U.S. Intellectual History Blog

John Guillory, Theory, and My History of the Great Books Idea: Part I

Guillory-Cultural-CapitalHistorians face many difficult choices in the early phases of their projects. Among the hard choices I confronted several years ago on my work about the history of the great books idea, two in particular have loomed large in my recent thinking. Both seem to fit in the proverbial category of “fateful decisions.” I feel comfortable with the first choice, but the second has caused some intellectual and professional unease.

After I explain the first big choice, I intend on working out the second with multi-part series of posts that will explore, explain, and—hopefully—avoid excuses. I’m not sure whether this second effort (i.e. the posts) about second choice will prove brave, foolish, or somewhere in-between. In any case, because I see these two decisions as related, I’ll begin with the one that troubles me less.


My first fateful decision involved audience accessibility. Early on I decided that my primary audience would be a college-educated or upper-college-level reader rather than fellow academics. This meant that even when my project moved from social and cultural history to intellectual history, I would attempt to keep my narrative accessible. When Mortimer J. Adler wanted to talk about the details of common-sense realism in relation to analytic philosophy, I carefully selected and emphasized points about Adler’s effort that I hoped would resonate with my audience. I shot high when in doubt, but I chose to avoid too much minutiae when possible. My choice for accessibility meant that I couldn’t meander far into Adler’s Thomistic/scholastic phase, even when he chose to address the relationship between democracy to Thomistic thought (in five long articles meant for Thomists). Some these choices weren’t particularly hard because my larger topic was the history of the great books idea. Adler merely lent focus to that topic. This meant I mostly just used his life. I didn’t dwell on anything I didn’t feel would help readers understand the larger arc of the great books idea.

As my decision for accessibility helped me in relation to choices about Adler, it also helped me to avoid the morass of ‘theory’. This was tricky intellectually. Literary and postmodern/poststructuralist theory were still somewhat popular in academe near the beginning of my graduate training. And those kinds of difficult, theory-laden texts were sometimes held up as exemplary in cultural history courses. In the period during which I took graduate courses—on and off from January 1998 until my very last in the Spring of 2003—the books that annoyed me the most were those long on theory and short on evidence. Indeed, it seemed that theory, for some authors, was in fact compensation for a lack of evidence (i.e. bits of evidence were mere launching points for long discourses on theory). I appreciate a solid philosophy of history as much as any intellectual historian, but those were different categories of books. They appeal to the philosophically-oriented mind more than those who want history. For my part, having a philosophical bent I did read, for example, large sections of Hazard Adams’ and LeRoy Searle’s Critical Theory Since 1965, among other theory/philosophy. But I didn’t want my first book to look like those texts. Thankfully I had a dissertation director and mentor who shared my distaste for books too heavy on theory.

I may get burned by some intellectual historians and critics for writing a book that appears “under-theorized.” But I’m more comfortable with that potential criticism than others.

Guillory’s Cultural Capital

This leads me to John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of the Literary Canon Formation. Published in 1993 and oriented toward literary theorists, this book never appeared on my graduate reading lists—neither for courses nor my exams. Likewise, at that point I had only superficially dipped into Pierre Bourdieu because he kept appearing in the footnotes of books I admired. It only makes sense that if Bourdieu wasn’t assigned, then Guillory would also not make the cut. Indeed, it was a long-time friend from my undergraduate days who put Guillory on my radar screen, sometime around 2002-03 (I think). My friend was a graduate student in literature, first at Boston University and then the University of Indiana. I followed my friend’s suggestion and checked out Cultural Capital. What follows is from memory because I took no notes on my reading.

I remember hurriedly reading the Preface and skimming the last chapter. I recall reviewing the index. As a rule I always thoroughly explored pages that might impact topics, people, and ideas in my work—meaning references to great books, Britannica, Adler, Robert Hutchins, John Erskine, Joan Shelley Rubin, Clifton Fadiman, Gerald Graff, Chicago, University of Chicago, etc. None of these topics appeared in the index.*

After inspection I believed that Guillory’s work was too focused on theory and literature for my purposes. Indeed, one reviewer called the book “densely reasoned” and noted that “the complexity of his discussion is often daunting.”** Despite the appearance of ever-ambiguous term ‘canon’ in the title, I also felt his view of the same was overly focused on fiction, per the case studies on Thomas Gray and other poets. The word ‘formation’, furthermore, also put his book out of my thinking. My sense, at the time, was that my forthcoming story would be less about how any particular iteration of a literary canon was formed than how the larger, more inclusive great books idea was used for various ends. I would be exploring how the great books idea came to be, not necessarily how literary canons were formed. It’s a fine distinction, I know, but one that seemed to matter, at the time, in the context of Guillory’s work. At that point it also didn’t appear (and this was a mistake) that my work would seriously involve Bourdieu. I knew the term cultural capital would matter to me in some way but, despite the title of Guillory’s work, it did not appear that his particular book would make a crucial difference in the way my story would play out. I also suspected (rightly) that I wouldn’t have a lot of time/space to explain my deepest engagement with the Bourdieu’s theoretical creation.

