The last three chapters diagnose what Herbert Gold once "happy problems," problems of the overweight rather than of the starving. Our classrooms filled up during the fifties and sixties, as students left the sciences and sought insight through the arts. Teachers and even critics of literature acquired more prestige than they had had within living memory. With prestige came fast promotions, good salaries, low teaching loads, many graduate students, research factories, hundreds of new journals, computer-as- sisted bibliographies and concordances, fellowships, easy publication, textbooks, royalties, consultantships. Yet almost at the height of this prosperity the feeling spread that something had gone sour in the profession, some teachers came to suspect that literary culture might indeed be "irrelevant," and essays like the one reprinted in Chapter One of this book began to appear.
Unfamiliar prosperity and expansion tested the ideals of the profession. As new institutions like the Advanced Placement Pro- gram in literature were constructed, and as old ones like the MLA were radically altered, the idea of literature as a civilizing force could be held up against concrete social forms--of our own making and with literature at the center--that seemed very defective as reflections of civilization. Humanist, humanize thyself. To understand how wide a discrepancy existed between the workings of the profession and its articulated values, it will be useful now to look straight at those values. Specifically, I shall analyze the pre-eminent set of ideas that American literary humanism adopted and developed during the post-war period. Such an analysis will not only make clear the hopes we had for literature and for ourselves; it will also describe the climate of ideas in many or most graduate departments of literature. These ideas were the cultural myths that graduate students subscribed to; they were the accompaniment to still another rite of passage, that from student of literature to teacher of literature.
To place these ideas in perspective, I shall discuss at some length an early expression of doubt, an essay by Lionel Trilling called "The Two Environments," written in 1965. When it appeared, it drew a good deal of interest, mainly, I imagine, because it challenged some favorite premises of literary education, premises that Trilling himself has worked from, along with many of the rest of us. When we have had to justify the presence of literature in the curriculum, Trilling says, we have slipped easily into the vocabulary of the "whole-man theory" (p. 213). That is, we have held the study of literature "to have a unique effectiveness in opening the mind and illuminating it, in purging the mind of prejudices, and received ideas, in making the mind free and active." The result is "an improvement in the intelligence . . . as it touches the moral life" (p. 212). This argument has proved remarkably durable since Matthew Arnold gave it its best-remembered articulation, surviving innumerable challenges of the Auschwitz-commandants-read-Goethe variety. It has convinced not only teachers of literature, who after all need this kind of reassurance, but students in large numbers who want to read and live by modern literature, in particular. I think that Trilling is right in saying that for them "an involvement with modern literature goes with an insistent . . . concern with morality" (p. 220). This concern fixes on the sense of style, and on the cultural and moral values that inhere in style and are heightened in literature and by literary study. Literature really is criticism of life, and students and teachers of literature have been the conscience of the culture to an extent that might have satisfied even Arnold--whatever he might have thought of the concrete directives of that conscience.
But, as Trifling rightly observes, the very success of literature has changed the terms of Arnold's plea. To oppose the philistines then, or even in Sinclair Lewis's time, was in effect to oppose the culture. That is no longer so. Now, Trilling says, "the student is at liberty to choose between two cultural environments" (pp. 226-27). One, still, is philistine culture, and the other defines itself by opposition to the philistines. But as we and our students find this second environment more peopled and more comfortable, the opposition to philistines itself becomes one of two established parties. About the time Trilling wrote, these parties came into sharp intellectual and stylistic opposition to one another--as was revealed by the continuing fuss about long hair, drugs, and sex, by the vogue of books like Reich's The Greening of America and Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture, and by the voyeurism of timelifenewsweek. Yet both parties have eaten from the same board throughout their quarrel. That last is my observation, of which more later. Trilling's is that the second environment has lost some of its critical nip, that it carries in it a "trivializing force," which dissipates real cultural debate into "transcendent gossip." For this reason, he says, "those few teachers . . . who do not think that preparing students for entrance into the second environment is enough to do for them in the way of education, may one day have to question whether in our culture the study of literature is any longer a suitable means for developing and refining the intelligence" (p. 232).
So much has happened since 1965. After our unpleasant awakening to the dissonance of external events, a rereading of Trilling's essay is a strange experience, punctuated with phantom exclamation points and asterisks not in the original.
