Where the Humanities Stand: A Visit with Louis Menand

March 19, 2012 — Not many scholars have a fan website devoted to them, but Louis Menand, a Harvard University English professor, has that distinction. "The Essential Menand" covers almost all anyone needs to know about the writer and cultural critic it describes as "widely considered to be the foremost modern scholar of American studies."

University of Virginia English professor Michael Levenson agrees with that assessment. As director of the new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures in the College of Arts & Sciences, Levenson, along with U.Va. Art Museum director Bruce Boucher, invited Menand to the Grounds, where he will be the guest at two events.

The public will be able to hear what Menand has to say about the past and present state of the humanities on March 21 at 6 p.m. in a Forum on the Humanities in Nau Hall, room 101, sponsored by the institute. The discussion, free and open to the public, also will feature U.Va. English professor Mark Edmundson. The session will include a question-and-answer period.

Edmundson, University Professor in the English department, most recently published "The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll: A Memoir." His 2004 book, "Why Read?" reconceived "the value and promise of reading," according to one reviewer, who added, "Edmundson dramatizes what the recent identity crisis of the humanities has effectively obscured: that reading can change your life for the better."

In another event, Menand will give the inaugural lecture for the institute on "The Education of Andy Warhol" on March 22 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Co-sponsored by the U.Va. Art Museum and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanitie, the talk is a headline program for the Virginia Festival of the Book.

"The Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures seeks to build an active community of intellectual engagement at the University and to extend the cause of the humanities around the world," Levenson said. "The Global Humanities Initiative will bring international faculty and students into sustained partnership in order to promote humanistic values at a time when they are so urgently needed."

Menand's most recent book, "The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University," was published last year and discusses academic issues, such as whether the academy spends too much time on professionalism, whether interdisciplinary approaches might help break down departmental barriers and whether more permeable boundaries would enhance the production of new knowledge. The institute's faculty advisory committee is reading the book in advance of Menand's visit.

Menand's most famous work, "The Metaphysical Club," is a detailed history of American intellectual and philosophical life in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it received the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2002. Menand, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard, has also taught at Princeton University, Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Since 2001, he has been a staff writer at The New Yorker.