On Late Style

(Nonfiction; Pantheon Books, 2006)


To call Edward Said a literary critic does not get to the heart of the man and his work. Said was a public intellectual who was as comfortable doing meticulous close readings of Melville, Flaubert, and Conrad (the subject of his first book) as he was defending the Palestinian right to statehood. Born into a Christian Palestinian family in Jerusalem in 1935, and raised primarily in Egypt, Said came to the United States in the early 1950s to attend boarding school and college. He went on to do graduate work at Harvard and spent his entire professional career in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Said published prodigiously on a breathtaking range of topics, including high European literature and philosophy, literary theory, music, colonial and postcolonial intellectual life, Arabic literature, Palestinian identity, conflict and the peace process in the Middle East, and Western media coverage of Islam. Perhaps his most famous work is Orientalism, his study of how novels and a range of scholarly disciplines from history to philology shaped the image of the East as weak and backward, paving the way for European imperialism. Said represents a broader cosmopolitanism, one that is equally at home in London, Paris, Beirut, and Calcutta. He demonstrated that one could talk about the politics of a novel without losing sight of its aesthetic value. And in an era when literary criticism has become specialized and the language obtuse, Said’s writing shows that complex ideas and straightforward language need not be mutually exclusive.

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