Some years ago, in a course I was giving on European novels, a student handed in a paper in which he described Emile Zola’s Germinal—that powerful but old-fashioned novel of French miners struggling for their rights—as characterized by paradox, tension, and ambiguity. Since these terms were brought into modern criticism to characterize the tensely wrought and ambivalent verse of the 17th-century metaphysicals, and then the poetry of those (like T. S. Eliot) who absorbed a style, a manner, from these Hamlet-like literary intellectuals, I explained that Zola’s rather large and florid prose style—the style a French naturalist needs to get himself through a shelf of documentary novels describing the ravages of alcoholism and syphilis on all the descendants of a French family—could not possibly be compared to those highly artful poets. Zola’s style certainly has its share of grandiloquent poetry, and Zola liked, in the manner of the epic-writing romantics, to sign himself poite. But Germinal, in both its crudity and its passion, its violent sexual metaphors and its indignant description of the oppressed, is so far from the language and subject of an Eliot that, properly speaking, it makes no sense to find in 19th-century naturalistic fiction the attributes of what is, even for our time, only one kind of poetry.
My student insisted on his point. He had been instructed in paradox, tension, and ambiguity in a course called “Introduction to Literature,” and with the very text of Germinal before him, he was so concerned with showing that he knew how to read his book with a modish approach to literature, that he simply could not recognize the most obvious quality of Zola’s great novel—which was its force. He felt no necessary connection between his experience and that described in the novel, but he had brought in wholly arbitrary connections, couched in a critical vocabulary that he had learned by rote, whose historical applications and limitations he did not understand. He was like a tourist in a foreign country; he could imitate the language but he did not understand it. There was no community of interest between himself and the novel, but he did not even realize this, he was not even thinking of the novel he was reading, so busy was he plastering paradox, tension, and ambiguity over Zola’s astonished face.
Now this quality of making arbitrary connections, this lack of historical awareness, often of historical information rudimentary enough to supply guideposts and danger signals in going through the country of Zola, this false sophistication—this is what troubles me about many students who have been taught to read critically, as the saying goes, but who do not really read at all, who do not enjoy reading, who have no interest in literature. But equally, I’m troubled by the editors who print my essays but are utterly unconcerned with my ideas and values, with the readers who come up to say how much they have “enjoyed” a piece but who never discuss the argument in it. There’s something wrong, some basic element missing, in the relationship of the audience to the critic in America today, and I see this wrongness in the professional journals for which you don’t have to take the trouble to write well and in the Sunday book supplements that exist only to sell books, in the lack of general magazines publishing serious criticism, and in the very absence of any responsible and authoritative evaluation of contemporary literature. There are a great many rewarding and fruitful sides to being a literary critic, but one of the things that we don’t talk about, that some of us never even notice, is the absence of echo to our work, the uncertainty of response, the confusion of basic terms in which we deal. It’s not that we lack an audience; it’s that the audience doesn’t know what it wants, is not sure of what it thinks, is fundamentally uneasy with literature, even afraid of it, and wants to control the beast rather than to live with it.
This situation is what characterizes criticism in a mass society—mass communications in themselves have changed nothing and determine nothing. As soon as you get people who do not read themselves but who feel that they need criticism to make contact with literature, as soon as the educated public (which used to test its own opinions on the critic’s) breaks up into the self-declared mass that wants things to be explained, then you get the critic-as-popularizer, the critic consciously mediating between the work of art and the public. But no critic who is any good sets out deliberately to enlighten someone else; he writes to put his own ideas in order; to possess, as a critic, through the integral force of his intelligence, the work of art that someone else had created. Of course he will elucidate, he will analyze, he will define and locate and explain, but all the things he does for his reader he does first for himself.
What the critic does for his reader, for the public, he does on the flood tide, so to speak, of his excitement with a particular book, a brave new insight, an evaluation, a theory. A critic is not an artist, except incidentally; he is a thinker, and it is the force, the exactness, the extension—perhaps the originality—of his thinking, that gets him to say those things that the artist himself may value as an artist, the reader as a reader. To the true critic insights are valuable for themselves, and different members of the audience may use them in different ways. But no critic who works for the pleasure and excitement of his task writes just to instruct the writer he is reviewing and for the sake exclusively of the public that reads him. For the interest of criticism lies in itself, in the thinking that it practices.
