The Word on the Street: Linking the Academy and the Common Reader


"The Word On the Street invites humanities scholars to move beyond the classroom and the monograph to share the pleasures of art in ways that engage the intelligence of the common reader, cultivating the critical imagination so vital to American cultural democracy.  Lively and thought-provoking, Teres lays out contemporary debates and wades into them with gusto."
---Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University

"At a moment when questions about the literary, 'bookishness,' and the ...

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"The Word On the Street invites humanities scholars to move beyond the classroom and the monograph to share the pleasures of art in ways that engage the intelligence of the common reader, cultivating the critical imagination so vital to American cultural democracy.  Lively and thought-provoking, Teres lays out contemporary debates and wades into them with gusto."
---Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University

"At a moment when questions about the literary, 'bookishness,' and the future of print are being urgently raised, with incessant national attention to the perceived crises of literacy and reading, Teres' thoughtful, broadly democratic, but also tough-minded examination of both 'common readers' and academic readers makes a real contribution to the debate."
---Julie Ellison, University of Michigan

Despite significant changes since the mid-twentieth century in American critical culture---the culture emanating from the serious review of books, ideas, and the arts---it attracts only a small and declining minority of Americans. However productive this culture has been, American society has not approached the realization of Emerson's or Dewey's vision of a highly participatory American cultural democracy. Such a culture requires critics who are read by the average citizen, but the migration of critics and intellectuals from the public to the academy has resulted in fewer efforts to engage with ordinary citizens. The Word on the Street investigates this disjunction between the study of literature in the academy and the interests of the common reader and society at large, arguing the vital importance of publicly engaged scholarship in the humanities. Teres chronicles how the once central function of the humanities professorate---to teach students to appreciate and be inspired by literature---has increasingly been lost to literary and cultural studies in the last thirty years.

The Word on the Street argues for a return to an earlier model of the public intellectual and a literary and cultural criticism that is accessible to ordinary citizens. Along the way, Teres offers an illuminating account of the current problem and potential solutions, with the goal of prompting a future vision of publicly engaged scholarship that resonates with the common reader and promotes an informed citizenry.

Harvey Teres is Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University.

Cover image: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux

The New Public Scholarship

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472051366
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 12/9/2010
  • Series: The New Public Scholarship
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 220
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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Linking the Academy and the Common Reader


Copyright © 2011 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07136-4

Chapter One

Public Culture and Academic Culture

Despite significant changes since midcentury in American critical culture (the culture that flows from the serious review of books, ideas, and the arts), it continues to attract only a small minority of Americans, a circumstance widely considered inevitable and thus acceptable. However productive this culture has been, American society has not made significant progress toward realizing either Emerson's hope, expressed in "The American Scholar," that its "delegated intellects" might become "Man Thinking" or John Dewey's goal of an American cultural democracy. In both visions, critical culture becomes part of the processes of everyday life, and the average citizen, by cultivating imaginative and critical skills, takes an active part in discussions of ideas and the arts.

