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After Harold Bloom died in ­October 2019, E. D. Hirsch told a story from the early 1960s, when they were assistant professors of English at Yale. They both had lived not far from campus, and Hirsch frequently spotted Bloom walking past his house and joined him for a stroll to the office. They had much to discuss about department matters, and they shared a specialty in Romantic poetry. Bloom had written two books, one of them on Shelley, before Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (1963). Hirsch’s first book was Wordsworth and Schelling (1960), and afterwards he, too, produced a study of Blake, Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (1964). That was the problem.

Bloom was committed to Northrop Frye’s interpretation of Blake. In Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), Frye had argued that Blake’s is a genuinely prophetic vision, one that demands a basic mental adjustment in those who wish to understand him. Bloom also favored Frye’s model of literature in general, outlined in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the overarching theory of narrative archetypes that run through cultures and periods. Hirsch disliked that approach, as he made clear in his Blake book. It didn’t matter that Frye was a giant in literary studies at that time, whereas Hirsch was a junior professor but a few years out of graduate school. Hirsch believed in right and wrong interpretations; there really was a truth about Blake that could be determined, and Frye wasn’t it.

Bloom disagreed, and did so because he felt the same way about right and wrong criticism. To misconstrue Blake was for him an intellectual failing, perhaps a moral one as well. When Hirsch’s book came out, it changed things between them. From that time onward, Hirsch said, Bloom took another route to ­campus.

Hirsch related that episode to me with a warm laugh. Bloom’s withdrawal hadn’t offended him. He admired Bloom just as much as he had before. He accepted that divergent conceptions of a canonical poet marked a serious rift between friends. The proper understanding of literature was that important: You had to get it right.

Hirsch’s story evokes a remarkable moment in the life of English. The discipline has been despondent for so long that one can hardly imagine the confidence felt by literature professors in 1964. To compare then to now is like juxtaposing 1927 to 1931. Today’s job market is beyond depressing. Openings in English dropped by 55 percent between 2007–08 and 2017–18—from 1,826 listings to 828—and undergraduate demand for the services of the lucky few who obtain a job ­continues to decline. From 2011 to 2017, the number of English bachelor’s degrees fell by more than 20 percent.

In the sixties, the opposite was happening. The enrollment of all students in higher education rose from 3.6 million in 1959–60 to 8 million in 1969–70, forcing public universities to open campuses such as UC-Irvine and UC-Santa Cruz in 1965. The number of institutions of higher education climbed from 2,008 to 2,525 during the same period. Mass hiring of professors took place, with the number of instructors increasing from 281,506 in 1959–60 to 551,000 in 1969–70.

English was a major beneficiary of the growth. In 1959–60, 20,128 graduates earned bachelor’s degrees in English; ten years later, the number had nearly tripled, to 56,410. One year after that, the number of English majors earning a four-year degree hit 63,914—one out of every thirteen students. If you extend the category of literary studies to foreign languages, the rate reached one in ten. General education requirements typically included semesters of freshman composition, foreign language, Western Civilization, and a separate literature course, making literary studies a centerpiece of everyone’s formation.

The national popularity of the fields buoyed Hirsch, Bloom, and others at the top of the academic ladder. As enrollments boomed, a research orientation spread to the rest of academia from Yale, Johns Hopkins, LSU, and a few other hives of criticism in exuberant waves. The rising generation of English faculty came to feel rather as the engineers working on the Space Race felt in the 1960s. In the 1950s, when Bloom and Hirsch were in graduate school, few departments had considered themselves research centers. By the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s, nearly every name-brand campus wanted to claim a research focus.

Money for their research was forthcoming. The National Endowment for the Humanities, created by Congress and President Johnson in 1965, awarded large and small grants in 1966: $300,000 to the Modern Language Association for the Standard Editions of American Authors initiative; $5,000 to an independent scholar for a biography of Theodore ­Roethke; and $25,000 to the University of Michigan for the XXVII International Congress of ­Orientalists. (A decade later, an NEH grant would help UC-­Irvine professors Murray Krieger and Hazard Adams start the School of Criticism and Theory.) Hyper-­sophisticated journals were founded: New Literary History, 1969; boundary2, 1972; diacritics, 1971; Critical Inquiry, 1974; Signs, 1975; Glyph, 1977.

