Mapping Out the Life & Ideas of a Champion of the Humanities

Edward Said, PhD, played many roles during his eventful life. Said (pronounced “Sah-EED”)  spent most of his career on the faculty at Columbia University, was a founder of postcolonial studies, a cultural critic, a public intellectual, and a political advocate for the Palestinian people.

To Timothy Brennan, the late intellectual’s greatest accomplishment, however, was in promoting the humanities and demonstrating the value of academic experts to societal discussions. Brennan described Said as a force of nature, a media celebrity who would frequently appear on major news shows debating political figures like the US secretary of state.

“He was the beacon for an entire generation or two for what it was possible to do as a university professor in the public sphere,” said Brennan, PhD, professor of cultural studies and comparative literature in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. “In a very real way, he bought the humanities to the center of the political discussion in America.”

Brennan would know. Earlier this year, he published the first comprehensive biography of Said, who passed away in 2003. Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said explores how Said’s intellectual breadth and influence developed over the years and maps out how his ideas changed throughout his lifetime. The book has been met with an immense global response, widely lauded by reviews in major news outlets, including the New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more. It is being translated into Arabic, Chinese, Turkish, and Spanish for further distribution to readers.

A Life Story

As a graduate student at Columbia University, Brennan studied under Said. The two maintained a strong bond through the rest of Said’s life.

While Brennan had written a lot about Said’s work before the man passed away, he had never planned to write a biography. A literary agent called him up one day to tell him there was a growing appetite for an intellectual biography of Said. Members of Said’s family and others who knew his work hoped Brennan would research and write it. Brennan agreed.

“I took it on not knowing whether I would be able to actually write something for a commercial publisher that they would accept, and also wondering about whether 13 or 14 years after his death, people would still care,” he said. “It was a bit of a leap of faith.”

For the next five years, Brennan plowed through archives, bringing together materials from places like Stanford, where Said wrote his well-known work Orientalism, and even sources like the FBI files used to keep tabs on Said. Brennan also conducted hundreds of interviews with family, friends, and colleagues.

Once published, the book did indeed garner lots of attention. One reason, Brennan said, might be attributed to its form as a biography. People are compelled to learn at what moment an everyday person breaks through and becomes famous, and this interest makes reading about complex but intellectually stimulating ideas more inviting.

“You can always break into the headiness of the discussion with a bit of color and comic relief, and everything moves along rather quickly,” he said. “That combination significantly sweetens the labor of reading. As much as possible I wanted people to be unaware that they were learning about philosophies of language, theories of hegemony, and other challenging ideas.”

Grappling with Ideas

Said took to life as a public figure readily. His role as a literary intellectual brought him a certain credibility when participating in debates. Unlike politicians or think-tank pundits, the literary intellectual is usually considered nonthreatening, driven by a hunger for knowledge rather than an axe to grind. As a Palestinian American, he was frequently in the news advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state that would bring equal political and human rights for Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.

Academically, Said helped inspire the field of postcolonial studies—an ideological response to colonial and imperial thought. Brennan said Said had a complicated relationship with the discipline, however, as it sometimes clashed with his more radical apprenticeship in the anticolonial liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, his academic training was rather traditional. Sometimes, Said’s students would challenge him to expand his ideas. They asked, for example, why he didn’t read more African or Caribbean literature if he was concerned about the influences of imperialism on culture.

Even when Said disagreed with the forms postcolonial studies took, he knew it also stood for something very positive, Brennan explained, in that it broadened the representation of people in the humanities and more broadly in academia. His efforts transformed university curricula and helped change the demographics of university faculties.

In that sense, it’s not surprising that his story draws widespread interest nearly two decades after he died. Brennan said Said’s work and the example set by how he lived his life in many ways informed universities’ responses to issues we face in society today, especially the heighted tensions around race, power, and inequality.

“In the context of a university, we are all rightly interested in someone who relates to our mission and to our public face and to the value of what we do,” he said. “You can’t find a figure that is more important in that way than Edward Said. It’s enormously gratifying that his example has not been forgotten and has, if anything, grown since he died.”