A Response to Margaret Homans and Jill Campbell
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The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 467-468



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A Response to Margaret Homans and Jill Campbell

Mary Poovey


Margaret Homans is justified in charging me with not doing anything particularly new in my interpretation of Nan Darrell. As she observes, in this interpretation I resurrect literary critical terms I used two decades ago, and, having considerably less enthusiasm for those terms now, I judge Pickering and the critical project that inspired The Proper Lady rather harshly. But even if Homans correctly assesses my impatience, as well as the repetition that occasions it, she fails to recognize the larger problem my essay raises. Indeed, when Homans introduces the distinction between the syllabus and the research agenda as a way of salvaging my interpretation (for the classroom), she underscores the urgency of the question that Campbell identifies as the crux of this essay: what kind of work do literary critics do? When Homans suggests that one task of literary critics is to direct students' attention to past writers' engagement with present-day concerns, while another is to "reconstruct" the issues with which writers were initially engaged, she essentially divides the work of the literary critic into two halves: teaching (especially undergraduate teaching) involves interpreting a text so that it seems relevant to modern readers, even if that means stressing marginal features of the text; research (and writing for a professional audience) means using the literary text to "bring historical light" to the subjects that seemed central to past readers.

This is, of course, precisely the division that characterizes the work of most literary critics who teach in a university or a college. But, as Campbell suggests, the two projects are actually at odds with one another and, taken together, they reveal a pervasive uncertainty--or even incoherence--in the work of literary criticism. In raising questions about the canon, the work of neglected writers, and the basis for our professional evaluations, I stumbled into this incoherence without quite recognizing its significance. After reading these two perceptive responses, I feel more concerned than ever--not simply about my tendency to repeat but about how comfortable most literary critics have grown with work that is difficult to describe and, increasingly, difficult to defend.

What Homans (following Guillory) describes as the two halves of literary critical work are theoretically at odds with one another because [End Page 467] the first assumes that meaning exists in and for the present, while the second assumes that past meanings can be reconstructed unproblematically, with relatively little interference from present preoccupations. Ours isn't the only academic discipline that tolerates this incoherence, of course. It resides at the heart of any historical project, and even the social sciences that combine data-collection with interpretation (anthropology and sociology) struggle with what has variously been called the objectivity question and the hermeneutic circle. But because interpretation has come to seem more central to the literary critical project than it is in these other disciplines, combining it with work that purports to be recovery seems more problematic. (Or maybe the problematic nature of all these enterprises is simply surfacing in literary criticism, as the most theoretically self-conscious of the disciplines.)

Our collective inability to resolve the theoretical incoherence of our discipline threatens to become more consequential as more students question the value of training in any liberal arts subject, especially literary criticism. I am heartened by Campbell's account of students flocking to her courses on eighteenth-century women writers, but the enthusiasm visible at Yale is not universal, and we cannot simply assume that students will want to take classes because we want to teach them--especially if we cannot even explain to each other why what we do makes sense. Universities across the U.S. report that enrollments in all liberal arts courses have declined relative to enrollments in professional subjects, and among the 25 courses undergraduates most frequently complete, only four are liberal arts subjects (and English composition is the only one a literary critic is even remotely qualified to teach). I am not at...