emerged in the New Historicism of the 1980s and early ’90s. Williams, like Richards, was interested in what he called “structures of feeling,” but these were objects of historical study rather than contemporary analysis. The arts still provided the best data about which experiences were valuable, but not to the student’s own life, rather to the lives of those who had gone before. Instead of doing practical criticism for one’s own sake, the literary scholar-critic attempts to explain how previous generations engaged practically with the literature and culture of their own time.

North’s account of practical criticism’s fate is strongest in these moments. When he delves into the nuances of arguments among four generations of Cambridge School critics, including their direct American inheritors and Williams’s student Terry Eagleton, he reveals flickers of lost possibilities and roads not taken. What if Williams had understood Leavis’s version to be a corruption of Richards’s original model rather than its orthodox form? Would Eagleton, more bon élève than enfant terrible as is usually thought, have been less wistful about the fate of criticism in his old agea dying art, “like thatching or clog dancing,” he once saidhad he allowed himself to look at Richards with a more open mind at an earlier point in his career?

The matter of Richards’s reception, however, occupies only the first half of a rather short book that aims to account for the past century of literary studies. With this scope, the second half unfolds in the manner of a flight over a landscape at great height. Features of large landmasses are clearly visiblethere are ample glimpses of Jameson and Moretti, for instancebut since many of the details must be inferred, it helps to have one’s own mental map of things on the ground. This launch into the empyrean of synopsis, adequately ballasted by endnotes, is the sort of grand gesture that will probably leave North’s most informed readers prone to an attack of the quibbles. Distinct provinces of literary study, which often jealously guard their borders and compete for sparse funding and dwindling faculty positions, are seen as aspects of a single territory, governed from Mount Williams.

Whatever vertigo it may occasion, this way of looking permits one of North’s more brilliant and controversial revisions of standard histories of the discipline: the sidelining of literary theory, which he partly accomplishes by calling it simply “the 1960s.” As he correctly points out, “theory,” although we’ve been taught to think of it as a mammoth, encompassing, singular term, refers to various methods and approaches to literature that often pull in opposite directions: deconstruction and Barthesian textual erotics are more naturally aligned with criticism and close reading; Foucauldian archive-based history and Bourdieusian sociology lend themselves to easy assimilation by trained literary historians and scholars. The cleavage between the historicist/contextualist and aesthetic paradigms was, in other words, already in place when “continental” theory arrived on the scene, tooting its own horn. Where previous histories of literary studies, such as Eagleton’s or Gerald Graff’s, divided the 20th century into three periodsbefore theory, the age of theory, and our nebulously pluralist post-theory ageNorth proposes that literary studies has followed the same political and cultural trend line as the Anglophone world at large: a long march toward individual and collective liberation from 1919 to 1973, followed by a long retreat in the face of powerful reaction. “Now that we are able to survey the century in its entirety,” North writes, “the brief step to the left in the 1960s and early 1970s reveals itself as the prelude to a much more decisive break to the right in the late 1970s and early 1980sa break so decisive that it was to inaugurate a whole new period.”

Just as for deconstructionists there is no hors-texte, for North there is no activity that does not bear the scars of global, political, and economic struggle. This insistence, which also marks the author as immersed in the milieu whose dominance he struggles against, leads him to a major counterintuitive and disturbing insight. If part of the brief against practical criticism was that “conducting fieldwork in comparative ideology” was in itself an ideological exerciseor that close reading allowed literature departments to function as bastions of conservatism under the guise of a hermetic or studious indifference to context and relevancethen one must also acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that historicist/contextualist methods of literary analysis have flourished in our period of triumphant neoliberalism, both within the university system and in the world at large.1

Put in terms of an older criticism, North is asking what has allowed for this unholy symbiosis of leftist content and neoliberal form. He answers the question with a great deal more tact, sympathy, and caution than can be conveyed in the condensed space of a review. However, one may, with only mild injustice, reduce his argument to a point about the “exchange value” of university literary criticism. Historicist/contextualist scholars of literature see themselves primarily as scholars, not critics. They may not like literature at alltheir tastes are irrelevantbut they understand their job to be, in a telling phrase that North lifts into prominence from a variety of contemporary scholars, “the production of knowledge.”