Criticism affects the artist only as the artist is himself a member of the educated public that reads criticism. A writer will often get better advice about a book from his editor or his wife, or his literary agent, than from a critic. But the critic, if he is interesting and deep enough, will affect the writer far more profoundly than would specific technical criticism of a book—by making him see the significance of his efforts. At its best, true literary criticism may actually suggest new subjects, can enliven the imagination. This is the great tradition of criticism, a part of the general criticism of established values which must go on in every age. Its greatest single attribute is its force, its passionate declaration of the true nature of man and what his proper destiny must be. In America itself, this was the kind of criticism that Emerson wrote in his great essay on The Poet and that Whitman created in Democratic Vistas, John Jay Chapman in his essay on Emerson, and the young Van Wyck Brooks in America’s Coming of Age and his much underrated book on Mark Twain. The greatest examples of such criticism in modern times were Arnold’s essays on poetry and culture, Proust’s attack on Sainte-Beuve, and Nietzsche’s on Wagner. To me this is the most valuable kind of criticism—the kind that Baudelaire wrote in dealing with art, Shaw in dealing with drama, and that before them had been practiced by Goethe in his remarks on the Age of Prose, by Schiller in his letters on aesthetics, by Blake in his personal manifestoes, by Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. It is the kind of criticism that I always think of as histoire morale, that sums up the spirit of the age in which we live and then asks us to transcend it, that enables us to see things in the grand perspective, and that in the way of Marx on Greek philosophy, of Kierkegaard on Mozart, of Nietzsche on the birth of tragedy, of Shaw on Ibsen, of Lawrence on American literature, asks us—not only in the light of man’s history but of his whole striving—to create a future in keeping with man’s imagination.
It is precisely because he once wrote criticism of this kind that Eliot has had his influence—Eliot, when asked by Paul Elmer More why his poetry and criticism were written in such different tones, replied that poetry deals with the world as it is, criticism with the world as it ought to be. It is because of his grounding in the historical ideals of self-liberation which we associate with Marx and Freud that Lionel Trilling has remained so steadily a moral influence, an Emersonian teacher of the tribe, and it is because of his constant awareness that books make revolutions in the public history as well as in the private sensibility of men that Edmund Wilson has been able to write with equal insight of Proust and John O’Hara, Michelet and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Tolstoy and Lincoln, the Hebrew Bible and the Marquis de Sade. The Van Wyck Brooks who, at least in 1915, wrote with such verve and exhilaration against the plaster gods of American life worked constantly with this sense of being sent forward by an irresistible movement of social criticism in all fields. And as I write I seem to see this image not in any young American critic but in the young British drama critic, Kenneth Tynan, who before he left this country was summoned up before a secret Congressional session for his dangerous thoughts. Tynan’s rule for drama criticism is, “Rouse tempers, goad, lacerate, raise whirlwinds,” and I must say that his sense of art as something dramatically and effectively involved in the affairs of men is one which any serious critic of drama must have, for on the stage, at least, the passions of men as makers of history are inescapable.