But my subject in this chapter is what happened before 1965, not after, and I have spread out the content of Trilling's essay at such length because it seems to me an extraordinarily telling account of trouble within the academic literary culture. Telling, because Trilling's distress has its origin in the very success of our profession. Teachers of literature have had some part in creating a large, audible, sensitive, and highly moral adversary culture, which is what we meant to do, yet I imagine that even in 1965 Trilling was not alone in harboring doubts about this achievement. Needless to say, those who have looked at other indicators of professional health have been a good deal less equivocal than Trilling. And anyone can think of a dozen more recent examples of self-doubt or rage, directed at the management of academic literary culture: the MLA insurrection of 1968, Florence Howe's election to the second vice-presidency in 1970, the black studies movement, the attempt of the jobless to organize in or against the MLA, the Anglo-American Seminar on the Teaching of English, the rebellion of graduate students in many universities, and so on. That the profession has been self-critical is not surprising, but that the critical mood set in at precisely the moment of amplitude and prestige bears comment.
In 1948, Stanley Edgar Hyman began his survey of contemporary criticism by judging it "quantitatively different" from--better than-- any previous criticism. Looking ahead, he ventured that "the immediate future of criticism should be even greater, and a body of serious literary analysis turned out in English of a quality to distinguish our age." The sense of vistas opening was a common experience. I started college in 1948, and I recall the excitement communicated there by teachers of literature who would have agreed with Hyman's prognosis for criticism. And to be in graduate school in the fifties, even in the dim Eisenhower years, was to feel a part of a fresh intellectual movement and a renewal of the vitality of literary study. We expected that the teaching of literature, too, would increase in quality and importance. Hyman saw "democratic possibilities for modern criticism," which, by making its method widely available, would train more people as capable critics, "in most cases not professionally, but in their private reading and their lives. And the vested interests that possibility menaces are much bigger game than the priesthood of literary criticism" (pp. 11-12). There it is: We were confident then that we could challenge philistine culture and the hierarchical society by extending the influence of literature.
The question, then, is what happened to us--people who read and taught literature in universities--that in achieving pretty much what we set out to achieve we built a cultural situation that many of us find so distressing? My way toward an answer will run first through a reconsideration of some things that New Criticism meant, taking full advantage of hindsight. For the New Criticism was the central intellectual force in our subculture during those years. Then I will quickly examine some of the counterforces, looking for the cultural foundation of the arguments brought against New Criticism. Finally I will try to relate this phase of our literary history to some wider cultural concepts. I hope it will be clear along the way that when I say "we" and "us" I intend no condescension to those whom I think benighted but hope to convert. I am, rather, making an effort to understand some of my own intellectual history and to let these past two decades teach me something now that I failed to learn at the time.
At the outset of any retrospective on the New Criticism, it should be acknowledged that this school made its greatest impression on our day-to-day lives and work, not through the literary and cultural theory with which many of the chief figures occupied themselves, but through the style and method of close reading displayed in a relatively small number of essays, primarily by Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, R. P. Blackmur, and the I. A. Richards of Practical Criticism, and in the sacred textbook, Understanding Poetry. These essays taught us how to write papers as students, how to write articles later on, and what to say about a poem to our students in a 50-minute hour. Surely we absorbed the cultural values inherent in close reading--exactness, sensitivity to shades of feeling, the need to see pattern and order, the effort to shut out from consciousness one's own life-situation while reading the poem, and to pry the words loose from their social origins--surely we absorbed these values as we imitated the models before us. But when we thought about what we were doing, especially when that was attacked, we would draw upon the rationale and the theory supplied by the New Critics. A theory becomes influential when called into play in defense of practice. So the theoretical talk of the New Critics is a convenient place to look for the ideas that support--that license--the work of students and teachers of literature. I want now to arrange some of those ideas in a convenient row (more convenient than is quite justified by their original development), leading from the poem itself out to the whole social and metaphysical context.
Start with the familiar notion that the poem is a self-contained whole, autonomous. This premise is often disparaged now, as it was 20 years ago, for seeming to absolve poetry of moral responsibility, for sponsoring a decadent aesthetic of art for art's sake. But that is much too simple a charge: the pages of the New Criticism are bound together with moral fiber, almost strident in urging a social mission for literature. To see what is really at stake in claiming the autonomy of the poem, it is best to consider what the New Critics themselves meant that proposition to deny.
They were denying, first, that poetic language has reference to reality in the same way as prose, and that literature competes with science. The "heresy of paraphrase" is that you can take a message away from a poem, or mine the poem for its content, leaving form behind. Richards even allowed himself to say that "the greatest poets . . . refrain from assertion." Second, the organic idea of poetry denies that the poem should be read as an avenue to the poet's intention or as a part of his autobiography. And third, the New Critics meant to deny the "affective fallacy" that the poem is its psychological effects on the reader.
