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Coteries and Criticism

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

The Boys in the Back Room. By Edmund Wilson. The Colt Press. $2.50. The Wound and the Bow. By Edmund Wilson. Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00. Opinions of Oliver Allston. By Van Wyck Brooks. E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00. Irving Babbitt, Man and Teacher. Edited by Frederick Manchester and Odell Shepard. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $3.00. Literary Scholarship: Its Aims and Methods. By Norman Foerster, John C. McGalliard, Rene Wellek, Austin Warren, and Wilbur L. Schramm. University of North Carolina Press. $3.00. The Language of Poetry. By Philip Wheelwright, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Tate. Princeton University Press. $2.00.

Literary criticism today is atomistic. Its fragmentary nature accounts for both its strength and its weak-ness. The typical modern critic is no longer Baconian in taking all knowledge for his province; like the modern practicing scientist he limits his horizons and tests his hypotheses within narrow bounds. Such procedure is admirable; its results are fruitful. It becomes dangerous only when a partial truth or a successful assumption in particular circumstances is set up as a universal law and defended against all comers.

Let Edmund Wilson furnish an example. He is our best practicing literary critic—not only because his style is clear and his judgments are based on absorption of the works he criticizes, but also because he has managed to avoid rigid, unchanging prejudices which partial critics in their own writings always dignify as “systematic principles.” Mr. Wilson has given us an astonishing number of fresh observations about new and old authors. He has done this by refusing, usually, to allow a theory to get between him and what he is reading. He is almost as sensitive to aesthetic theories as he is to style and to moral ideas; but he combines his elements tentatively, pragmatically; and the result is admirable literary criticism. The expounder of symbolism in “Axel’s Castle” hardly foreshadows the Wilson who studies “the writing and acting of history.” And if “To the Finland Station” falters, it does so because Wilson’s conceptions of Marxism and the Russian Revolution changed even while he was writing the book: a theory yields to facts; facts are not distorted to fit theory.

Mr. Wilson is still experimental in his latest volumes. In “The Boys in the Back Room” he has become the Hippolyte Taine for California, as he shows the effect on Cain, O’Hara, Steinbeck, Storm, Saroyan, and Fitzgerald of staring upon the Pacific from “the Beverly Hills.” And in “The Wound and the Bow” he appears in the role of a Freudian disciple, probing dark recesses in Dickens, Kipling, and others. Mr. Wilson’s open, inquiring mind reveals itself in his style: his clear and fine English makes colloquialisms and even slang an integral part of his manner. The provisional nature of his criticism shows in his frequent postscripts and footnote qualifications: he will admit later evidence even if it weakens his case or spoils the lines of his essay. His mind is evident also in the very structures of the two books: they develop as quests, and do not begin with the conclusions. Significant of his method, the integrating chapters come at the end—in “Facing the Pacific” for the California novelists; for the seven studies of the other book, in an explanation of the bow and the wound of Philoctetes as “the idea that genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together.” Wilson’s method of handling a theme dramatically, his sense of growth, change, development in an artist’s character, his economy, his tact in the selection of little significant facts, his skill in extracting the spirit of a complex book in a single phrase, have never appeared more sharply than in his two extraordinarily perceptive essays on Dickens and Kipling. They, together with the Hemingway, the Joyce, the Steinbeck, and the Storm essays, are repeatedly stamped with his distinctive trademark—the brief, clear, simple apercus that are fresh-minted today and will be accepted as truisms by lesser critics tomorrow.

Wilson is not so much at ease with his larger governing ideas. He might be the first to admit that artistic economy, rather than complete truth, dictates his finding the key to Kipling or Dickens in a single childhood experience. He might acknowledge that the discussion of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes,” though in part a final integrating essay, is in part a postscript to make six separate articles seem a unified volume. Reviewers have already pointed out the extremes he falls into in explaining California writers in terms of geography and meteorology. Even more marked, however, is Wilson’s frenzy against Hollywood: it is frightening. That Hollywood deserves a shellacking is not sufficient excuse. Justifiable indignation fails to improve anyone as soon as rational argument falls before the warm emotional surge of taking sides in a battle.

Violent reactions cannot constitute good literary criticism.

That is the main trouble with Van Wyck Brooks’s “Opinions of Oliver Allston.” Its publishers herald it as containing material for a literary revolution. Their prediction may prove unfortunately true if the groans and cheers of its readers are loud enough and the book is put down as all black or all white. Then we shall see the literary criticism of the 1940’s preparing for a battle between Aesthetes and Hearties, as the 1920’s fought over Neo-Humanism and the 1980’s over Propaganda in Art. If appreciation of literature were aided by these campaigns, no tears should be shed; but the main field is often abandoned in the excitement of defending or attacking some local stronghold.

How far off past warfare seems, the memorial volume on Irving Babbitt demonstrates. I do not know what purpose the book serves. It is hardly an introduction to Babbitt’s thought; it will only confirm his antagonists and supporters in their opinions; and the thirty-nine short essays, ranging from reminiscences by lifelong friends to anecdotes by admirers who see him as a distant professor, produce a mosaic likeness of a great teacher and a strong personality, as colorfully cold as his deep blue eyes, a critic whose position was so powerfully and narrowly stated that it calls forth from those it influenced only panegyrics or apologies. Babbitt also was a partial critic, and his rigidity is bound to tell against him in the end.

To return to Brooks. The rambling nature of his book is pleasant if it is considered constantly as “opinions” or pen-sees. Indeed, Mr. Brooks is at his best when he saunters, and his humorous, effortless, casual remarks give salt to the volume. Many of these meditations are beautifully turned; a few are profound. The book grows out of a long love for literature and for people, and a desire to bring them together. These days it takes courage to be on the side of the angels, to write of the great themes, and to believe, with warm and genuine emotion, in man’s powers for good.