The essence of such criticism is that it is concerned explicitly, fightingly, with an ideal of man, with a conception of what man is seeking to become, with what he must become. The dynamic sense of values, the electric and constantly demanding sense of his age which such a critic has—this is the quality that makes him a particularly keen and demanding analyst of concrete values, of aesthetic differences. For there is a significant distinction between what I would call passive “taste,” as a social category concerned only with success of execution, and the critic’s judgment, which says that so-and-so is a good writer, but not good enough, or that it is because he is a good writer that he is also a dangerous writer, such a narrowing or stultifying influence. By keeping alive the spirit of criticism in the sense in which the Enlightenment gave it to us—the “modern spirit,” as Matthew Arnold called it, which subjects everything handed down to us, all institutions and beliefs, to critical examination, we no longer limit our aesthetic categories to the beautiful, the sublime, the merely correct. Goethe, in his essay on art and the classic, identified the modern age with what he called the age of prose, and lamented that “the all too radical attempt of the age of philosophy (18th century) at a ‘humanization’ and rationalization of the mysterious ends in a perverted miracle. The mystery, cheated of its rightful place, goes underground, reverting to its primeval, unholy and barbarous stage. No center holds the human world together and men must lose their bearings.” This is virtually the language of Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” and in one form or another of most of the criticism that has been modeled on Eliot’s well-known laments for Catholic order. But Goethe himself, as a poet, a dramatist, as a speculative free-wheeling scientist, found his new forms, new interests, a brave new future for himself, in exactly this modern spirit. And criticism, in our modern sense of it, examining works not for their classic theory or neo-classic correctness, but for their fulfillment of the goals which they have independently set, has led to an awareness of aesthetic possibility and of individual vision which unites all modern poets, novelists, and painters, whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they want it or not, as children of the Romantic movement. The point of this modern spirit in art is not that everyone agrees on the value of the modern movement, but that everyone must work in its atmosphere of freedom and individual discovery—Catholic artists as well as secularist artists, the haters of the modern spirit as well as its most pragmatist admirers. There are no longer any aesthetic goals which we can name outside the individual works of art that give us our fertile and experimental sense of aesthetic achievement. Marcel Proust wrote an essay attacking Sainte-Beuve’s naturalistic conception of art, and in the middle of this essay virtually began to sketch the first pages of his famous novel. He had discovered his own necessary vision, his artistic credo, in attacking as a profound danger to the imaginative life of humanity Sainte-Beuve’s “neo-scientific” view of life. But out of this necessary “chaos” of positions, as Goethe thought of it, had come not merely Proust’s discovery of himself as an original and major artist but his discovery, through the profound revelation afforded by the inner consciousness, of the new vision of the eternal open to modern artists. The possibilities opened up to us by creative memory became Proust’s idea of the future.
To use Jacques Barzun’s significant phrase, the “energies of art” are revealed to us, and so can be described and judged, only when they are seen against the background of man’s striving, man’s belief that he can help create the future he wants. There is no energy where there is no hope—no energy, no wit, no passion, no involvement, no lightness. Our individual sense of the future is the dimension in which we breathe, or as Emily Dickinson put it. “I dwell in Possibility- -/A fairer house than Prose.” We can judge what things are like because in our hearts we know what we really want; we judge by the direction, the vector of forces, along which life seems to be moving. If a writer believes in his own vision of things, no matter how idiosyncratic it may seem, that is all the future he may need. But he must believe in it, as Blake believed in his visions, Dostoevsky in the redemption of sinners, and Marx in the holy city that would be created by communism. This sense of the eventual vindication of life by the imagination is what gives meaning to every great artist’s life, and it is the critic’s job to support this belief, to delineate it, to fight for it. Through this dimension of the imaginative future alone can we understand what literature is for. And to bring this kind of imagination, this historical sense of what has been, what is now, what must be—to bring this into play, in the immediate confrontation and analysis of works of art, is to make evaluation significant—one might almost say, possible. There is in every true work of art a tendency pressing for recognition, pressing a work of art together, and without recognizing what the work of art is itself striving to be, in the light of what man himself is always striving to become, our evaluation becomes a question of frigid correctness.
So strongly committed are we by now to the idea of a work of art as created from a wholly individual standpoint, and measurable by the goals which the work itself has set, that anyone who really practices critical judgment, who is constantly engaged in confronting new and unforeseen works of art, actually finds his own physical energies challenged and changed by the energies of art. He cannot save himself from the sometimes painful new experience that a new work presents. This does not mean that he is an impressionist, taking his own prejudices and limitations as the only values. It means that his skill begins by noticing his intuitive reactions and building up from them; he responds to the matter in hand with perception at the pitch of passion, as Henry James puts it; the unity of thinking and feeling actually exists in the passionate operation of the critic’s intelligence. Judgment can be a very physical matter indeed. A false or strained work of art can make you literally sick. Anyone who is serious about criticism, for whom judgment is an active factor in his daily awareness, will have an intensely sensory and tactile response to poems, stories, novels, dramas, essays. In some way, the critic’s sense of his existing balance is challenged by that new balance of forces that is a work of art, and in this downright challenge to our physical being that a new work of art can represent, the critic will recognize how much he has been advanced, and how much not, by a work that can be as real to him as sex and his daily bread.
