“This is a book about the American Dream as it has become embodied in the university in general and in the English department in particular,” writes James Ray Watkins at the start of A Taste for Language: Literacy, Class, and English Studies. In it, Watkins argues that contemporary economic and political challenges require a clear understanding of the identity of English studies, making elementary questions about literacy, language, literature, education, and class once again imperative.
A personal history of university-level English studies in the twentieth century, A Taste for Language combines biography, autobiography, and critical analysis to explore the central role of freshman English and literary studies in the creation and maintenance of the middle class. It tells a multi-generational story of the author and his father, intertwined with close reading of texts and historical analysis. The story moves from depression-era Mississippi, where the author's father was born, to a contemporary English department, where the author now teaches.
Watkins looks at not only textbooks, scholars, and the academy but also at families and other social institutions. A rich combination of biography, autobiography, and critical analysis, A Taste for Language questions what purpose an education in English language and literature serves in the lives of the educated in a class-based society and whether English studies has become wholly irrelevant in the twenty-first century.