Edward Said (1935-2003) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Edward Said (1935-2003)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Edward Said was born in Jerusalem, British Occupied Palestine, and moved with his family to Cairo after the 1947 partition by Israel. He was educated in Cairo and the US, studying piano briefly at the Julliard School of Music. He received his BA degree from Princeton University (1957) and his doctorate from Harvard University (1964) and began his career at Columbia University, where he was teaching at the time of his death. He has held visiting professorships at a number of institutions, including Yale University and Stanford University. His dissertation was published in 1966 under the title Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. In the next year, after the outbreak of the Arab-Israel war in 1967, Said turned to a more politically charged critique. This trend in his thinking is notable in Beginnings (1975), a study of the novel influenced by Foucauldian theories of discourse analysis. His seminal study, Orientalism (1979), was his first major work to respond to the troubles in the Middle East. In this volume, he analyzes a vast structure of knowledge and power dedicated to representing and controlling the Orient. His critique of the binomial logic of “us and them” that subtends ORIENTALIST discourse was a foundational work for the emergent field of Postcolonial Studies and a powerful influence on Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

In the 1980s, Said turned increasingly to the study of Palestine, challenging Western media stereotypes of the Middle East in Covering Islam (1981) and After the Last Sky (1986). He also elaborated on his theory of “secular criticism” in The World, the Text and the Critic (1983), a text that explored the cultural and political stakes of criticism and included the much-discussed essay, “Traveling Theory,” a reflection on the globalization of theoretical discourse. Said wrote on a wide variety of topics through the 1980s and ’90s, with many of his essays, including those on Jane Austen’s representation of colonial economies, appearing in an important collection, Culture and Imperialism (1993). He continued to write about his involvement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with which he was affiliated throughout his career. He was also

interested in the role of the intellectual and wrote many essays on the particular problems of intellectuals in colonial and postcolonial societies. In 1999, he published a memoir, Out of Place, that poignantly recounts the privileged yet traumatic upbringing he experienced in Palestine and Cairo, his involvement with Palestinian causes, and his long academic career in the US. In the last years of his life, he published collections of his essays and interviews on the Middle East peace process and other issues in contemporary politics. One of Said's last works, published the year after his death, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004), sums up his humanistic vision and reiterates the need for public intellectuals. Few literary theorists have been as passionately and consistently dedicated to the values of secularism and the free exchange of ideas.


Said, Edward W. Beginnings: Intentions and Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

---- . Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

---- . The Edward Said Reader. Ed. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

---- . Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1985.

---- . The World, the Text and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.