Gone is the task of providing “equipment for living,” in the words of Kenneth Burke, one of Richards’s American contemporaries and soul mates. Instead, the discipline or profession of literary studies aims to produce knowledge about the literature or societies of the past, with no overt purpose beyond the circulation and transmission of this knowledge to a group of similarly trained specialists, whose qualifications are assessed based on their ability to reproduce accepted “knowledge forms.” Even though the knowledge produced is rich in political contentand is often deliberately politicalthe use value of that political content must be denied or covered up by vague Enlightenment equivalencies between knowledge and progress at the very moment it appears as professional work.

The model here is the sciences, but without the empirical, reality-testing element. The validity of the knowledge produced from literary studies is determined by no other agency (in the sense of power) than the people who are reproducing it, and who, through means both fair and foul, have risen to the top of their profession. This explains why, after the creative ferment of the Sixties, the most easily replicable and legible form of knowledge, historico-contextualism, has come to dominate, even if it was never the most literary. It also means that there is no god but the boss, be they department chair, dean, provost, trustee, or external government bureau. And the boss judges value based on productivity above all.

Although North signals his wariness of pendular or cyclic historiography, it’s difficult for his readers not to feel that academic literary study has returned to BC“before criticism.” There is still supposed to be an object out there in the world called “literature” with inherent properties, this time of a political rather than aesthetic nature. One studies literature not for oneself but for the sake of these objects. As before, there is a canon or canons, even if the old canon is now more of an indexdangerous books to be read under proper supervision with neutralizing doses of the anticanonical, itself now a canon of its own. As in the past, the free play of textual interpretation and analysis is often foreclosed by extra- and intracurricular power relations and by the economic and status anxieties attendant on them. Regardless of content, the principles and practices of literary criticism in our time are only superficially different from the principles and practices of other aspects of society governed by neoliberal attitudes.

North is too polite and too much “in the game” to do more than hint at the implications of this salient observation: elite literary study, regardless of method, will align itself with the powerful against the powerless as long as it remains “elite.” The devaluation of aesthetics and its replacement by big data, knowledge production, and other macro models of cultural assessment is a development in keeping with the ethos of neoliberalism, despite the stated political beliefs of most professors who employ such methods. As many who have trod through the halls of graduate programs have suspected, the left’s seizure of the commanding heights of university literary education has been a move with no or even negative political consequences for the culture at large, having culminated in the production of generations of left mandarins without the sophistication (or cultural capital) that the epithet mandarin once connoted.

North also has no wish to end his story on so dour a note. Playing on Jameson’s “political unconscious,” he posits a “critical unconscious,” surveying the traces of the utopian project of aesthetic education within the contemporary academy or outside it. The catalog of critics covered in this section is, either by accident or by design, almost exclusively female or queer: the late Eve Sedgwick, Isobel Armstrong (mostly unknown outside the UK and the Commonwealth but a lineal descendant of the Cambridge School), Lauren Berlant, and D. A. Miller. The quixotic efforts of little magazines, including this one, to hold a space open for criticism aimed at a general audience are dealt with in a triumph of diagnostic concision. The even shorter version is that absent “a rigorously supported institutional paradigm for criticism” or affiliation with an active social movementas was the case in the early days of Politics and Letters and Partisan Reviewwe are too often publishing merely “journalistic” assessments of contemporary works (i.e., summaries plus some conventional moralizing) or earnest exegeses of scholarly productions (like this piece, so far).

In moments like these, the self-imposed limits of North’s project reveal themselves as limitations. I say this not because of his criticisms of this magazine, which are fair enough when applied to the reviews section, even if there have been exceptions to the rule. Rather, it’s that his choice of examples of institutional criticism that are both politically on the good side and attentive to individual aesthetic development seem strangled on the page. Here’s where we feel the dismissal of Richards’s approach to criticism as a most palpable cultural loss. One must learn how to do criticism to know how to identify good critics, as good criticism itself is a form of literature. North, for all his efforts to think outside or beyond historico-contextualism, still thinks within the paradigm he describes, more skilled in identifying good thinkers of institutional or political import than good critics in Richards’s vein.

