To the Editor:
Unlike his biblical namesake who brought down Goliath with a well-aimed stone, David Bromwich, in his review of The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists [April], misses the mark. . . . It seems bizarre that he should devote so much space to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (who are not discussed in the book) and not say anything about most of the novelists who are analyzed in the collection. He is unhappy because the book contains essays on Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and Wells, but one looks in vain in his review for any comment on, or even mention of, the articles on Lawrence, Malraux, Mailer, Solzhenitsyn, Kazantzakis, Grass, Faulkner, Greene, and the other novelists found in the book.
Mr. Bromwich berates the editor (George A. Panichas) for allegedly imposing on the contributors “editorial inhibitions.” As one of the contributors to the volume, I know this statement to be inaccurate. Professor Panichas gave us complete freedom in the writing of our essays, and neither Professor Panichas nor John W. Aldridge claimed that the book was intended to be “literary criticism,” as Mr. Bromwich insists. The book was intended as a scholarly work to illuminate the political ambience of some representative 20th-century novelists.
Clearly, Mr. Bromwich is not happy in being assigned to assess a work of scholarship. He admits that “I have not stayed long” with all the scholar-critics in the book (a rather startling admission) and complains about “the sheer size of the book . . . over three hundred pages of novelistic politics.” Had he done his job more carefully, he would have realized that the book contains much more than is suggested in his fuzzy term “novelistic politics”; similarly, he would have learned that not “Every discussion of an author proceeds biographically in the ABC fashion, as though the editor had set himself to compiling a reference book for reasonably bright high-school students.” . . .
Perhaps the real clue to Mr. Bromwich’s unhappiness about the book lies in his statement that “after reading several of the well-balanced assessments in this collection, I began to long for critics who might exhibit strong opinions of their own, however reckless.” Mr. Bromwich need have no fear: he has achieved his own desideratum as a critic.
Chairman, Department of English
American International College
David Bromwich writes:
Milton Birnbaum subjects me to a violent flow of contradiction—my namesake, oh dear!—but I search his letter in vain for a single counter-example. Which of the contributors to The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists rose above the political occasion to write valuable literary criticism? I at any rate listed the names of two or three critics who seemed almost to have burst the bounds of the governing editorial idea. Almost but not quite, because the emphasis of the book was at last political rather than literary, as Mr. Birnbaum correctly notes, though Aldridge’s Preface and Panichas’s Introduction led me to expect otherwise. These introductory pieces, fuzzy-minded, poorly managed, largely irrelevant to the enterprise at hand, were perhaps an aspect of the book which I paid the compliment of benign neglect, and Mr. Birnbaum should read them again if he wants to see how I could have been misled. An editorial design was not strictly carried through, according to this contributor, and I believe him. Evidently the editor gathered his men about him, and they, fairly independently, began to think about writers through the medium of politics, where they should have done it the other way around.
Political concern is useful to criticism when the writer, not his politics, is the thing of first importance. That was all I wrote. Does it really sound very shocking? As for Eliot, Pound, and Company, they were surely not extracurricular: Panichas himself spoke of them at some length. I finished the review by saying, in as pleasant a tone as I could manage, that this book did not hold my attention terribly well, a statement which Mr. Birnbaum now hands back to me as a confession of incompetence. The book, I can only repeat, is boring.