The intent of this ontological position is not to divorce literature from social and personal reality but to make the relationship an indirect one--of which more later. The New Critics know that poems are related to life, but they want to let the poem create its own mimetic life before seeing how it fits the world outside. And they know that the poem is not an object. As Wimsatt scrupulously says, "The poem conceived as a thing in between the poet and the audience is of course an abstraction. The poem is an act." But for criticism, Wimsatt goes on, and for critical reading, the poem "must be hypostatized," detached from its origins and effects and from the stream of history. In brief, this is a point about how to experience and criticize literature. Wimsatt and the others ask us to relax our pragmatic and empirical muscles while reading a poem, to let the poem have its own way, to accept its world in a passive mood. Poetry is different from other uses of words, notably the use of words in science, in the view of the New Critics, and requires a different state of consciousness.
It is a familiar observation that that state of consciousness excludes (willing suspension of disbelief) those modes of reality testing appropriate to scientific discourse. It particularly excludes looking for a one-to-one correspondence between propositions and parts of the external world. Less explicit but equally important is the separation of literary experience from action. In this the New Critics are with Auden: "Poetry makes nothing happen." More sharply, in Richards's account of poetic experience the function of the poem is precisely to block any overbearing impulse to action, by bringing the "appetencies" into balance. Eliot would put it otherwise, but he and all the rest would agree that the sphere of a poem's operation is the sensibility, not the will.
Furthermore, though poems, as Wimsatt says, unquestionably are acts, both in their making and in their uttering, the New Critics make almost nothing of this. Wimsatt expresses the standard position, that "both speaker and dramatic audience are assimilated into the implicit structure of the poem's meaning," so that action is only an artistic fiction rather than a dynamic in which the poem participates. By this account Yeats is not really, through "Easter 1916," taking sides in the rebellion, but putting forth an artistic hypothesis. Kenneth Burke, at some distance from the central group of New Critics, is the exception. He treats poems as "strategies" which, like all symbolic structures, produce "frames of acceptance." "Acceptance" here is not equated to passivity; rather, frames of acceptance "fix attitudes that prepare for combat"; they define a we and a they. Burke allows some conflicts, at least, to be real, not fully containable by some arrangement of attitudes, and he sees poets and poems as participating in those conflicts. Given the wide currency of Burke's ideas, it is noteworthy that the New Critics never built on this particular idea. It accorded badly with their attempt to theorize a state of mind peculiar to literary experience.
The specialization of the mind is assumed by the aesthetics of New Criticism, too. Murray Krieger is right in holding that though the New Critics do not have an explicit theory of the unique aesthetic experience, they both need and imply one. And Eliseo Vivas, much influenced by New Criticism, developed the appropriate theory. The aesthetic experience, in his familiar phrase, is a state of "intransitive, rapt attention," in which we feel all meanings and values to be in the art object rather than in the world beyond the object. Emotion and perception, as well as the intellect, need a separate set of rules for the right apprehension of literature.
I have been stressing the fragmentation of self that is strongly implied by the New Critics. Yet their composite theorizing explicitly stresses reconstruction of the whole person. Their argument runs thus: In return for the discipline of intransitive attention, of blocking interpretive instincts, setting action aside, and restraining all stock responses, the reader has a total and unified experience. For Brooks the main task of the poet is to "unify experience," and so "return to us the unity of the experience itself as man knows it in his own experience." Though the most ritualistic iteration of the word "experience" shows where Brook's wishes would lead him, the passage hardly explains why one would read a poem. What is so defective about the original, unmediated experience that we must resort to poetry to recpature it? Ransom, interpreting Eliot, gives a clear answer: "In action . . . the situation as a whole engages us too completely; . . . it is when this situation exists for imagination, not for action, that we are freed from its domination and can attend to its texture." This is a crux. As I have already suggested, most of the New Critics would have agreed that action impedes the deeper flow of understanding and the refinement of emotion, and that wholeness of experience, paradoxically, is most available to us when we abstract ourselves from action and let consciousness reign. Most comment on this special and intuitive knowledge of experience, held out as the main reward of poetry, has followed the New Critics' explicit distinction between poetry and science--poetry treats an "order of existence . . . which cannot be treated in scientific discourse." But I think that the deeper message is in the continuation of Ransom's statement: poetry, he says, recovers the "denser and more refractory original world which we know loosely through our perceptions and memories." The "original world" can best be known by being out of it. The truest experience is abstract experience, well distanced by poetry.
