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Instructive historical-intellectual entertainment for those seriously interested in the fate of literature in our age. The gracefully learned Kernan (Emeritus Professor of Humanities/Princeton) brings on his own bad-news message, true or false, with little dogma or shrillness. Never able to define or systematize itself the way the sciences could, what we call literature wasn't very secure even when it finally entered the university curriculum late in the 19th century--a querulous moment that Keman narrates with a captivating and telling humor. And the author feels that now, a century later, things are far worse: literature has not only been deprived of its cultural role by the voracious and amoral energies of the electronic mass media, but it's also under withering attack by its own academic guardians, the deconstructionist critics. Assaulted by these twin enemies, Keman argues, literature is already dead, and certainly ""the battle is long over"" for its keeping ""any serious role in shaping the world's language."" Right or wrong as Kernan may be, he draws felicitously on his own lifetime of reading to show how the present situation came to be--tracing, for example, the legacy of high Romanticism down to its degenerate form in social-artistic follies and ersatz scandals like the Mapplethorpe affair; showing how the age of print gave literature not only its authority as a source of ""truth"" but also its capacity to be owned and copyrighted; and how, in our ""transition from a print to an electronic culture,"" both that authority and literature's property claims are being lost. Keman's greatest energies, though, are summoned to clarify his dismay at what he sees as the ravaging, irreverent, political wrongheadedness of deconstructionism, offering a lucid primer of the abstruse tenets of this school of thought that has caused ""a critical revolution [to sweep] through literary studies like measles through a primitive tribe."" Arguments can be had with Keman, and will be; but on balance, a guess is that his capacious, historically nimble, and informative book will be read as much for its own interest and literary persuasiveness as for the sealed note of doom it claims to bring.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0300052383
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press