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Criticism and Isolation

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

The Uxpense of Greatness. By Richard P. Blackmur. Arrow Editions. $3.00. On literature Today. By Van Wyck Brooks. E. P. Dutton and Company. $1.00. Reason in Madness. By Allen Tate. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.50. Do Thest Bones Live? By Edward Dahlberg. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00.

There was never a time in the history of serious criticism in America when the best work was being done in such isolation as it is today, or with greater pride in its seriousness. We can patronize those leading critics of an earlier day—the impressionist of the firv-de-Steele, the militant post-Victorian individualist of the Mencken era, the product of the social conscience of the 1930’s which declaimed its loud, stricken confusion of literature with politics—but they had the advantage of leading a literary movement, of writing to a purpose and for a public that were in some measure of their own creation. There is no criticism in America today, there are only critics; and though the best of them have invested criticism with an expertness, a grace, an austerity, never known before in America, their work has a kind of high, solemn futility. Perhaps their malady is only the malady of literature itself today, the difficulty of communication in a time which is satiated but undernourished; yet it is significant that at a time when there is a more responsible body of critical tradition than ever before and a more conscientious interest in criticism, our best critics talk only to themselves and very rarely to each other, since the most sensitive of them lack even mutual sympathy.

This is not to complain that critics are not marching in parade, or to deny that a really good writer, whatever his isolation, is worth all the superficial public excitement of a movement or a cause. The significance of this isolation is rather that it has entered into the subject and become the very tone of advanced criticism: it is precisely because the serious critic has become an independent literary type, precisely because he feels a pressing sense of responsibility that he never did before, that his isolation characterizes him. Alexandrianism, faddism, and obsession with technique always expose themselves; but the special quality of a critic like R. P. Blackmur, for example, can be understood only when one realizes that he writes the kind of criticism, superb though it be, which is possible only in an age that has no literature and no confidence in literature. As a critical performer —and the best criticism has reduced itself to a series of performances—Mr. Blackmur is almost appallingly brilliant. There has probably been no other critic in our time who has displayed so devouring an intensity of mind, so voracious a passion for the critical process. Yet with all his power there is something monstrous about Mr. Blackmur, a perfection of skill, an obsession with skill, that is something different from and something less than the quality of the greatest critics. In practice Mr. Blackmur’s use of criticism affords us only the highest and most significant insights; but he is so over-industrious a technician of insights that one wonders if his interest in criticism is not more compelling than his interest in literature.

People who are too quickly repelled by Mr. Blackmur’s extraordinary style miss the point. If he writes things like “the agen-bite of inwit,” or refers to a dictionary as “a palace of saltatory heuristics,” it is not because he means to be difflcult, though it must be admitted that Mr. Blackmur’s prose usually suggests a pleasantly eccentric Yankee craftsman at work. What is important is that he has conceived the literary mind as a sensibility-machine—taste, conscience, and mind working as gears, levers, and wheels; and that his need to find the critical equivalent of what is almost imperceptible to most readers—the multiform process of composition—has obligated him to adopt a very elevated and superior jargon in which archaism, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins, is a clue to intensity, and familiar literary discourse a form of triple entendre. His criticism is psychologically and technically so acute that his reaction against conventional lucidity—which usually means the expression of what we already know—has moved him up to a region where everything is presumably true, but incontestable only because it is so loftily ambiguous. It would occur to no one else to say that “T. E. Lawrence lacked the power, or the rare abiding charity, to make, or even to see, character complete”; but neither would it occur to anyone else so to exhaust all the possible considerations of Lawrence, or Henry Adams, as an artist, that one loses them as human beings living in a society where social tensions involve something more than the familiar—and for Mr, Blackmur so readily defined—tensions of the literary mind, But Mr. Blackmur must see his every subject as an artist; what is criticism for?

