Memoir & Criticism

I believe that literary criticism has most often been done best by writers themselves: Lawrence, Forster, Orwell; Auden, Woolf, Delmore Schwartz; Randall Jarrell. These are the critics whom I have prized; writers who wanted their criticism to do what imaginative writing (at its best) does: bring to consciousness the feeling intelligence trapped inside the wilderness of mind and spirit that we all stumble around in. I prize this kind of criticism because it understands intuitively that it is in an aroused consciousness that the solace and excitement of literature are to be found.

The critique must be as emotionally ambitious as the work it is interpreting if it is to give us back the taste of our own experience. The critic, like the writer, needs to perceive accurately the underlying influences in the culture and the way those influences exert themselves on the inner life of those on the ground. This is the double task for all who undertake to make or, in the widest sense, appreciate literature.

Looking back half a century, I see the same simple truths being addressed by American critics of an earlier time. In 1948, Partisan Review held a famous symposium on the state of American writing at a moment when the rise of middlebrow culture alarmed the pulse-taking editors of America’s most highbrow magazine. In the welter of words that the symposium induced, two sets of remarks were made that still hold my attention. R. P. Blackmur said, “The elite of writers in America is at present . . . without adequate relation to the forces which shape or deform our culture. . . . If American middlebrow culture has grown stronger in this decade, I would suppose it was because the bulk of people cannot see themselves reflected in the adventures of the elite.” And Lionel Trilling said, “There is in English what might be called a permanent experiment, which is the effort to get the language of poetry back to a certain hard, immediate actuality, what we are likely to think of as the tone of good common speech. . . . I like to think that our cultural schism may come to be bridged with the aid of a literature which will develop the experiment of a highly charged plain speech.” Sixty years later, these words resonate for me. As a reader, what I look for in contemporary writing is an adequate relation to the forces that shape or deform our culture; as a writer, what I struggle to achieve is a sufficiently charged plain speech.

For me, the liberationist movements of the past forty years have been the single most powerful influence on the lives we are now living, because they drove an extraordinary wedge into the kind of coherent self-description that stabilizes a society. The current descent, in this country, into mad religiosity can be laid directly at their door. Class struggle is as nothing beside the anguish over race and sex, the real specters long haunting Western democracies. Not for the first time, the rise of feminism in America, coupled with the social progress of blacks (and this time around, gays as well), has unhinged the culture. At the end of the 19th century, the agitation caused by the great reform movements (abolition and women’s rights), joined to the bitterness of the Civil War and the rise of Darwinism, caused thousands of people (many famous and accomplished) to retreat, in historic anxiety, into a belief in spiritualism (that is, communion with the dead) not so very far from where we are today. Now as then, it is as though one kind of civil order were dying, and another being born—in the midst of which we seem unable to tell the story of who we think we are; that is, to describe adequately, with intellect and emotion, how at sea we are within ourselves.

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