Reading in the World (On Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism)

Edward Said initially wrote the first three chapters of this book as lectures sponsored by Columbia University and the Columbia University press on aspects of American culture. In October and November, 2002, Said expanded these three lectures, altered their emphasis, and added a fourth lecture, all of which he delivered to the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at Cambridge University. In revising the lectures for publication as a book, Said subsequently added a fifth chapter, also originally a lecture, entitled “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” These five chapters – “Humanism’s Sphere,” “The Changing Bases of Humanistic Study and Practice,” “The Return to Philology,” “Introduction to Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis,” and “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” – comprised the book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, which was published by Columbia University Press on May 15, 2004. Said died on September 25, 2003 and so did not live to see the publication of the last work he completed.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking for some guideposts among the work of various literary critics, past and present. In part I’ve been looking for something like an image of what it is exactly that I do. In part I’ve been looking for some inspiring models whose examples I could adapt to my own idiosyncrasies and purposes. The other day, at the Webster University library, I picked up a copy of an earlier work by Said (from 1983) called The World, The Text, The Critic and this reminded me that I had his more recent work sitting on our bookshelf. So with the somewhat attention deprived frame of mind that has seized me of late, I picked up Humanism and Democratic Criticism. Surprisingly, given this frame of mind, it held my attention and I finished it over the course of a few sittings. Read more