As the title conjures up an anticipation of an elegiac mood, Delbanco fulfills the same by painting a grim picture of how literary studies, production of literary texts and academics and scholarly pursuits in English literature have increasingly declined.
What constitutes English literature? Should it strictly restrict its ambit to the nationalised identities of Shakespearean, Keatsian, Miltonic productions or should it embrace Irish Yeats and Scottish Robert Burns? Expanding globally, should we read Amitav Ghosh or Nadine Gordimer just because they write in English? To problematise the subject a little more, should we credit the study of translations - Russian novelists, Oriya poetry? Notwithstanding the argument of English being a global language which makes it accomnodative to expand its horizons beyond its restrictive national concern, i remain ill informed and unconvinced about reading Arundhati Roy's and Salman Rushdie's novels as a part of my course. I thoroughly enjoy their ingenuity in exploiting the language but can not believe that they carve a space in the 'English' canon. If not, then will i really emerge as an M.A. in 'English' Literature after reading Kabir, Premchand, Ilyankal, Ghalib?
To me Delbanco seems to point out, as one among the many concerns, a very rampantly emergent phenomenon in English studies that has plummeted to the emergence of "fragmented, jargonised subjects"(Edward said's expression). In the name of appreciation of literary writing in innovative fashion, most of the intellectual capital is invested in extremely portioned and myopic reading of the same with the tinted glasses of a particular ideology. Or, in the name of 'independent', creative , 'imaginative' reading, the limits of criticism are stretched to ridiculous and vulgar dimensions. Also, Delbanco takes a dig at the recent shift in attention at directing the analytical skills of literary appreciation through the sieve of popular media like photography, films, art, architecture etc. However, what is ironical is that while the modern tendency is to cling to popular routes of presentation, the popular tends to turn its gaze and capture the classical antiquities.
While Delbanco expatiates on the trend, he fails to substantially expand on the reasons behind this phenomena. In the cut-throat materialist and fastly transforming global situation to the dictates of capitalism, an expectation to see academicians bereft of any market influence would be fundamentally erroneous. The recent figures that suggest fastly declining trends in university enrolments in Humanities and Literature studies and contrarily extremely high spurts in professional courses with affinity to generate money, testify the overarching influence of cash and cash-driven motives.Notwithstanding this deplorable occurrence, i see a note of optimism here. Despite the fact that very few research papers and theses would be generated out of the English departments across the country in sync with this trend, the scholars entering the field would be, by and large, genuine and committed in their pursuit.
Though Delbanco's article makes some interesting assertions, it fails to provide a concrete solution to the problems in the field. In his defence, what i could add is,that the nature of the problem is such that bureaucratic precision in a hunt for solutions is futile.
We know that education needs a gradual but overhaul reformation. Any further laxity in this direction would lead to worse forms of degradation in academic standards.