Edward W. Said Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,234 words.)