Poetry lets us "realize the world" for another reason as well. The world is infinitely complex, Brooks and several of the others insist. To see it clearly requires selection and ordering, both important activities of art, whatever theorist you read. But at this point one should ask why the selection and ordering that any of us performs just in the course of being awake, or that science offers, are inferior to the selection and ordering achieved by art. The answer is clear in the reasons the New Critics give for setting such extraordinary value as they do on irony, ambiguity, tension, and paradox, in critical practice: these devices are important for their "resolution of apparently antithetical attitudes," which both daily life and science leave in dissonance. This idea has its origin, for the New Criticism, in Richards's Principles of Literary Criticism, where a "balanced poise" of the attitudes plays a central and almost therapeutic role. Richards supposes that our cultural sickness is an imbalance of attitudes and impulses and that poetry can set us right by helping us achieve a state of equilibrium. The more discordant elements drawn into this unity, the more effective the poetry--for this reason Richards praises tragedy as "perhaps the most general, all accepting, all ordering experience known." And Brooks says that the good poems manage a "unification of attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude. In a unified poem the poet has 'come to terms' with his experience." Now, putting together these suggestions with Eliot's famous diagnosis of a dissociation of sensibility" in the modern world, I see a sequence of this sort: The world is complex, discordant, dazzling. We want desperately to know it as unified and meaningful, but action out in the world fails to reveal or bring about a satisfying order. The order we need is available in literature; therefore literature must be a better guide to truth than are experience and action.
But the specific truth to be got from literature is less clear than the desire for it; and the particular values that poetry advances are nebulous. Not that we can remain puzzled to know Chat values the critics hold--these are plain enough, especially among those half- dozen New Critics who are Anglicans or Catholics. But all of them are surprisingly reluctant to ascribe their particular values to poetry. Obscurity sets in when they address the subject; as when Richards looks to poetry for those "most valuable" states of mind that "involve the widest and most comprehensive co-ordination of activities and the least curtailment, conflict, starvation and restriction," or when Wimsatt writes that "Poetry, by its concreteness and dramatic presentation of value situations, whether it inclines to a right answer or to a wrong answer . . . has the meaning and being which makes it poetry. This is the poetic value." These formulations don't take us far. The reason for the difficulty may be seen in another comment of Wimsatt's: that the Arnoldian view of poetry as criticism of life is defective because "so much" of poetry "is in one way or another immoral" that no one ethic can accommodate all the great poems. This is more helpful. The value of poetry transcends the values of individual poems and poets, and lies not in urging one or another moral view but in embracing ("coming to terms with") ethical complexities. A proper reading of poetry neutralizes and flattens out not only impulses toward action but perhaps even those toward moral judgment. Poetry, capital P, can prefer no one value system or course of action, but accepts and comprehends all values, all actions, and in fact everything that makes up reality.
Richard Foster, in a helpful book on the New Criticism, argues that most of these critics have a quasi-theological bent. They are the proper heirs of Matthew Arnold in substituting poetry for religion as man's "ever surer stay." It seems to me that in spite of their talk about the decline of culture and sensibility, the "ever surer stay" they offer us the assurance that we can after all, "come to terms with experience"--by containing it, by striking balanced attitudes, as a successful poet does, and emphatically not by acting to change the society that gives rise to our experience.
Not only is this a passive solution, it is, also, importantly, a personal one. The New Critics see poetry as serving the individual reader, and only very indirectly as amending the flawed society. In fact, many of the formulas they offer of desirable social goals are so abstract as to call into question the seriousness of their interest. When Richards says that our sickness is being cut off from the past and that myths and poetry will "remake our minds and with them our world," when Tate says that the man of letters is "to attend to the health of society not at large but through literature--that is, he must be constantly aware of the condition of language in his age," and that "the end of social man is communion through love"; when Eliot says in After Strange Gods that the function of literature is to combat liberalism; when Ransom says that "the object of a proper society is to instruct its members how to transform instinctive experience into aesthetic experience" --I find it easy to believe that they are thinking, not about the whole of any society, real or imagined, but about the style of life available to a comfortable man of letters within society. If so, it doesn't really matter how the society is organized, short of totalitarianism, since the main of letters can cope. "If modern man wishes to save himself as a human being in an abstractionist society, say all the New Critics, let him turn to literature and the arts." But for "modern man" we had better substitute "the literary intellectual," for to whom else is this solution readily available? Murray Krieger holds that the social mission of criticism, according to the New Critics, is "to affirm the uniqueness and indispensability of art's role in society." This has to mean society as it is; for Krieger the issue is how we defend poetry within the status quo, and primarily to those who have any say about "art's role in society," the classes with power or influence.
Now, against any substantial analysis of society, all of this is a parlor game, and the social pieties of the New Critics themselves are the sort of horn-tooting that you might indulge in while asking the National Endowment for the Humanities for some money. Why are these generally sophisticated men so very inept when they discuss society? I think it is partly because everything in their ideology turns them away from politics. They see art as freeing man from politics by putting him above his circumstances, giving him inner control, affording a means of salvation, placing him beyond culture.
