Study of literature hijacked, professor says Critique: Frank Lentricchia sees academic ideologues turning off a generation of readers by their doctrinaire interpretations.

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September 15, 1996|By Don Aucoin | Don Aucoin,BOSTON GLOBE

One day in 1989, Duke University literature professor Frank Lentricchia listened in astonishment as one of his graduate students attacked Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise" for "its insensitivity to the Third World."

"But the novel doesn't concern the Third World," explained Lentricchia. "It's set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World." Replied the young whelp, invincible in his ignorance: "That's the problem. It's ethnocentric and elitist."

Welcome to the cuckoo's nest that is the academy, where -- to hear Lentricchia tell it -- the study of literature has been hijacked by desperately stupid ideologues whose narrow, doctrinaire interpretations of masterworks are turning off a generation of readers.

Lentricchia's cant-piercing cri de coeur in the September-October issue of Lingua Franca is all the more compelling because, in the past, he himself wrote criticism propounding a view of literature as a political instrument. Now he watches, aghast, as agenda-laden professors encourage students to see fiction through a prism of economics, gender, sociology and political correctness -- and the students go on to dismiss the works of Faulkner (racist), T.S. Eliot (homophobe) and Conrad (lackey of imperialism).

I suppose it's a hopeful sign that Lentricchia's witty, urgent essay appears in the pages of Lingua Franca, which bills itself as "The Review of Academic Life." Then again, I couldn't help noticing that the piece is cheek-by-jowl with an ad for critical essays on Conrad and E.M. Forster from the dead-end perspectives of Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstructionism, the new historicism.

Outstanding criticism

For criticism done right, check out The New Republic for Sept. 16 and 23, where Stanley Kauffmann and Robert Brustein are their usual brisk, astringent, invaluable selves. Reminding us that often the best magazine reading is found at the back of the book, Kauffmann reviews the film version of David Mamet's classic "American Buffalo," while Brustein heads out to the Williamstown Theater Festival to assay Arthur Miller's latest, "The Ride Down Mount Morgan."

Read Kauffmann on Dustin Hoffman's performance as Teach in "American Buffalo" to see how far this particular reviewer ranges. "He has all the technique, the vigor of address, the experienced actor's ravening of actor's chances, but sometimes these attributes become apparent. A gesture is too clearly enjoyed, an intonation slips upward from this mucky world; and we become aware of Hoffman, the star, slumming."

Woody on jazz

Speaking of movies: Has there even been a great comic talent more often photographed with a glum look on his face than Woody Allen? An unsmiling Allen is interviewed in the September Jazz Times, where he talks about his offscreen gig as a jazz clarinetist and reveals that he wants to make a jazz movie.

With a dollop of rue, Allen says that he wishes he had "a massive talent in music" because it is "the best life I can have." Classic. The man has a massive talent for writing, filmmaking, stand-up comedy, but it is not enough.

Also recommended in Jazz Times: a remembrance by Polish jazz pianist Adam Makowicz of the man who introduced him and countless other Europeans to jazz, the late Willis Conover, longtime host of the "Jazz Hour" on the Voice of America.

Tibetan medicine

New Age Journal for October contains an absorbing conversation (conducted in Cambridge, Mass.) between Daniel Goleman, author of "Emotional Intelligence," and Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, a Buddhist scholar. Going beyond the limits of Western medicine, the pair mine the teachings of ancient Tibetan medicine for methods that may enable the mind to heal physical and emotional problems.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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