When I was an editor at Harper's, I would regularly receive essays from professors hoping to reach beyond the boundaries of their disciplines and communicate with a wider public. Although I confess I opened many of these submissions with a sense of dread, more often than not I was pleasantly surprised by their eloquence and relative accessibility. Contrary to the old saw about academics and impenetrable prose, most of these writers knew how to wear their learning lightly, and their essays were a testament to the proposition that clear thinking and good writing are as likely to be found within the university walls as beyond them.
Occasionally the results were not so happy. I recall one piece by an ambitious young scholar whose prose, he assured me, was 100 percent jargon-free. And, sure enough, it was. The problem, however, was that while he had diligently expunged words like deconstruct, hegemony and problematize–I suspect his computer came equipped with a "find and replace jargon" function–their conceptual ghosts remained. When stripped of his theoretical armor, he limped along unimpressively in an intellectual no-man's land and didn't, it became apparent, have much to say.
Like many academics in recent years, he was consumed by the desire to become a public intellectual. At one point the frenzy for relevance got so out of control that an English professor with a letter to the editor in the local newspaper might boast of having made a "political intervention." (I heard of one professor who had the PI honorific embossed on his business card.) With the proliferation of outlets like cable television and the Internet, intellectuals generally have less difficulty reaching the public than they once did. A trickier task is attracting an audience while maintaining intellectual credibility. Whether motivated by jealousy or dismay, one's colleagues may not look so kindly on one's newfound vocation. If being a public intellectual has never been easier, remaining a private intellectual has never been more difficult.
One might read Marjorie Garber's new book, Academic Instincts, as a meditation on this tension. "In their heart of hearts, scholars long for public and even popular recognition. The Holy Grail of the 'crossover book,' one that impresses one's colleagues but also appeals to the intelligent general reader and perhaps even makes the best-seller list, is a recurring dream in the profession," she writes. The William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and director of Harvard's Humanities Center, Garber knows whereof she speaks. Recently described by the New York Times as "one of the most powerful women in the academic world," Garber divides her books between cutting-edge presses like Routledge and commercial houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster (which paid a $180,000 advance for Vice Versa, her study of bisexuality). She is an extremely prolific and often graceful writer whose work appears in The New Yorker, the New York Times and The London Review of Books.
The author of three well-received scholarly studies of Shakespeare and a half-dozen works of eclectic criticism, Garber is the reigning queen of cultural studies. Whether opining on cross-dressing, bisexuality, the erotic relationship between sex and real estate–or between dogs and their owners–Garber is so compulsively witty, so imaginative and wide-ranging, that she raises intellectual improvisation to an art form. She is the dinner guest every hostess covets, the indefatigably charming conversation partner who, no matter how obscure the topic, keeps things going.