THE POLITICS OF LITERATURE: Dissenting Essays on the Teaching of English by Louis & Paul Lauter -- Eds. Kampf

THE POLITICS OF LITERATURE: Dissenting Essays on the Teaching of English

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A strong, though often uncertain, group of essays describing the current state of university teaching, ""professionalized"" study, literary criticism, and questioning what ""socialist literary practice"" might be. The contributors, youngish academics and ex-academics, are most confident in their criticisms: by way of autobiography, sociological examination of higher education and ""high culture,"" and historical discussion of the changing function of the critic, they make what might have been a stale, narrow call for ""relevance"" into an affirmation of serious concern for literature and learning, in opposition to the trivialization of culture and the ""internalization of defeat"" on the part of students. Some, like Richard Ohmann and Barbara Kessel, focus on the New Criticism in which they were trained, analyzing the postwar preference for viewing literary works as things in themselves, formal objects of ""technical expertise."" Those essays which deal with narrower topics (William Labov's brilliant attack on Jensenist views of ""nonstandard English,"" Martha Vicinus's sampling of 19th-century British working-class poetry, or Lillian Robinson's extension of Virginia Woolf's ""Room of One's Own"") sustain this concern for social causation and human experience. Bruce Franklin, the Melville specialist purged from Stanford University, has the most aggressive pro-working class perspective (it borders on proletkult in this essay) but he also draws from Marxist critics. In general, the essayists are actively struggling with the relationship between political activity and their intellectual development; the diffuse but valuable introduction by Kampf and Lauter makes this very dear. Thus what might have been a collection of masochistic anecdotes, bombastic sub-criticism on the order of Jonah Raskin's The Mythology of Imperialism (1971), and disclaimers of the value of studying traditional literature at all (Roszak's earlier volume in this series, The Dissenting Academy, 1968) becomes a stimulant to all ""radicals"" concerned with teaching and studying and ""subject,"" an affirmation of the need to transfigure, rather than abolish, scholarly work, and an invitation to more direct discussion of art, consciousness, and social change.

Pub Date: May 24th, 1972
Publisher: Pantheon