Dead Letters


Recovering American Literature, by Peter Shaw, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 203 pages, $22.00

During my wife's undergraduate years in the mid '80s, she took a class in modern poetry taught by a very famous Irish poet and critic (no names, please). He was a curmudgeonly, pedantic old fellow whose considerable literary reputation was outdone only by his even more considerable intellectual biliousness. He was also a hard-line "New Critic," which meant he stressed explication de texte and eschewed any recourse to an author's life or times. For New Critics (their brand of criticism was "new" in the 1940s), great literature—at least to the degree that it is "great"—manifests tension, irony, paradox, and several types of ambiguity. The New Criticism, in various forms, dominated academic literary studies through the 1960s and, although no longer cutting-edge, it still exerts considerable influence over the field.

In her term paper for the class, my wife analyzed "The Yachts," a poem by William Carlos Williams, and made the mistake of providing a historical context for her interpretation. She also moved beyond ambiguity to suggest that the poem actually conveyed something like a specific meaning. Her professor was exasperated and informed her that she would have to rewrite the paper. "This historical information is completely extraneous," he told her. "You can't use it to read literature. You have to look only at the words on the page." When she tried to discuss the matter with him, he held up his hand: "We can go round and round the mulberry bush, round and round, but you've got to redo the paper." And redo it she did, after being threatened with a failing grade.

I thought about this anecdote after reading the first few pages of Peter Shaw's Recovering American Literature, a spirited effort to save our written masterpieces from the clutches (and cliches) of political correctness. When Shaw writes, "The free discussion of American literature is being stifled by a new, radical orthodoxy," he has only gotten it part right. "Free discussion" is always stifled by orthodoxy, whether new, radical, or otherwise. New orthodoxies come about every so often as revolutionaries—sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, sometimes neither—depose the ancien regime. (As a professor friend of mine once noted, the academy is neither as P.C. as conservatives fear nor as liberals wish.) While Shaw, the current chairman of the National Association of Scholars, rightly derides contemporary critics who reduce complex literary works to unnuanced political tracts, Recovering American Literature is ultimately disappointing, largely because its author turns a blind eye to earlier orthodoxies and is unwilling to engage the way in which the marketplace of ideas operates in literary studies.

Lit-crit discourse revolves around a crow/anti-crow rhetorical structure in which a certain way of seeing things gains prominence by relentlessly attacking the status quo and then, ironically enough, attempts to protect itself by deflecting all criticism as uninformed, irrelevant, or otherwise lacking in substance. The New Criticism is a case in point. As it rose to institutional dominance, it banished older, traditional forms of criticism such as philology and biographical study to the intellectual hinterlands. Eventually, of course, the New Criticism itself got old and succumbed to attacks by devotees of more innovative and "relevant" (i.e. politically charged) critical techniques. While these transitions are not clean by any means, it is easy to discuss them, as Shaw does implicitly, in generational terms.

"From the 1920s through the 1960s critics emphasized the distinctive qualities of American writing," writes Shaw. "They identified the moralizing bent whereby, in a troubled and troubling way, American authors probed the ultimate meanings of life and society. And they explored the tendency in the same authors toward indirect, symbolic expression of their doubts about the meaning of it all. In contrast, since the 1960s critics have become convinced that not metaphysical doubt but political certainty characterized the same nineteenth-century writers."

In their relentless politicization of literary studies, Shaw argues, this new generation of critics misinterprets American literature in one of two ways. They either confuse their own radical politics with those of the authors they study (e.g. Herman Melville is made out to be an "enthusiast of the French Revolution he loathed"). Or they condemn authors outright for not being P.C. enough (e.g. The Scarlet Letter is the work of a male chauvinist—and capitalist—pig). Although the two strategies are quite different, they produce the same result. "One way or another the American classics are made to serve political ends," writes Shaw.

Having recently sat through five years of graduate classes at three different universities and having read countless pieces of criticism, I can testify that Shaw has pretty accurately mapped the political contours of the lit-crit landscape. When Shaw quotes a critic convinced by Moby Dick "to work to prevent ecological, economic, or political catastrophe," it's all too familiar. English department faculties, graduate seminars, and academic journals are indeed filled with people who feel a need either to bully a text into interpretive submission or to strong arm it into agreement with a hip political agenda.

What's less clear is whether the manhandling of texts is new and whether the practice is limited to politically motivated readers—critics, for instance, have long been making psychological interpretations that derive more from their own obsessions than from an author's words on a page. As Shaw himself notes, "the skewed [i.e., politicized] interpretations now in favor…go back to the 1950s, when they were given a hearing but judged to be minor contributions." (That such readings were once considered irrelevant and are now so central to the field testifies to the dizzying speed with which academic orthodoxies rise and fall.)

In place of the current emphasis on the "search for subversion," Shaw wants "to resume the discussion of American books that has been interrupted for nearly twenty-five years." To lay the groundwork for that discussion, Shaw explores the "devolution" in criticism of five acknowledged classics of the 19th century: Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Melville's Moby Dick and Billy Budd, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James's The Bostonians. (He also reprints an essay from his earlier book, The War Against the Intellect, on Melville's Typee.) Each of these consecutive chapters contains a wonderfully contentious review of relevant criticism. Whether a reader is well-versed in or new to literary criticism, he will find much of interest in Recovering American Literature.