There is no discrimination without partisanship to an ideal. It is undesirable to have a perfect taste, to respond properly to all the masterpieces. Unless we approach literature demandingly, as I say, unless we respect it for its influence, we fall into the attitude of the dilettante, the epicurean, on the style of the late Bernard Berenson, who by trying to prove that his taste was equal to the best that has been thought and said, made culture look like a table set with tidbits. The critic who has the equipment to be a force, the critic who can set up standards for his age, must be a partisan of one kind of art and a bitter critic of another. Like Johnson, he will be unfair to the metaphysicals; like Goethe, to Hölderlin; like Sainte-Beuve, to Flaubert; like Arnold, to Whitman; like Emerson, to Dickens; like Henry James, to Tolstoy; like Eliot, to Shelley; like Wilson, to Kafka; like Trilling, to Dreiser. Such a critic will be not only unfair, he will pursue his prejudice to the point of absurdity, setting up a straw figure that will serve to bear all his dislike and even his hatred of a certain kind of art. And significantly, the critic who sees himself setting standards for his age may stimulate new works of art by helping to create the climate of discussion, by revealing the hidden issues that give a writer a hint of new subjects.
Above all, the critic who works with this sense of the age in his bones, who sees himself working toward the future that man must build for himself, is always a writer. He writes for the public, not to a few imagined co-specialists; he writes to convince, to argue, to establish his argument; he writes dramatically, marshaling his evidence in a way that pure logic would never approve and pure scholarship would never understand, but which is justifiable, if it succeeds, as moral argument in the great tradition of literature. The critic who writes well is the critic who lives in literature, who is involved himself and therefore sees the involvement of literature in our conduct, our thinking, our pleasures, our human fate. Some of the best criticism has been communicated in talk, like Hazlitt’s, Goethe’s, Alfred Whitehead’s, but we know this only because someone wrote it down. Criticism that is not written, in the best sense, communicable as literature, is only advice—and if you read the actual letters to authors of such famous editors as Maxwell Perkins, you see immediately the difference between editing and criticism. Some great criticism has been written in private letters, like Ezra Pound’s to Laurence Binyon on the latter’s translation of The Divine Comedy; some as inserts in novels, as in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; a good deal of really valuable criticism has, of course, been written in the form of verse. But it has to be written so that we can read it—that is, like Plato’s philosophy and Marx’s sociology and Freud’s psychology, it has to explain itself and be read for itself. Criticism should never be so professional that only professionals can read it, for the trouble with writing for professionals is that you don’t take the trouble to write well. I have been staggered lately by the absolutely worthless essays in so many recent academic journals devoted to modern literature and criticism. Eliot and Faulkner and Salinger haven’t smiled on their anxious elucidators at all. The scholarly journal, in this sense, is no more an organ for criticism than is the Saturday Review.
Criticism exists as literature only when it has a great argument to present, and to this I would add that the critic knows his argument in full only by writing it, by coming to grips with his own mind. Arnold’s essays are a prime example, and indeed Arnold’s essays are far greater than his poetry precisely because even his best poems give the effect of a mind too quickly made up against the modern age and lamenting its loneliness, whereas in his essays, those incomparably noble essays on the study of poetry, on translating Homer, you feel that the subject under discussion has taken him in hand and is directing and searching him out. Eliot’s essays seem to me most valuable not for their general prejudices but for the thinking that goes on in them line by line. I have always found it hard to understand how people who dislike Eliot’s general line, and I myself certainly do—people like F. R. Leavis and Kenneth Rexroth and Karl Shapiro—can overlook the exciting and moving quality of concern, the level of actual critical thinking, that goes on in Eliot’s essays. Eliot, in his essay on Blake, managed to say exactly the right things about Blake’s imaginative independence, and to draw the wrong conclusions. But who cares about Eliot’s disapproving conclusion so long as we have his exhilarating analysis of Blake’s mind? Like everyone else, Eliot has changed his mind about so many things that his conclusions, as such, have no more authority than has Henry James’s ignorant assumption that Russian writers never have any style. But Eliot working out a line of critical thinking about the character of Othello, or the conflict between Pascal and Montaigne, creates superb criticism by thinking, how shall I say, not conclusively, as a philosopher might, but critically—making us see all the elements of the literary experience before him.
