A SOFT answer turneth away wrath. Alvin Kernan follows a screaming title - "The Death of Literature" - with some subtle chamber music noteworthy for its cunning modulations and contrasting voices.
Literature is in trouble. Recent polls show that only about 10 percent of adult Americans read it. And by read it, they mean read something literary every year or so. This means spending maybe 20 hours per annum - compared with more than 20 hours a week these same literate Americans devote to watching television.
Professor Kernan has been writing about this problem for years. With "The Death of Literature," he completes a trilogy that began with "The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society," (Princeton University Press, 1982). In the second work in the series, "Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson" (Princeton University Press, 1987), he worked out a model of what it means to be literary.
Kernan wrote, "Books and the larger world of letters of which they were a part were Johnson's principal means for making reality, not so sacred, perhaps, but serving the same purpose as religion, sermons, and prayers, to shield him from nothingness."
In "The Death of Literature," Samuel Johnson and his ilk have disappeared into the mists of time. A massive shift has taken place. "Humanism's long dream of learning, or arriving at some final truth by enough reading and writing, is breaking up in our time," Kernan writes.
The first couple of chapters eddy around famous scandals. Kernan's argument may surprise some of his peers. When an exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe provokes the wrath of politicians and cultural groups, and changes the way the federal government supports the arts, Kernan says a pox on both your houses. Later he discusses the pornography trial of D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover" in the same terms with the same exasperation.
Of all the posturing on both sides in the Mapplethorpe controversy, he says, "There is no real intellectual life in all this, only the acting out of traditional romantic art-attitudes in the interests of politics, prestige, money, and social power, which are no longer in accordance with understood realities, such as the fact that art is only what its parent society says it is."
The trial of "Lady Chatterly's Lover" in 1959 illustrates "the inability of the literary professionals ... to describe with any precision and concert the characteristics of literature or to state with any firmness and conviction its place in social life."
Whereas the judge at the trial could argue that the artist had a duty not to harm a fellow member of society mentally or spiritually, those defending art could not say why art was worth defending when it did seem so to harm.
The inability to explain, in widely compelling terms, the value of literature and art plagued the beginnings of the modern period. In vivid scenes, Kernan takes us back to the time when English literature was first being …