It will be obvious that this is an angled shot of the New Criticism. I have deliberately tried to draw out those implications of the New Critics' work that will serve my present purpose, and my account has been critical. Now I want to reiterate the perspective from which the criticism is leveled. I can myself understand if not accept Foster's labeling the New Criticism the "chief movement for literary humanism of this century." I think that the New Critics were sensitive and well-intentioned men, whose practical influence on the academy was good. I do not hold them to blame for the recent crisis of confidence in academic literary culture, much less for the viciousness that is widespread in American society. To go looking for the villain among critics and English teachers is, in my view, completely to misconceive the task of cultural analysis. Plainly the New Criticism, like its opponents, was a relatively minor cultural force. It did not create the academic literary scene of the fifties and sixties, but merely presented itself as a timely instrument to serve purposes of our own and of the larger society. A few words about that.
Many aspects of the New Criticism answered to our needs, but the one aspect I wish to single out is its flight from politics. Trilling said of intellectuals today that "we all want politics not to exist." This is particularly true in America, where the social pressures that drive people to conscious politics have rarely existed for long; for us "there has always seemed a way out." Americans have generally been able to move on when a situation calling for politics arose--across the frontier, to a suburb, into technologically ensured privacy. What has increasingly governed American public life is what Philip Slater calls the
Toilet Assumption--the notion that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted complexities and obstacles will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision. . . . Our approach to social problems is to decrease their visibility: out of sight, out of mind. This is the real foundation of racial segregation, especially in its most extreme case, the Indian "reservation." The result of our social efforts has been to remove the underlying problems of our society farther and farther from daily experience and daily consciousness, and hence to decrease, in the mass of the population, the knowledge, skill, resources, and motivation necessary to deal with them.
In America we use technology and production to shut out social ills, and so to evade politics at whatever cost.
Academic humanists in the fifties had special reasons for wanting politics not to exist. McCarthy had made activism improvident for college teachers at the start of the decade, and, in any case, the cold war had reduced ideology to seeming inevitabilities of free world and iron curtain, while drastically narrowing the range of domestic political positions available and pretty much guaranteeing that support for Adlai Stevenson would seem the most daring political act within the bounds of realism. At the same time, technological advance and the rapid increase in production kept before us a vision of steady improvement, and made radical social change seem both remote and disturbing. What those of us who studied and taught literature particularly needed, therefore, was a rationale for our divorcing work from politics, for lying low in society.
Kenneth Burke wrote an analysis of such tranquil historical moments, back in 1937, that is worth quoting apropos the fifties:
The ideal conditions for thought arise when the world is deemed about as satisfactory as we can make it, and thinkers of all sorts collaborate in constructing a vast collective mythology whereby people can be at home in that world. Conflicts are bridged symbolically; one tries to mitigate conflict by the mediating devices of poetry and religion, rather than to accentuate the harshness.
In such a period, ironic "frames of acceptance" are bound to be wanted. The New Criticism was such a frame, already built and ready for use by the end of the war.
Some homelier truths are also worth recalling. Academic salaries in this country touched bottom at the end of the forties, in terms of purchasing power. I well recall that as I came to graduate school in 1952, those leaving Harvard with Ph.D.'s counted $3,000 a good salary. Professors were poor; I thought of entering the profession as tantamount to taking vows of poverty. But economic conditions gradually improved for us through the decade, for demographic and political reasons (universities, recall, became an instrument in the cold war--the battle for men's minds). A new, distinctly less ragged style of life became possible, and with it an almost-earned upper- middle-class self-image. As we were switching from beer to booze and buying second cars, few felt any hard economic interest in politics. The social change that was carrying us along was quite satisfactory. And with this frame of mind, the New Criticism accorded well.
So far I have virtually equated theory of literature in the postwar period with the New Criticism. In so doing I have of course greatly oversimplified the actual situation in universities, both by omitting the other schools and by slighting the polemical and contentious side of the New Criticism itself. I will not make up this deficiency. To do so would require roughly equal time for philologists, literary historians, Chicago critics, and so on.
Instead I will say just enough to suggest that in the terms I have outlined, the opponents of New Criticism offered no real alternative to it.
What kept the English department busy before New Criticism arrived was, of course, philology and literary history. Philology, whose territory was not deeply invaded, never really entered into battle with the New Critics, but literary history very much did. It could not help doing so, since the New Criticism challenged its right to control the curriculum and the budget. To be sure, the challenge came more in the form of physical presence than of doctrine, though Ransom did attack English faculties for being "mere historians," unable to recognize a good new poem when they saw one, much less deal with the texture of literature. In any case, the mere historians were embattled, and those of us who were in graduate school 15 to 25 years ago will remember their grumblings and disparagings. Douglas Bush handed down the official indictment in a 1949 MLA talk. According to his bill of charges, the New Critics ignore historical context; they therefore make damaging errors; they glorify technical method and assume that "literature exists for the diversion of a few sophisticates"; they are "aesthetes" who "create a moral vacuum. Poetry deals with morality and so should criticism.
