De Man is best known for subtle readings of romantic poetry and philosophy (The Rhetoric of Romanticism) and dense short essays on various literary and philosophical topics. The essay "The Resistance to Theory," which explores the task and philosophical bases of literary theory, was commissioned and then refused by the Modern Language Association for an introductory volume on literary study. The essay argues that the widespread and polemical resistance to theory is, in fact, a resistance to reading itself, a resistance to the use of "language about language."
De Man's influence on literary criticism was for many years mostly through his many influential ex-students, though recently his work has become more widely read.
A controversy arose in the late 1980s, when, after de Man's death, his articles for a collaborationist Belgian newspaper during the war were rediscovered. The volume Responses : on Paul de Man's wartime journalism (edited by Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan; Nebraska, 1989) collects many articles from de Man's students, colleagues, and contemporaries about the articles' discovery and the ensuing controversy.