Rather than sketch out specific interpretations, Shaw's stated goal is to "frame the questions that need to be asked of each work. This seems fair enough, but it soon becomes apparent that, in fact, Shaw is only interested in asking one question over and over: How does the work at hand participate in a paradox? Hence, with regard to The Scarlet Letter, "the question of which side is right in the struggle between the punitive ideology of the Puritans and Hester [Prynne's] resistance to it is not meant to be adjudicated." The ending of Moby Dick suggests that "democratic/commercial civilization has not resolved the dilemmas of human existence as well as it thinks. Despite this culture's successes, despite its ability to bring light, it remains metaphysically inadequate before the irreducible savagery of apparently subdued nature." Huckleberry Finn similarly concludes in a critical conundrum, in which "freedom, because it is divorced from principle and devoted to the self alone, cannot sustain a commitment." And so on.

We might call this New New Criticism. Unlike his intellectual forebears, of course, Shaw is more than willing to factor in historical and biographical details and to consider other "extraneous" information. But he is no less dedicated to tension and paradox, criteria which are in their own way as reductive as any politically tinted litmus test. If nothing else, they exclude from discussion literature that is explicitly not interested in balancing competing viewpoints or symbolically expressing "doubts about the meaning of it all. Such a method can't, for example, do much to address 19th-century works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Frederick Douglass's autobiographies, the point of which is precisely to persuade readers to a particular side in a particular debate.

Recovering American Literature draws heavily on the work of Lionel Trilling, the great critic who taught at Shaw's alma mater, Columbia University, from the 1930s to the 1970s. While Shaw makes extensive use of Trilling's novel, The Middle of the Journey, in his chapter on Billy Budd and sprinkles references to him throughout the book, he seems indebted on an even more fundamental level as well. Trilling, in the hugely influential 1940 essay "Reality in America," asserted that culture, rather than some smoothly operating system, "is nothing if not a dialectic" and that great artists are "repositories of the dialectic of their times," balancing "the yes and no of the culture." For Trilling, and apparently for Shaw, too, what makes great artists great is "that they do not submit to serve the ends of any one ideological group or tendency." That is certainly a fascinating proposition, but it is also one fraught with political implications, particularly considering the time in which it was written. (Not surprisingly, its equivocal nature is a reason some contemporary critics see Trilling as worthy of attack.)

Interestingly, "Reality in America" remains one of the great intellectual hatchet jobs of all time, an exemplum of how critics dispatch their predecessors. In it, Trilling sliced and diced Vernon Parrington, whose multi-volume Main Currents in American Literature (1927-30) espoused a more politically engaged criticism. Parrington wasn't just "mistaken in aesthetic judgement," argued Trilling. The older critic embodied a "limited and essentially arrogant conception of reality."

For his sake, I wish Shaw could appreciate such rough-and-tumble ironies in the field of literary studies. But he can't and, as a result, he's unable to savor the contradiction inherent in publishing a widely advertised and reviewed book attacking "the new, radical orthodoxy" of "the politicizing critics, who stifle deviationism." Instead of trumpeting the fact that if he can speak freely others can too, he seems preoccupied that his views have failed to carry the day.

"In academic literary disputes there is never an adjudicating body to pronounce on the issues or even to decide what they are," he writes at one point. "Published contentions about literary works can be noticed, ignored, or credited as each professional reader sees fit." Later, he laments, "It is difficult, though, to hold contemporary critics to account for violating the rules of literary discourse, inasmuch as they explicitly repudiate these rules."

In fact, even the most fundamental question of literary discourse—What constitutes an appropriate object of literary study?—is a topic of debate. While the openness of the field should be celebrated because it allows for greater and more varied discussion, it is easy to see why that very fluidity gives an old-line critic the shakes. You are, in effect, free to say anything—whether it's well-informed or misinformed, logical or illogical, on-target or wide of the mark. And the same freedom that allows you to speak grants others the right to ignore you.

That's not to say that anything goes, that there are no rules of discourse. It's more appropriate to say there's no single set of rules. While it's true that there is no definitive adjudicating body to settle disputes, there are all sorts of academic communities and sub-communities that weigh in with opinions (the amount of influence and power each wields varying with time and circumstance).

In the face of such intense, cacophonic competition, it is particularly incumbent upon critics to make a convincing case for why their tastes should be preferred. How is their intellectual product essential to its prospective consumer? It seems that Shaw is mistaking his weak position in the current intellectual marketplace for a structural change in the way that market operates.

Ultimately, he is wrong to direct his anger at younger critics who are merely doing what younger critics always do: knocking off graybeards. It isn't enough to rail against their excesses, overwrought as they may be. The real focus should be on those scholars, young and old alike, who share his views but fail to "direct challenges to the reigning orthodoxy." It is up to them, after all, to create an audience, a demand, for their brand of criticism. That process is not an easy or simple one—every new school of commentary, from the New Criticism to deconstructionism, has had to duke it out—but its very difficulty provides the kind of test by which new critical paradigms are developed and strengthened.

To the extent that Recovering American Literature helps cultivate a new line of literary criticism (or resuscitates a dying one), it is all to the good. We can never be at a loss for competing ways of reading our national literature. But to the considerable degree that it merely pines for a lost era in which its author felt more comfortable, it adds little to continuing conversations.