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Seeing Hardy Anew

ISSUE:  Summer 1996
Thomas Hardy in Our Time. By Robert Langbaum. St. Martin’s. $49.95.

Robert Langbaum has of course been an important critical presence through a long and productive career. Identified with scrupulous, caring attention to major texts, he was never quite a member of the later New Critical camp, as say Helen Vendler has been. Interested in new critical approaches, he started a kind of school of one in his rhetorical approach to Browning and the poetry of experience, in this I would argue an important precursor of reader-oriented critical practice. He has maintained a lively interest in theory, rather than the New Critic’s resistance, without deciding to carry any particular party’s card. Still a well-tempered critic in an age of frayed tempers and arguments with insidious intents, he has steadily pursued the best view of his especial subject, the span of the emerging modern, from Victorians to modernists, no holds barred, in an open-ended and open-minded critical endeavor.

Hardy is central to this work as a troubling fulcrum figure, and Langbaum has devoted years of careful study of texts and criticism to developing his balanced, genial, and refreshingly brief assessment of Hardy’s career and major works: Thomas Hardy in Our Time. In a short book, he manages to summarize and weigh in on many of the central issues in critical discussion of Hardy’s poetry and novels. Noting the high quality of recent work on Hardy, especially Hardy the novelist, he offers assesments of feminist work on Hardy by Showalter or Jacobus, Hardy and sexuality by Miller, Rosemarie Morgan, or T.R. Wright, and evaluation of Hardy’s poetry by more creative talents, Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, and C. Day Lewis. Merely as a guide to Hardy this is an outstanding work, a major critical mind fairly and acutely taking us through important issues of the past 20 to 30 years. Langbaum notes that he has offered readers enough summary to make the works come alive; he is indeed a master storyteller, who uses quotations beautifully. One revisits, or visits for the first time, with great pleasure, the dense world of Hardy’s so particularizing, but also, as Langbaum keeps pointing out, so myth making imagination.

Langbaum’s ease, his familiarity with Hardy the man, Hardy’s world, Hardy’s work, Hardy criticism, may even dull the reader’s critical faculty. This is a great read and a work of charm. It is also selling a view of Hardy that asks for a controversial reception, despite the geniality of the argument. For Langbaum Hardy is decidedly a transitional figure, still bound in the social world of the 19th-century novelist but mainly demonstrating the insights of modernism. In these Langbaum puts front and center Freudian sexual psychology, “depth psychology,” awareness of the unconscious. He leaves no doubt about Hardy’s affiliation; he is the missing link in Leavis’s scheme between George Eliot and Lawrence, modern in his preoccupations if not entirely modernist in his presentation. Chapter One, “Hardy and Lawrence,” reads Hardy by Lawrence’s light, noting Hardy’s hesitations in placing erotic self-awareness and uncovering of the unconscious sexual self as the central fact in human existence (as Birkin, barging in to inspect Ursula’s class, told the students, color in the sexual realities as the central fact); but Langbaum argues that Hardy’s deepest imaginative commitment is to this psychological insight, a force that will strip away the vestiges of Victorian society that still greatly hamper his world.

