Thursday, September 1, 2011

O Tempora, Oh Forget It

The Cambridge History of the American Novel, helped by a review by Joseph Epstein, has confirmed a number of persons in their opinion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. I suppose there is much to be said for this view. Yet why do people regard this as a novelty? According to quite a few writers who put themselves forward as authorities--Dante and Calvin to mention just two--it has always been heading there.

I would not read this history, unless paid and closely supervised, for life is short enough as it is.  Yet the praise of the past seems doubtful to me, and the indictment of the present has holes.

The past:
  1. "Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer." Barbarian that I am, I recognize of these names only Miller and Trilling. Miller was attracted to Harvard's faculty 80 years ago, Trilling to Columbia's about the same time. And though I live among reasonably literate (and graying) folk, I bet I could quiz quite a few before I met any who could give me a solid account of any two names in the list.
  2. "Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to 'The Cambridge History of the American Novel' have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite." Doesn't this imply that things were better once? Epstein quotes Randall Jarrell in passing, but does not mention all the savage things he and others (Marvin Mudrick, Edmund Wilson) said about the criticism of their day, notably the criticism published in The Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. Anyone suffering from the impression that the good old days were evenly good should look up Frederick Crews's The Pooh Perplex or Yvor Winters's essay "What Are We to Think About Professor X?".
The present
  1. "A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination..." Need I hide my volumes of Faulkner when Mr. Epstein comes to visit? Need I hide Homer, Herodotus, Plato, and Xenophon, lest he think that I place too much emphasis on prejudice against barbarians, helots, and the mob? Or The Life of Johnson, since after all Johnson wrote "I do not much wish well to discoveries, for I am always afraid they will end in conquest and robbery."  and  "I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another."
  2. "and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism." Right, I'll hide The Overcoat, Oblomov, and Mme. Bovary.
Perhaps this is the stuff to feed the readership of The Wall Street Journal. It does not strike me as saying anything especially new or worth one's attention. Academics are time-servers, apt to repeat what they hear around them? They are not alone. If Mr. Epstein or his readers were looking for comfort, which I doubt, I would tell them, "Look, don't worry. I was an English major. The majority of English majors are studying English as the simplest way to get through college and on to law school. They detest literary criticism only less than poetry, and had almost rather read The Golden Bowl than The Sacred Grove. The rest of those caught in their classes would rather be anywhere than where they are. The resentment of those who have to buy this back-breaker will feed the next revolution in critical taste. A book of 1200 pages, costing $200 is not the tool with which to corrupt the public."


  1. Barbarian that I am, I think you made Joseph Wood Krutch up.

  2. JWK seems better attested than, say, Ern Malley. It appears that his attraction to the academy also goes back 80 years.