The death of Roger Ebert has resulted in an outpouring of warm and thoughtful reflections online. Rather than attempt to compete with these many excellent obituaries and tributes, I wanted to make one, small point about his career.
Ebert’s career is a brilliant example of the power and possibility of the public humanities. Ebert began his career as a more-or-less traditional newspaper film critic in the mid-1960s, a moment when American film criticism was exploding in volume, quality, and cultural importance. But while Ebert became an important newspaper film critic, it was his work in other media that came to define his career. His tv shows with his Chicago newspaper rival Gene Siskel had a profound impact on the way the American public thought about movies, as did his many books, which helped guide film consumption during the ongoing home video revolution.
But it was the final stage of his career, when, literally robbed of his voice, he began writing about many topics beyond film and communicating with his audience via social media, that I find most fascinating. Despite being from a generation that has been slower to embrace digital media, Ebert became an innovator in the public humanities, initiating and encouraging the kinds of massive public conversations that these new media make possible, while continuing to embrace more traditional humanistic virtues: clear writing and careful thought.
As regular readers of my musings know, I am deeply worried about the future of the American academy. But when I consider American culture today as a whole, I am an optimist about the future of the humanities. And Roger Ebert’s extraordinary final years were among the reasons for my optimism.