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Revolutionary Criticism

ISSUE:  Summer 1980

The Republic of Letters: A History of Postwar American Literary Opinion. By Grant Webster. Johns Hopkins. $22.50.

Grant Webster provides a detailed account of the “New Critics” and the “New York Intellectuals”; and he supplements these central sections of his book by analyzing the nature of critical “schools” and “careers” and by supplying an excellent bibliography and series of “life and works” sketches of the major American critics. His chapters on René Wellek, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Philip Rahv are lucid and informative, and he does a good job surveying the rise of the literary quarterlies, particularly the Partisan Review and Sewanee Review. But while there is a good deal to admire in The Republic of Letters, it is finally a very uneven and disappointing book. Helpful and enlightening on occasion, it is more often shallow, pretentious, and badly written.

The problems begin in the preface, where Webster declares his intention to cause “a revolution in the history of criticism” (p. xi), which he hopes to accomplish through his model of “a new historical science of criticism.” By studying and adapting Thomas Kuhn’s theory of “paradigms,” Webster argues, we can trace the growth of “charters”—he prefers this term to “paradigms”—in “the world of literary criticism.” I commend Webster for his ingenuity in applying Kuhn’s insights; and I cannot do justice in this review to the actual arguments he develops about authority, originality, and other subjects. But I must say that I do not find his model to be compelling. It offers little that is new, aligning terms and categories that repeat obvious and well-worn points. “A critic breaks in,” Webster solemnly intones, “by having his reviews or essays published in critical quarterlies, where after a time he makes a name for himself (p. 29). This is true enough, but it is odd to see Webster making such pious statements of the obvious and unexceptional. Any person with his or her eyes open knows the rules of game and does not require this kind of instruction.

At times, Webster’s fascination with—or else his inability to recognize—the obvious seems almost eerie. “The purpose of studying the history of criticism,” he writes, “in the absence of a total truth toward which one can progress, is to inform oneself of the possible vocabularies and values, the human responses, that critics of the past have used to interpret literature” (p. 45). Once again, this is quite true, but is so true that I cannot understand why Webster bothers to say it. On the one hand, he can furnish us with jazzy technical terms, intricate models, and charts—all of which suggest that he is doing something innovative. Yet on page after page, he can also make the flattest, most banal statements, which indicate to me that his ideas are not nearly as new as the flashy jargon and references to “revolution” make them sound. “Memoirs and reminiscences,” Webster observes, “make the past live in the present. In this kind of writing the critic functions as historian of himself, and his recollections are uniquely valuable as a record of time that is gone by one who was there” (p. 37). How true, how true, the reader says while nodding.

With oppressive solemnity, Webster fills his book with truisms, lamenting at one point the vanity of human wishes:

In a sense, recognition of obsolescence is a pessimistic view of the meaning of intellectual effort, for it involves a critic’s acceptance of his own failure. But it is in such recognition and acceptance that a critic (or any man) discovers the limitations of human understanding and the transitoriness of human effort. As I. A. Richards says of an arrogant critic: “With him are many Professors to prove that years of endeavor may lead to nothing very remarkable in the end.”

(p. 37)

This deserves to be enshrined for the ages as the critic’s version of the soundtrack from Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Maybe I. A. Richards bears some of the blame for encouraging Webster, but Webster alone is responsible for the breezy phrasing (“in a sense”) and funereal inclusion of the “critic” with “any man.” He closes this sermonette with a quotation from R. P. Blackmur’s moving essay on Henry Adams in The Lion and the Honeycomb, and this has the effect of illuminating, as if by spotlight, Webster’s own bathos.

On and on it goes. There are nutty comparisons between schools of literary critics and the Trobriand Islanders studied by Malinowski (p. 15); other occasions when banality edges into hip chatter about critics doing “their own thing” (p. 37); weird analogies, as when the “history of criticism” is said to resemble “a geological time table, with the critics of the older schools about to retire and the younger ones piled on top of them. . . .” (p. 43); and one statement after another of points that no one has ever questioned or seriously worried about. The final two pages of Part I (pp. 58—59), in which Webster refers to his model as “a critical Baedeker, as it were,” speaks of “ideological temperature” and other troubles, and advises us to “cultivate the virtue of humility,” are simply breathtaking.

After concluding his theoretical labors, Webster turns to the New Critics. Here he is tackling a subject that has been studied often but rarely well. Richard Foster, Walter Sutton, and others have written useful books about the rise of the New Criticism; but they do not really go beyond dull rehearsals of Ransom’s, Brooks’, Tate’s, and the others’ positions. For a variety of reasons, the New Critics have become the focus for vigorous debates about literary theory. Their influence, especially in the classroom, remains strong, and both teachers and critics still feel the anti-historical burden of formalism. “The effect of the New Criticism,” Quentin Anderson contends, “has been to cut art off from the messiness of lives and the incoherence of history” (The Imperial Self, p. 35). Though Brooks, for example, is deeply interested in poetic and cultural history, his subtle textual analyses do not usually draw upon (or judge the language of the text as structured by) historical concerns. In a recent examination of literary criticism since the war, A. Walton Litz has repeated this charge and added that “for all its pedagogical virtues,” the New Criticism has led to “rigidity,” “dogmatism,” and an unfortunate narrowing of the literary canon—one that emphasizes poems at the expense of novels, and the metaphysicals and moderns at the expense of Romantics and Victorians (The Harvard Guide to Contemporary Writing, edited by Daniel Hoffman, p. 57).

