Bawer on Greenblatt: A Response

Though I have not read anything he has written this century, Stephen Greenblatt has had an outsized impact on my academic career. The New Historicism he spawned granted permission to incorporate the ‘original’ documents and forgotten essays I love into my studies of literature and provided impetus to my shift into Cultural Studies. Were it not for Greenblatt, my two most recent books, Doughboys on the Western Front: Memories of American Soldiers in the Great War and The Depression Era: A Historical Exploration of Literature would not exist.

The reasons I have not read recent Greenblatt are simple. I am not willing to explore more of Sixteenth Century England (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) if that means putting aside other readings, not even in favor of Greenblatt. Nor am I interested in sweeping claims about history (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern) or in exploring the impact of Biblical myth (the forthcoming The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve). Though these may all be worthy topics, my focus is elsewhere.

The New Criterion, this month, published an article by Bruce Bawer, “The Case of Stephen Greeblatt.” As it purported to be about his entire career (not just his newest book), I read it.

Though I love a bit of takedown, even of people I admire, I was startled by what I read. Not only does Bawer skewer Greenblatt’s turn to a popular audience but he dismantles (in his eyes) Greenblatt’s entire career, not exempting the New Historicism and Cultural Studies movements that so benefited from his work.

I’m in no position, of course, to judge Bawer’s comments (consistently scathing) on Greenblatt’s recent output, but I can respond, a little, to his criticism of New Historicism and Cultural Studies.

At one point, Bawer writes that the “New Historicists were at once insufficiently knowledgeable about history and insufficiently sensitive to literary merit.” Later, he claims that Cultural Studies is “even more unserious, even more indefinable” than New Historicism, and that Cultural Studies scholars combine “a breathtaking cultural and historical illiteracy with a tendency to lean on pseudo-radical tropes.” Sweeping judgments, indeed.

Rather startled by these sweeping dismissals, I took a quick look at one of Bawer’s own books, The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind. Right at the start, he makes the rather dubious claim that “most Americans today… understand that somewhere along the way, we lost the sensible centrism that, within living memory, defined the American public square.” Were I given to polemics, I might call this an example of ‘breathtaking cultural and historical illiteracy.’ He certainly made me doubt his own credentials as a commentator.

As one raised in the 1950s and 1960s in an Appalachian family that bounced back and forth between North and South, I never fell victim to the idea of a historical American consensus or even to the idea that we could ever ‘make America great again’ (the concept is not new) based on some fabulous past. I experienced many Americas, most of them at loggerheads, some even claiming (against all evidence) to be the only real America. Early in my life, I read Charles and Mary Beard’s History of the United States and, later (in high school), Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. At about the same time, I was introduced to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. These, along with my personal experiences of division within the country (try being a Southern kid in Indiana in 1958; try imagining national unity in segregated Atlanta in the early 1960s; try arguing for a cohesive American culture amid the divisions of 1968—and still believe that there was ever any generalized agreement among Americans about structure or direction for the country), led me to reject the then-popular ‘consensus theory’ of American history—a theory, I would later discover, championed by the very Hofstadter who, to me, had so vividly illustrated one of the divides.

Hofstadter’s anti-intellectuals, after all, tended to arise from the very culture I am descended from, one quite different from that of the Eastern elites he lauds.

Today, only the most naïve (or politically blindered) could argue, I believe (given my experience of America), for the existence of a ‘sensible centrism’ at any time in the country’s history. There wasn’t even consensus for revolution. All we have had that we may have now lost is an ability, developed after the Civil War, to compromise and to live with the results—and even that is questionable. If Bawer cannot see this, he is no real student of history. More likely, he is among those who, like the rightwing favorite David Barton, cherry-pick from history to support current political desires.

*****

One of the divisions in American culture that has fascinated me for years is that between highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. As a kid who was reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift (and comic books) at the same time as he was starting to be entranced by works on American history, I’ve never been able to see a distinction less valuable to either enthusiast or student. This is, however, another real American divide and one that Bawer seems unwilling to cross. One of his criticisms of Greenblatt is that his recent writings have aimed for a middlebrow audience; as quoted above, he seems, also, to believe in an objective ‘literary merit,’ something long used to keep hoi polloi away from the elite, kitsch (thank you, Clement Greenberg) from contaminating the avant-garde. If it’s popular, it cannot be good (see Harold Bloom on Harry Potter). Bawer never says this explicitly, but the concept lies behind much of his argument (as does the idea that exploration of history cannot contain extrapolated supposition). ‘Merit’ is often used to divide study into the legitimate and the bastard, and Bawer uses it to try to keep out both New Historicism and Cultural Studies. The fact that as much can be learned from the bad as from the good (no matter how either is defined) is conveniently elided.

*****

What Bawer has done is not fair to Greenblatt, for Bawer dissects Greenblatt’s work on a table where it was never meant to be, by limiting it to Bawer’s own narrow preconceptions rather than allowing the works (as Bawer’s admired New Critics would have done) to create their own table (or universe), one that should be followed through before struggling against it (shades of the earlier—and much more useful—Bloom). Nor is it fair to New Historicism, which retrieved from the age just prior to that of the New Critics a desire to contextualize literature (Bawer, for some reason, tries to put the field down for doing this). Nor is it fair to those of us engaged in Cultural Studies, when we deliberately steps aside from consideration of aesthetics in favor of other questions.

Disagreement, even dish, is often welcome. For it to mean anything beyond momentary titillation, however, it must also be fair.

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