If Mr. Blackmur’s book, “The Expense of Greatness,” is the most dramatic example of the kind of critical thinking that goes on under certain conditions of isolation, Van Wyck Brooks’s is a protest against it, Allen Tate’s a defense and an analysis, and Edward Dahlberg’s an attempt to produce a cure by religious-prophetic declamation. Mr. Brooks’s little volume, “On Literature Today,” is only a lecture, but a very good lecture in his best style: an eloquent if not too closely reasoned protest against the very disassociation of writers from society that partly—but only partly—explains Mr. Blackmur. Mr. Brooks wants writers to look up and forward, to reunite themselves with a moral purpose, to convey in and through their work that larger view without which literature is meaningless. He is certainly right; and no one can speak his message with more appropriate charm and authority. Yet one wonders if the now familiar radiance of Mr. Brooks’s current style and nationalistic affirmation is not itself an example of what Mr. Tate dislikes most in contemporary literature—the impatience with, and even genuine fear of, literature as a form of experience that one must respect in itself.

“Reason in Madness” is an uneven collection of papers and addresses united by Mr. Tate’s now familiar contempt for all forms of secular positivism, pedagogism, science-worship, and intellectual materialism that deny “that the high forms of literature offer us the only complete and thus the most responsible, versions of our experience.” No one needs to be told that Mr. Tate is as much concerned with the isolation of serious writers today as anyone else; but what concerns him directly is the inviolability of that isolation. For Mr. Brooks the enemy of writers is the writer’s own mind and the violence and nihilism of the age to which he submits; for Mr. Tate it is all those activities, usually academic and pseudo-scientific, that clutter up literature with studies of influences, bibliographies, semantic knowledge, and social significance. If literature becomes something more than literature it ceases to be literature at all; and it is that to which Mr. Tate lays the superficiality and high-minded ignorance of our literary interests and history in practice.

Mr. Tate’s argument is as impeccable as the official, if slightly derivative, gravity of his distinguished style; but it is interesting to note that in his zeal to protect the sanctity of literature he is forced to assume that the world consists exclusively of, and even for, serious writers—those who have standards like his—and their readers. If Mr. Brooks has too mechanical and even superficial a conception of the writer’s relation to society, Mr. Tate has none at all; or, rather, he has one so instinctive and unconsciously sentimental, that his views seem inordinately tense, supercilious, and forbidding, When Nicholas Berdyaev and Jacques Maritain use the phrase “social order,” one knows to what they refer: a posi* tive and Catholic conception of moral conduct; but Mr. Tate’s orthodoxy seems to me ambiguous and even familiarly rhetorical. Or is it the orthodoxy of that society which a certain class of modern poets compose all by themselves, with James, Rimbaud, Eliot, et al. as tutelary divinities? Mr. Tate is perfectly right on his terms, and his service is urgent and important; but Mr. Brooks, though less subtle, is sustained by something more than the higher and wider interest Mr. Tate dislikes so contemptuously in modern criticism: he speaks not of the ties that bind sensibilities together but of the forces that protect and foster sensibility itself. In a world where so many millions have lost all contact with books even as household objects, this is surely something more than sentimentality.

But why, it may be asked, should there be any division between them at all? The answer, perhaps, is that our best critics have always worked in fragments, producing fragmentary elucidations. They have been a race of conscientious fanatics, each with his “near-sighted sincerity,” each sustained by a solemn contempt for the other. And occasionally a barbarian naif will announce his vision, and send them all flying. Such is the effect of Mr. Dahlberg’s frenzied and apocalyptic “Do These Bones Live?”, which is one long imprecation in exultant grief and rage against those who have taken the humanity out of life and life out of literature. It is not so much a book as a jeremiad, and it is written in a language of prophecy and religious zeal that is fantastic only in its coruscating intensity. That isolation which is to Mr, Blackmur a condition of craft and to Mr. Tate the very security of the serious artist here becomes the isolation of all those generous and stricken spirits who have been exiled by the materialism of the word, of selfishness, of artistic cult, of politics, and of conduct; and it is with the unregenerate forgotten zeal of an almost primitive Christianity that this ex-Communist urges us to recover our humanity, as if to say: I implore you, believe that all your literature and all your talk of literature may be nothing but words!


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