It is often said that the 1960s was an era of phenomenology in literary criticism. Interrogating this only partly justified statement leads us to a revised genealogy of theory in US academe. The famed 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University saw the nearly simultaneous emergence of structuralism and poststructuralism on American shores. In charting the happenstance of critical fortune at this pivotal and liminal moment, this essay suggests a new understanding of the institutional and intellectual bases of theory. It also addresses the anomalous status of the 1960s as a decade tumultuous in the outer world but fairly placid in academe, and it mediates the role that discussions of theory play in the attempt to categorize the 1960s as a “very short twentieth century” that can be outflanked by past and future.

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