After the Death of Literature

After the Death of Literature

After the Death of Literature

After the Death of Literature


Calling Samuel Johnson the greatest literary critic since Aristotle, Richard B. Schwartz assumes the perspective of that quintessential eighteenth-century man of letters to examine the critical and theoretical literary developments that gained momentum in the 1970s and stimulated the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Schwartz speculates that Johnson -- who revered hard facts, a wide cultural base, and common sense -- would have exhibited scant patience with the heavily academic approaches currently favored in the study of literature. He considers it probable that the combatants in the early struggles of the culture wars are losing energy and that, in the wake of Alvin Kernan's declaration of the death of literature, new battlegrounds are developing. Ironically admiring the orchestration and staging of battles old and new -- "superb" he calls them -- he characterizes the entire cultural war as a "battle between straw men, carefully constructed by the combatants to sustain a pattern of polarization that could be exploited to provide continuing professional advancement."

In seven diverse essays, Schwartz calls for both the broad cultural vision and the sanity of a Samuel Johnson from those who make pronouncements about literature. Running through and unifying these essays is the conviction that the cultural elite is clearly detached from life: "Academics, fleeing in horror from anything smacking of the bourgeois, offer us something far worse: bland sameness presented in elitist terms in the name of the poor." Another theme is that the either/or absolutism of many of the combatants is "absurd on its face (and) belies the complexities of art, culture, and humanity."

Like Johnson, Schwartz would terminate the divorce between literature and life, make allies of literature and criticism, and remove poetry from the province of the university and return it to the domain of readers. Texts would carry meanin


One of my overarching premises in the essays that follow is that the split between writing and criticism, which is now characteristic of literary practice, has been detrimental to criticism. Leaving that question in abeyance for the moment, but recognizing that any model to whom I might turn would be an individual capable of bridging that gap, it is still fair to ask, why Johnson? If one were focusing on critics who had also been writers, one could select Sidney, Dryden, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot, Auden, or any of a number of interesting individuals.

In the first place, Johnson has been singled out as a model on numerous occasions, both by professional writers and by academicians, who have found in his work a pattern or patterns that all, to some degree, might attempt to emulate. Eliot considered Johnson to be (with Dryden and Coleridge) one of the three greatest English critics of poetry (p. 184). Leavis said of him that "he is a classic qua critic" (Johnson as Critic, p. 70). Yvor Winters, noting the rarity of great criticism, commented that "perhaps the only critic in English who deserves that epithet is Samuel Johnson" (p. 240). Henri Peyre, a man sensitive to the many failures of criticism, acknowledged Johnson's preeminence among the English critics (p. 4). More recently, Johnson has received praise of a similar order ("Johnson, the greatest critic in the language") from Harold Bloom (p. 28), who, like the rest of these individuals, does not dispense such praise lightly.

Nineteen years ago, William Bowman Piper published an essay entitled "Samuel Johnson as an Exemplary Critic." Lamenting the growing distance between the contemporary critical community and the world of everyday literary experience, Piper saw a replaying of the eighteenth-century confrontation between abstract, continental ra-

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