Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1950–) from “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African-American Tradition,” Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992)

  • Lee Morrissey


As writers, teachers, or intellectuals, most of us would like to claim greater efficacy for our labors than we’re entitled to. These days, literary criticism likes to think of itself as “war by other means.” But it should start to wonder: Have its victories come too easily? The recent move toward politics and history in literary studies has turned the analysis of texts into a marionette theater of the political, to which we bring all the passions of our real-world commitments. And that’s why it is sometimes necessary to remind ourselves of the distance from the classroom to the streets. Academic critics write essays, “readings” of literature, where the bad guys (for example, racism or patriarchy) lose, where the forces of oppression are subverted by the boundless powers of irony and allegory that no prison can contain, and we glow with hard-won triumph. We pay homage to the marginalized and demonized, and it feels almost as if we’ve righted a real-world injustice. I always think of the folktale about the fellow who killed seven with one blow.


Canon Formation Literary History American Literature Shared Culture Literary Canon 
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© Lee Morrissey 2005

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  • Lee Morrissey

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