But in spite of the high feelings and the real antagonisms that split the profession for a while, the division was not deep. Bush would bring morality back into criticism--by siding with one or another ethic drawn from the past, as we know from his other writings and their championing of Christian humanism. Such free-swinging uses of the past do not bring criticism into any closer touch with the concrete moral situation of the present than the New Criticism. The distance, with Bush, is simply of time rather than of abstraction. As I have said, the New Critics did not lack for moral sentiments.
As for the dispute about method, the scholars and the critics had after all a common intent: to get at the ethos of a work or a poet, to mediate his wisdom (his coming to terms), with empathy for all systems of thought, in the dispassionate way of the intellectual. The scholar would do this by coming at the work from outside, the critic by exploring its interior. Either method will suffice to withdraw the work from our history and politics. So scholar and critic have long since realized their community of interest, in a setting where differences of method--specializations--are a positive professional asset rather than a contradiction. It reduces anxiety if one can succeed as a scholar or as a critic, and leave half the "field" to another guild of experts with whom one is no longer in competition.
The other collective assault on the New Criticism came from Ronald Crane and the Chicago critics. They bore down on the New Critics' attempt to see all poems as importantly alike and as distinct from prose or from science. The Chicago group would dwell more on the various genres and subgenres of literature, those traditional forms that shape individual works. In other words, for the criticism of a given poem it may be more helpful to say at the start that it is an elegy than that it is a poem. I reduce this doctrine to such a minimum, not to imply that no significant philosophical issues were at stake (there were some), but to show that the issues for teachers of literature were once again primarily those of method. Almost everything I said about the ethos of New Criticism applies equally to Chicago Aristotelianism. In fact, in the elaborate taxonomy of literary works that Chicago promised, in the prospect of a well- ordered and infinitely large body of practical criticism, and in Crane's plea for "much inductive theoretical research . . . into problems both of general poetics and of the specific poetics of literary forms," the Chicago critics were even better equipped for the professional decade than the New Critics. And needless to say, their call for a "pluralistic" criticism, one that would take systems of thought as premises for inquiry rather than as competing doctrines, promised to reduce values to methodological preferences and make an unthreatening place for them in the professional life. My contemporaries in graduate school might recall maneuvering their way through first an Aristotelian paper on a narrative poem, then a myth-and-ritual job on a Restoration comedy, and on to a synthesis of Brooks and Lovejoy applied to several metaphysical lyrics. At many universitites the graduate course in literary theory laid these methodological riches out before us and left us free to make the choice appropriate to the critical occasion. If the Chicago critics had not come so much later onto the stage, and if they had offered more easily adaptable styles of practical criticism, they might well have stolen the scene, for their ideas met the same needs as did those of the New Critics.
Of the other attacks on the New Criticsm, most were even less abrasive. Mark Spilka, in an article whose subtitle was "A New Critical Revision," praised the movement for "its promise of something like objective certainty about subjective truths," but accused it of partly losing this aim in a self-defeating formalism, succumbing to the methods of science in an effort to defeat science.
About the same time, Roy Harvey Pearce, arguing that language itself embodies history, pled for a more historical understanding of literature. Yet Pearce had no particular view of the meaning or direction of history, such as to put us and our literature in dynamic relation to it; rather, he appropriated history as "an indefinite series of examples of what we would possibly have been were we not what we are." Such a view preserves the New Critics' denial of our particular historical being and their attempt to set us above history as "users" of the past. Probably Hyatt H. Waggoner expressed the consensus of academic literary people at the end of the fifties when, in registering some complaints against the New Criticsm, he nonetheless called it "the best criticism we have or are likely to have for a long time." And studies like Krieger's and Foster's represent further stages in the domestication, adjustment, and assimilation of what was at the outset a moderately iconoclastic body of criticism The waters were fairly calm.
Moreover, those few who did frontally attack the New Criticism often did so on premises that would exclude almost allcriticism. Very early Mark Van Doren set himself in opposition to a criticism "obsessed with a desire to be scientific about poetry," and so destroy its beauties: "The poem is a bird that threatens to escape the net of analysis, so that the net grows ever wider, and tougher with interwoven analytic threads." Although this was and is a common complaint, it can easily be recognized as an attack on thinking, not a call to a better mode of thought. And though Karl Shapiro, when he excoriated New Criticsm 20 years later for being concept-ridden, dogmatic, and abstruse, avoided Van Doren's misty nostalgia in favor of a gritty plainness, he shared Van Doren's preference for intuition and a hegemony of taste. The critic's real job, he can only say, is "discriminating between" works of literature, without appar- ently employing any system of concepts. These are aristocratic positions, rooted in the pride of the natural-born critic (and, usually, poet) who needs no shared ways of thinking, and whose advice to teachers would no doubt be "look into your guts and write--if you dare." It is not surprising that such views made little headway against the New Criticism, which at least aimed toward a democracy of critical ideas, available to all.
