Edward W. Said Essay - Critical Essays

Said, Edward W.


Edward W. Said 1935–2003

The following entry presents an overview of Said's career through 1996.

Palestinian-born American critic and essayist.

A Palestinian refugee in his youth and a respected though controversial professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Said (pronounced sah-EED) is an influential and often polemical cultural critic. Said is a public intellectual who frequently writes about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and actively supports the cause for Palestinian national rights. His most celebrated and contentious work, Orientalism (1978), which examines Western representations of Middle Eastern societies and cultures, established his reputation for innovative and provocative explorations of the interrelationships between texts—literary and otherwise—and the political, economic, and social contexts from which they emerged. In his writings Said adopts a Continental, interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism and uses the principles of phenomenology, existentialism, and French structuralism to make connections between literature and politics. Although his theories and methods have exerted a profound influence on the American academy, especially on literary theory and cultural studies, Said often is the target of phone threats and hate letters, principally for his unwavering advocacy of Palestinian political and cultural rights in the Middle East. "Said occupies a unique place in contemporary literary criticism," wrote John Kucich. "He is a much-needed link among humanistic values and traditions, theories of textuality, and cultural politics. His work is … a careful integration from these various positions and an original prescription for the renovation of literary and cultural study."

Biographical Information

Said was born November 1, 1935, in Jerusalem in what was then Palestine. The only son of Wadie and Hilda Musa Said, prominent members of the Christian Palestinian community, he was baptized as an Anglican and attended St. George's, his father's alma mater. In December, 1947, his family fled to Cairo, Egypt, to avoid the turmoil surrounding the establishment of Israel as a nation. In Cairo, Said studied at the American School and Victoria College, the so-called "Eton of the Middle East," before he completed his secondary education at a preparatory school in Massa-chusetts. Said became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1953. After graduating from Princeton University in 1957, he undertook graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University, where he earned his M.A. in 1960 and his Ph.D. in 1964. His dissertation on the psychological relationship between Joseph Conrad's short fiction and his correspondence became his first published book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966). Hired as an instructor in English at Columbia University in 1963, Said became a full professor by 1970; his distinguished teaching career at Columbia included two endowed chairmanships in the 1980s and 1990s. Said enhanced his growing reputation for literary scholarship with Beginnings (1975), which won Columbia's Lionel Trilling Award in 1976. During the 1970s Said actively involved himself in the Palestinian cause by writing numerous essays for scholarly journals and independent publications. From 1977 to 1991 he belonged to the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinians' parliament in exile, meeting Yasir Arafat many times and helping to draft the Palestinian declaration of statehood in 1988. Said pursued his work following the groundbreaking Orientalism, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, with the publication of two "sequels," The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981); the essay collection, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983); and a meditative essay on Palestinian identity featuring the photographs of Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky (1986). During the 1980s and 1990s, Said was named to several visiting professorships and lectured extensively on both literary and political themes. In 1991 he published Musical Elaborations, a volume of original music criticism that grew out his lifelong fondness for playing the piano. Said was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993. His subsequent works—Culture and Imperialism (1993), The Politics of Disspossession (1994), Representations of the Intellectual (1994), and Peace and Its Discontents (1995)—continue to provoke controversy.

Major Works

Said's writings cover diverse topics, but at their center lies a concern for the multiple relationships between the act of writing and cultural politics, language and power. Beginnings theorizes about the reasons several writers begin their works the way they do, demonstrating that prevailing cultural ideas of the beginning act change and limit a writer's choice to begin. Orientalism reveals how Western journalists, fiction writers, and scholars helped to create a prevalent and hostile image of Eastern cultures as inferior, stagnant, and degenerate, showing the extent to which these representations permeate Western culture and have been exploited to justify imperialist policies in the Middle East. Orientalism provides much of the theoretical and thematic groundwork for many of Said's subsequent works, and it contains the dictum of orientalism: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." The Question of Palestine outlines the history of the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict, describing the opposition between an Israeli world informed by Western ideas and the "oriental" realities of a Palestinian culture. Covering Islam, elucidating the themes of Said's previous books in more practical terms, investigates the influence of orientalist discourse on the Western media's representation of Islamic culture. Written between 1968 and 1983 on wide-ranging literary and political topics, the twelve essays comprising The World, the Text, and the Critic offer an assessment of contemporary criticism and scholarship in the humanities, highlighting Said's notions of "antithetical knowledge" and the synthesis of literary and political writing. Culture and Imperialism examines how imperialism, the "culture of resistance," and postcolonialism helped to shape the French and English novel, exemplified by close, provocative readings of Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Camus, W. B. Yeats, and Jane Austen. The essays in The Politics of Dispossession critique the Islamic revival, Arab culture, Palestinian nationalism, and American policy in the Middle East, revealing a moderating stance toward Israel and a distancing from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). Representations of the Intellectual is a case study of the intellectual persona.