Literacy rates indicate that the United States continues to fall short of this ideal. Based on a series of studies done during the 1970s and 1980s, Stedman and Kaestle estimate that approximately 20 percent of the population, some 35 million people, have "serious difficulty" performing common reading tasks, and an additional 10 percent "are probably marginal in their functional-literacy skills." These figures show no significant divergence from others accumulated since the 1940s. During this period, illiteracy has discouraged a large portion of the population from engaging in the public discussion of arts and ideas, despite their other competencies. According to the 2002 National Endowment for the Arts Reading at Risk report, nearly half of Americans eighteen years of age or older, 43.4 percent in 2002 (up from 39.1 percent in 1992), did not choose to read books of any kind. Of those who read books, the survey showed that the percentage of adult Americans reading literature dropped sharply since 1982. In that year, 56.9 percent read literature, compared to 46.7 percent in 2002, a decline that represented a loss of some 20 million potential readers. The survey established that the rate of decline in literary reading was accelerating, that women read more literature than men, and that literary reading by both groups was sharply declining, as was the rate of literary reading among all educational levels, age-groups, whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. The steepest decline in literary reading was among the youngest age-groups. The rate of decline for the youngest adults (18–24) was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population (–28 percent vs. –18 percent); thus, "over the past twenty years young adults (18–34) have declined from being those mostly likely to read literature to those least likely (with the exception of those age 65 and above)." As NEA chairman Dana Gioia observed, the survey "presents a detailed assessment for the decline of reading's role in the nation's culture." This decline seems to have been confirmed by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education, which found that only 31 percent of college graduates scored at a proficient level when asked to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. More recent studies by the NEA— To Read or Not To Read (2007) and Reading on the Rise (2009)— offer a slightly more optimistic picture. Neither study suggests a sea change in the reading (or lack of reading) habits of Americans, but both studies show that the rate of decline has ebbed in some areas and even turned into gains in other areas. In particular, rates of reading among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics increased, and, most important, reading rates among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds improved dramatically from a 20 percent decline in 2002 to a 21 percent increase in 2009. In his accompanying summary report, Gioia attributes at least some of this improvement to the aggressive high school literary initiatives led by his agency. As yet, it is too early to tell whether the increasing sales of electronic book readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader, or Barnes & Noble's Nook, will boost the reading rates of the general population.

Circulation figures for selected reviews and magazines of literary and political opinion underscore the relatively small number of highly literate readers from 1950 to 2005, notwithstanding minimal gains in the proportion of this readership to a total population that nearly doubled from 151 million to nearly 300 million. During that time span, circulation for the Atlantic Monthly went from 176,068 to 395,620; for Commentary, from 19,553 to 35,000; for Esquire, from 784,665 to 708,774; for Harper's, from 159,357 to 226,425; for the Nation, from 35,106 to 188,982; for the New Republic, from 32,680 to 65,115 combined; for the New York Times Book Review, from 1,116,944 to 1,682,208; for the New Yorker, from 332,324 to 1,051,919; and for Poetry, from 4,000 to 10,000. The demise of several important periodicals, considered alongside others founded since 1950, reinforced this overall pattern. Lost were the New York Herald Tribune Book Review (675,105 in 1950), the Saturday Review (100,823 in 1950), and an avant-garde literary culture that had thrived through the teens and twenties and continued into midcentury in the pages of little magazines such as the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, the Sewanee Review, Poetry, and Evergreen Review. Most of these little magazines survive and have been joined by numerous literary reviews since the 1960s that have insured a steady stream of excellent, culturally resonant writing whose effects have nonetheless been less dramatic than those of their modernist predecessors. This said, it is noteworthy that the past several years have witnessed the demise of four distinguished publications: Grand Street, Lingua Franca, Partisan Review, and the Public Interest. Current literary reviews include the American Poetry Review (13,500 combined), Granta (96,000— including Britain and the United States), the Hudson Review (4,700), the Paris Review (10,000), Ploughshares (6,000), and the Threepenny Review (10,000 combined). Several dozen strictly academic journals and a host of other publications founded after 1950, especially online sites, have added new readers and vitality to critical culture. A selected list includes the Baffler (30,000), Boston Review (10,000 combined), Dissent (7,400), First Things (32,000), the London Review of Books (42,721— including Britain and the United States), Monthly Review (5,321), Mother Jones (240,764), National Review (160,896), the New Criterion (8,000 combined), the New York Review of Books (128,432), Raritan (3500 combined), Reason (40,550), Salmagundi (5100), Tikkun (20,000 combined), the Times Literary Supplement (35,204— including Britain and the United States), Utne Reader (225,540), Vanity Fair (1,208,644), the Village Voice (253,961 combined), and the Weekly Standard (80,395). In 2000, however, only Vanity Fair was among the top hundred by circulation in the United States, where total magazine circulation numbered nearly 250 million. Today, the vast majority of literate Americans continue to read other things, although, as mentioned, numerous new online sites, such as Slate, Salon, ALDaily, and n+1, have attracted large numbers of readers and browsers who may not have otherwise become as deeply involved with ideas and the arts.

