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Two Critics

ISSUE:  Winter 1989

The labor of [the critic’s] understanding is always specific, like the art which he examines; and he knows the sum of his best work comes only to the pedagogy of elucidation and appreciation . . . . The object remains, and should remain, itself, only made more available and seen in a clearer light.

—R. P. Blackmur, “A Critic’s Job of Work

Reading America: Essays on American Literature. By Denis Donoghue.
Knopf. $22.95.
American Ambitions: Selected Essays on Literary and Cultural Themes.
By Monroe K. Spears. Johns Hopkins. $24.50.

In the Virginia Quarterly for spring 1985 I attacked American literary scholarship as it then stood, asserting that, on the whole, it had degenerated into a fussy self-regarding industry, whose corporate directors were as adventurous and pioneering as their counterparts in American business. At the same time I said something about the bold spirits who made American literature a vital field of study—scholars such as Stanley Williams and Perry Miller and critics such as Yvor Winters and Malcolm Cowley. I also said that some of the minority voices, including neoconservative critics, are among its most intelligent and acute. In calling the roll then, I included such leading figures as James M. Cox, Alfred Kazin, R.W.B. Lewis, and Lewis P. Simpson; but, with the exception of Paul Fussell, I did not name important critics who have not confined themselves largely to American literature and related topics.

On that occasion I was thinking of scholars and critics who are chiefly Americanist by persuasion and example—writers whose work is given mainly to American literature and related topics involving this nation’s culture. So I failed to mention such writers as Monroe K. Spears and Denis Donoghue, critics whose interests range far beyond the literature of the United States. Both men are generalists of the best kind, which is far different than being a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. The generalist does not content himself with abiding in one corner or even one mansion of the House of Literature: he ranges through various writers and periods and literatures. Culture is his beat.

Monroe Spears has written about such cultural figures as Cotton Mather, Matthew Prior, and William James, an oddly assorted trio if there ever was one; in his new collection he discusses everything from American poetry from Philip Freneau to Sylvia Plath to various critics to several recent Southern novels and black English.

Denis Donoghue has regularly written on Irish and English literature from the Renaissance to the present time. In Reading America he presents essays and essay-reviews that mainly entail poetry from Emerson through Plath and Ashbery; he also discusses Thoreau, Henry Adams, and Henry James. Donoghue, like Spears, seems more interested in American poetry than other literary modes, but he, too, often writes about various prose forms.

Both critics, although expert in critical theory as it has manifested itself early and late, have written relatively little about it as such in these books, using theory only when doing so advances a larger and more important argument. They both admire such men of letters as Eliot, Tate, Blackmur, Auden, and Ransom, and, with reservations, Lowell. Spears especially admires Brooks and Warren; Donoghue, Blackmur and Burke. When their interests coincide and you get an essay from each on, say, Tate or Lowell, you find something close to the last word in the brief compass of the space involved.

Monroe Spears was in the audience on the memorable occasion when Allen Tate presented “Miss Emily and the Bibliographer” to the English Club at Princeton University. It was April 1940, and the audience could not have been more surprised and shocked had Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe bombed and strafed those sacred precincts—or if Miss Emily herself had been discovered there with her lover’s corpse.

By that date Spears had finished his dissertation, which was directed by a scholar who promised to check all the facts but who said Spears would be on his own when it came to matters of opinion. At some point between the remarks of the scholar, who will go unnamed, and the remarks of the critic, Tate, Spears the critic was born. This isn’t to say that he has ever forsworn or even mildly depreciated scholarship, for that isn’t true. What would be more accurate and apposite in Spears’s case is the observation of Blackmur in “The Lion and the Honeycomb” that “criticism draws from literature that which it signifies or which is useful.” In contrast “scholarship is about literature . . .and supplies what is lacking because of the movement of time or the shift in the conventions of the literary mind. Criticism is use; scholarship is the means of use.” This is more diplomatic and balanced than Tate’s stating that “the historical method is an imitation of the scientific method.” But what stuck in the craw of most of the audience at Princeton—and was meant to—when Tate presented “Miss Emily and the Bibliographer” is an observation about the historical method far more damning: “If we wait for history to judge [literature] there will be no judgment; for if we are not history then history is nobody. He is nobody when he has become the historical method.” When it came to the health of the Republic of Letters, Tate presented honest diagnosis, regardless of the circumstances; and he often paid dearly for his honesty. Blackmur’s diplomacy was one reason Blackmur remained at Princeton, but Tate was not rehired. (Another may be that Tate was traduced by Blackmur, as Spears suggests.)

This tale is germane to the present context because one of the liveliest and most succinct pieces in American Ambitions is “A Little Man Who Was a Writer: R.P. Blackmur.” Spears characterizes Blackmur as “a major critic and a minor poet” and “a small man, physically and psychically,” shrewdly pointing out how his biographer, Russell Fraser, reveals “how the same pressures that left [Blackmur] emotionally stunted and distorted also drove him to write,” adding: “Without the sublimation he found in writing, he would probably have been a hopeless neurotic.” Spears compares Blackmur with Tate to the advantage of the latter, marshaling impressive and pointed evidence from Fraser’s biography and his own thorough knowledge of both men as human beings and as critics. He concludes that Blackmur was “small in every sense,” while Tate was “large-minded, generous, and open-handed”—the opposite of the “canny and parsimonious Scot obsessed with getting ahead.” He also finds Tate the superior critic.

