The bookshelves are groaning -- that is surely the right word -- with manifestos proclaiming "the death of literature." Prof. Alvin Kernan of Princeton has published a grim book-length obituary under that title, parts of which appeared in The Post.
The professor has his evidence, no doubt. But surely the verdict is much exaggerated. I understand him to be speaking of those fictional writings in the realist tradition, addressed to the common reader, which seek to tell us something about our world. Kernan's examples are the novels of Dickens (which did "the important work of making sense of the difficulty of living in the strange new surroundings of the impersonal 19th century city") and the novels, poetry and plays of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and Eugene O'Neill earlier in this century.
The trouble is that Kernan fails to distinguish distinguishable things. Certain English departments have indeed been seized by parlor revolutionaries whose criticism derives from Marxism (usually garbled) or the fashionable gibberish of the French deconstructionist guru, Derrida, and they regularly torture books to death.
But for anyone who has seen readers free of the intermediation of these assassins, face-to-face with literature itself, there is no sign at all of its death or irrelevance.
I speak anecdotally, but with the confidence that my own observations will tally with the experience of others. In recent springs, I have taught an evening course at Georgetown University. Narrative literature, fictional and nonfictional, is the material. And the classes have consisted of an intelligent mixture of undergraduate and postgraduate students.
I have yet to encounter, especially in the ablest and brightest students, the least sign that literature is dead or dying; quite the contrary. And we have tried a great variety of it -- Biblical stories, Grimm's fairy tales, the histories of Macaulay and Gibbon, the novels and stories of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Henry James, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Robertson Davies, the memoirs and reportage of Rebecca West and Mary McCarthy. And many others.
Important critics may pass death sentences on literature until their lips turn blue. But literature will survive these obituaries for a fundamental reason. Human beings demand the imaginative re-creation of life for the same reason that our physical vanity and curiosity demand mirrors: Without them we would not know whether, or in what way and degree, we are like our fellow creatures. Literature is a community.
So long as we die and fear death (or more especially trivial lives), Tolstoy's harrowing story, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," will matter -- not because Tolstoy was a white male of despotic temperament ruling over his womenfolk and scores of serfs, but because he was a supreme artist with an eye for truth. So long as cultures and manners differ, and mores with them, and so long as those differences blight the spontaneity of love, even an early Henry James novel like "The Europeans" will matter. And not because it has anything to do with class or snobbery, though in fact it does.
One could go on, but these are among the stories we read last spring, and not a single reader suggested that literature is dead. Kernan and the other pessimists may really be saying that few, or none, are now writing "literature" in the old sense of imaginative fiction with classical resonance. Even if that were the case, it is a different issue.
Not every age discovers apt form and language for telling its stories in permanent or arresting form. It is possible, even likely, that the tyranny of criticism has stifled imaginations here and there. Still, marvelous work in the great tradition continues to appear. I would put Peter Taylor's recent novel "A Summons to Memphis," published only a few years ago, up against any American novel, old or new. The students I have taught have felt the same, consistently ranking it with the best of James, Faulkner and Tolstoy.
So what is all this about "the death of literature"? When it is not the excessive gloom of despairing friends of literature, like Kernan, it is the heavy breathing of academic nihilists, lost in their own eccentric verbiage. They are out of touch with life and literature, and their attitudes should not be confused with reality.
While there is life, there will be stories. And while there are stories, and many ways of telling them, there will be literature and readers to read it.