Frank Lentricchia and the Currently Paralysed Debates

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Author: Garry Watson
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 16,853 words

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[(essay date 1988) In the following essay, Watson offers a detailed overview and analysis of After the New Criticism. He characterizes the study as “lively” and valuable, but questions Lentricchia’s decision to champion the “anti-humanism” of such authors as Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.]

To probe the source of a speaker’s authority is very quickly, as Foucault shows, to discover impregnable interlocking institutions which force expression into thoroughly architected places of confinement. [For example,] … the literary critic … will, at a minimum, have a Ph.D. in literature, and preferably from one of a small group of celebrated universities. He will need a university appointment or a position at a small ‘respected’ college; a letterhead announcing his name, an M.A. degree, and his home address as Commerce, Oklahoma, will constitute a distinct disadvantage. An ambitious literary critic who desires to lodge his statements within our current sense of critical truth would seek ‘co-existence,’ as Foucault puts it, with certain other disciplines—Saussurean linguistics, anthropology in the structuralist mode, deconstructionist philosophies, and so on. And his books and articles will speak from institutionally sanctioned sites: a university press, a scholarly journal, but again this is only minimal, for to be critically dans le vrai in 1980 is to speak under the imprimatur of certain preferred presses and journals. Above all, certain doctrines will be paid reverence.Frank Lentricchia1

Given the fact that Frank Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism (1980) and his Criticism and Social Change (1983) are both published by the University of Chicago Press, and that he is both the Series Editor of the published versions of the Wellek Library Lectures (delivered at the University of California, Irvine) and the General Editor of ‘The Wisconsin Project on American Writers’ (books that ‘will re-examine and re-evaluate American writing from the perspectives of the new critical ideas’ in order to give ‘expression to this generation’s sense of American culture and society’),2 it isn’t too difficult to turn his own irony against him. Obviously he himself speaks not only from ‘institutionally sanctioned sites’ but also ‘under the imprimatur of certain preferred presses and journals’: pretty obviously, he himself is very much ‘critically dans le vrai’ in the mid-1980s. In fact, in the light of the influence he now enjoys, we surely have to recognise that in recent years Lentricchia has become the kind of powerful academic whose opinions the ambitious young literary critic would do well to familiarise him or herself with. For the moment, that is to say, the latter is virtually bound to find him or herself under some pressure if not necessarily to pay reverence to, at least to seek some form of ‘co-existence’ with, ‘the new critical ideas’ promoted by Lentricchia. Not, of course, that he is the only promoter of such ideas but he is certainly one of the most powerfully influential and as such he probably can’t, at the moment, be safely ignored—not, at any rate, by the as yet unknown who desire to lodge their...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100120406