Jeffrey Williams with Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler
Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler is a leading expositor of contemporary literary theory. His book, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Cornell UP, 1975; Routledge Classics, 2002), brought the terms and concerns of the Continental theory to an Anglo-American audience. It won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize and has been a standard work in the field. He followed it with two books of influential essays, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Cornell UP, 1981; enl. ed., 2002; Routledge Classics, 2006) and On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Cornell UP, 1982; 25th Anniversary ed., 2008). Alongside those, he published several books focused on particular figures, including Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Cornell UP, 1974; rev. ed. 1985; Davies, 2004), Roland Barthes (Oxford UP, 1983; rev. ed. Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, 2002) and Saussure (Fontana, 1985; rev. ed. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cornell UP, 1986).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Culler turned to more general statements about literary study, considering its institutional context in Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions (U of Oklahoma P, 1988) and providing the guidebooks, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 1997) and Literary Theory (A Brief Insight) (Sterling, 2009). He also published On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Blackwell, 1988) and The Literary in Theory (Stanford UP, 2007), which gathers essays on narrative, the fate of theory and the future of comparative literature. In addition, he edited, with Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford UP, 2003). This interview with Jonathan Culler took place on August 27th, 2007, in Culler’s office at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review and transcribed by Heather Steffen and Marisa Colabuono.

Jeffrey Williams: One could see you as a kind of a personification figure of contemporary theory. I came across a line in your recent book, The Literary in Theory, where you talk about becoming fascinated with the New Criticism when you first went to college. How did you first start in criticism, and what was the scene like?

Jonathan Culler: I guess my interest in criticism started after I graduated from high school. My father was on sabbatical in England, and I went along. I went two terms to an English public school, and in the spring went across to Paris. During those two terms we were concentrating on a handful of books that were set books for English A-level exams. We read Othello and then Henry IV, Part II and Donne, and there may have been another collection of poems, but what I especially remember was the Donne. We were reading, for a whole semester, a small group of poems, and we also read criticism and arguments about them. It was the sort of thing that most people would have done only in college, but I got a taste of it before I entered college. I hadn’t thought about criticism before; as a high school student, criticism was something you read in order to get an idea for a paper, but you weren’t interested in criticism as such.

And then when I came to Harvard. . .