This has always been Edmund Wilson’s special gift, and it is because of the excitement that a particular essay by Wilson can generate, not necessarily by the taste that he upholds, that he can give so much pleasure to people who distrust his opinions. For ironically, it is because Wilson is not the mediator between artist and public (except incidentally) he often declares himself to be, it is because in his best work he thinks and thinks, almost desperately, to put his own thoughts in order, that the resulting tension and passion make him effective to the general reader. Similarly, Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination comes out of a deep personal drive to set in order the underlying conflict that must possess a radical mind that has seen so many radical values abandoned, misused, and converted into the very opposite of these values. Any critic who is any good is going to write out of a profound inner struggle between what has been and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist, between the past and the present out of which the future must be born.
This struggle with oneself as well as with the age, out of which something must be written and which therefore can be read—this is my test for a critic, and it is for this reason that I admire critics in themselves so different as Shaw and Mencken and Chesterton, Santayana and Eliot, Wilson and Trilling. Of the newer critics writing in English, I admire the dramatic criticism of Kenneth Tynan and Eric Bentley and Lionel Abel, the essays on Whitman and Frost by Randall Jarrell and on the American novel by Richard Chase. W. H. Auden’s poetry seems to me terribly impoverished in recent years, but his critical essays are often profound—yet always written in the great English and Continental tradition of the feuilleton, the weekly article. I once heard Professor Harry Levin say disparagingly of the English critics that they have the amateur spirit, but I would reverse the term and say that a critic should be able to write well enough to get paid and so lose his amateur standing.
I like criticism to be as serious as possible in content, but as personal and even idiosyncratic in style as possible—thus reversing the usual academic recipe of the trivial point and the heavy style. Have we forgotten under what conditions so much of the most powerful criticism has originated? Poe wrote his greatest critical essays for general magazines, in the same way that Coleridge and Hazlitt wrote for newspapers. Arnold lectured to audiences so large that many could not hear him. Sainte-Beuve wrote his greatest pieces week after week for newspapers. Eliot wrote his best early essays as a reviewer for English weeklies. Proust wrote his own first essays for frivolous Parisian papers. In our time perhaps the most valuable new interpretation of Lincoln appeared in the New Yorker. It was the Seven Arts, the old Nation and New Republic, the Freeman, the Dial, the Liberator, Poetry, the old Masses, that published the essays of Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson, Conrad Aiken and Santayana, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. It was the American Mercury that made Mencken one of the prime critical influences on the 20’s, and it was in such magazines that Eliot and Pound, Frost and O’Neill, were defended, explained, established. Go back and recall that Emerson’s great essays were popular lectures, that Henry James’s famous essay on “The Art of Fiction” appeared in a popular magazine, as did his best fiction, that Howells’ essays on realism and his marvellous essay on Mark Twain all came out first in magazines. In England, the most significant essays of Beerbohm, Shaw, Wilde, were written as dramatic criticism for magazines, just as Virginia Woolf and Orwell, Lawrence, Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford, and more recently C. P. Snow, Angus Wilson, V. S. Pritchett, have been read in the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Manchester Guardian Weekly, the Times Literary Supplement, the Tribune. This kind of critic sees himself not as a hack, but as a man seizing the largest possible audience for his ideas, and in the weekly dialogue he holds with his readers, he establishes standards, sets up a forum around which ideas gather, where neglected important figures can be revived and new writers recognized.
Behind this tradition of criticism lay the common conviction that there were issues to be fought out, that terms might be shared and understood but that there was no agreement over the solutions. Criticism was still seen as part of the general debate over the ends of man in our age. This was the struggle between Chesterton and Shaw, and earlier, between Wells and Henry James; in America, between the new experimental writers of the 20’s and the bitterly resisting old guard represented by the New Humanists. Criticism cannot live without dispute over the terms of art and the significance of certain kinds of art, and dispute was possible because the critic and his critics—and the audience which criticized them all—were somehow alive to the same issues and shared the same culture, so they were free to disagree about the necessary ends to be reached.
Now it is my impression that for some time critics in America have had too easy a time of it, that their readers no longer make any great demand on them. And I believe the reason for this is the growing assumption that literature cannot affect our future, that the future is in other hands. It is my impression that there is not much belief that literature can exercise its classic functions of providing ideas central to social policy and moral behavior.
