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Benjamin Madden

For generations of English literature graduates in the Anglophone world, Terry Eagleton’s name has become synonymous with literary theory, not because he has been its leading practitioner or fiercest advocate, but because he published Literary Theory: An introduction in 1983. This widely assigned primer conceals a deep ambivalence behind its innocuous title: in his conclusion, Eagleton announces that the book has been ‘less an introduction than an obituary’, in the sense that ‘literary theory’, like literature itself, only pretends to name a bounded field of enquiry. Nonetheless, the enterprise of theory rumbled on largely untroubled for two decades (who knows how many of the undergraduates assigned the book made it to the conclusion), and so After Theory (2003) was much less demure: ‘The golden age of cultural theory is long past,’ Eagleton announces on page one. In the preface to the same work he remarks, with disarming bluntness, that theory’s contemporary orthodoxy fails to ‘address itself to questions searching enough to meet the demands of our political situation.’ 

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Richard Holbrooke was a United States diplomat whose career began during the Vietnam War and ended during the one in Afghanistan, and whose life, according to George Packer, spanned the ‘American century’. He was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until his sudden death in 2010. For his role in brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, he was thought by some (not least himself) to have earned the Nobel Peace Prize. He wasn’t awarded it, nor did he achieve his aim of becoming Secretary of State; his was a life that his biographer describes as ‘almost great’.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century is told through a distinctive narrative voice, not Packer exactly, but a witness to Holbrooke’s story who editorialises freely in the first person. Alternately confiding and grandiloquent, Packer speaks in arresting sentences of a kind one doesn’t usually encounter in biographies of statesmen and diplomats. I happened to read this one on the Fourth of July: ‘We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit.’ As the Afghanistan War lurched towards its eighteenth year and tanks took up their positions in Washington, D.C., for President Trump’s military parade, I thought, have Americans ever been shy about liking firepower?

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For a book announcing ‘the greatest story seldom told’ – that is, the triumph of the Enlightenment and its ‘stirring, inspiring, noble’ ideals – Steven Pinker’s ...

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Northrop Frye wrote that ‘No kind of book is easier to attack than an anthology’, as Stephen Burt reminds us in the introduction to ...

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If there is a single event that marks the maturity of a new field of study, it may well be the appearance of a sprawling monograph from a trade publisher ...

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The Poems of T.S. Eliot edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue & The Poems of T.S. Eliot edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue

April 2016, no. 380

For fifty years after his death, the works of the most influential English-language poet of the twentieth century were unavailable in a scholarly edition. Moreover, Collected Poems, 1909–1962, arranged by T.S. Eliot himself and published in 1963, contained a number of widely recognised textual errors. The publication of The Poems of T.S. Eliot ed ...