4. Until Further Notice: By 1945, but Not Before 1935, the Humanities Were Made Isomorphic With English


Dear John,

I like this plan. Let’s drive on to Red Book issue #5 and return to the strange career of English Departments later on. Let me add two observations for that later discussion.

First, to the investigation of Richards you propose, I think we should add some consideration of the American Studies types that Graff finds it difficult to incorporate in his account of mid-century English, such that he has to loop back and tell the story again in the chapter “The Promise of American Literature Studies.” There, Graff identifies an alternative trajectory despised by Northrop Frye for its interdisciplinarity in 1957 and identifiable as early as 1948 in Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision, which characterizes “‘modern criticism’ as ‘the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature‘” (Graff 209-10). We should look at Hyman. Graff also makes much of the difference between V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30), which treated literary works part of a broader intellectual history, and F.O. Mattheissen (and numerous others listed on page 216) who “conceived the organic structure of a literary work as a microcosm of collective psychology or myth and thus made New Criticism into a method of cultural analysis” (217). Tellingly missing from Graff’s English- and university- centered story are at least two influential humanists of the 1920s and 30s who wrote broadly on US culture and are looked to as generative in a number of disciplines: Lewis Mumford and Gilbert Seldes. I read a lot of this stuff back in the day, and would welcome a chance to revisit it. Also worth reevaluating from the vantage of the present is Graff’s conclusion that this entire trajectory is one of “‘patterned isolation’.” As he sees it, “cultural history” failed “to become a centralizing context,” and this “created a vacuum that was readily filled by an attenuated New Criticism of explication for explication’s sake” (225). If we shift our attention from the evils and virtues of New Criticism to the problem of when and how the study of “literature” seems to equal the study of “culture” or the “humanist” approach to it, I suspect this history will look rather different.

Second, I agree that we need follow this through the “1960s-80s debates concerning the hold of great English books on undergraduate education” as you state. I think as a result of those debates English Departments become more powerful than ever before, even if less coherently organized around a single literary mission. This was the period that invented the version of the English Department we now inhabit, which simultaneously claims that all of “culture” is within its purview and purports to be the special custodian of a distinctly literary knowledge and heritage. Key intellectual developments encouraged this state of affairs. For example, we’ve discussed already the importation of formalisms and structuralisms that allowed English professors to define themselves as experts in “narrative” or “texts” and authorized transposition of procedures for reading novels or poems onto any expressive medium. But there is another, perhaps less familiar, way to tell this tale. Big English departments are administratively convenient. They have lower overhead costs than creating numerous small “studies” departments or programs. It is much easier to develop and offer new courses under the umbrella of an established department than it is to secure the approvals necessary for new requirements and programs; and when departments are large this can happen without requiring revision of a shared curriculum–teaching can be distributed to allow the unit to pursue several agendas at once, although some will likely seem more central or legitimate than others. Simply put: I’m suggesting that we make organizational scale a factor in our analysis. Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

A note on the Lippmann-Dewey debate. I warn you that I may feel compelled to bring this up again despite the fact that you are tired of hearing me prattle on about it. The debate was an absolutely formative argument of the 1920s, and it also demonstrates some of our overarching claims about intellectual life between the wars: what would later be seen as very different disciplines (philosophy, sociology, mass comm, education leadership) intersect there, the argument crossed over from the popular press to academe and was broadly influential, and the problem of “mass culture” animates it.

So let’s talk about mass culture!


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