Critical Reception

Owing partly to the nature of his thought and partly to his allegiance to the Palestinian cause, Said has generated controversy upon publication of nearly every book. Despite his persistent denials, he has been questioned about terrorism throughout the course of his career. Robert Hughes has reported that "none of Said's political foes have been able to cite a single utterance by him that could be construed as anti-Semitic or as condoning either tyranny or terrorism." Most scholars, however, have recognized the extent to which his oppositional criticism has influenced debate beyond literary issues and cultural politics, especially Orientalism, which has been cited as often as criticized by literary theorists, historians, anthropologists, and political scientists—the book even has spawned a new subdiscipline, the cultural study of colonialism. "The Orient was a product of the imagination," opined Albert Hourani of that book, "and Mr. Said's delicate and subtle methods of analysis are good tools for laying bare the structure of the literary imagination." Dinitia Smith remarked that Orientalism "has changed the face of scholarship on the Arab world and the Third World in general." Although many critics have praised the study, some have focused on imperfections in the argument of Orientalism, accusing Said of perpetuating the same Eastern stereotypes for which he had faulted the Western imperialist. Some critics have noted that although many of Said's writings have been translated into many different languages, his books on Palestinian affairs had not been published in Arabic by 1994. Robert Hughes has described Said as "a scholar and humanist,… the controversial voice of Palestine in America and an eloquent mediator between the Middle East and the West."

Principal Works

Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (criticism) 1966
Beginnings: Intention and Method (criticism) 1975
Orientalism (criticism) 1978
The Question of Palestine (criticism) 1979
Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (criticism) 1981
The World, the Text, and the Critic (criticism) 1983
After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (essay) 1986
Blaming the Victims (criticism) 1988
Musical Elaborations (criticism) 1991
Culture and Imperialism (criticism) 1993
The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1989–1994 (criticism) 1994
Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (criticism) 1994
Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (criticism) 1995


Albert Hourani (review date 8 March 1979)

SOURCE: "The Road to Morocco," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 26, March 8, 1979, pp. 27-30.

[In the following review, Hourani details the principal arguments of Orientalism, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.]

The theme of this powerful and disturbing book [Orientalism] is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted. They do not simply arise, Edward Said argues, in the solitude of a thinker's or a scholar's mind. The scholar may "attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from … brute, everyday reality," but he can never quite escape or ignore his "involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances."...

(The entire section is 4043 words.)

Leon Wieseltier (review date 7 April 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Orientalism, in The New Republic, Vol. 180, No. 14, April 7, 1979, pp. 27-33.

[In the harsh review below, Wieseltier demonstrates how politics inform many of Said's arguments in Orientalism, suggesting that "the methodological gadgetry and 'iconoclastic' analysis of his book issue in little more than the abject canards of Arab propaganda."]

Edward Said's angry book [Orientalism] is about a collusion of knowledge with power. The knowledge is Orientalism and the power is imperialism. Said contends that images of the Orient in the West's traditions of learning and literature are of a piece with the institutions of conquest and...

(The entire section is 4857 words.)

Edward Said with Salman Rushdie (interview date 1986)

SOURCE: "On Palestinian Identity: A Conversation with Edward Said," in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta Books, 1991, pp. 166-84.

[In the following interview which took place at the PEN Congress in New York in 1986, Said discusses the identity of the Palestinian conscious based on historical and literary themes in his writings.]