So I made a second important—hopefully not fateful—decision in the history of my project: I put Guillory’s book aside.

Apart from the reasons laid out above, I was also in the midst of exams, getting married, and beginning to move into archival research. So the book wasn’t practically important at the time. But not only did I put the book out mind temporarily, it would also get lost in the shuffle. It didn’t make my dissertation Bibliography, and it didn’t make a list of books I had constructed for immediate post-PhD reading. Indeed, Cultural Capital wouldn’t resurface in my mind until around 2010, and then again last fall. At both points I held to my preconception that it would be an interesting read (if I had the time) but wouldn’t be crucial to my work. I think I’m still right about that, but we’ll see.

What Now?

A few months ago I decided that after finishing my book manuscript I’d give Cultural Capital a close reading—the “Lacy treatment”, as Andrew Hartman once called it. I decided to wait until after completion because, well, the book is complex (per the reviewer’s comments above—and below) and I wouldn’t be able to deal with it properly in the time frame of my production schedule. Now that the manuscript is complete but for minor tinkering, I feel free to fully explore what I had considered a “distraction” before.

So this series of posts—and the comments each may derive—will attempt to accomplish at least three things:

The first and most obvious goal is that I hope to work out, in detail, my thoughts on Guillory in relation to my work on the great books idea and Adler. This will allow me to draft advance responses (more and less satisfactory) to critical questions about why I didn’t fully engage his work. I have some definite answers already (per the narrative above), and others I’m saving for future posts. I have a sense, furthermore, that my book will change the way others talk about canons, great books, and great books promoters. I believe my work will force some complexity and nuance into corners of those conversations. More on that later. Because my book does not target literary theorists, however, I’m not sure how many fans of Guillory will read my book. But I want to be ready.

Second, with theses posts I hope to obtain a the fullest possible understanding of Cultural Capital and its relation to other works of theory (whether history or literary). If writing is thinking, then by writing several posts about the book I hope to get Guillory right, as they say. I want to know Guillory, in the end, as well as or better than my future critics.

Third, I want to be able to summarize Guillory’s book and its relation to my project in the most concise fashion possible. The only way to reach that level of efficiency is to pass through the stages of obscurity, circumlocution, and ambiguity. In other words, this project is perfect blog fodder.

But seriously, I’m willing to appear foolish, brave, defensive, or whatever to fully explore Cultural Capital here. My personal reasons for doing so are obvious, but I think this exploration may also benefit the larger USIH community (at least those interested in book history, Bourdieu, and literary theory). I don’t know how many posts this will take (3-5?), but I want to work out my thoughts among colleagues before my work hits the larger world in November.

Questions: What kinds of decisions have proved fateful in your work? Have you read Cultural Capital? Do you think that intelligent readers come to history to think about theory? – TL

*Except Graff. He’s in the index.

**Review by Gail McDonald in Modernism/Modernity, 2.2 (1995) 85-86. McDonald also noted that “readers for whom the book will be most accessible will also be well read in Marx, Freud, Gramsci, Kant, Bakhtin, Weber, and numerous other theoreticians.” I was none of those things circa 2002-03, and am only half-so as of 2013! And I still have read little to nothing by Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Sigh.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have read Cultural Capital. It’s on my reading list — along with Levine and Bourdieu.

    I think Cultural Capital should be required reading for anyone who is concerned with “lists” in the academy in any way, from those who are designing a syllabus to those who are constructing a reading list to those who are going to be examining students on the basis of their reading lists. I think it’s that brilliant and important of a book. It has certainly informed and in many ways transformed not only how I think of “canonicity,” but how I think of the academy.

    You have been warned.

    Not to worry, though — if I have anything substantial to argue about Guillory in the next two weeks, I’ll probably save that for my outside field exam — on “the Western Literary Canon,” of all things — which I am scheduled to take on June 3. But when I’m done with that exam, you may get an earful.

    I know, I know. What’s new?

    • LD: I’m just now getting back to this post. Thanks for the comment.

      I’m glad this book is on your list. When I was taking coursework, I should’ve at least been reading Bourdieu (have no idea why it wasn’t forced on me). But I can see why Guillory’s book wasn’t assigned (too new at the time).

      It’s not that I hadn’t thought about the role of education in providing (or not providing) and creating cultural capital—through lists, courses, instructor/institutional preferences, etc. What I hadn’t realized in relation to Guillory, until picking it up again recently, was that he addresses non-fiction more than I remembered (though not works of science and math, as Britannica’s set does). I also didn’t see on my first pass that Guillory does make mention of the history of philosophy in a way that correlates with my view of Britannica set (esp. M.J. Adler) as an entity concerned with the history of ideas. So Guillory and I intersect. But I’ll get to this more later in a kind of “even if…” post—wherein I will point out what I see as the pluses and minuses of why I didn’t engage Guillory in my work. – TL

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