In 1960, the MLA International Bibliography counted 12,927 items of scholarship. By 1975 the figure had jumped to 41,859. New standards meant that professors had to produce original research if they wanted to earn promotions and fresh job offers. In their research, the people who’d written important books in the 1960s were go-to sources. If you were writing a dissertation on Romantic poetry, Bloom and Hirsch were standard references. With thousands of young teachers and graduate students quoting them, the top figures of the sixties could easily believe that the precise meaning of “A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine” was a pressing question for a large audience. They trusted in the rightness of their conclusions and contended against the wrongness of others’, and thousands of graduate students and tens of thousands of undergraduates proved that the world cared. Criticism was a battle over the truth of Paradise Lost and all the other canonical works. Younger scholars felt the stakes keenly: Get it right, or be wrong—and unworthy.

It was in this environment of material abundance that the French invasion occurred. The legendary conference on structuralism at Johns Hopkins in October 1966 under the title “The Languages of Criticism & the Sciences of Man” could only have happened in a field in high-growth mode. Funding came from the Ford Foundation, and the host was the Humanities Center, which had been founded at Hopkins that very year. Without the money used to create the theory journals mentioned above, the subsequent importation of deconstruction, French feminism, and the rest would have proceeded much more slowly. Only if a department had healthy undergraduate enrollments and graduate school applications, along with expectations of generous outside funding, could it afford to bring in European VIPs, as Hopkins did Derrida a few years after the conference, and SUNY-Buffalo did Michel Foucault in 1970–72.

The recondite discourse of French theory relied upon this solid base of popular interest in literary studies. The theory idiom was esoteric, the lexicon novel, so that it had little undergraduate recruitment value. But nobody needed to worry about that, as long as enrollments were steady. The popularity of English was a luxury enabling American disciples to be almost mischievous in their admiration of the ­difficulty of the new theorists. Derrida’s dense ­dialectical presentation in Of Grammatology wasn’t going to make many wavering sophomores decide to major in ­English or French. Foucault’s treatment of torture and prison wouldn’t lead parents and alumni to become donors. The new theorists wrote sentences such as this, from the first page of S/Z (trans. 1974), where Roland Barthes ponders how to develop a universal model of narrative:

A choice must then be made: either to place all texts in a demonstrative oscillation, equalizing them under the scrutiny of an in-different science, forcing them to rejoin, inductively, the Copy from which we will then make them derive; or else to restore each text, not to its individuality, but to its function, making it cohere, even before we talk about it, by the infinite paradigm of difference, subjecting it from the outset to a basic typology, to an evaluation.

This was a whole other language, addressed only to experts. The old critics used familiar terms of analysis—irony, structure, symbol . . . The new theorists traded in logocentrism, “the Other,” undecidability, “infinite paradigm of difference.” Their vocabulary reduced the audience for academic criticism. American undergraduates couldn’t understand it, but so what? The obscurity wouldn’t be a problem as long as resources and students were pouring in. If classes were full, the American scholars who embraced the new theorists could welcome a foreign discourse steeped in Hegel, Freud, Heidegger, and European linguists that only a few sub-sub-specialists had mastered. Why bother with reader-friendly prose if research funds and outlets are plentiful?

It didn’t matter that the intellectual thrust of French theory ran against the dispositions of most students and faculty. It could still prevail. Bloom, Hirsch, and nearly everyone else in literary studies before 1966 were passionate about getting to the truth of great novels, poems, and plays. Students majored in English because they’d read ­Shakespeare in a freshman course or Hemingway on their own and found in these and other works satisfying ­reflections of themselves and their lives. They identified with Odysseus and Nick Adams, and they wanted their classes to help them refine their enthusiasm and appreciation for works of literature. Yes, New Criticism and its variants could be bloodless and scientistic, but not enough to drain John Donne and Blake’s chimney-sweeper of their human appeal. The drama of Gatsby’s green light and the oblique metaphors of Emily ­Dickinson, which brought most of the students to class, were not undone by Cleanth Brooks’s analysis of paradox in poetic language.