North’s one attempt at a stylistic analysis, in the old “close reading” fashion, of an actual piece of literary criticism is a D. A. Miller riff on Jane Austen’s mastery of impersonality. It’s a good interpretation, but surely a century of criticism could yield something more inspiring, and indeed it has. Here is a partial list of practical critics, within and outside the university, who do not rate a mention or even a footnote: Randall Jarrell, R. P. Blackmur, Kenneth Burke, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Leslie Fiedler, Northrop Frye, Mary McCarthy, A. D. Nuttall, Frank Kermode, A. Alvarez, Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, George Steiner, David Bromwich, James Wood, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Wayne Koestenbaum, Marina Warner, Terry Castle. Most of these names are not primarily associated with a “politics,” although some have written on political subjects. Nor did they all benefit equally from the “institutional critical paradigm” of the mid-20th-century university as much as is commonly supposed. It’s possible that North’s commitments to the contemporary left renders all of them anathema, but it is legitimate to wonder whether any history of criticism whose terms ask us to ignore these voices is really making a case for greater open-mindedness.

Another problem with North’s narrative emerges if one begins to think too much about the messy, heterodox educational experiences of most literature students during the period he covers. The “age of theory” may have been as overplayed as North says, but it remains the case that theory, usually of the Barthesian, deconstructionist, or Germanic “reader-response” kind, has by now accounted for many students’ sole introduction to literary-critical methods of formal analysis and interpretation. Regardless of its importance in theory, “theory” now represents an important set of experiences with which any new practical criticism will have to reckon. Nor can one discount the continued influence of religious or crypto-theological methods of textual interpretation that color many readers’ experiences of literature and culturewhether Evangelical fundamentalist typologies, Talmudic exegeses, or remnants of Midwestern Lutheran “Higher Criticism”sustained by separate and dense networks of religious secondary schools and degree-granting colleges and universities that participate in institutions like the MLA. Anyone who has seen a superhero flick from the past ten years can tell you that most Americans encounter culture within an allegorical framework, and that this taste for allegory, nourished by the culture industry, also serves and is served by the historicist/contextualist paradigm, which teaches that literature itself is an encoded site of political or existential struggle.

In the end, it might have been better had North taken his own advice about returning to Richards before pressing on with his overview of the field. It’s still possible to recover a critic’s sensibility, if a strong enough case is made. On reading Practical Criticism, two things become evident. The first is that Richards is having fun, or, if that word seems too anachronistic, he’s at least being playful, with both his students and his readers. The contrast in tone to the later historicist/contextualist critics North cites is so glaringly obvious that perhaps it seemed unworthy of mention, although the emotional force of his argument depends on our ability to feel the difference.2 Richards’s exercises were both deliberately anticanonical and a challenge to what his students thought they already knew. It’s a game without winners or stakes, but played seriously, voluntarily, for oneself. If you were lucky, you might have once been asked do something like this. It’s unlikely it occurred in any formal educational setting.

This person can say what’s on their mind, unworried by grades, preferment, correct answer, or public opinion.


The second thing has to do with the qualities of mind revealed in the student responses to Richards’s exercises, even when Richards serves them up as examples of frustrated or tangled thinking about literature. Here’s a typical one, about the length of a standard Amazon review. The subject matter is irrelevant:

Reminded of the pitched-up movement or strong artificial accent of post-Elizabethans. But this is without their complexity of thought, especially shown in metaphor. Imitative. Here the movement becomes more reflective, less an experience; a deliberate loading of rhythminfluence of didactic pretensions. Wordsworth? Spurious. Mid-Victorian poetic drama? A collection of commonplace aphorisms on borrowed stilts. I accept the statements with indifference. It might have been written for a Calendar of Great Thoughts. Reading it aloud, I have to mouth it, and I felt ridiculously morally dignified.

