Jane Tompkins (1940–) from “ ‘But Is It Any Good?’: The Institutionalization of Literary Value,” Sensational Designs (1985)

  • Lee Morrissey


The objection, as I have phrased it, is never put in exactly this way, but usually takes the form of a question like: but are these works really any good ? or, what about the literary value of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?, or, do you really want to defend Warner’s language? These questions imply that the standards of judgment to which they refer are not themselves challengeable, but are taken for granted among qualified readers. “You and I know what a good novel is,” the objection implies, “and we both know that these novels fall outside that category.” But the notion of good literature that the question invokes is precisely what we are arguing about. That tacit sense of what is “good” cannot be used to determine the value of these novels because literary value is the point at issue. At this juncture, people will frequently attempt to settle the question empirically by pointing to one or another indisputably “great” work, such as Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, and asking whether The Wide, Wide World is as good as that.


Literary History American Literature American Writer Common Reader Literary Canon 
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    In 1958, eleven months after the launching of Sputnik, the president appointed a special assistant for science and technology, and the government passed the National Defense Education Act, which increased grants given to students of mathematics, the natural and social sciences, and modern languages. See Daniel Snowman, America Since 1920 (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 128.Google Scholar
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© Lee Morrissey 2005

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  • Lee Morrissey

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