Exiles often have conflicting feelings about their adoptive society, and Edward Said was no exception. As a Palestinian in the United States, he recognized the country’s pervasive racism and violence, but he also knew its educational system made his career as a renowned and prosperous thinker possible. His life was indeed filled with paradoxes and contradictions. He was one of the twentieth century’s most influential anti-colonial writers, who mostly studied his colonizers’ literature; a proponent of Palestinian liberation who wrote in English and mostly for English-speaking audiences. Few statements capture his embrace of such tensions more than his surprising claim in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that he was now the only heir to the Jewish tradition of radical criticism. “I’m the last Jewish intellectual,” he exclaimed. “You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires.… I’m the last one.”
As comical as this statement can seem, Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, suggests it captures Said’s unique place in public life: a Middle Eastern exile who provided an original explanation for American imperialism, powerfully condemned it, and successfully reached mass audiences. By telling Said’s life, from his childhood in British-ruled Palestine to his death in New York in 2003, Places of Mind seeks to explain his unique ability to blend intellectual production and public activism. Impressively researched and powerfully written, it charts Said’s many triumphs: his revolutionary scholarly writings, which became classics and are taught decades after their publication; his rise as a media celebrity (an unusual fate for an academic); and his role in making the Palestinian national movement a source of international fascination. For Brennan, who was Said’s student and is an accomplished literary scholar in his own right, his teacher was everything a humanist should be. By embracing his status as an “outsider”—an exile, a Palestinian, an Arab—he successfully infused America’s mainstream with new ideas and political visions.