As for book readers, the increasing dominance of the market by best sellers and best-selling authors— between 1986 and 1996, sixty-three of the one hundred best-selling titles were written by only six writers— suggests that reading has embraced a narrowing range of books despite a doubling of per capita books purchased in 2005 (ten) compared to 1955. A study published in 1949 directed by the Social Science Research Council revealed that these patterns established themselves as early as the immediate post-World War II era. Among the twenty top best-selling authors in fiction in 1947, for example, nineteen had been on a previous list. With the exception of Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, all of the authors were producing undistinguished, popular fare for a broad audience. This trend has no doubt been encouraged by the diminishing amount of fiction published by mass circulation magazines; recently, for instance, the Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and Esquire have scaled back. Also diminished has been the number of books under review by competent critics writing for a general educated audience. At a time when struggling American newspapers are slashing coverage of the arts in general— according to a study conducted by the National Arts Journalism Project at Columbia University, from 1998 to 2003 the space given to cultural coverage in major American papers dropped roughly 25 percent— newspapers continue to cut back on book reviewing in order to cut costs. The New York Times Book Review, for instance, averages thirty-four reviews per issue today compared to fifty per issue in 1950. The Boston Globe, continuing a national trend, reduced the size of its book review section, and in 2008, the Sunday Los Angeles Times Book Review folded. Although online Web sites have compensated for some of these losses, readers are finding fewer and fewer reviews that resist what Emerson in his notebooks called the "mush of concession" with sharp and eccentric discriminations between the achieved and the mediocre. Another indication that a smaller proportion of readers have access to critically acclaimed books is the steady decline of book clubs, which once provided good books to a large general readership. At its peak before the dominance of the chain stores, the Book-of-the-Month Club sold eleven million books a year, and a major selection could attract upwards of a million readers. Slightly smaller was the Literary Guild, followed by many more specialized clubs. These clubs provided books to vast numbers of readers without access to bookstores; moreover, committees of critics made the club selections with an eye toward quality as well as profitability. Today, Oprah's Book Club offers guidance and suggestions to readers beleaguered by a marketplace that presents them with a bewildering array of books through publicity and advertising machines that make it difficult to know what is really good. Oprah provides a service that others have not provided for some time, and thus she attempts to fill a void left by the decline of the older clubs and the blunting of critical conversation as a whole.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the critical culture of the United States since midcentury has been that many critics no longer assume that such a culture exists, with some claiming that it never did. A plausible case can be made that until fifty years ago, educated citizens could turn to certain publications, intellectuals, and institutions and find there a public discussion of arts and ideas (albeit limited, in ways I will enumerate), but the consensus today is that, for better or worse, no such broad-based elevated and respected discourse exists. Because of diversification and segmentation, a smaller proportion of the overall public reads the same publications and critics and thus participates in a common dialogue. The very notion of a "general public" served by a coherent critical culture has been described as "the silhouette of a phantom" by the critic Jacques Derrida, an allusion to Walter Lippmann's famous characterization in The Phantom Public (1925). Historians and critics attempting to explain the dispersal and decline of critical culture generally cite as reasons the rise of the academy, changes in the culture at large, and changes in the market.

