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LITERATURE LOST by John M. Ellis

LITERATURE LOST

Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities

By John M. Ellis

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-300-06920-0
Publisher: Yale Univ.

 Having deconstructed one of his bugaboos in Against Deconstruction (not reviewed), Ellis (German Literature./Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz) now goes after the race-gender-class triad of academic political correctness. The Culture Wars have slowed only a little in the media since the first salvos in the early '90s, fired in such books as Dinesh d'Souza's Illiberal Education. Ellis, the secretary of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and an occasional writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education on political correctness, is slightly more interested in the intellectual underpinnings of literary radicals than in fracases at tenure meetings and conferences; but he is deeply concerned about the deleterious effect of both on academic freedom and higher learning. As something of an old-fashioned humanist, Ellis's style tends to be measured and levelheaded when he's analyzing the Western tradition and the recurrence of philosophic radicalism and intellectual orthodoxy. His lively and telling discussion of previous incarnations of political correctness include Tacitus' efforts to romanticize German barbarians, Rousseau's vilification of European civilization, Herder's volk-worshiping cultural relativism, and Marx's materialist dialectics. He is also well versed in the modern schools of literary criticism and provides an excellent perspective on the evolution of the New Criticism to Deconstruction and New Historicism. When taking on the opposing forces in contemporary academic struggles, his methodical approach is especially adept at showing up the the sloppiness of cultural critic Fredric Jameson and the unscientific feminist psychology of Peggy McIntosh. Sometimes the book gives way to petty polemic, as when addressing more general trends in feminism and campus activism, but Ellis's humanist dislike of cant and jargon is well matched with his open-mindedness about the values of literature. Another fusillade in the Culture Wars from an entrenched position, but one of higher than usual caliber.