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The Humanities and the Dream of America

In this bracing and original book, Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that today’s humanities are an invention of the American academy in the years following World War II, when they were first conceived as an expression of American culture and an instrument of American national interests. The humanities portray a “dream of America” in two senses: they represent an aspiration of Americans since the first days of the Republic for a state so secure and prosperous that people could enjoy and appreciate culture for its own sake; and they embody in academic terms an idealized conception of the American national character.  Although they are struggling to retain their status in America, the concept of the humanities has spread to other parts of the world and remains one of America’s most distinctive and valuable contributions to higher education.


The Humanities and the Dream of America explores a number of linked problems that have emerged in recent years: the role, at once inspiring and disturbing, played by philology in the formation of the humanities; the reasons for the humanities’ perpetual state of “crisis”; the shaping role of philanthropy in the humanities; and the new possibilities for literary study offered by the subject of pleasure. Framed by essays that draw on Harpham’s pedagogical experiences abroad and as a lecturer at the U.S. Air Force Academy, as well as his vantage as director of the National Humanities Center, this book provides an essential perspective on the history, ideology, and future of this important topic.

256 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2011

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


The Humanities and the Dream of America offers a compelling account of what’s been happening to the humanities and why we should care about it—and them. What the humanities can do for us—and it is a lot!—is intimately dependent on our personal judgment about what we ought to do. Geoffrey Galt Harpham very convincingly shows the richness of the American project named in the term, which he eloquently glosses as the business of ‘the disciplines that speak of the human.’ Persuasive, rich, and worth debating with, this extremely readable book will be picked up by politicians, scholars, and the general public alike. There is nothing else like it out there.”

Michael Wood, Princeton University

“This is a rich and significant collection of essays on the state of the humanities, the nature of teaching and research, the history and social function of the university, and the place of books in our contemporary experience. The Humanities and the Dream of America is a book that readers will engage with, argue against, agree and disagree with—but above all else, it is a book that readers will have to take very seriously.”

Seth Lerer, University of California, San Diego

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Humanities as a Foreign Language

1    Beneath and beyond the “Crisis in the Humanities”

2    Roots, Races, and the Return to Philology

3    Between Humanity and the Homeland: The Evolution of an Institutional Concept

4    The Next Big Thing in Literary Study: Pleasure

5    Gold Mines in Parnassus: Thoughts on the Integration of Professional and Liberal Education

6    Melancholy in the Midst of Abundance: How America Invented the Humanities

7    The Depths of the Heights: Reading Conrad with America’s Military



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