“A Whole New Literate Public”

Whether we’re in postmodernism, post-postmodernism, or some other phase, one thing we’re not in is cultural decline.
  • Transcript


Question: Where do we stand today in relationship to modernism and postmodernism?

Louis Menand:  Yeah, well, that’s one of those questions that you can’t answer.  I mean, yeah, we’re probably post-postmodernism?  But what was postmodernism such that we’re post of it?  So it’s pretty tricky.

But I think that the period of the 50’s and 60’s was a period of kind of high veneration of the modernists, like Eliot, and comparable figures in the world of art, and so on.  And the 60’s and the 70’s kind of replaced that with a different canon.  So when I started out, I was actually a Victorianist, that was my field.  I did 19th Century British literature, but by some fluke of the job market, I got a job teaching modern literature and ended up writing a book on T. S. Eliot, who was, in those days, sort of king of modern literary form, and criticism as well.

But now the canon’s very different from that period, people don’t write about Eliot and Pound any more, so that’s really changed a lot.  And I think our sensibility is not modernist anymore, that is, sensibility of people who are interested in art and literature.

Question: Are we experiencing a broader decline in cultural literacy?

Louis Menand:  I wouldn’t say that.  I mean, it’s, decline’s a funny word to use about any cultural moment.  I think things are different from the way they were 40 or 50 years ago, but the media are different, interests are different, you know, the demographics are different.  It’s just a different world.

Just in higher education alone, more people go to college now, by enormous amounts, than went to college in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  So that represents a whole new literate public that’s a consumer of literature, of news, of print, of, you know, opinion.  And that’s a bigger audience and much more diverse audience than it used to be.  So it’s really hard to talk about decline.  I think it’s just things do shift.  And then when things shift, one’s own role in the culture shifts along with it and you have to adjust to that.