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This week Joseph Epstein wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal entitled, “What Killed American Lit?” The article is not really about the death of American literature, but about the death of American English departments, which he calls “intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die.” Of course, it has already become an old idea that English departments are dying. For at least a dozen years, reaching back to Andrew Delbanco’s “The Decline and Fall of Literature” (1999) in the New York Review of Books, some journalist, critic, or former English teacher can be counted on at least annually to declare the English department “bankrupt,” “dead,” “in decline,” a “laughingstock,” and possibly a menace to society. What remains peculiar about these attacks is only the utter silence of their target. For whatever power those who have transformed English departments into a branch of cultural studies still wield in universities, they appear to have abandoned the realm of actual culture to their critics. We hear whispered the rumor of long-ago “culture wars”; there is clearly no war anymore, nor even a skirmish. Rather, there are an unending string of attacks that go unanswered and make no difference. Who will stand up for the contemporary English department, with its motley collection of Marxists, multiculturalists, and specialists in cartoons? Those of us still insisting on studying literature in universities ask the question earnestly: We know the lines of attack, what we don’t know is what exactly is left to defend.

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