The Conversant is pleased to republish Jeffrey J. Williams’ series of interviews with critics in the academy. This interview took place on June 1, 2001 at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and originally appeared in the minnesota review, n.s. 52-54 (2001). Transcribed by Laura Rotunno.
Jeffrey Williams: It seems as if you effortlessly bridge the two spheres of literature and criticism, or journalism and scholarship, without discernible tension. You’re now a staff writer for The New Yorker, contributing editor of the New York Review of Books, and you were at one time an editor of The New Republic, but you’re also an academic critic, with an Oxford book on modernism, and editor of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism on the modern period. I’d like to ask about your background and how you came to do this. But I’d also like to ask how you see the two spheres fitting together; on the one hand, you make it seem like a natural mix, but on the other hand, you have a somewhat anomalous position. You could easily be identified as part of the new breed of public intellectuals, but still most professors don’t usually do both journalism and academic work.
Louis Menand: The answer to the first part of your question is that I went to Pomona College, whose English department in those days was very eclectic. Some of the people there wrote poetry; some directed theatre; some did scholarly editions, literary history, criticism, and so on. The big thing that we English majors did was follow contemporary poetry in little magazines. This seemed a very natural way to have an English department, with a lot of different approaches to literature and to literary culture, and with connections to the bigger world of contemporary literature and the arts. So it doesn’t feel anomalous to me at all to be someone who has an identity that embraces both scholarly and non-scholarly kinds of writing. I’m also fortunate to be at CUNY, because we have a relatively eclectic faculty. We all do different things, but we don’t make any invidious distinctions among them.
I think that because I am a professor and because I write for magazines like The New Yorker, people make the assumption that I wear two different hats. I don’t think of myself that way. I just think of myself as a writer. I write about things that interest me. If it’s for a scholarly audience, obviously you make certain assumptions about your audience that are different from the assumptions you make if you’re writing for The New Yorker. But as far as the writing goes, I don’t think myself as doing anything differently. I pretty much write the same way and strive for the same virtues in my prose.