So ends another semester, and the losing effort to teach books outside a literary vacuum. “I don't need a library to do what I do,” Stanley Fish told Jerome McGann, showing him around the Johns Hopkins campus. All of my students are Stanley Fish. There are no libraries behind their study of literature. Seven decades after John Crowe Ransom named the movement, the New Critics have achieved what they were after. “[T]hough one may consider a poem as an instance of historical and ethical documentation,” Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren had said in Understanding Poetry, “the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object of study.” The syllabus of nearly every English course is little more than a series of discrete texts which can’t be read historically because no one has any literary history. English departments might as well be renamed departments of close reading, because that is all they do—all that is possible for them to do.
Few understand that the doctrine of close reading emerges out of a logical paradox. Prior to a close reading of a literary text, the New Critics asked, how can you possibly know anything of its subject-matter? Only a close reading of it will establish what background knowledge, if any, is relevant. And if you supply the background in advance for students who are coming to the text for the first time, you rob their reading experience of its innocence and predetermine its outcome. For seven decades now, the object of study in literature classrooms has contracted to the text-in-itself. Even deconstructive critics (and those they have influenced) are primarily concerned with a text’s internal self-contradictions.
It’s not merely that undergraduates arrive at American universities notoriously ignorant of their cultural heritage—in my freshman honors seminar this term, only three students had ever heard of William Faulkner and none had read him—but also that no other conception of literature, if it is to be studied as literature, has any standing. William James believed that “You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically.” By teaching it without its history, have the English departments nullified the humanistic value of literature?
There is an amusing passage in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000), the last book I taught this semester. Delphine Roux, the young French professor who does everything in her power to destroy the novel’s protagonist, is trying to write a personals ad for the New York Review of Books. Most of the academics she knows—the “diapers,” as she secretly calls the male feminists, and the “hats,” the pretentious creative writers—repel her. Even the young theorists like herself, dripping with French sophistication and dressed from head to toe in black, are oddly unacceptable—“for despite her publications and a growing scholarly reputation, it was always difficult for her to deal with literature through literary theory. There could be such a gigantic gap between what she liked and what she was supposed to admire—between how she was supposed to speak about what she was supposed to admire and how she spoke to herself about the writers she treasured”—and she cannot tolerate the academic men for whom theory seems to roll off the tongue like a well-practiced speech.
Then there are “the older types, who are uncool and tweedy, ‘The Humanists’ ”:
There is another paradox involved in the study of literature, which the New Critics did not fully appreciate. The secret to understanding literature—any literature—is wide reading and long experience, which leaves the beginner practically worthless as a critic. Yet the only method for understanding literature is to read it as a critc—closely, that is, without any preconceptions. Perhaps the only exit from this paradox is to read literary history, which almost no one does anymore. Which is a tragedy and a surprise, since we live in a happy era for literary history—if Philip F. Gura’s provocative and manageable new history of the early American novel, Truth’s Ragged Edge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is any indication. Yesterday on Twitter, the critic Michael Schaub (a former student of mine) asked where to start in reading literary history. Here’s a short syllabus:
• E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. The title is deceptive: this is the study of how literature began, and where most of the literary concepts still in use derive from. A monument of German scholarship.
• Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Every student of literature reads his Mimesis, which is oddly less historical, and Scenes from the Drama of European Literature lightens the load by taking the form of essays. This is the heavy-duty stuff. If you can make it through this, you can make it through anything.
• J. V. Cunningham, Collected Essays. Criminally out of print, but in classic essays like “Ripeness Is All,” “Logic and Lyric,” and “Plots and Errors,” Cunningham demonstrates that literature is incapable of being understood without the historical sense.
• C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis despised writing this volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, but the result is a model of how a comprehensive history of a literary period should be written.
• Morris Dickstein, Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945–1970. The mirror image of Lewis’s book: a model of compression in the writing of history. Dickstein is one of those old-fashioned tradtionalist humanists who has read everything, by the way.
• W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History. The “standard” work is Rene Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism in six volumes, although (as someone who was originally trained in the field) the title I most admire is Bernard Weinberg’s two-volume History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance. If pressed, I would reply that my own Elephants Teach is a contribution to the history of criticism.
• Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (2 vols.). Originally published in 1876, it still holds up remarkably well. The very sparseness of schoarly apparatus, the appeal to a common reader, makes it a good example of the kind.
• Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (3 vols.). I’ve been called a red-baiter for even mentioning the title, but Kolakowski’s is an exhaustive study of every branch and twig of Marxism, displaying great disinterested scholarship and insistently clear prose. (Maybe those are what the reds object to?) Really intellectual history instead of literary history, but this is how the encyclopaedic study of a subliterature is done.
There are many more, and every scholar has his personal favorites—ten more titles will occur to me the moment I hit the Publish button—and then there are the titles that don’t fit anywhere, like Clive James’s quirky and judgmental Cultural Amnesia, which is a history of twentieth-century literature in several langauges without offering itself in those terms. It is, at all events, a truth rarely acknowledged that there have been great books written in literary history, although they have attracted few readers—even among serious students of literature, who might begin to fill their own “gigantic gaps” by studying them.
Update: John Wilson recommends Czeslaw Milosz’s History of Polish Literature. Darin Strauss recommends V. S. Pritchett’s Myth Makers or The Tale Bearers. Evan Hughes, the author of Literary Brooklyn, recommends Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds, a classic of American criticism.