Meanwhile, there were a few explicitly political critiques of the New Criticism. The most influential, perhaps, was the argument offered in 1949 and 1959 by Robert Gorham Davis, and revived many times since, that the New Criticism implies a "reactionary position in politics and a dogmatic position in theology." Though this is a bit closer to my own view, I hope I have made it clear that it won't hold up. There are indeed many remarks by Eliot, Tate, Ransom, and others praising monarchy, aristocracy, the ante-bellum South, etc. But the criticism and literary theory, in sharp contrast to these political manifestos and asides, are square in the middle of the bourgeois liberal tradition. The explicit politics of these men is a pseudo-politics. It constitutes an enabling mythology that ties their criticism to social yearnings and nostalgia but not to any possibility of action or affiliation. And it has little or nothing to do with the implicit political content of their writings about literature. In implicit politics, all the competing criticisms of the fifties were pretty much the same. At the risk of vulgarization, I would say that the main political effect of our theorists was to help emplant literary criticism, along with its producers, tightly and securely within the network of bourgeois institutions.
In the postwar period, as American universities underwent enormous growth, a much larger segment of the population came into these institutions than before. This meant that market condi- tions required a great increase in the professoriat. One consequence was the new academic prosperity to which I have already alluded. And along with the prosperity came unaccustomed prestige, as intellectuals and technocrats were brought into the making of national policy, not as in the past because of their social backgrounds but for their expertise. In short, the university was a place where large numbers of people were trying to cut loose from their social origins and join an intellectual elite. And a new elite of this sort needs a set of myths to justify its status to itself and to the larger society.
Here a general principle of ideology is helpful: a privileged social group will generalize its own interests so that they appear to be universal social goals ("What's good for General Motors . . ."). In America, in the fifties, the bourgeois intellectual needed assurance that his privileges were for the general good. For example, a critic and teacher of literature whose work is fun and respectable, but who sees little evidence that he is helping to ameliorate social ills, or indeed serving any but those destined to assume their own positions in the ruling class--a teacher in this dubious spot will welcome a system of ideas and values that tells him that politics and ideology are at an end, that a pluralistic society is best for all, that individual freedom is the proper social goal for rich and poor alike, and that the perfection of self can best be attained through humanistic intellec- tual endeavor. And this is what the New Criticism and its rival theories had to offer. The tacit ideology has its proper place in bourgeois culture; its main features are practically inevitable, given the position of critics and teachers in this capitalist society.
Bourgeois culture rests on the idea of freedom. In our society, people interact mainly through the market, and this medium tends to obscure all social ties except those mediated by commodities, the cash nexus. An example: the patent law is our way of dealing with useful knowledge. It regularizes and makes legal the private ownership of ideas, for a time, and emphasizes their cash value, but ignores the social origin of all inventions--the shared knowledge that underlies them--and also the sometimes devastating social consequences of their use.
It is easy in a free-enterprise system to ignore one's total dependence on other people and especially easy for the affluent. Their relationship to other people is indirect, effected through money. Possession of means gives them frictionless control over other people's labor, and such control feels like freedom. The affluent can do as they please, up to a point, and it is natural enough for them to conclude that their well-being derives from freedom. It is but a short step to elevate freedom into a universal social goal, not seeing that the kind of freedom they enjoy can't be made universal because it depends on the servitude of others: on the other side of the cash nexus is someone whose choices are fewer and who does not feel free.
Though bourgeois culture declares its allegiance to freedom, the security of the well-to-do demands that there be close limits (law and order) to freedom of action by the powerless. Hence, the ideologue settles on freedom of thought as fundamental, and he is willing to allow everyone that freedom so long as it does not lead to "disruption." The university perfectly embodies this notion. Our dogma is academic freedom, which in practice means that you can think and write what you like, but as your speech approaches to political action you are more and more likely to find yourself without a job. Universities are supposed to remain neutral, stay politically pure, as are other academic institutions like the MLA.
The literary wing of the academy wholly subscribed to these doctrines through the fifties, as I hope I have sufficiently shown, and developed its own version of them. Literature was divorced from particular ideologies and identified with a pluralism that would help preserve individual freedom. The doctrine of diversity is often advance, even in the midst of doctrinal wars ("I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it"), by the Chicago critics and by their opponents. Even an often dogmatic man like Tate finds it natural to say, in the midst of controversy, "nobody knows what criticism is relevant to a democratic society. I like a lot of free play. I think that people ought to find out the truth wherever they can." It is easy to translate this into the implied language of the powerful: "You are entitled to your opinion, and it won't affect my actions one whit."