French theorists judged this approach naive. They challenged any presumption of stable significance in the literary object. Derrida pushed a radical skepticism that targeted the very idea of core meaning, original intention, or truth in or behind or before or under the work itself. The one-million-times-cited sentences on decentering in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” the paper Derrida had read at the Hopkins conference, were taken by first-generation American theorists as a decisive subversion of any interpretation that claimed to get it “right.” Claims to true interpretation, Derrida said, rested upon a “center,” something outside the work that explained constituents of it—an author’s psychology, his religion, his class relations, and so on. Freud interprets Hamlet by invoking the Oedipal triangle, Marx takes ­Robinson Crusoe as capitalism in its fundamental form. Here’s the problem, Derrida insisted. This center is taken for granted—it has to be, in order to determine what the phenomenon means. Conventional criticism uses the center to interpret a work, but it does not interpret the center itself. God explains the Bible—we don’t explain God. The center determines the significance of the work but is not implicated in the work. The center is in the work and, at the same time, outside it.

Derrida found in this within/without center an insurmountable contradiction, one that set criticism on a different path. His followers caught the direction instantly. The new theory demanded that the “center” undergo interpretation as well. It, too, should be understood as a text to be analyzed in its turn, not a ground to be presupposed. One had to presuppose something, the Derrideans admitted, or else one could not say anything. But one could get through the impasse by being super self-conscious about it. Hence the endless qualifiers, scare-quotes, parenthetical remarks, and circling-backwards in deconstructive discourse. In this theory of reading, self-reflexivity would never stop. Interpretation must go on! This embrace of the heroic role of the endless interpreter swept everyone away. The search for the central truth of a literary work was over. The rehearsal of the forever-deferred and “problematized” truth of the work took its place. No more truth, only “reading.”

This model was never going to attract very many American sophomores, who thrill to literature for its love and hate, intrigue and action, conflict and lyricism. It did not impress the literary reading public, either, the individuals who had season tickets to local theaters and subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club. I was drawn into theory in those years, and I can attest that we didn’t care. We thought those sorts of people were in the wrong state of mind, the “natural attitude.” They hadn’t undergone the deconstructive turn. They still affirmed that literature had a truth all its own. When it comes to masterpieces, they take the stance of appreciation, not a hermeneutic of suspicion—big mistake, and we knew better. Our game of endless interpretation aimed to kill those very joys of immersion and identification.

But in the early years of theory’s invasion, times were still good. Literature professors didn’t have to worry about securing their popularity. Boomers were still coming to college in big numbers. ­Theorists didn’t have to consider how their theories would sound to the average undergraduate. And there was something else: In spite of their skepticism, French theorists and their followers maintained a virtue that appealed to everybody, not just the specialists who’d achieved the insight. For all their analytical rigor and deconstructive élan, they nonetheless affirmed the excitement of literary reading. No worldly attitude of the weary ironist for them. When they picked up “Ode to Psyche,” there was no indifference or ennui in their prose. Truth may have been postponed indefinitely but reading retained its vigor. The theorists were intensely absorbed in the workings of literature even as they postponed its truth. The premises changed, but the energy stayed, the drama of interpretation continued.

Derrida approached Rousseau and Nietzsche as if he were going to draw momentous lessons. You could feel the weight of mighty things in his sentences. In “Différance,” he said so explicitly: “In the delineation of différance everything is strategic and adventurous.” Reading, that is, really mattered. Deconstruction didn’t disable or discourage literary interpretation; it merely censured the truth claims made by readers. Theory insisted that meaningfulness is always provisional, truth a false stabilization of shifting words and factitious contexts, but the drama was still there and took a new form. We are trapped in a “prison house of language,” caught in a play of signs that never settles down. There was a utopianism at work. Free from truth, interpretation would go on forever!

