A Dark Prospect
Arther Trace has written an aggressive little book. He is provoked with his peers in the literary community, and he has advanced a number of explanations for his wrath. In both connections I find him to be generally persuasive. The future of literature seems, he believes, none too good. Moreover, those specifically responsible for the sponsorship and safekeeping of serious letters are either causes of or accessories to the conditions of which he complains. Trace’s remonstrance against contemporary corruption is logically divided into surveys of poetry, drama, and fiction. Volumes of evidence crowd upon his attention. But he begins with theory. And with theory—with the critics—he ends. By inference, the performance of the artists themselves is only symptomatic. For ours is an “age of criticism.” And the decline of modern literature toward the private, the trivial, and the bestial has been made possible by the abdication of the critical masters of our time from their ultimate judicial responsibility.
On the whole, the effect of this philippic is salutary. In the end, the only “defense of poetry” is moral. All the major genres of literature are in trouble. And poets make only what the criticism of their day will accept. Yet something is missing from Trace’s bill of particulars. And that is a clear discussion of how judicial criticism might be reestablished upon sound aesthetic grounds. Some of the most influential of modern critics have made beginnings in this difficult labor—more impressive beginnings than is contained in the work of Trace’s mentors, Yvor Winters and the moralist/critics of the English Renaissance. The Future of Literature is, unfortunately, not informed by an intelligent appreciation of this fact. Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom have been neither “goodnatured” nor “denatured” relativists. Nor does such language apply to René Wellek or Austin Warren. The list could be longer. But the point is that formalist criticism has, with good reason, insisted upon the necessity of accounting for the design and texture of a play or novel or poem before venturing to weigh the value of the particular artifact in question. Form is meaning. And the first duty of the critic is to comprehend this mystery in the instances where it may be known. The admonitory or judicial “habit of mind” recommended by Professor Trace must rest upon a full competence in these expository skills or else it cannot argue persuasively of praise or blame.
Furthermore, it is true that sometimes the judgment of value based on a theory of the purpose of literature in a civil society is itself best rendered as exposition; rendered so or, by reason of the prevailing intellectual climate, not to be heard at all. The enemies of the New Critics have, for thirty years and more, recognized what they were about. But, alas, sometimes their natural allies do not.
There is another side to the same coin, however. The best of our critics committed to a traditional Christian and/or humanist view of the function of letters in the right order of society have indeed spent too much of their ingenuity in mere explication. They have got on too comfortably with the romantics, naturalists, and genuine relativists, drawn as in acid by Trace’s brief analytic portraits. And it serves well that a stern, literate moralist of his stripe should recall to these gentlemen their duties. A word from John Dennis, Thomas Rymer, and (especially) Samuel Johnson was in order. Arther Trace, after years of study of the public role of literature and literacy, has spoken it for them. His The Future of Literature is in the honorable tradition of Irving Babbitt’s Literature and the American College (1908), a tradition represented recently even by Lionel Trilling (“On the Teaching of Modern Literature”). The book draws sustenance from Trace’s firm grasp of intellectual history and from his earlier studies of American miseducation. And it leaves us with a clear perspective upon the work yet to be done—the madness, more than literary, yet to be turned aside.
Dr. M. E. Bradford (1934–1993) was professor of English at the University of Dallas.
Posted: January 5, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.