Nevertheless, the book has obvious defects. It is often vague or inconsistent. Though Van Wyck Brooks professes a distrust of general terms, much of the argument of the book depends upon such portmanteau words as “American,” “idealistic,” and “romantic,” which are used to convey emotional attitudes rather than precise thoughts. To use one of his favorite distinctions between “tender-minded” and “tough-minded,” his general conceptions and the logic of his argumentation verge upon the tender-minded. Furthermore, his failure to sympathize with, and what is worse, even I to understand, such major writers as Eliot, Joyce, and Proust is painful. His position is essentially moralistic, and certainly no critical stand can be more firmly based, either historically or analytically. Yet Brooks is singularly insensitive to the art of implication in literature. He insists upon simple, direct creeds. Whoever does not wear his heart upon his sleeve is an Iago; and whoever does, must wear a heart that is hopeful and, if he was born in America, American.

In Brooks, the doctrine of original sin is nearly equated with a weak failure to face the truth of human perfectibility. The reader almost gets the feeling that to Oliver Allston not only a deep religious attitude but even a tragic attitude towards life springs from blindness, treachery, or fear. Patriotism destroys proportion. Oliver Allston, it is true, has read so much in American literature that the near and close figures (except most of those immediately about him) seem taller than those farther away. But a program for a literary revolution may be weakened when there is one reference for Shakespeare compared with twenty-one for Emerson; one for Socrates and five for Thomas Wolfe. Balzac, Hawthorne, Hugo, Dickens, Dostoievsky, Ruskin, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Whitman are Allston’s talismans. Why is he so afraid of poetry?

The above criticisms mark errors in tactics, errors which weaken a position deserving sympathetic consideration and impartial, organized statement. Most of Allston’s basic opinions—or Brooks’s, for the disguise is about as graceful as the masks in “The Great God Brown”—should win assent: literature is important. It is not an idle game, but our best defense against the curse of material grandeur. The instincts and emotions of the common man are also important and are scorned by the literary artist at his own peril. The American has recognizable traits, good and bad, and should cultivate his garden. Many of the advanced political dogmas of this century have disregarded fundamental human nature and particular American character. Literature today similarly disregards humanity and the American scene (although oddly enough, the critics rise above the profanum vulgus in their coteries and speak only to each other in an ivory tower, while the novelists brutalize man’s possibilities). Always in the great critics “human values underlay their literary values.” “A great writer is a great man writing.” “The great themes . . . are those by virtue of which the race has risen, courage, justice, mercy, honor, love.”

Much of this is so obviously and excellently true that we need to be reminded of it. But in pouring his own scorn upon the scornful “coterie-writers,” Allston forgets the great themes and better exemplifies another of his dicta: “When my mind is forced, it emits every kind of untruth.” One cannot abolish coteries by setting up a coterie of one’s own.

The last two books for mention are written by “coteries.” Individual essays can receive only inadequate notice here. “Literary Scholarship, its Aims and Methods,” is a product of that valuable experiment in education, the School of Letters at the University of Iowa. Norman Foerster writes the introductory essay, which presents a well ordered plea for a more comprehensive and worthy scheme of liberal study, particularly at the graduate level; John C. McGalliard surveys systematically the various linguistic disciplines; Ren6 Wellek points out the limitations in particular approaches to literary history and sets up his own ideal; Austin Warren contributes an intelligent and excellently ordered discussion of literary criticism; and Wilbur L. Schramm concludes with an essay on imaginative writing. The bibliography is useful, if somewhat heavily international. Such a basic tak-ing-of-stock as this volume proposes is important, and the project, admitting the handicap of a division of labor, is carried out admirably.

“The Language of Poetry” reproduces the Mesures series of lectures read at Princeton in 1941 under the auspices of the Creative Arts Program. Their parti pris is that of the poets and critics who might be called the New Metaphysicals, a group which has done so much in the last twenty years to advance the close and serious study of poetry. In these four lectures, poetry grows out of mystery, paradox, indirection, and imagination. Allen Tate, who organized the series, writes a brief preface that signalizes the present “shift, in talking about poetry, from psychology to philosophy—from poetry as emotion and response to poetry as a kind of knowledge,” and states that “The symposium comes to a unanimous decision on one question, but it is the main question: that poetry, although it is not science, is not nonsense.” Philip Wheelwright, in the shade of whatever Golden Bough he can find in our waste land, hopes for a rebirth in America of the large, transcendent mythological consciousness of races and nations on which “depend the possibilities of “future greatness—in poetry and in everything else.” Cleanth Brooks maintains that irony and paradox are requisites in poetry, likes even the romantics if he can find it in them, and conducts his analyses, as usual, with great skill. I. A. Richards holds clearly to the subject of the series, seeks an ontology for the word in poetry, and applies his conclusions in an intent comparison of two selections by Donne and Dryden on similar subjects, in which the victor, by implication, will surprise no one. And Wallace Stevens uses a poet’s indirections and touchstone symbols in an essay whose subtle and aristocratic culture honors its central quest for nobility. Mr. Stevens, as poet, here creates what Mr. Brooks, as pamphleteer, cannot create. Difficult as the essay is, its beauty will outlast our time.

Literature deserves such knowledge and such love. It needs no defenders, but the defenders are the better for defending it. And when writers, as in this volume, center their attention on the literature to be criticized, they show that the critic at his best is an inquiring mind. But not an inquisitor.


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