Now this description of Hardy within the modernist discourse of sexuality (one, by the way, that I have traced back even more to Charlotte Bronte than to George Eliot) needs to confront more directly another view, in which Hardy is more our semblable than Lawrence’s, a post-modernist avant la lettre (as these days all modernists seem to us to have been aspiring to the condition of post-modernism). In this view Hardy apprehends the coming ideology of Freudianism, sexuality, and the unconscious, as early as Far from the Madding Crowd, somewhat affirms it there only to set about unraveling it progressively in the mill of his profound skepticism. Lawrence in this genealogy is then only a Georgian protest against the skeptical profundity of the precursor “writer among the ruins”; he represents a mere bit of hopefulness, before the profound post-modern jumble sets in, that the fragments of the modern world may be shorn together by the self-assured and jaunty tool of unconscious sexual organization. Langbaum well reads Hardy by Lawrence’s light, and settles those great and controversial texts, Tess and Jude, in this tradition at the outset, though with many reservations and, I felt, with deep uneasiness. What is remarkable in the continuation of this argument is that Langbaum’s critical sensitivity deconstructs his own critical plot, moving from a reading of Hardy’s pastoralism that finds his Edens of sexual, psychological awareness ever more deeply troubled to a chapter that bluntly accepts a retrograde action in later Hardy: “The Minimalisation of Sexuality”: a fine reading of The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Well-Beloved as focusing on characters who lack sexual drive. I can write my own book on Hardy (have written a chapter in a book) so I won’t belabor my point here: the later, greater Hardy seems to bring a skepticism to bear not just on what Langbaum calls idealism (which he identifies as a Victorian, specifically a Victorian Shelleyan, heritage) but on all attempts to find a pattern of meaning in human existence that is not merely culture or discourse of the time. The greatest achievements of Hardy’s maturity as a novelist, Tess and Jude, are safely contained in the opening chapter on Lawrence; but one looks for them nonetheless at the end, as the culmination of Hardy’s extremely skeptical view of all kinds of love, in which (sexual) love in a hut (or pheasant coop) is no less ashes and dust of humans’ false aspirations to meaning in their lives than (Platonic, high aesthetic) love in Angel Clare or Pierston, the three time non-lover of Avice in The Well-Beloved.

There is an excellent chapter on Hardy as a poet that somewhat perversely insists on the minor-ness of much of Hardy’s poetry even as it beautifully shows its richness and diversity. Here again one can argue that “major” Hardy is merely Hardy seen by modernists’ light, mytho-historical, resonant, symbolic, general, and that the greatness of Hardy the poet, as Langbaum knows and shows a generation has argued, is in the full body of his unhigh work, his facing of the fragments of life without illusion as he has found it. The major work, interrogated and deconstructed, is then merely a special case of the vision of a world without the romantic image and the romantic cohesion that created the “major” poem as a concept of modernism. I don’t offer this as the new unchallenged orthodoxy from beyond the grave of modernism. The issue is a quarrel before, within, and after modernism, and it is a profound quarrel of Hardy with himself in his unceasing undoing of his own romantic elans and cohesive moments. And Langbaum is at his careful best in providing a history of the debate over Hardy and modernism, though he then opts for a definition of major poetry in a recognizably modernist mold: in major poetry “world-view and personal character determine each other and determine the diction, imagery and central myth running through all his poetry,” a familiar modernist view of organic mythic unity even down to the male pronoun. I do wish Langbaum had given us (or will give us) the full reading of Hardy the poet that he is so particularly able to do. As it is, the long chapter is one of the best things I know on the poetry, which has had much polemical debate but not enough of the fine practical criticism it so deserves. Langbaum’s sensitivities to Hardy’s formal qualities, his position between 19th and 20th-century poetics, has the apparent ease of thorough mastery of a poetic tradition and an individual craft.

Hardy’s greatest poetry, Langbaum asserts, is in his novels, his greatest nature poem The Return of the Native. Langbaum’s special ability as a careful critic of poetry’s subtlety underlies much of his finest comments on the novels. He has excellent observations on the continuous meta-commentary of the novels on their own relation to poetic tradition, for instance the Byronic and Shelleyan motifs and critiques in so many of the novels (Shelleyan Angel being a more dangerous figure than Byronic Alec). Apparently offhand observations on narrative focus on a rich awareness of the traditions Hardy himself knew: for instance, The Well-Beloved’sposition as a rare case of limited point of view in Hardy, with Langbaum’s specially fine point the observation that, as in a Browning monologue, we are not so much trapped inside the point of view (as James sometimes hoped we might be by his mastery) as driven to vacillating extremes of sympathy and judgment—a signature critical structure of Langbaum’s, of course.

This is a smart, highly agreeable, highly enjoyable book. How many critical studies can one say that of? I am still amazed to find so much in 155 pages. It serves Hardy by placing him firmly in ongoing debates of our time. It also has the critical generosity always to point us back to the richness and depth of the works themselves. Langbaum knows how to assert the dignity of the critical work he does so well but also to leave the magic in the work he explores. The intersection of the two is what seeing a writer anew in our time is about. One reads the book as the next best thing to reading Hardy himself and then wants to finish reading the canon or sit down again with old favorites.


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