Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem

By Eric Bennett for Chronicle of Higher Education
13 Apr 2018

Dismayed about American politics? Look in the mirror

Can the average humanities professor be blamed if she rises in the morning, checks the headlines, shivers, looks in the mirror, and beholds a countenance of righteous and powerless innocence? Whatever has happened politically to the United States, it’s happened in stark opposition to the values so many philosophers and English professors, historians and art historians, creative writers and interdisciplinary scholars of race, class, and gender hold dear.

We are, after all, the ones to include diverse voices on the syllabus, use inclusive language in the classroom, teach stories of minority triumph, and, in our conference papers, articles, and monographs, lay bare the ideological mechanisms that move the cranks and offices of a neoliberal economy. Since the Reagan era our classrooms have mustered their might against thoughtless bigotry, taught critical thinking, framed the plight and extolled the humanity of the disadvantaged, and denounced all patriotism that curdles into chauvinism.

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1922: The Year That Transformed English Literature

By Eric Bennett for The New York Times Book Review
09 Aug 2017

Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature 
By Bill Goldstein 

World War I wounded or killed almost 40 million people, upended the balance of power that had prevailed in Europe for a century, heralded a new age of mechanized warfare and redrew borders around the globe. It also transformed literature. Since the days of the Black Death, writers in English had fashioned books from other books. Chaucer plundered Boccaccio to good effect. Shakespeare filched parts of “Hamlet” from Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy.” Milton retooled Virgil for English Protestants. And such theft and fealty persisted well into the era of internal combustion. Dickens worked lines of Sir Philip Sidney into the 59 chapters of “Great Expectations.”

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American Storyteller

By Eric Bennett for Public Books
26 June 2017

The Best American Short Stories 2016, plus collections
by Ottessa Moshfegh, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Roxane Gay, and Chanelle Benz, Public Books.

What makes American life meaningful? Apple products? Cat videos? Torrential pornography? The prospect of a lavish retirement? The senior prom? Forestalling your plunge into poverty? Prescription narcotics? Not so long ago the answers might have included: God, manifest destiny, gentleman farming, transmuting hardship into blues and jazz, abstract expressionism, white picket fences, the great American novel, T. S. Eliot’s broken heart, being a Communist, being an anarchist, not being Soviet, viable entrepreneurialism, plausible feminism, NASA, loving nature, transmuting privilege into psychedelic rock, recognizing ourselves in those who are different from us, and, in general, striving together to form a more perfect union.

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When Pushkin Came to Shove: How Nabokov and Edmund Wilson Fell Out Over a Poem

By Eric Bennett for The New York Times Book Review
09 Dec 2016

Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship
By Alex Beam

In 1964, Vladimir Nabokov published an English translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” regarded by many as the supreme treasure of Russian poetry, in an edition that spanned four volumes. The poem took up a fraction of their 1,895 pages. From the bowels of his dictionary, Nabokov dislodged words that might as well have been invented. If you’re looking for “mollitude,” “ancientry,” “shandrydans,” “agrestic,” “muzzlet” and “scrab,” all in one poem, your search is over. Yet, for some reason, to translate Pushkin’s robust Russian word for “friend,” Nabokov reached for “pal.” The volumes were also heavy on extras — sermons on prosody, disquisitions on usage, vitriolic reproofs of all the strained translations of Pushkin out there.

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‘The Brazen Age,’ by David Reid

By Eric Bennett for The New York Times Book Review
29 Apr 2016

New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia
By David Reid

Between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War, bracing uncertainty defined American lives. Only time would answer the dire questions that loomed. Would the labor market absorb millions of demobilized soldiers as military production ground to a halt? (It would.) Would the fate of humankind after Hiroshima hang on world governance, as its strident advocates insisted? (It would not.) Could Communists remain Communists? (Hardly.) How quickly and easily would things improve for African-­Americans? (Alas.) Might the feminist triumphs of Greenwich Village endure and spread? (Not if Marlon Brando and Norman Mailer had anything to do with it.) Would Ernest Hemingway write another masterpiece? (The jury remains out to this day.)

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Smut and Art, Then and Now

By Eric Bennett for Oxford Academic; Essays in Criticism
10 Apr 2015

A Publisher's Paradise: Expatriate Literary Culture in Paris, 1890-1960. By COLETTE COLLIGAN
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's ‘Ulysses’. By KEVIN BIRMINGHAM

These days the forbidden is so accessible and so profitable and the avant-garde so commercialised that they go together like anything else online or at the mall. A century ago, forbidden meant forbidden, and revolutionary forays into the brave frontiers of aesthetic consciousness didn't use algorithmic marketing tools. The climate made strange bedfellows of people who, for various reasons, wanted to sell images and stories of bedfellows. Writers and pornographers found common cause, and their collaborations appear triumphant only in retrospect. At the time, the resistance was stiff.

In the United Kingdom, starting with the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, the government cracked down on dirty books and pictures. New legislation in the 1870s and 1880s criminalised importing pornography, advertising it, and shipping it domestically. In the United States, Antony Comstock, the head of the New York Society...

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