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Cultural Criticism, Textual Criticism, Literary Journalism

Literary study is in terrible shape, as everyone knows. The language and literature majors are down, the job market in English looks terrible this year (see this), and unit sales of a literary monograph are lucky to reach 400 copies. Also, the insularity of the perspectives and approaches, not to mention the boggy prose, makes the reading of them a wearisome exercise.

But there are great exceptions, and here are three.

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is an entertaining and sophisticated ramble through the books, films, music, and ideas of the 1930s. It doesn’t do tight interpretations, and there is no grand thesis or theory in play. Rather, it’s an engaging commentary on Bing Crosby, Tess Slesinger, screwball comedy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc.  Here’s a paragraph on Citizen Kane:

“Films like My Man Godfrey, Easy Living, and Bringing Up Baby indict the rich as coldhearted or harebrained but strictly in a farcical vein. The daffy rich are silly but salvageable, even lovable, and they appeal to us — as they did to Depression audiences — as figures of spontaneity and irresponsible freedom. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, is closer to many literary portrayals of the very rich, from muckraking novels like Frank Norris’s The Octopus to social novels etched in acid by Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and J. P. Marquand, which show how the rich, though immensely attractive, exercise power over others by charming them, buying them, or intimidating them.”

Eric J. Sundquist’s King’s Dream works in the opposite way, taking one text, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and working back and forth between the actual words and relevant contexts. Those latter include the Civil Rights Movement, King’s patriotism, Southern governors, Scripture, and the Klan.  The book is, in fact, an eminently useful casebook for teachers of the speech in high school as well as college classes. Here’s a paragraph on black civil-rights leaders and black populations at the time:

“According to a Newsweek poll of African-Americans taken in July 1963, King ranked first among 14 top black leaders from various walks of life, with an 88 percent favorable rating among everyday citizens and 95 percent among one hundred other black leaders. At the bottom of the list was Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam, with 15 percent and 17 percent, respectively. . . . Yet the comparative weakness of King’s appeal among blacks in the urban North became evident in November, when Franklin and Cleage had a rancorous split over plans for the  Northern Negro Leadership Conference, with Cleage on short notice organizing a competing event, the Grassroots Leadership Conference, for the same weekend.  Despite King’s support for Franklin’s conference, Cleage’s drew a larger crowd and a number of more radical activists, who heard Malcolm X deliver his famous ‘Message to the Grass Roots.’”

Finally, the Web site of one of the best literary journalists in the country, John Miller’s www.heymiller.com. Miller is an editor at National Review and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.  His literary essays range from Dickens to Poe to Louis L’Amour to Hemingway (“The Young Man and the Lakes,” a play on Old Man and the Sea, a study of “Big Two-Hearted River I and II,” one of the great short stories in American literary history). He also has a historical novel just out that takes place in Washington, DC, 1861.  Here’s a paragraph from the Hemingway piece:

“The narrative begins with Nick Adams, Hemingway’s protagonist and alter-ego, having just gotten off the train in Seney, a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He hikes into the wilderness and fishes for trout. The problem is that the Two-Hearted River lies about 20 miles north of Seney and flows into Lake Superior. On foot, it’s virtually impossible to get there with Nick’s apparent speed. The Fox River — a perfectly good stream for brook trout — runs right through the town, on its way to Lake Michigan.”

“Hemingway visited Seney with a couple of friends in 1919. Wouldn’t he have just fished the Fox?”

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