As a corollary of this stress on freedom, the bourgeois intellectual sees art and aesthetic values as independent of social process. Caudwell points out that beauty can only be a construct generated by culture, a "specific social product." But since the bourgeoisie relies for its comfort on the discomfort of others, it has good reasons for cloaking or ignoring the realities of social process and it looks away from labor and economic activity to find beauty. Art is, in brief, a means of freedom from society. And that seems to me the best explanation of the way our criticism has justified literature: as freeing man by setting him above his circumstances, by letting him "come to terms" intellectually, but taking him out of the present and making him one with "the tradition." All the schools of criticism agree that literature is a very special and separate thing, whose privileged cultural position needs defending--against science, against politics, against commercialization, against vulgarity, against nearly the whole social process.
The other cardinal principle of bourgeois culture is that we must prefer thought to action--in fact, abstain from all social action except the pursuit of our individual economic goals in the market, and voting for candidates for public office. I have pointed to the distancing of action by the New Criticism. In part, the preference for contemplation is due to a natural wish for protection against social upheaval. But it is also surely the case that we prefer thinking to action because thinking is the mark of our separation from and economic superiority to those who do physical labor. As Caudwell says, thought is "favored socially to the extent to which it separates itself from action, because it is just this separation which has generated its superior status as the mark of the ruling, 'cunning,' or administrative class." In our technological time, the university is built on precisely this distinction. That is why the cliche used by its enemies is "ivory tower." It is where the administrative class learns to think, where the scientific foundations of technology are laid, and where ideology is built to sanction the distribution of power and wealth. In this last task the American literary profession has cooperated, in part by insisting that the means to personal well- being and wholeness is through withdrawal from social action and the achievement of all-embracing states of mind. That is where the New Criticism pointed us, and where most of us, under the banner of humanism and the advancement of knowledge, gladly went.
Where else we might have gone, under different historical circumstances, it is profitless to guess. Marxism did, of course, offer a logical alternative: criticism written as part of a world revolutionary movement. Marxism could connect literature and goals for action, thus rebuilding somewhat the whole person. It could bridge the seeming gulf between high culture and the lives of ordinary people. And it could use literature as an agent of liberation, rather than of bourgeois freedom, which depends on exploitation. But that is another story. Given how American academic intellectuals were functioning in the forties and fifties, Marxian criticism was bound to be excluded from among the possibilities for respectable discourse about literature.
A few words of recapitulation. After the war, the academic literary profession in this country set an exciting course for itself: to revive literary culture and disseminate it widely and democratically, to the general benefit of society. This project was, as Richard Foster said of the New Criticism, "perhaps the most extraordinarily successful of all consciously waged literary revolutions." And its legacy has been in many ways admirable. To quote Foster again, education in English departments trains students to be "more alive and catholic" than an earlier generation. They and we constitute a "coherent and meaningful literary culture," which has advanced a "religiously felt resurgent humanism." In all this the socioliterary history of the last 25 years has indeed nearly fulfilled Arnold's wishful prophecy. Yet many of us are deeply dissatisfied with where we have arrived, with the elitism at institutions like the Advanced Placement Program and the MLA, the vestigical disdain for the unwashed, the "second environment" of which Trilling spoke.
I think that in retrospect we can see the origins of our present malaise in the core of our earlier beliefs. We wanted to move out of social action; we wished politics out of existence. But as Georg Lukacs says, "everything is politics"; every human thought and act is "bound up with the life and struggles of the community." The denial of politics could not continue forever. For one thing, external events caught up with us and disturbed the great bourgeois peace of the fifties--the war in Vietnam, the uprising of oppressed peoples here and abroad, the destruction of the biosphere through un- checked forces of the free-market economy. No walls built around the free play of intellect could exclude these world-historical events.
But, also, the very humanism we learned and taught was capable, finally, of turning its moral and critical powers on itself. Not directly. First, the humanism saw the inhumanity of the society outside the university--and credit to it for doing so. No one can tell exactly how much the values and perceptions of literary culture, as diffused among the young, helped make visible the war on Vietnam and, at home, racism and poverty. But there can be no doubt that those living in the "second environment" were among the first to wake from two decades of political sleep. From the burning of draft cards to the perception of humanism's role in maintaining class privilege and exploitative consumerism is not, perhaps, very far. I would like to think not, because I take seriously Caudwell's prediction, made 40 years ago: "Humanism, the creation of bourgeois culture, finally separates from it." It "must either pass into the ranks of the proletariat or, going quietly into a corner, cut its throat."
Appeared in The Politics of Literature, edited by Louis Kampf and Paul Lauter, and published by Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House, Inc. Copyright (c) 1970, 1972 by Random House, Inc.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:03 EDT