I remember the mood of those years. It was nice to appreciate Shakespeare’s talents, but to believe that he had something revelatory to say about human nature was a little primitive. How much more adult and knowing it was to find in Shakespeare moments that “problematize” appealing truths and standard readings. The rising generation of scholars found it intoxicating. Stanley Fish once told me that in those heady years, fresh PhDs felt the air in the departments crackling with ideas. Theory may have been atheistic, self-consuming, high-handed, iconoclastic, and condescending to the uninitiated, but it was adventuresome. The second edition of Paul de Man’s collection Blindness and Insight (issued in 1983) had an introduction by Wlad Godzich, the title of which captured the excitement: “Caution! Reader at Work!”

That spirit of adventure departed long ago, though pockets of enthusiasm remain. Cults of queerness and intersectionality certainly gain adherents, but it’s a narrow appeal. Those themes were never going to rouse more than a small number of students. Nevertheless, it’s the going wisdom. Sophomores today who want teachers who will teach them that Faulkner has special insight into the human psyche and that Pope’s couplets are the height of verbal refinement won’t easily find them. When I finished graduate school in 1988, those kinds of evaluations were already off the table. Theory had made everyone cannier, or so we thought. You had to be careful not to “privilege” literature. You did not permit yourself overt enthusiasm for great novels or poems. You submitted “texts” to analysis—you “performed” a “reading.”

This was another big step in literary practice: “Performativity” became a favored concept among the second-generation American theorists who rose to prominence in the final years of the twentieth century. It signaled a methodological shift from the meaning of the text to the expertise of the critics, and ambitious young professors impatient to make their mark ate it up. Gender and race theorists spoke of their identities as fashioned by performance. Pragmatist critics regarded words as doing things, not describing preexisting realities. Cultural Studies interpreted texts by detailing the “cultural work” they performed. All of them alleged that critical activity itself was a performance of singular importance, no matter what cultural object might be the occasion for it.

The focus changed accordingly. Instead of referring to Milton or Conrad, courses and publications became self-referential: “Reading the Modern,” or “Theorizing Shakespeare,” “Opening Up the ­Canon” or “Queering the Renaissance”: problematize, problematize! This turn, in fact, was a logical consequence of the decentering thrust of deconstruction. What else but the dexterity of the critic is left, since theory expelled the truth of the text? If there was no prized meaning awaiting the eye of the avid reader, then the only factor in play was the skill of the interpreter. Theorists declared, “You can’t stop the game of interpretation—you must learn to live with indeterminacy.” The shift of focus from knowledge to technique was inevitable. A study of Moby-Dick was henceforth judged not by the truths it unearthed but by how well the critic wielded keywords, how adeptly he applied this or that theory, the savvy deployment of contexts, and his avoidance of under-theorized premises. Did his deconstruction display an astute understanding of Derridean thought? Did he break down binary oppositions skillfully? Just show an adroit deployment of theory—that was the new criterion. There was still competition in this game, but it was less urgent, less all-or-nothing. No more would one critic say to another—as Bloom and Hirsch did in 1965—“You read that poem all wrong, fella!” Nobody had to push very hard, because there were no more true readings.

One might think that identity-oriented critics stand as an exception to the exile of truth, given their stern appraisals of social affairs. But their insistence on the truths of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and colonialism is quite different from an old-fashioned critic’s claim to discern the true meaning of a particular novel. For identity critics, literature is but a pretext for arriving at an extra-literary truth, the realities of race, sexuality, and the rest. Even here, in the urgent setting of injustice, professors prove their mettle by showing facility with a critical apparatus and its specialized vocabulary. And so, even as justice and equity rushed into literary debates, it wasn’t the truth of literature that counted. What mattered was the way in which literature illustrated the truth of gender fluidity, heteronormativity, and other key concepts. The gender studies professors were fired up when talking about sexism, but their handling of literature was just as instrumental as any other theorist’s.

