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Cleanth Brooks: Courtly Enigma

ISSUE:  Winter 1998
Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism. By Mark Royden Winchell. University Press of Virginia. $34.95.

Winchell begins this biography by observing that Cleanth Brooks was probably the most important literary critic to come to prominence during the second third of this century. This comes as an encomium for a scholar who did not expect being made the subject of a biography.

“I wince a little at having anyone write a life of me. But I have felt better about it after getting acquainted with Winchell.” (From Brooks’s letter of Sept.21, 1991, one of three revealing letters to me quoted in my essay, “Cleanth Brooks, LSU, and the Southern Review,” in the summer 1996 issue of the Sewanee Review.) Later Brooks told me: “I was surprised indeed.” Had he lived to read it, he would have been pleased indeed. When Winchell visited me in 1991, I sensed he had preempted Brooks as an ideal subject around whom to vent his bulging knowledge of criticism. Now I know also that Winchell has uncovered much about Brooks. This insightful and readable life ranks as at least the equal of John Paul Russo’s biography of I.A.Richards (1989) and of Thomas Daniel Young’s of John Crowe Ransom (1976): works on pioneering New Critics whom Brooks followed as a propagator of literary analysis par excellence.

Winchell gives a poignant account of Brooks’s youth and college years. He concentrates on the fortuitous collaboration of Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Huey Long’s emerging Louisiana State University and on Brooks’s second career at Yale University. If Winchell might not signal the contrast between the Brooks in Baton Rouge and the Brooks in New Haven, permit me to note it even to the difference in his appearance and manner. A man of small stature but always imbued with innate courtesy and collegiality, Brooks gained an early self-confidence and idealistic ambition that drove him with unceasing determination over a life of almost 88 years productive to the end, May 10, 1994.He focused his ablest resources on the explication of English poetry while at LSU and of Faulkner’s novels at Yale.

Three years after taking his first teaching job, as “lecturer” at LSU, notwithstanding his antipathy for Long, annual salary of $2,500, when an assistant professor making $2,700, Brooks was drawn into editing a literary quarterly. This came as happenstance owing to the Rhodes Scholar network that had brought him to LSU, taken on not needed, in 1932—and Warren, also not needed, in 1934: something of a miracle as well as an accommodation to the Rhodes Scholar graduate school dean made by the head of the English department. By 1939, Brooks, serious if not almost stern in appearance and manner when not in repose, went into ill-advised faculty politics while writing much of his influential criticism, including his classic yet in print, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947).

To my surprise, I learned in conversation with Brooks at Sewanee, 1992, during the Sewanee Review’s centennial celebration, that he never had realized his naïvete in clashing with one of LSU’s two entrenched deans, those of agriculture and education, the most influential among the school’s lobbyists at the legislature. Brooks also intervened—on the wrong side—in the selection of a new university president following the Louisiana Scandals of the thirties after Long’s death. Brooks never had got it. He himself helped cause the senseless demise in 1942 of the seven-year-old renowned Southern Review that would not reappear until 1965.Brooks had edited it with Warren, often away, assisted by Albert Erskine when married to the much-older Katherine Anne Porter, a contributor of fiction to the magazine.

With Warren gone to Minnesota, Brooks grew weary and disheartened at LSU—suffering hypertension at rising age 41 and showing it. He decided to accept a professorship at Yale (it paid more than did his new chair at LSU) on what Winchell observes was the world’s best English faculty, which had included Tinker to Pottle to Hilles. There, with a new lease on life among intellectual peers, Brooks discarded seersuckers (jacket worn over a sports shirt), was out-fitted at J.Press for tweed jackets and worsted slacks—and neckties, and began to look the part of a genial country squire he would become, his face rounding and a paunch enlarging. He also would encounter deconstructionism at Yale.

Brooks never left the South of his origins. As long as he lived, he nurtured Fugitive and Agrarian friendships made when a student at Vanderbilt University, class of ‘28.These coalesced into an influential literary network that endures and includes a younger generation of Vandy grads now professors of English all over, such as Winchell at Clemson University. In critical studies of Faulkner, Brooks defended both novelist and the South from what he saw, according to Louis Rubin, was a misinterpretation and a misreading. For an enlightening recollection of Brooks by one who knew him well more than a half-century, see Rubin’s “Cleanth Brooks: A Memory” in the Spring 1995 issue of the Sewanee Review. For instance, Rubin says: “Another reason for Cleanth’s attractiveness as a target was the persistence with which he went about arguing his case as a critic. He made his point, reinforced it, approached it via another route and made it again, returned to it recurrently to keep it fresh in the reader’s mind. . . . He stayed on the trail with the doggedness of a working bloodhound, and he would not be diverted.”

