Louis Menand, from “Interdisciplinarity and Authority,” 7-8


The story of the New Critical adjustment to the requirements of academic disciplinarity is significant because of its use of a figure who

played a central role in the process even though he was not an academic and had little use for academic criticism. This was T. S. Eliot. I

think all of Eliot’s critical writing—especially its tone and special vocabulary—is crucial to this story, but I can take just the one example

of his most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which was published in 1919. The question that essay essentially asks is,

 What does the poet need to know? And the answer it gives is, Poetry. The best way to understand poems is by their relations to other

poems: without this premise, the whole enterprise of academic criticism would be unable to function. Eliot’s prescription is a formalism,

but disciplinary specialization is itself a kind of formalism. It isolates one aspect of experience and makes that aspect the basis for an

autonomous field of inquiry that can be fruitfully pursued without special knowledge of any other field of inquiry. English professors need

not be historians, sociologists, psychologists, or philosophers to be regarded as full-fledged contributing professionals. They can be historians,

critics, and theorists of literature knowing, in their professional capacity, only literature.


This stage, the stage in which a new practice is incorporated into the academic institution by theorizing its autonomy, is followed

 by the final move, which is the elision of the historical boundary between the era of the research university and the pre-professional

 era. In the history of English studies, Eliot was the key figure here: a critic who was not associated with an academic institution but

who produced a criticism whose vocabulary and criteria for judgment were scientistic-sounding, and which could be appropriated

 by academics without betraying either their ideological or, more importantly, their personal interests or ad hoc motivations—which

 Eliot himself certainly had plenty of. Between the literary universe of Keats, Arnold, and Wilde and the literary universe of the Yale

 English department of Wellek and Brooks and Wimsatt, Eliot was the link. Thus Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism begins with

Immanuel Kant and ends, many volumes later, with Wellek’s Yale colleague, William Wimsatt. And thus Walter Jackson Bate’s widely

 used anthology of literary criticism begins with Plato and ends with a professor, Douglas Bush, as though there were no meaningful

situational distinction between the two figures. The anthology, in fact, is the principal instrument by which this elision between the

pre- and post-professional eras is performed. So that we can get, for example, an anthology of political philosophy that includes

 Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls, or an anthology of art criticism that includes Charles Baudelaire and Rosalind Krauss.