After the Great American Novel
What do English professors do with literature? When English departments were first formed in the US at the end of the 19th century, the fashionable professor did “scholarship.” Scholarship’s goal was to turn the study of literature into a science. To achieve that aim, professors engaged in various pedantic tasks, including genealogical research, grammatical analysis, and textual collation. Like much aspirationally scientific work, scholarship took itself too seriously to be very exciting. In some cases it could be dry enough to make you thirsty. And so scholarship eventually yielded to something called “criticism.” This budding form of literary study privileged interpretation. It created a forum in which critics could use literature to engage their politics. And criticism tried hard not to be dry. Many of its most celebrated pioneers wrote with a virtuoso style that borrowed storytelling tricks from literature itself. Criticism began to appear in English departments before the 19th century was out, but its popularity grew after about 1915, its real dominance came after 1945, and its energies were renewed by the vogue for high literary theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Only in the last 25 years has scholarship, with its broad extratextual research and deep empirical digging, been regaining popularity in English departments.