Literature's Fade-Out How Modern Society Has Distanced Itself from Written Works

By Thomas D'Evelyn. Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities . | The Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 1990 | Go to article overview

Literature's Fade-Out How Modern Society Has Distanced Itself from Written Works


Thomas D'Evelyn. Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities ., The Christian Science Monitor


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 discussed as a possible subject in universities. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Literature's Fade-Out How Modern Society Has Distanced Itself from Written Works
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.