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Literature, Education, and the Arts


Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04807-1
Publisher: Norton

Diverse essays on literature and the arts from an eminent critic who writes for the educated public rather than the academic specialist. Shattuck, professor emeritus of literature at Boston Univ., is probably best-known for his National Book Award—winning biography of Marcel Proust and his various books on French modernism, but his interests have always been wide-ranging. The most recent of his 12 books (Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, 1996) explored its title theme from earliest myth to the contemporary critical preoccupation with transgression. The new book picks up 39 essays—book reviews, public lectures, columns that he wrote for the liberal arts journal Salmagundi—that have appeared elsewhere over the past two decades. Interestingly, the hodgepodge format doesn—t vitiate the pleasure and insight that his book offers. In a way, it increases that pleasure, because it encourages browsing and dipping. Shattuck’s prose is urbane but never pretentious, “in the wake of the great literary journalists” he admires: Hazlitt, Baudelaire, and Edmund Wilson. Shattuck is a resolutely public critic, and early essays in the collection polemicize against the obscurantism and what he sees also as the moral corruption of contemporary academic criticism. Michel Foucault and his followers, in particular, come in for a sound drubbing. But the book’s greater part is taken up with book reviews, a genre that Shattuck masters with great flair. Reviews are the chief venue for literary journalism in our era, and Shattuck makes the most of it. Even though the books under review vary widely—from MallarmÇ to Mailer, from W.S. Merwin to Leopold Senghor—Shattuck’s own vision emerges clearly. Throughout he emphasizes the moral dimension of criticism, the link between art and lived human experience, and the ethical imperative of what he calls “intellectual craftsmanship.” Even if his polemics are a bit one-sided and sanctimonious, the overall effect of his writing about art and literature is engaging.