Brooks’s Southern identity seemed more clinging than did that of Warren’s, whose reputation never suffered owing to his own Southera origin and allegiance. In Brooks’s case, it was compounded by the New Criticism’s ostensible elitist and Tory taint—not a valid rap for a school of criticism without much of a theoretical core and which embodied aspects of conservatism and liberalism, Brooks, the lightning rod, drew bolts from some academic circles that were devaluing Western Civilization’s canonical literature. Among the rank and file of university faculty in the English-speaking world, few works of this century have gained the influence of two of his textbooks written in collaboration with Warren, Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). They revolutionized the teaching of literature in thousands of classrooms for 25 years. Even Paul de Man, a deconstructionist and odorous to many within opposing camps of criticism, saw that from a technical view, “very little has happened in American criticism since the innovative works of New Criticism.” See de Man’s Allegories of Reading (1979). Brooks and Warren gained universal recognition for changing the focus of reading poetry (and fiction) just as had Richards between the wars. Brooks will be remembered for two of his works on poetry, the textbook and the Urn.

Commercial success of the textbooks helped make a millionaire of the thrifty Brooks, who had known the austerity of a dozen drafty Methodist parsonages, but one who voted the Democratic ticket, doubtless a surprise to leftist detractors, some of whom are now Republican neoconservatives and not liberal like Brooks in the broad sense. A classicist at home in Greek and Latin, an edge he held over many critics, Brooks took the canon as he found it for its inherent worth as humankind’s patrimony.

Brooks says he got off to a slow start at Vanderbilt. He dropped one of Ransom’s courses owing to its difficulty, and he found Ransom’s poetry inaccessible. “. . . I could not for the life of me make anything of his poetry . . . I did come to some understanding of his poetry, however. It happened easily. . . . Suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. The code was broken, the poems became “readable.”” See Brooks’s “John Crowe Ransom as I Remember Him” in the spring 1989 issue of the American Scholar.

Well, I never could shed my scales when reading poetry in any wise competent for an admirer of Brooks’s penetration of it. Thus I was delighted to notice an exculpatory prop issued by Richards: “. . .literature . . .is for enjoyment. . .making it into an academic subject has not increased the amount of enjoyment taken in the poems . . .what is a man who’s done English as an academic subject, what’s he to do the rest of his life, except to write books-about-books-about-books and reviews of them? . . . I think we’re burying the valuables under loads of derivatives.” (Russo, p.734).

Nonetheless I did gain untold inspiration from sitting mute in Brooks’s sophomore English class for a semester at LSU, 1946, not knowing it then. I recall some of his very words and much of his speaking manner that was compelling for its earnest simplicity, however difficult following his exegisis of poetry. Often obscure and fanciful to an auditor back from the war after helping navigate ships with mathematical precision, Brooks’s perplexing explications would cause frustration. Waiting for Harris Downey to begin a class in the short story, in which a day with “A Rose for Emily” was the only Faulkner I encountered in 30 hours of English at LSU, I would share consternation with another skeptic from Brooks’s class. Once we consulted Downey. He smiled: “Brooks sees more in one line of poetry than anyone else does in the entire poem. He’s probably the world’s most profound reader of poetry.”

Now I have gained some understanding of Brooks in that class. He had just finished the Urn. As such an adroit reader of poetry, probably he was not suited anymore for teaching sophomores. Brooks was feeling the tensions of those years. Consider a quarrel that begain in the autumn 1943 issue of the American Scholar. In “Intellectual Criticism,” Darrel Abel takes to task Allen Tate, Ransom, and Brooks for misprizing feeling in poetry for a tendency to define it as an intellectual exercise. Intellectual critics had repudiated emotion for cognition. Why deprecate Keats to appreciate Donne? At once Brooks rejoined in the same forum, its summer 1944 issue, “The New Criticism: A Brief for the Defense.” He gives a six-page autopsy of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears,” saying he is only trying to get at what the poem says. As an afterthought, he laments that a majority turn to the comic strips.

Does this obiter dictum that denigrates readers of the funnies, when considered with his longstanding concern about the barbarians that he would brandish in conversation, reveal Brooks as an elitist gone too far as some detractors have suggested? Should he be seen as relevant only to the esoteric in difficult literature beyond the general reader’s interest and only to a small coterie of critics within a larger clerisy of literary scholars in academia? It always seemed a long way from Brooks to the Book-of-the-Month Club. He did not share the same egalitarian aspirations as Richards, who took an interest in advancing Basic English, a course for beginners in English with a vocabulary of 850 words—only 18 verbs, formulated by C.K. Ogden.