This is the voice of a young (18- to 20-year-old) English major in 1928 or 1929! Most striking here, apart from the freedom to think through a number of options and self-correct on the pagethe opposite of how most schools now teach critical proseis the student’s awareness of the psychological effects of the verse fragment, articulated with a combination of self-deprecation and self-confidence. This person can say what’s on their mind, unworried by grades, preferment, correct answer, or public opinion. A personality or sensibility is expressed, even if not fully formed. The contemporary reader who has learned to conflate sociological with critical observation would no doubt suspect this tone to be the mark of a certain upper-class British male. But students enrolled in Richards’s experimental course were, he tells us, equally divided between men and women (among them my former grandmother-in-law, the first in her family to continue her education beyond secondary school), and this response is representative of what Richards collected and published.

Read as a historical document, Practical Criticism reveals what can be done to aid finesse and subtlety of thought at a higher educational level once a society has a high baseline commitment to public education, is moving toward greater social equality, and values the growth and development of individuals, uninfluenced by ideas about the socially or economically useful ends toward which this development may be put. The contrast with our age could not be starker. The effort to right the ship, if it’s not already too late, lies beyond the reach of university literature departments alonebut there’s a role for them, if they want it. North’s “critical paradigm” puts pedagogy before scholarly production. By a quirk, one place where that situation still obtains in present American higher education is in college-affiliated liberal arts education for prisoners. Programs like the Bard Prison Initiative offer pro bono teaching to people who are outside the labor market and whose need to gain a measure of autonomy is, at least at that moment, greater than their need to make a living.

The success of these programs, admittedly measured by the self-reported sense of happiness, fulfillment, and growth for faculty and students alike, ought to raise the question of why such educational opportunities are not provided to people before they end up incarcerated. The dominance of the historicist/contextualist paradigm not only coincides with the dominance of neoliberalism in the broadest, most abstract sense; it also coincides with the privatization, enclosure, or “disruption” of public school. The fate of John Dewey’s thought in the United States is as instructive in this regard as that of Richards. What was intended as a blueprint for progressive public education, based on collaborative problem-solving between teacher and students, survives now as part of an exclusive package sold by elite private secondary schools that offer Deweyan nostrums like “educating the whole person,” “problem-based learning,” and “learning through play.”

What this shows is that a change in institutional emphasis is of greater urgency than yet another revolutionary turn in method or paradigm. Not only must undergraduate education be prioritized, but the aim of a professional degree needs to be reconfigured to include commitments to secondary education. The split between “education” as a professional field that trains teachers for public schools and “literature,” which trains specialists, must be bridged. To enter a graduate program in literature and emerge as a teacher of adolescents, or even children, should be imbued with as much prestige, status, and respect as landing a tenure-track post or prized fellowship, and the methods of selection for these programs changed to include those temperamentally and intellectually suited to general education. On the flip side, this would also require elevating the status of the work secondary school teachers already do, taking the skills of a teacher who specializes in literacy as seriously as the work of a professor of literature.

That this is already the case in non-Anglophone, social democratic countries adds to North’s case that neoliberalism explains more about the state of contemporary literary studies in America and the UK than any of the field’s attempts to reveal its codes to those wishing to enter it. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is not A People’s History of Literary Studies, but, like his name, North points the way to a literary studies and criticism that might actually engage the people on literature’s behalf and their own.

  1. Reading this section of North’s book, I was put in mind of a conversation back when I applied to graduate school, in 1997. The professor under whose influence I fell in love with Baudelaire, Flaubert, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer said to me, not without genuine regret, “You must be prepared to become bourgeois.” “But I’m already hopelessly bourgeois,” I answered. Overconfident, facetious, my reply told her that she was right to have warned me. “Not enough,” she said. 

  2. The exception among the contemporary cast is Franco Moretti, whose “Lit Lab” experiments are very much in Richards’s style, although with the opposite intentions. In Moretti’s exercises, the computer learns to think about literature, while the students learn to think about computers and algorithms. 

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