Donoghue is Blackmur’s chief editor and critic but has little to say of him in Reading America. He does briefly compare Blackmur to Trilling in “Trilling, Mind, and Society,” showing the radical difference in the two critics’ values and approaches. (In another forum, “Blackmur on Henry James,” he compares Tate and Blackmur, presenting Tate’s theories of the symbolic and angelic imagination.) Donoghue concludes of Thoreau: “It is only in language, and not even in Nature, that Thoreau is content to reside. . . . Only among sentences was he willing to be at home.” The same could be said of Blackmur, as Donoghue makes plain: Blackmur had little use for mind or society, Trilling’s great sources of authority. Blackmur remarked, as Donoghue reminds us, that “there is a disorder vital to the individual which is fatal to society.” So, our critic concludes, “Blackmur, insisting on a mind of his own, insists equally on working his language hard.”

Richard Blackmur stands between, as well as among, the critics Spears and Donoghue see as exemplary; and he is a figure we cannot ignore for many reasons, one of the most important of which is adduced by Donoghue when he observes: “It is odd and therefore exhilarating that we are reading Blackmur more ardently than ever in conditions which he would have reproved. He flourished in an Age of Criticism, but he would have not borne in patience an Age of Theory in which literature and criticism are more nearly dissolved in favor of the theory of each,” adding: “He didn’t want a theory near him . . .any more than he wanted a dogma.”

So we return to the fact that both Spears and Donoghue distrust theory and prefer literature to abstraction, culture to idea, even when both patiently trace the critical procedures of others. As Donoghue says of Blackmur’s distrust of theory, “you can’t do anything with your theory but apply it, forcing it upon your poems.” After reading such shrewd remarks, I find it a little surprising that Donoghue treats Harold Bloom so respectfully in citing him occasionally. But Donoghue’s greatest praise goes to Blackmur and Burke. What he says of Burke, that “he remains a maverick, his mind running free and sometimes wild,” also applies to Blackmur, the neurotic, as Spears reminds us, who sublimated his neuroticism into artful criticism, some of which remains permanently valuable.

Spears and Donoghue, both men of great civility, tend to admire most the mavericks among artists and critics—the Thoreaus, Whitmans, Audens, Blackmurs, Burkes, Dickeys, and Lowells as well as the Adamses, Jameses, Eliots, Ransoms, Trillings, and Warrens. That, of course, as I have already suggested, is one element that makes for wide-ranging and engaging criticism—the refusal to confine oneself to a particular kind of author or writing, civil or not. This openness to life and literature is all the more interesting and valuable when one encounters such complicated figures as Cotton Mather and Emily Dickinson. Tate said that Mather would have burnt Dickinson as a witch. Spears calls Mather “repulsive but far from boring, . . .full of contradictions and paradoxes, of great interest psychologically and historically.” Donoghue, in one of his most dazzling and comprehensive essays, says of Dickinson: “If we want our poets to live, in their poetry, more daringly than we would choose to live . . ., then Dickinson’s imagination will do much of our living for us.” He would never make such a claim for criticism; nor would Spears.

What do these reflections about three critics add up to, you may be wondering, in exasperation. To that question, which is addressed to myself as well as the reader, I would offer several answers.

I begin by pointing out a matter that should be obvious but that is often overlooked or forgotten—namely that the best critics have usually proceeded by means of the essay and that most of the best criticism, especially of our century, appears in books of essays, not book-length studies (which seldom have the vigor and interest of the essay). Spears and Donoghue long ago learned the essentiality of the essay (and the essay-review) as the fundamental medium of critical discourse, and each is a master of that medium in his own distinctive way. Both critics write a vigorous clean prose, with diction and syntax varied to meet the occasion—and never self-regarding, obfusc, turgid; of the two, Spears is the more succinct and straightforward; Donoghue, the more elaborate and comprehensive. Tate’s critical technique and style provide models for Spears, who has mastered them, as well as Tate’s dignity and wit; the case is more complicated with Donoghue, who does not write in lurid Blackmurian periods but possesses Blackmur’s aphoristic quality and power of expression and a related majesty of tone. Neither man is indentured to any other critic, I should emphasize.

Each man has little regard for critical theory as such, as we have seen. Each would agree with Blackmur that theory, bad enough, characteristically hardens into something still worse—dogma. The theories of our time have quickly become orthodoxies and ultimately dogmas. Some critics take theories up as casually as some people take up a new style of clothing—or, to alter the clothing metaphor, they cut their critical cloth each season to meet the latest fashions, which are often passing lunacies.

In the present dour circumstances, with the dazzling pyrotechnics of many critical fads still bursting in the encircling darkness, it is bracing to find criticism such as that in American Ambitions and Reading America written by men whose light comes from within and who years ago perceived what Eliot meant in saying that the only reasonable critical method is to be very intelligent.


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