The New Criticism, then, is still a vexed and controversial subject. Gerald Graff, in fact, has even argued that there are significant continuities between it and the phenomenon of “deconstruction”; both, he claims, foster a retreat from reality and a denial of the “referential” power of literary texts (Literature Against Itself, chapters one and five). Webster, however, does not advance the discussion in lively and interesting ways. He sets out the positions one more time, summarizing New Critical views on authorial intention, poetic language, regionalism, and the like, and his account is tedious and uninspired. Again, he insists on telling us what we already know, and gives us reminders—we “should not forget the effect of the incredible bloodletting of World War I on postwar England” (p. 71)—we do not need. Webster singles out T. S. Eliot as the most influential “Tory Formalist”—the term Webster prefers to New Critic—yet then reviews Eliot’s work and career in a deadening manner. When the analysis is not basic (see p. 91 on Eliot’s “championing of the Metaphysicals”), it is facile (see p. 91 on the “obsolescence of Eliot’s tradition and the creation of yet another critical revolution”) or drearily dependent on others (see p. 133 on Eliot’s early critical style, which reruns Hugh Kenner’s remarks in The Invisible Poet). Elsewhere in this part of the book, we find the shameless announcement of obvious distinctions—we should place “Eliot’s criticism against the background of his life and times rather than in the context of the ultimate truth” (pp. 135—36); grab-bags of ideas and trends, as when Webster tries to evoke the “revolutionary fervor of the sixties in America” (p. 137); selfassured recitals of the real meaning of texts by Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen (pp. 199—200); and attempts to be clever that are vulgar and tasteless (p. 202).

Webster’s analyses are often lengthy, but his proportions are skewed. Kenneth Burke, for example, receives barely three pages, whereas Murray Krieger (who is judged to be “the classic case of a man born too late,” p. 201) gets eleven. The few pages on Burke are narrow-minded and shortsighted; and in response to Webster’s description of this brilliant critic as “an old-time American crank inventor who might have been Edison except that his work lacks any relation to reality outside his own mind” (p. 175), I can only say that Webster must be reading with blinders on. In his long and productive career, Burke has presented rich and imaginative explorations of literature, history, and society. To dismiss such a critical career in a sentence is intolerable; and if this is where Webster’s revolutionary “historical science of criticism” leads him, then I urge major revisions.

Webster’s chapter on Yvor Winters, garishly titled “The Critic as Puritan Narcissist,” is also regrettable. Though he chastises Allen Tate for being careless about “facts and distinctions” (p. 145), Webster is guilty of the same faults. His linking of Winters and F. R. Leavis is appropriate but is conducted in a petty and simple-minded way (p. 164); it is a small masterpiece of misleading and ill-considered argument. For all his piety, Webster is also not above slightly rerouting a quotation from Forms of Discovery to make Winters appear to be directly grouping Yeats with Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler (p. 169; compare Forms, p. 234). Webster states that Winters’ “historical accomplishment has been to give evaluation in our age a bad name” (p. 172). Not quite. What Winters has done is to propose judgments that reorder the literary canon and tradition in ways that unsettle our habitual responses, and that thereby jar against our own vested interests and commitments. As John Fraser has noted, “to admire the works that Winters celebrates, in the contexts that he furnishes for them, is to feel oneself being edged toward a perception of the world that is at times almost overpowering in its absence of reassuring solidities and unquestionable “natural” données” (“Leavis, Winters, and “Tradition, “” Southern Review, VII [1971], p. 967).

Like Webster, I am not captivated by the writings of T. Sturge Moore, Elizabeth Daryrush, and Winters’ other favorite modern poets. But Winters’ work on the 16th and 17thcentury lyric, particularly his recovery of poets like Fulke Greville and Gascoigne, is stimulating and important; and his studies of Emerson, Stevens, Hart Crane, and other American writers are as shrewdly incisive as they are polemically sharpedged. Winters’ judgments do often strike us as puzzling, even perverse; but a real analysis of his criticism will consider what lies behind the judgments, what motivates and gives them their disturbing power. Such an analysis requires care and sensitivity, and emphatically not the lashing out at easy and obvious targets that Webster indulges in. For his “revolution in the history of criticism” to succeed, he will have to do much better in the subsequent volume he anxiously promises us (pp. x, 11, 21, 35). But then not all revolutions are fated to succeed.


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