This posed another problem for English. Students who were concerned about social justice and who were told in a lit class, “Give me a careful feminist reading of Emma,” came to realize they could cut out the middle man. The professor may have tied that reading to a real-world movement against patriarchy, but it still sounded unnecessarily academic, too focused on an old work of literature. To combat sexism, one might just as easily take a recent film, a pertinent historical episode, or a political situation as the “text,” which seems a lot more relevant than a nineteenth-century novel about privileged gentry. The impatience could become especially acute if political readings of literature were just that—readings of literature, and more readings . . . Over time, the semiotic nature of literature, pushed by seventies-era theory, actively frustrated the urgent goals sought by identity critics. Derridean interpretation didn’t produce social change. In the eyes of political critics from early on, deconstruction seemed a mandarin practice—as in its adherence to a classical philosophical canon.

This battle between professors eager for social change and professors caught up in endless problems of interpretation was waged throughout the eighties and nineties, but it was a one-sided affair. All the energy was with the former. The political and identity professors had truths to impart, whereas the theorists had only anti-truths (“there is no univocal text”). The new guard had beliefs to pass along to students, beliefs that jelled into what we call political correctness; the latter offered procedures. One was a revolutionary, the other a technocratic way of interpretation. The theorists didn’t have a chance. For a period of time, the proliferation of theories (deconstruction, reader response, New Historicism) in the seventies and eighties appeared vibrant, overflowing with diversity. But the theorists had turned the main purpose of English into mastery of different theories and methods. Did he display the right critical mastery? Did he show sound awareness of his theory? What the literary object finally says, that curious line at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the precise reason Hamlet dithers . . . well, the high priests of theory said, those are matters of interpretation. He reads it this way, she reads it that way, and the enterprise goes on . . . and on and on. In a word, decadence set in.

But pluralism in academic settings rarely lasts for long. There has to be a truth at the end of the day, even if it’s the “truth” of an artificial academic consensus. When theory killed literary truth, it doomed the discipline. Into this vacuum, identity professors in English departments poured ersatz truths about race and sex, which have failed to shore it up. At the time I was baffled at this suicidal trend, but in retrospect I can see that it was only natural that identity politics should have ascended so quickly in the nineties. Its urgent claims gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined. When literature itself no longer sparked the heat of conviction that divided Bloom and Hirsch in the early sixties, the discipline had to find another source of energy. Identity critics had the answer. They weren’t decadent—they were impassioned. By 1992, “post-structuralism” had a stale tang, but gender and queer sounded fresh and potent. A theory panel at the MLA Convention on “Shelley and the Sign” was ho-hum, but “Queer Shakespeare” down the hall was packed.

High seriousness was restored, but literature was the victim. It wasn’t Shakespeare that drew the crowd, but queerness: Lear was a pretext. Literature had become a booster rocket, at best, one that you jettison when you reach the orbit of political relevance. The institutional effects are plain to see at this late date. Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift—they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

It sounds redundant, or just plain stupid, but it must be said: Literary study needs to be about literature, literature as literature, with its own genus of truth. When professors changed Leaves of Grass from a meaning-full, independent expression of Whitman’s penetration into the soul of American democracy into a textual object open to endless interpretation, and then to a doctrine of anti-­heteronormativity, they lost their audience. They rejected the old-fashioned vocabulary of masterpieces, genius, and Great Books, not realizing that the college sophomore, a little confused and overwhelmed, searching for meaning and direction, wondering who he is and will be, craves those very things. An English department might become his home, but only if its professors can tell him, “Here are wonders that will change your life—we’ve got Satan and Gulliver and ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ and Heathcliff and the Invisible Man—they will stay with you forever . . .” Sadly, in this intellectually miserable century, they can’t. 

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor at First Things.

Image by Arturo Espinosa via Creative Commons. Image cropped.