American professors of literature (or a large number of them) have been in thrall for some time to a body of “literary theory” exported from Europe in the late 60’s. The basic masters are Marx and Freud, followed by de Saussure and Levi-Strauss, and the developers of this property now most in vogue seem to be the philosopher Derrida and the psychoanalyst Lacan; but as time passes it appears that the abiding fascination for the Americans is with Freud and Marx themselves. By now the federated squadrons of Marxists, neo-Freudians, deconstructionists, and Lacanians, with their close allies the feminists and the “new historicists” are largely in control of the academic centers of cultural tradition in this country, and their professed aim is to dismantle the institutions.

Nonacademic Americans can have no conception of the scale of this invasion, but a pair of university press catalogs that dropped into the mail the other day will give a hint. Between them, Johns Hopkins and Cornell University presses are currently listing some 120 books on “literary theory,” an outlay to the library that buys all of them for about $2,500 at discounted prices. Obviously, no individual academic can either afford them or, in any real sense of the word, read them. This is not just a question of the time involved. Most of them are written in a turgid, hermetic style that is intentionally unreadable.

It is hard to see how a librarian will make a decision. The catalogs give little help, for according to quotations from professorial readers these books individually and as a set are exemplary, bold, brilliant, important, surefooted, lucid, cogent, ground-breaking, thought-provoking, sustained, landmarking, exhilarating, deeply concerned and/or committed, richly suggestive, challenging, sublime, and breathtaking. There is even a surprising, perhaps significant element of military metaphor: combative, powerful, forceful, penetrating, attacking on every front. One book, all by itself, is full, rigorous, perceptive, subtle, faithful, educational, path-breaking, and original—all in three sentences. This, though, is a book about Derrida, and the reader is Derrida, so we should probably make some allowances for uncritical enthusiasm, even for egotism and coxcombry.

In fact we should probably allow for uncritical enthusiasm and a measure of egotism and coxcombry all round. Even so, making every allowance, and wondering in the process what has happened to criticism, the thought is bound to occur that something is going on here. These lists are the merest whisker, scale, or claw of a monster that is thriving in the protected environment of the universities, themselves a leviathan that swallowed up long ago the Jonah of real scholarship and teaching. Universities, operating as interlocking cartels untouched by reality in the form of either market competition or informed public regulation, spend huge sums—more, probably, than the GNP of several small nations—to patronize this writing. Nor is it just the expense of publishing the stuff and buying the results, not even the leaves, grants, fellowships, reduced teaching loads, and conference expenses that make up the real cost. Rather it is in the support of a whole system of language and literature teaching that is supposed to be doing one thing and is doing another.

Doing it very successfully, too. These books and the teachings that go with them are not a by-product of the system. They are the product. Unlike earlier kinds of criticism, which in general encouraged the reading of literature, these books dispose of literature in favor of politics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. One result is that the more literature (in name at least) is taught, the less people read it. No one can blame the student who, after encountering this kind of approach in an English class, decides never to open a work of imaginative literature again. Another result, apparent to teachers who still want to teach literature, is that the works themselves, especially the older ones, drop out of print for students. As a form of censorship, this is more effective in the long run than more vociferous kinds that get into the newspapers. Johns Hopkins and Cornell are touting a hundred highly subsidized books for academics, most of them unreadable and surely not-much-to-be-read, but the Anatomy of Melancholy is now out of print for general readers and students, probably for the first time since it was written. The immense amount of “scholarly activity” going on in fields like Renaissance studies gives a false impression. Whatever these people are doing, they are not teaching much literature to undergraduates. They are “emptying out,” to use a term in vogue with “new historicists,” the undergraduates’ inheritance.