Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?

“Professing Criticism” proceeds on the basis that, in order to decipher the present and to prepare for the future, one must first turn to the past. “The study of literature—in the premodern sense of any writing that has been preserved or valued—is very old, the oldest kind of organized study in Western history, excepting only rhetoric,” Guillory writes. But a distinct genre of writing called “criticism” first appeared in the late seventeenth century. The earliest critics were the descendants of the Renaissance humanists—editors and translators well versed in the art and literature of antiquity, from which they derived the standards they used to judge modern works. Theirs was a “Science of Criticism,” Lewis Theobald, a fastidious editor of Shakespeare’s plays, declared in 1733. It consisted of three duties: “Emendation of corrupt Passages,” “Explanation of obscure and difficult ones,” and “Inquiry into the Beauties and Defects of Composition.” Emendation and explanation required the kind of intimate linguistic and historical knowledge that could be acquired only through extensive schooling. Inquiry, however, lay “open for every willing Undertaker,” Theobald wrote, “and I shall be pleas’d to see it the Employment of a masterly Pen.” —New Yorker

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