Off the Shelf: Guy Ortolano

March 20, 2009 — Guy Ortolano, assistant professor of history, "The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain." Cambridge University Press.

Ortolano's book presents a cultural history of a notorious debate about science and literature after the Second World War.

"Instead of explaining that debate in terms of a rivalry between disciplines," Ortolano said, "I depict it as a political conflict about the direction of modern society between the end of the empire and the end of 'The Sixties.' This argument has implications for the way we think about modern Britain and for the way we talk about the relationship between science and the humanities."

From the publisher: Ever since the scientist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow clashed with literary critic F.R. Leavis in the early 1960s, it has been a commonplace to lament that intellectual life is divided between "two cultures," the arts and sciences. Yet why did a topic that had long been discussed inspire such ferocious controversy at this particular moment? This book answers that question by recasting this dispute as an ideological conflict between competing visions of Britain's past, present and future. It then connects the controversy to simultaneous arguments about the mission of the university, the methodology of social history, the reasons for "national decline," and the fate of the former empire. By excavating the political stakes of the "two cultures" controversy, this book explains the workings of cultural politics during the 1960s more generally, while also revising the meaning of a term that continues to be evoked to this day.