For those of us who see the struggle between Eastern and Western descriptions of the world as both an internal and an external struggle, Edward Said has for many years been an especially important voice. Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and author of literary criticism on, among others,...

(The entire section is 6516 words.)

Dinitia Smith (essay date 23 January 1989)

SOURCE: "Arafat's Man in New York," in New York, Vol. 22, No. 4, January 23, 1989, pp. 40-6.

[In the essay below, Smith provides an overview of Said's life and career.]

On the afternoon of December 14, a Columbia University professor returning home from London, where he'd delivered a lecture on Yeats, pushed open the door of his Morningside Heights apartment and found his wife and two children gathered around the television set. History was being made.

It was history that Edward Said, a Palestinian-born professor of English and comparative literature, had helped create. Said joined his family around the TV and listened as Secretary of State George P....

(The entire section is 4964 words.)

Edward Said with Bonnie Marranca, Marc Robinson, and Una Chaudhuri (interview date March 1989)

SOURCE: "Criticism, Culture, and Performance," in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 1, No. 37, January, 1991, pp. 21-42.

[In the following interview, which originally took place in March, 1989, Said speaks out about his music criticism, the role of the public intellectual, the significance of performance of drama and music, and the influence of "interculturalism" on the construction of artistic canons.]


[Bonnie Marranca:] Since you write on music performance, tell us how you feel about this activity in your life, and how it is perceived by others in the literary world.

[Edward Said:] I think the isolation of...

(The entire section is 9615 words.)

Frank Kermode (review date 7 November 1991)

SOURCE: "Off the Edge," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 21, November 7, 1991, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review, Kermode discusses the musical and political themes of Musical Elaborations.]

The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, are meant to be about Critical Theory, and up to now they have, for good or ill, been faithful (in their fashion) to that intention: but it was an enlivening idea to ask Edward Said to talk about music as well, or instead. Said is a good enough pianist to understand what the professionals are up to. He knows a great deal more about music than most amateurs, and argues persuasively that it should not be left...

(The entire section is 2233 words.)

Malcolm Bowie (review date 29 November 1991)

SOURCE: "A Whole New Approach," in Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1991, p. 8.

[In the review below, Bowie praises Said's diverse insights and ideas about music in Musical Elaborations, concluding that the book enriches yet further problematizes music criticism.]

Let it not be said that writers on music cannot write, for some of them certainly can. Here is Gerald Abraham, for example, discussing Chopin as melodist in A Hundred Years of Music:

He had an instinct amounting to genius for inventing melodies that would be actually ineffective if sung or played on an instrument capable of sustaining tone but which,...

(The entire section is 1491 words.)

J. B. Kelly (review date 26 April 1993)

SOURCE: "Imperial Masquerade," in National Review, Vol. XLV, No. 8, April 26, 1993, pp. 48-50.

[In the review below, Kelly blasts Said's representations of the British empire in Culture and Imperialism.]

In the beginning was the word. Impérialisme was coined 150 years ago, during the period of the July Monarchy in France, as a label for the attempts being made within the country to reclaim Napoleonic ideas and to reimpose the former imperial system. Passing into English as "imperialism," it was employed by British political writers in the 1850s and 1860s to describe the principles, imperial rather than republican, upon which Louis Napoléon sought to organize...

(The entire section is 2461 words.)

Robert Hughes (essay date 21 June 1993)

SOURCE: "Envoy to Two Cultures," in Time, Vol. 141, No. 25, June 21, 1993, pp. 60-2.

[In the following essay, Hughes summarizes the controversies and achievements of Said's life.]

Huge as American academe is, it has few public intellectuals—men or women whose views carry weight with general readers off-campus. Near the top of any list of such people is a tall, elegantly tailored, 57-year-old American of Palestinian descent who for the past 30 years has taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City: Edward Said.

Said (pronounced Sigh-eed) owes his fame partly to his cultural criticism, notably his 1978 book...

(The entire section is 2034 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 3 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Lost Paradises," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 41, March 3, 1994, pp. 44-7.

[In the following review, Wood appraises the strengths and weaknesses of Culture and Imperialism, linking its ideas to Said's earlier writings.]