Literature no longer seems to exercise much influence. The reason for this, I think, is the pervasive feeling that our freedom is being taken away from us, that the new society now being built up by the technological revolution and collectivism may no longer leave room for the old-fashioned individual in literary pursuits. C. P. Snow, in The Two Cultures, insists that so long as our most sensitive poets and distinguished literary intelligences refuse to become literate in science, the prime maker and shaper of our lives, literature must continue to dwindle into insignificance. Last summer when I visited the Soviet Union in a delegation of American writers, I discovered that in that science-worshiping society, delegates at the Congress of Soviet Writers applauded Khrushchev’s open contempt for their efforts, and that in public, at least, the only function of literature in a totalitarian and technological society was journalism and propaganda. If the Russian literature of the 19th century made the revolution possible, the new Communist society has turned literature into advertising. Gomulka’s Poland even grants avant-garde poets and writers artistic latitude, permits them to write like Wallace Stevens or to paint like Jackson Pollock, so long as they do not tamper with politics. And to speak here only of our own country, you can see that the enormous increase in our population, the predominating influence of an inflationary prosperity, the widespread leisure so often absorbed by television and the cheapest magazines, have accelerated the division into classes that are culturally haves and have-nots. You have more and more people who are indifferent to literature, who positively prefer cheap or bad literature, who are certain that literature has nothing to say to our age. Then you have all the people who, though they profess an interest in literature, know very little about it and cannot make up their own minds about a book. Yet at the same time, those who in a sense are most intimately involved with literature, who care most about it, are in such despair over the future of our society that you have, in the most prosperous and still relatively the most open society in the world, whole battalions of what the Russians call internal emigrés and what we call the beat movement—people who simply don’t see the connection between their personal striving and the country at large, and who have holed up in their pads, made a fetish of external spontaneity, in order, even if they cannot write, to live like writers and so preserve what they think of as the last possible portion of their freedom.
Much of this seems to be a phenomenon of economic prosperity rather than of political despair, yet it cannot be denied that the kind of intellectual élan which we now associate with another expansive period, the 20’s, and which has always been characteristic of imperial wealth and influence like ours, tends to be muffled in anxieties of one kind or another. I myself believe that we, like everyone else, are now going through such a constantly accelerating historical advance that we are unable to seize the moment properly, to see all that is happening and where it will end. Our whole sense of time has to be changed, but since the only real measure of time is our daily biological cycle, we feel ourselves being constantly exploded into the sky like rockets. We are rushing into our future so fast that no one can say who is making it, or what is being made; all we know is that we are not making it, and there is no one, no matter what his age is, who does not in his heart feel that events have been taken out of his hands.
Yet ironically enough, the great idea systems of the past have been so outdistanced by events that very often the only check we have on events at all is contemporary literature. Often enough now it is not Marx, or even Freud, but Eliot, Hemingway, and Faulkner, and more recently J. D. Salinger, by whom an American undergraduate tries to read the plight of the individual today. The literature that we have come to think of as modern literature, the literature that began in the idealism of the early 20th century and that perished only in the depression, the literature of 1914—1935 that now seems to us as almost the last proud assertion of man’s will in a still liberal and confident society—this literature has become the great text of our teaching. From it we compose our introduction to literature for students who are separated from the last modern generation not by frustration but by the irresistible momentum of a continually changing society. As English schoolboys once learned history from Homer, so American undergraduates now learn it from Eliot and Hemingway and Faulkner.
The enormous interest in contemporary literature that one finds everywhere in American colleges today stems from this awareness that contemporary literature somehow records our fate—that not only The Hollow Men, The Bear, but pressingly now, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and Augie March and The Deer Park provide a text in which we still read our hopes and our fate. No matter how negative Augie March or Seymour Glass or Charles Frances Eitel may seem to be, these heroes of contemporary American literature are still human in the classic manner—they suffer, they are comic, they aim at a world in which human beings can live. I would even say, from my experience as a teacher, that probably nothing else in the liberal curriculum now so much touches on the lives and the real thinking of American students as these stories and novels and poems which have kept the unforgettable impression of man’s effort to apply his understanding and to assert his will. In many American colleges and universities just now we have virtually no other way of approaching fundamental questions except through the materials furnished by contemporary literature.
