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Reviewed by:
  • Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades
  • Paul M. Hedeen
Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades, by Ihab Hassan; xix & 261 pp. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995; $49.95 cloth, 24.95 paper.

When I received Hassan’s collection, I was fully prepared to dislike it. I remembered well how Hassan’s hip pronouncements of postmodern crisis had often set my teeth on edge, and I had trouble suppressing my suspicion that proclamations of the twilight of modernism were de rigueur for the dawn of a postmodern career. I also suspected what might be lurking behind the unnecessarily opaque diction and the easy desire to enrich a discourse already leaning too heavily on glib formulae. I said to myself, “Hassan’s had a good run. Why publish material already accessible on every good library’s shelves?” Also, I wondered how this collection of Hassan’s “greatest hits” would play to that raw crowd of postmodernists with whom Hassan’s career is so identified, especially given this crowd’s scorn for the long view and its easy celebration of the dislocated and fragmentary.

But I have not disliked Rumors of Change. Although Hassan includes essays concerning writers no longer germane to our appreciation of postwar thinking, and although this volume is somewhat clumsily organized, it dramatizes the progress of what Hassan calls a “journey . . . without exile, beyond exile” (p. 253). Importantly, even old-fashionedly, he rejects the roles of victim and outcast, an important delineation for someone technically a postcolonialist. The book, then, shows the course of a journey that has sufficient surprise and challenge to spark our curiosity about the arc of a postwar academic career. [End Page 479]

Two metaphors direct our understanding of this volume. The first, drawn from Zbigniew Herbert, asks us to see a career as something both brave and transforming, “a true journey from which you do not return” (p. 253). Secondly, Hassan has always been more than a mere interpreter of literature and culture. He has been a performer, something of an artist. In this retrospective, Hassan “performs,” as if to say, “see how I am in the things that I have made. I both embody and transform my moment.” The Hassan who emerges from five decades of writing is both daring and modest, complex and lucid, especially when contrasted with the knuckle-busters whom we have been asked to handle in these last two decades of our “publish-or-perish / publish-and-perish anyway” profession.

Hassan organizes his fifteen essays into “convivial groups . . . a plausible taxonomy of topics . . . [the] five forms our attention takes,” each of which gives rumor to “history” and to “cultural change” (pp. xi–xii). The five topics (not titles) are “appraisals of postwar American fiction”; “themes, genres, provocations”; “the reception of postmodernism”; “the self-regarding fictions of criticism”; and the “felt particulars . . . of travel, . . . autobiography, . . . [and] separatism” (pp. 1, 53, 97, 139, 189). The essays also make a “personal pattern,” “the story of coming intellectually of age in America in the postwar years” (pp. xvi, xvii). Having Hassan to comment upon himself as both a young and mature intellectual—in short, to serve as his own editor—is a great asset in this volume. The commentary and, I suspect, the person, are both chastened and congratulatory, balanced and shrewd. He emerges as that rare man who might be a reliable guide to himself. In short, dare we say it, he may be wise. So he warns us not to expect a false consistency: “the voice at the end of the book is not that at its start” (p. xiii). He also admits that whatever connections and progressions emerge may be cast “in terms we never wholly understand” (p. xvii).

Hassan’s goal is to articulate the themes of an intellectual life. He is deliberately poetic as he does so; much is not stated, but associated and inferred, a process “complicit with literature” (p. xvi). He hopes that the particulars of his thought, writing, and career will demonstrate what he calls “new conjunctions of parts to wholes, beliefs to larger beliefs” (p. xix). All considered, he demonstrates that “the particular remains proof of our fidelity” (p...

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