Telly Eagleton, the Wanderer

Interesting essay on Terry Eagleton in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Literary theorists, and probably other scholars, might be divided into two types: settlers and wanderers. The settlers stay put, “hovering one inch” over a set of issues or topics, as Paul de Man, the most influential theorist of the 1970s, remarked in an interview. Their work, through the course of their careers, claims ownership of a specific intellectual turf. The wanderers are more restless, starting with one approach or field but leaving it behind for the next foray. Their work takes the shape of serial engagements, more oriented toward climatic currents. The distinction is not between expert and generalist, or, in Isaiah Berlin’s distinction, between knowing one thing like a hedgehog and knowing many things like a fox; it is a different application of expertise.


Terry Eagleton has been a quintessential wanderer. Eagleton is probably the most well-known literary critic in Britain and the most frequently read expositor of literary theory in the world. His greatest influence in the United States has been through his deft surveys, variously on poststructural theory, Marxist criticism, the history of the public sphere, aesthetics, ideology, and postmodernism. His 1983 book, Literary Theory: An Introduction, which made readable and even entertaining the new currents in theory and which has been reprinted nearly 20 times, was a text that almost every literature student thumbed through during the 80s and 90s, and it still holds a spot in the otherwise sparse criticism sections of the local Barnes and Noble. His public position in Britain is such that Prince Charles once deemed him “that dreadful Terry Eagleton.” Not every literary theorist has received such public notice.

Frank Kermode once told me about a lecture tour he did in China at the behest of the British Council. In every university, he was listened to by rapt, serried ranks of Chinese students. In vain did the translator try to elicit questions from these awestruck audiences. Finally, after the final lecture, the head of the host institution begged students to ask at least one question of their very distinguished visitor.

Eventually, a shy student stood up and said to Frank: “Do you know Telly Eagleton?”