The Rise of the Academy

In a memorable phrase from "A Critic's Job of Work," the redoubtable mid-century critic R. P. Blackmur once referred to criticism as "the formal discourse of an amateur." For many readers today, such a description will seem quaint, for we are separated from Blackmur by seventy-five years during which many critics and much of the critical discourse they produced were absorbed into the academy, where the process of professionalization and specialization has taken place nearly unabated. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, between the years 1960 and 1990, the number of colleges and universities increased from 2,000 to 3,595, enrollment went from 3.5 million to 15 million, the number of doctoral degrees granted increased from 10,000 to over 38,000, and faculty numbers jumped from approximately 281,000 to more than 987,000. These decades also saw a dramatic increase in the number of scholarly journals and books published by academic presses. In part motivated by efforts to close a perceived "technology gap" after the Soviet Union shocked the United States with the successful Sputnik flight in 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which greatly increased government involvement in higher education. Between 1960 and 1990, federal aid to students rose from $5.1 to $11.2 billion, and research and development funds increased from $2 billion to $12 billion. The demographics of American college students also changed considerably between the years 1960 and 1990, as the proportion of women increased from 37 percent to 51 percent and that of minorities from 12 to 28 percent. The greatest growth occurred in the new system of community colleges, which enrolled 400,000 students in 1960 compared to 6.5 million in 1990.14 Today, nearly half of all Americans have had at least some higher education, and nearly a quarter hold a degree. According to the Department of Education, the rate of college enrollment immediately after high school completion increased from 49 percent in 1972 to 67 percent by 1997 but has since fluctuated between 62 and 69 percent. According to education secretary Arne Duncan, the United States now ranks tenth in the world in the rate of college completion for twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds. "A generation ago," he asserts, "we were first in the world, but we're falling behind. The global achievement gap is growing."

These developments have had several direct effects on critics and criticism. Beginning in the 1950s, when many leading critics took academic posts, the primary site from which critical culture emanated shifted from an urban and broadly public one, often connected to communities of writers and artists, to an institutional environment with particular affiliations, practices, and protocols. For academic critics coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, the model was no longer the public one of Emerson, Fuller, DuBois, or Dewey; the cosmopolitan, engaged criticism of the "Young Americans" Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, or Lewis Mumford; or that of the New York Intellectuals, who so powerfully shaped the public discussion of literature, culture, and politics from the 1940s through the 1960s. Instead, the ideal became theoretically informed criticism produced by professionals, many of whom were politically committed yet relatively detached from ongoing political movements, parties, or public debates. To be sure, much of this criticism was shaped, to varying degrees, by the transformative social movements of the period of the civil rights movement, the racial and ethnic nationalist and internationalist movements, the antiwar movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, and the gay rights movement. But the tendency was to retreat from the broader audience of educated readers that had previously sustained a semiacademic (and sometimes antiacademic) public critical culture. These developments changed the language of criticism, which on the whole became more self-reflexive, specialized, and obscure. Freed from the pressures of immediate political exigency, critics developed complex, sophisticated techniques for investigating the often tacit relationship between literature and power, language and ideology— offering new perspectives on what Lionel Trilling in The Liberal Imagination once famously called "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet." Within the academy, criticism entered an exhilarating period during which the New Criticism, which had dominated during the 1950s and 1960s, gave way in the 1970s to various theories of interpretation that vied for supremacy: structuralism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, queer theory, postcolonial studies, and cultural studies. Similar influences arose within the other humanities disciplines, particularly history and art history.


Excerpted from THE WORD ON THE STREET by HARVEY TERES Copyright © 2011 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 The Academy and the Public

Chapter 1 Public Culture and Academic Culture 11

Chapter 2 Revitalizing Literary Studies 33

Chapter 3 Post-9/11: Why the Public Needs Literary Critics 54

Chapter 4 Lionel Trilling as Public Intellectual 68

Part 2 Whence Beauty?

Chapter 5 Mary McCarthy's Beauty 85

Chapter 6 The Decline of Aesthetic Literacy and the New Aesthetics 99

Chapter 7 When Everyone Misreads the Same Book 115

Chapter 8 Reading Simic in Syracuse 133

Part 3 Aesthetics "In the Raw"

Chapter 9 Dialogues on Aesthetics and Politics 149

Chapter 10 Dialogues on Aesthetics and Judgement 162

Chapter 11 Dialogues on Aesthetics and Spirituality 173

Notes 189

Index 201

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