U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roger Ebert and the Public Humanities

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.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well said, Ben. I too found his last years—in which he opined far beyond film—to be compelling. It’s both nice and a shame that people often only feel free from the chains of their careers when faced with mortality; it’s a kind of death-bed academic freedom. We need more of that honest reflection from capable people long before they’re in their final years. – TL

  2. Roger Ebert as public intellectual I don’t know. Some links would be helpful.

    As living intellectual history, or art history or of the humanities or whathaveyou, Roger Ebert’s role as an influential man of his times is worth serious thought–those who are not creative artists or philosophers or even public intellectuals themselves, but preside over the court of contemporary public opinion that decides what goes forward toward canonization [which is to say, inclusion in “the canon,” what is art or “film history” and what is not].

    Roger Ebert championed a number of movies [shall we call them “films”] that may have been otherwise overlooked at the time of their release and perhaps condemned to the bargain bin, from which no art is likely to ever escape.

    I liked him. He could always make me reconsider my opinion of this or that, and that was enough, and plenty. RIP.

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