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Criticism and History

ISSUE:  Spring 1986

The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory. By Jerome J. McGann. Oxford.$27.95.

In The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory, Jerome J. McGann sounds a compelling call for “socio-historical” criticism of literature. His book consists of an introduction and a long general essay, devoted to Keats, on “historical method”; a three-part polemic on behalf of textual studies; two absorbing forays in “interpretation and critical history,” the first dealing with Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the second concentrating on Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”; a suggestive two-part treatment of the poetry and religious beliefs of Christina Rossetti; and concluding chapters on Byron, Crabbe, and “the significance of Rome” for Romantic writers, which extend McGann’s reflections on the rich, ideologically charged relations between literature and history. Nearly all of these essays have appeared in earlier versions in scholarly journals or collections, but McGann has revised, expanded, and reorganized them, and he has crafted a coherent, forcefully argued book. The Beauty of Inflections will not only interest readers of 19th-century poetry, but in alliance with the prolific McGann’s other recent books, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago, 1983) and The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago, 1983), it will foster vigilant attention to the historical compass of literature and criticism.

McGann contends that the New Criticism of the 1930’s and ‘40’s rightly disputed stultifying kinds of historical research but ultimately propelled literary studies in the wrong direction. By focusing on “the text itself,” critics generated an endless number of intensive “close readings” yet failed to grasp the importance of even the most elementary facts about textual scholarship, bibliography, and historical context. Deconstruction and related varieties of poststructuralism represent an improvement upon the New Criticism, particularly in their sophisticated probings—the late Paul de Man’s work is a case in point—of literary language. But in McGann’s view, the practitioners of deconstruction, like the New Critics, pay no heed to the urgencies of history, and furthermore, package their ahistorical analyses in an obscure style that blocks critical understanding and exchange. Critics must oppose exclusively text-centered, “intrinsic” approaches, says McGann, and they should dedicate themselves instead to lucidly conducted examinations of the social and historical foundations of literature.

These are the general terms of McGann’s argument, and they suggest his kinship with many theorists and critics today—including followers of Michel Foucault, Marxists, and feminists—who seek to ground literary studies in some form of “history.” But McGann has special contributions of his own to make, and his account of “historical method” has features that should benefit other advocates of “history.” McGann, it should be said, has drawn from Marxism, and, in The Beauty of Inflections and other writings, he has recorded his debts to Althusser and Bakhtin. To his credit, he has also absorbed the lessons of feminist criticism and has applied them in his inquiries into the nature of “periodization” and the “canon.” But unlike Foucault and his disciples, who scrutinize general patterns of “discourse,” and unlike a good many Marxists and some feminists as well, McGann emphasizes the necessity of interpreting specific texts. A poem by Tennyson or Rossetti is “unique,” and is unique by virtue of its precise social-historical relationships. This is what gives a poem its value: it is “different” from the present in its ideas, imaginative and ideological orientation, and historical basis, and because it is radically different, it can both illuminate the past and dramatically assist us in appraising our contemporary attitudes and practices.

Such a scrupulously historical method, McGann maintains, obliges the critic to be knowledgeable about textual and bibliographical detail. McGann is himself a distinguished editor, as his Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron testifies, and his editorial skills encourage him always to reflect upon the exact status of the text he explicates. But he is concerned in The Beauty of Inflections to broaden the scope of textual study beyond its function of providing reliable editions. “Textual criticism,” McGann observes, “does not meet its fate in the completion of a text or an edition of some particular work. Rather, it is a special method which students of literature must and should use when they examine, interpret, and reproduce the works we inherit from the past.” At its best, textual criticism leads us to ask where and when a poem first appeared, which persons and agencies were responsible for its publication, how it was reproduced (and perhaps revised), and what kinds of complicated interpretive differences are evident in the processes of change that the object we designate “the poem” undergoes. McGann addresses a number of persuasive instances from the writings of Byron, Keats, Blake, Dickinson, Auden, and others to demonstrate the intricacies of textual production and transmission, and he proves, I think, that beneficial knowledge for scholarship and pleasurable fascinations for the critic result from a reconceived and enlarged definition of textual scholarship and bibliography.

Historical method should also entail, McGann stresses, a thorough consideration of the “reception-history” of a text— the ways in which its first and then its later audiences of readers, reviewers, and critics interpreted it and debated its meanings. The German theorist H.R. Jauss is currently the leading proponent of “reception-history”—though McGann oddly fails to refer to him—and a number of scholars, including Steven Mailloux and Jane Tompkins in their books and essays on American literature, have fruitfully adapted Jauss’ emphases. But Jauss’ style exhibits an alarming opacity, and McGann’s far more clearly focused research should further popularize the study of “reception-history” and make its techniques more accessible. McGann is especially cogent in bringing these concerns to bear on his interpretation of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” an “occasional” poem whose ideas and assumptions have found few sympathetic readers in the 20th century. McGann aims to reveal the “human drama” of Tennyson’s verses on the famous charge at Balaclava, a drama that we can encounter only if we hearken to the “referential facts” and mid-Victorian ideological “particularities” that inform it. McGann examines significant early reviews—notably W.J. Fox’s and Arthur Henry Hallam’s—of Tennyson’s poetry, and he sets these alongside major 20th-century interpretations for effective comparison and contrast. He also cites newspaper descriptions of the charge to elucidate the language invoked during this moment of English political and cultural crisis, and, more precisely, to portray how Tennyson’s kindred rhetoric shows “not merely that the English aristocracy has not lost its leadership qualities, but in what respect this historically threatened class still exercises its leadership.” McGann succeeds in exposing the inadequacies of much previous discussion of Tennyson’s poetry and its ideological nexus, and he shows extremely well the critical powers of a method that deftly combines historical knowledge, textual study, and reception history.

