The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy.
by Frederick Crews.
Random House. 213 pp. $20.00.
The undermining of traditional intellectual values in universities over the past two decades has taken its inspiration from successive waves of French and Marxist-derived theory. Most sensible observers, understandably repelled by the jargon-ridden, nihilistic, and anti-humanitarian tendencies of this imported theory, have avoided the necessary task of refuting it. Among the few to have assumed the distasteful burden in the area of literary studies are John Searle, John Ellis, David Hirsch, Richard Levin, and Frederick Crews.
In a previous collection of essays, Skeptical Engagements (1986), Crews exposed the hollow tendentiousness of, among others, Georg Lukács, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Geoffrey Hartman, Stanley Fish, and Frederic Jameson. In that book Crews coined the term “Left Eclecticism,” wittily capturing the seemingly diverse array of new theory—“not just orthodox Marxist but also structuralist, deconstructionist, feminist, gay, Lacanian, Foucauldian”—all of which boiled down to a familiar political radicalism. Now in The Critics Bear It Away, largely a collection of essay-reviews, Crews pursues Left Eclecticism’s seepage into the academic study of American literature.
Surveying recent criticism of Mark Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and to a lesser extent Flannery O’Connor and John Updike, Crews here undertakes a painstaking, even tortuously objective, account of the critical schools under review. In each case he follows his account with an exposure of inner contradictions and inconsistencies among the school’s critics, and then enters an often surprisingly devastating summary evaluation.
In “Whose American Renaissance?,” for example, a discussion of recent books on 19th-century American literature, Crews shows that the Left-politicizing critics he calls the “New Americanists” betray “an abrupt shift of theoretical posture” whenever it suits their political aims. Thus, when attacking the “canonical” works of a master like Nathaniel Hawthorne, many will take a deconstructionist tack, hoping to disprove the traditional understanding of Hawthorne’s work by claiming that it is impossible to know what an author intended. But when it comes to minor works by women and others, whom the same critics want to introduce into the canon for political reasons, they treat the authors’ intentions—which they usually see as attempting to advance a feminist or radical cause—as something that can very reliably be known and specified.
By the time Crews comes to summarize this and other “liabilities of the New Americanist enterprise,” his indictment is overwhelming. Among the movement’s sins he lists its
self-righteousness, its tendency to conceive of American history only as a highlight film of outrages, its impatience with artistic purposes other than “redefining the social order,” and its choice of critical positions according to the partisan cause at hand.
But there is a problem here. As he manfully embarks on each of his surveys, Crews is well aware that the examples of Left Eclecticism he is about to unearth and analyze will prove to be as spurious as all those that went before. Yet not only does he treat each new critic with unwearying respect, he invariably—and rather astoundingly—comes to the conclusion that, however heinous the offenses of the latest critical attitudes, they are really no worse than those committed in the traditional criticism they have displaced.
In a discussion of nine books on Faulkner, for example, Crews duly faults the newer critics for whom “Faulkner’s works must yield distinctly liberating implications, not just neutral or sympathetic ones,” and he demonstrates the “crudity” with which they impose their politics on Faulkner. Yet he also expresses sympathy with these same “ideologically aware academics” for rejecting older, “formalist” interpretations that attempted to rationalize away Faulkner’s “occasionally reactionary attitudes.” And in comparing the older and newer criticism, he concludes that, “ideological fashions aside, there is nothing to choose between strip-mining Faulkner’s words for wholesome communities and for incipiently revolutionary ones.”
But is there really nothing to choose? In the first place, there were critics as far back as the 1930’s whose accounts of Faulkner did not fail to deal with his shortcomings, as Crews himself points out. In contrast, none of the newer critics in Crews’s account succeeds in rendering a comparably balanced picture. And in the second place, whatever errors the older criticism committed arose from the shortcomings of individual critics or else from an as-yet immature evaluation of the work of a very difficult author. The errors of the newer critics, on the other hand, derive from what Crews elsewhere calls “apriorism”: essentially fake interpretation based on rigid, preconceived political categories.
The difference between old and new, in short, is highly significant, and Crews has done as much as anyone to demonstrate why. Yet he now declares the two morally equivalent—and on the whole unimportant. Both the radical critics and those who have opposed their politicizing, he writes,
are convinced that the ideals and textual operations of literature professors greatly matter to the structure and future direction of society at large. On this last point, however, they are surely mistaken. Whether on the Left or Right, literary indoctrination today stops absolutely at the university’s gate.
What can Crews be thinking of? The university “gate” has for some time now been open to activists from the outside, even as students from the inside stream outward, embodying and acting upon the attitudes and beliefs they have learned in school. Since the 1960’s, indeed, developments at universities have led to major social and political change in the West. Even more importantly, the leftist ideas hatched in universities, and most especially in literature departments, have had national and international political ramificatons. It should hardly be necessary to argue this point in 1993. Yet Frederick Crews, who has done so much to damage the authority of Left Eclecticism, persists in urging the contrary. It will be interesting to see how much longer he continues to trivialize his own efforts by calling the issues he engages inconsequential.