And it has been my experience that the critic who teaches literature is now the focus for values and influence that in other cultures are furnished by the family, religion, political ideologies. Randall Jarrell once said that in America today many intellectual couples turn to criticism for the sort of guidance they used to get from a minister. Look at the way the stories of Salinger have been taken up by students, at the frenzied interest in the Beats, at the way various paperbacks become the bible of the student intellectuals. Students in America are starved for what one can only call enlightenment, for the literature that will bring the hidden issues out into the open. Just as America alone has turned psychoanalysis from a clinical method into an ethical system for living, so we fasten on contemporary literature with the same avid need.
Yet the most obvious thing about criticism in America today is that it is not consciously related to any literary movement. It does not consciously work toward a future. Look at much of the criticism that concentrates on Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, Stevens. Are these essays written so as to suggest new possibilities for art, to welcome new writers, or are they written to explain a point in Ulysses that no one else has mentioned? The rebels of the little magazines, the crazy men of transition and the Dial, have become the staple of the curriculum. If you take the kind of essay defending Faulkner that Conrad Aiken wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1939, to justify him when he was being ruthlessly attacked, and compare it with the latest essay on Faulkner’s orthodoxy of sensibility, indistinguishable from other essays on the same subject, you will see that criticism of modern authors likes to regard them as safe authors, classic authors, and often misrepresents the rebelliousness and iconoclasm that gave these authors their force. Faulkner, like everybody else, is a moralist, but he should not be used year after year to buttress Southern nostalgia. No one has ever shown quite so conclusively how dead the old South is. When Faulkner’s profoundly heretical and important book, A Fable, came out in 1954, I was struck with how much the advanced critics joined with the professional philistines of the daily book reviews to attack it. The remarkable appreciation of the novel published by the poet Delmore Schwartz stands out in interesting contrast both to the attacks on the book and to the fawning and derivative essays still being published on The Sound and the Fury. A Fable is a fantastic book, literally a fantasy, for it is about peace in our time, a peace that very few really now believe in. No one accustomed to moving in the safe grooves of literary criticism was prepared for a book about the First World War by an author whose experience, like that of his generation, is attached to the last time when men went from peace to war knowing they would never return.
The trouble with all of us who teach and explain so much of modern literature is that we are too far from the kind of historical confidence, the èlan, the historical swagger, that made it possible. A critic like Edmund Wilson has a kind of independence, constitutes a personal resistance movement in himself, that critics who come after him can hardly understand. Once, when I heard a professor at the Salzburg Seminar explain in good English 35 fashion that The Great Gatsby represents a search for the Holy Grail, I thought of Fitzgerald and Zelda diving into the Plaza fountain in New York, and was ashamed to think that no one roughly of a later generation, not even Allen Ginsberg, would do it just for fun. No one could ever confuse a poem by Eliot with one by Stevens, or an essay by Wilson with one by Kenneth Burke. These writers are all originals, and you always know where you are with them. But when, as critics and teachers, we pass on to our students, with all the latest modern methods, The Waste Land, In Our Time, “Sunday Morning,” “My Father Moved through Dooms of Love,” we can’t help distorting such works by omitting something. What we omit is our own experience of the un-self-conscious individuality, the relaxed independence, the natural sauciness and sassiness and exuberance of style that gives these works still—as Fitzgerald said of his own—the stamp that goes into them so that we can read them like braille. Step by step the great confidence that man could understand his time and build from it, the feeling that provides the energy of modern art, has gone out of us, and we are left teaching such books as if they were models of correctness rather than rare moments of spirit.
This is why, properly speaking, there can never be a consciously ignorant, a mass psychology, in regard to modern literature. For the essence of the modern movement is that it represents a permanent revolution of consciousness, an unending adventure into freedom. In the deepest sense, we can never study modern literature or art; we can only be part of it. That is why criticism is important. We must practice criticism on the older writers lest they harden into the only acceptable writers. We must learn to practice criticism on the newer writers in order to bind them more truly to our own experience. We must practice criticism on our age while it is still here to show us its possibilities.