McGann is a man with a mission, and the shortcomings of The Beauty of Inflections are largely the consequence of his zealous commitment to the cause of historical method. He is admirably straightforward about his goal:

To establish the pertinence of historical method to the field of literary analysis is tantamount to establishing the hegemony of historical method to literary studies in general. This is not to say that more specialized literary investigations should be discouraged; quite the contrary. But it is to say that the governing context of all literary investigations must ultimately be an historical one.

McGann’s adamant regard for the preeminence of his theory and methodology helps to explain a repetitiveness to his arguments from one section of his book to the next. And it may also account for his lapses into jargon (e.g., his “theses on the philosophy of criticism”) as he maps terminology and charts a program for us to embrace. But these minor faults matter less than does a certain rigidity and literal-mindedness that emerge at key junctures in McGann’s analyses. His historical method has an impressive range and rigor for the most part, yet it paradoxically serves on occasion to limit unduly the kinds of questions one can ask about poems and the kinds of responses one can have to them.

In his commentary on Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death,” for example, McGann insists that “the journey being presented is not some unspecified drive in the country, but a funeral ride which is located quite specifically in relation to Emily Dickinson and her Amherst world. The hearse in the poem is on its way out from Pleasant Street, past Emily Dickinson’s house, to the cemetery located at the northern edge of the town just beyond the Dickinson homestead.” This severe referentiality seems unnecessary to me: it should be possible to highlight biographical and historical facts without straining, in ways that are forced and artificial, to bind the poem unremittingly to them. A similar restrictiveness appears in McGann’s pious dismissal of Cleanth Brooks’ essay on Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears.” McGann may be correct in spurning Brooks’ unfettered remarks about the “universality” of Tennyson’s themes, and in suggesting that Brooks should have explored the historical contours of the “grief” the poet evokes. But we do not have to endorse Brooks’ argument wholeheartedly in order to wonder whether there might still be general terms—with their own kind of precision—that can supplement the specifically historical terms that McGann supplies. One is reminded here of William James’ maxim that in order to understand something, we should strive to examine it both inside and outside its environment. Vague allusions to “universality” may feel highly dubious when measured against the exactitudes of McGann’s historical method, but surely there are other critical languages—philosophical and psychoanalytic, for instance—that can illuminate poems. “Universality,” in fact, is a term that McGann need not abandon. It could function for him as a term that he could both employ and, as an historian, examine critically, as he noted the “universal” appeal of “Tears, Idle Tears” and explored the intriguingly different definitions of the “universal” that different cultural epochs have proposed.

Another limitation is evident in McGann’s inability to account for—or, it seems, to take seriously—the creative labor of the writer. In a revealing passage, McGann concedes that biographical criticism is usefully “aware that the artist writes in a dialectical relation to the objective world,” but he adds that such criticism “often seems unaware that this relationship is fundamentally social rather than personal or psychological, and hence that objective history exerts a shaping influence upon the poetry.” But why cannot this relationship be “fundamentally” both social and personal or psychological? McGann is undoubtedly right to counsel us about the shortcomings of biographical criticism, but this warning to the side, it is striking that with the exception of the fine chapter on Byron, he refers infrequently to the “shaping influence” of the writer as he or she constructs a poem, makes stylistic choices, undertakes acts of deliberate ordering. In The Beauty of Inflections, McGann generally attaches his verbs of agency and activity to poems themselves; he rarely credits, or even acknowledges, the creative energy and will and structuring capacity of the writer as artist, as maker. Readers who admire McGann’s enlightening work on style and composition in his earlier books, Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Development (Chicago, 1968) and Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (Chicago, 1972), will likely sense that this critic’s “historical method” has here exacted an unfortunate cost. McGann is quick to moralize about “human value” and “human culture,” but with the “personal” basically eliminated in favor of the “social,” the scope of these phrases is dismayingly restricted. He devalues something that he might more profitably incorporate within, or at least perceive as a valuable supplement to, “historical method.”

“History” ought to be an essential aspect of literary study, and regrettably, the New Criticism and deconstruction for too long conspired to ensure its absence. Now the situation is rapidly changing, as provocative books such as The Beauty of Inflections confirm the critical potencies that result from historical knowledge and analysis. But even as we welcome the vigorous emergence of historical method in its various forms, we might also take note of unnecessary losses and omissions and urge historians to remedy them. Perhaps the most significant of these—it is apparent even in the work of someone as thoughtful and rewarding as McGann—is the disappearance of the writer. “Historical method” should equip us to speak articulately about the work that writers do: it should enable us to avoid sentimental mystifications about a transcendent author—somehow “beyond” history altogether—and empower us to identify the means through which men and women write creatively within (and sometimes against) their society and culture. It should not be the case that we have to polarize our choices—social or personal, historical or philosophical and psychological. At its best, history should lead to something more integrative, capacious, and sympathetic to the full human complexity of the act of writing.


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