Literary scholars in recent years have endowed institutions with tremendous explanatory power, insisting that these social formations exercise a determining influence on cultural production. The fiction that institutions can impose themselves as coherent subjects on cultural activity has its origins in the Progressive Era and persists today across a variety of social contexts beyond literary studies, surfacing even (and especially) in moments of institutional precarity. This essay examines three such moments: the losing football games in Owen Johnson’s early campus novel Stover at Yale (1912) and Don DeLillo’s postwar experimental novel End Zone (1972) and Jay M. Smith and Mary Willingham’s exposé of the athletics scandals at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cheated (2015). The fact that the institutional analysis of End Zone and the institutional critique of Cheated so closely resemble the celebration of institutions in Stover at Yale—the fact that the progressive fiction of institutional subjecthood has reasserted itself even when writers like DeLillo, Smith, and Willingham set out to denaturalize it—reflects the fundamental inadequacy of recent critical attempts to fathom literary history at the scale of the institution.

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