Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 1, 1994

The Critic as Conservator: Essays in Literature, Society, and Culture, by George A. Panichas. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992. xii+262 pp. $49.95.

The last two decades have witnessed a veritable revolution in literary studies. What had seemed for years to be a staid and indeed safe field of academic inquiry has been radically politicized—becoming, if not dangerous, certainly volatile and unstable. For almost a century, literary scholars in British and American universities followed Matthew Arnold’s lead in working to teach and preserve “the best that has been known and thought.” But today many scholars view criticism as a vehicle for political and social change, specifically political redress. This is because a war of sorts erupted behind the academy’s ivy-covered walls during the 1970s and ’80s concerning both what to read and how to read it, the value of tradition and the tradition of values; and today, as the smoke clears from the intellectual battlefield, the forces of radical change appear to have emerged victorious. The ascendancy of “theory” has fundamentally altered what it means to practice criticism within the academy, and political and cultural studies almost entirely have replaced aesthetic ones. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the radical position which views tradition and inheritance as a mask for oppression and domination goes unchallenged these days. After all, the voices that most stridently advocate such a position dominate the important professional organizations, the editorial boards of literary journals, and the hiring committees within academic departments. Voices of opposition can be heard outside of the academy, in newspaper columns, magazine articles, and even books, but within departments of literature the revolution goes on, largely unchallenged.

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