At the University of Mississippi for Faulkner Week, 1976, I listened to Rubin remind us that both Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom! appeared in 1936.GWTW, a melodrama according to Rubin, enjoyed unparalled commercial success; Faulkner’s masterpiece went out of print. And when after Faulkner won the Nobel prize in 1949, AA! began to sell, it never did involve the general reader but was lauded among scholars attracted to difficult literature. This dichotomy intrigues. The popular Dickens has gone in and out among scholars. Literary coteries, like those in music and the plastic arts, choose their own shifting canons. Paradigms come and go in history, physics, all else. Questions about art and science or any other part of the forbidden fruit never find an impartial arbiter. Notwithstanding Brooks’s widespread influence among our and later generations, contemporary poetry holds no following except among poets and critics. The reading of all poetry has declined in a mass culture hooked on an electronic media.

In a chapter on American intellectuals in American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996), Seymour Martin Lipset observes that Marxist thought has gained ground in the humanities with the emergence of deconstructionism: an attempt to try to expose the dominant culture that—in the insurgents’ view—legitimizes establishments of affluent white males, by deconstructing their cultural products. Brooks thought that deconstructionists at Yale did not either know literature or care about it. “They’re not teaching literature.” They were teaching politics, social theory, a sort of history. See “Cleanth Brooks Remembered” by James Gallin in the American Scholar, spring 1995.

Lipset cites the philosopher John Searle, who notices the migration of radical politics from the social sciences to the humanities. With the discrediting of Marxism, according to Searle, Marxists have gravitated away from the failed Marxist political economics to literary criticism, which they teach to achieve leftist political goals through deconstruction: “The absence of an accepted educational mission in many literary studies has created a vacuum waiting to be filled. . . . When such a discipline fails to be “scientific” or rigorous, or even well-defined, the field is left wide open for fashions such as deconstruction, or for the current political enthusiasms.”

As Winchell observes, New Criticism began to decline in influence during Brooks’s time at Yale, where in nearby offices deconstruction was being espoused by avid theorists de Man and J.Hillis Miller. Grounded in linguistics like structualism, deconstructionism has been resisted out of hand by many Southern and other literary scholars. In a new Hegelian twilight, however, according to Russo, “scholars are uncovering deep continuities between New Criticism and American deconstruction.” This level of inquiry is not appealing to scholars within the two movements who are partisans but not theorists. Literary politics in academia can dominate over substance as it can in governance.

Some textbooks have survived from my idyll at LSU, including Brooks and Warren’s and a casebook on the law of negotiable instruments used in a course taught by Paul M.Hebert, dean of the law school who had been named acting LSU president for an interim of two years to salvage the wreckage upon his predecessor’s demise. A concerned Brooks helped persuade Hebert to inaugurate a faculty senate. In that body, Brooks the earnest but naive solon stepped on the toes of the education dean. Hebert’s successor, a retired and infirm Army general, was persuaded by his cabinet of deans to dismantle the senate and soon thereafter to suspend the literary quarterly that few at LSU ever read.

Although I never open that law book, I remember the impressive if formidable Hebert with the same veneration held for Brooks. Had Hebert, a nonacceptable Roman Catholic and also thought too young in 1940’s Louisiana, been made LSU’s president, Brooks’s life might have taken a different turn. He, perhaps Warren too, might have stayed at LSU and edited the Southern Review, which would not have been suspended for the spite of two Rhodes Scholars, whose disdain for the run-of-the-mill colleagues at LSU, also the state’s A & M college, was inherent if not professed or self-realized. See Ann Hulbert’s The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford (1992)—Stafford clerked at the Southern Review while married to Robert Lowell when he was an LSU graduate student—Parnassus on the Mississippi (1984) by Thomas W.Cutrer, and Robert B.Heilman’s The Southern Connection (1990).

Brooks’s leaving LSU happened for the best for Brooks. He gained a recognition at Yale that made him suitable for an appointment as cultural attache at the embassy in London, an adventure that he and Mrs. Brooks thought their life’s desert and port too. Yale provided Brooks able doctoral candidates such as Hugh Kenner. He enjoyed the company of W.K.Wimsatt, with whom he wrote Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957), Maynard Mack, Louis Martz, George Pierson, Rene Wellek, C.Vann Woodward, countless others. He was reunited with friends from LSU such as Erskine, Porter (the two long ago had parted), and John Palmer in the cosmopolitan milieu of southern Connecticut. He took festive Monday lunches at Mory’s.

When I last saw Brooks at Sewanee, 1992, I was amazed at his endurance and zest and how he had mellowed. The dean of literary scholars present—a sage along with the older Andrew Lytle, the lone-surviving Agrarian, a convivial Brooks enjoyed himself to the full. His memory amazed. He wanted news from LSU and Louisiana—and to know about a girl from my hometown he had dated one summer while home from Vanderbilt. Often now I see Brooks when rereading Winchell’s life that reveals so much fascinating to know about a good and able man. Few persons have been so well served by biography or have made such a challenging subject. Winchell has brought Brooks back for all time—both Brookses.


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