The American university’s peculiar ability to breed radical innovation alongside traditionalism—often in the same department, or even in the same scholar—has rarely produced anything so extraordinary as The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Winner of last year’s American Book Award in criticism, it is the chief work to date by the man who, along with Houston A. Baker, Jr., is the acknowledged leader of Afro-American literary criticism. Gates has become even more prominent since the book’s publication. He is the latest addition to the English department at Duke University, where he joins such leading critics as Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson, Frank Lentricchia, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Jane Tompkins. The Signifying Monkey, then, merits particular attention for at least a couple of reasons. At a moment when nearly every university in the country seems to be rushing to hire specialists and...


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