The word "office" has two dominant meanings: a place for commercial, professional, and bureaucratic labor; and a charge or position of authority associated with public service. The crisis in the humanities reflects a tension between these meanings insofar as the public role of literature as understood by literary scholars often conflicts with the commercial, professional, and bureaucratic structures in which we work. As higher education becomes more committed to instrumental knowledge, vocational training, standardized assessments, and corporatism, the traditional values and methods of literary studies seem increasingly under duress. But what are these values and methods, and how traditional are they? What are, and what have been, the offices of literature? Taking Nathaniel Hawthorne as a case study, Maurice Lee argues that literary aesthetics have not always been at odds with commercial, professional, and bureaucratic discourse. Our crisis in the humanities can appear to stem from irreconcilable differences between the two, though a broad historical perspective suggests less determined and more hopeful dynamics.
Maurice Lee is Chair and Professor of English at Boston University, where his work focuses on nineteenth-century American and British literature. He is the author of Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830-1860 (2005), Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century America Literature (2012), and Overwhelmed: Literature, Aesthetics, and the Nineteenth-Century Information Revolution (forthcoming fall 2019 from Princeton UP). Professor Lee has received awards from the Melville Society, Poe Studies Association, and the Association of College and Research Libraries, as well as fellowships from the NEH, ACLS, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.