What redeems certain empires, or perhaps only the British, according to Conrad's Marlow, what saves them from mere rapacity, from being "just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale," is "the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to." At this point in Heart of...

(The entire section is 6420 words.)

David K. Shipler (review date 26 June 1994)

SOURCE: "From a Wellspring of Bitterness," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, June 26, 1994, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review, Shipler expresses mixed emotions for the themes of The Politics of Dispossession.]

Quite some time ago, in what I believe was my only encounter with Edward W. Said, we compared notes on where we lived in Jerusalem—he as a Palestinian boy until 1947, I as a correspondent for The New York Times more than 30 years later. It turned out that both our homes were in the lovely, quiet neighborhood of Talbiya, an elegant quarter where well-to-do Arab families earlier in this century built houses with thick stone walls, now covered...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Ian Gilmour (review date 10 July 1994)

SOURCE: "The Broken Promised Land," in The Observer, No. 10578, July 10, 1994, p. 16.

[Below, Gilmour sympathizes with Said's attitude about the Palestinian issues discussed in The Politics of Dispossession.]

The most remarkable feature of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been not the great military and political success of the state of Israel or the hardship and misery imposed on the Palestinian people, but the West's heaping of praise and reward on the oppressors, and blame and penalty on the victims—a stark contrast to South Africa. Europe has for some time been more even-handed; not so the United States.

The struggle for Palestine is often thought...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Tom Narin (review date 8 September 1994)

SOURCE: "What Nations Are for," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 17, September 8, 1994, pp. 7-8.

[In the following review, Narin relates the dual themes of dispossession and nationalism of The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual to Said's politics and personal philosophy.]

The politics of dispossession is nationalism—an overgeneralisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that not all nationalists are dispossessed: possessors have their own (often strident) variations on the theme. It is also true that nationality politics did not originate among the crushed and uprooted: indeed its...

(The entire section is 3905 words.)

George M. Wilson (review date October 1994)

SOURCE: "Edward Said on Contrapuntal Reading," in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, October, 1994, pp. 265-73.

[In the following review, Wilson examines Said's notion of "contrapuntal reading" exemplified by Said's close reading of Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park in Culture and Imperialism.]

Edward Said's rich and powerful new book, Culture and Imperialism, offers, as one strand of its multifaceted discussion, methodological reflections on the reading and interpretation of works of narrative fiction. More specifically, Said delineates and defends what he calls a "contrapuntal" reading (or analysis) of the texts in question. I am sympathetic to...

(The entire section is 3541 words.)

Fawzia Afzal-Khan (review date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Culture and Imperialism, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 229-30.

[Below, Afzal-Khan favorably reviews Culture and Imperialism, noting the lucidity of Said's prose style.]

Edward Said's latest book, Culture and Imperialism, is, as the title more or less announces, a study of the ways in which the culture of imperialism preceded and undergirded the colonial enterprises of the big European powers of yesteryear, England and France, and, in today's world, how the same process continues with America playing the role of imperial giant. In many ways, the book is a continuation of the kind of "worldly"...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

Barbara Smith (review date 28 January 1996)

SOURCE: "After Oslo," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 101, January 28, 1996, p. 19.

[In the review below, Smith generally praises the themes and tone of Peace and Its Discontents but notes that "the articles are dated."]

An intellectual, says Edward W. Said, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, must be a rebel against prevailing ideas. In Peace and Its Discontents he follows his own precept well: few can match the pungency with which he challenges conventional wisdom on the Middle East peace process—the belief that it is an ineluctably good thing, threatened by self-evidently bad extremists.


(The entire section is 682 words.)

Further Reading


Alexander, Edward. "Professor of Terror." Commentary 88, No. 2 (August 1989): 49-50.

Alleges Said's role in PLO activities, vilifying Said as "a literary scholar and ideologue of terrorism."

Bové, Paul. "Mendacious Innocents, or, The Modern Genealogist as Conscientious Intellectual: Nietzsche, Foucault, Said." In Why Nietzsche Now?, edited by Daniel O'Hara, pp. 359-88. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Discusses the function of the intellectual figure in Nietzche's Genealogy of Morals, Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and Said's...

(The entire section is 354 words.)