Breathing Life into Literature
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Is literary criticism dead? Does anyone today write with the far-reaching curiosity and wide-ranging knowledge of Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling? What writers today can be as bitingly insightful as Randall Jarrell or Delmore Schwartz? Literary criticism simply doesn’t exist anymore in the ways that it did in the middle of the twentieth century. I don’t mean, of course, that the world isn’t filled with book reviewers trying to write insightfully about the gushing flood of new books. Yet, we’re missing critics who can write languorous essays—as Trilling did—that teach us valuable lessons about manners, morals and the novel or about Freud and literature or Wordsworth and Jane Austen.
However, just when it seems that literary critics have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, Cynthia Ozick issues a smart and winning new collection of her essays. Already acclaimed for her fiction—from The Heir to the Glimmering World to Trust—Ozick’s newest collection, The Din in the Head (Houghton Mifflin; $14.95), takes up where Trilling and Wilson left off. Her essays dazzle the eye and warm the soul, engaging broad cultural topics such as the nature of literary fiction and the role of the novel in contemporary culture to arresting snapshots of writers from her favorite, Henry James, to Kipling, Isaac Babel and Sylvia Plath.
In some of her earlier essay collections, Ozick seemed unsure of her own role as critic and essayist. In Art and Ardor (1983), she declares that she “never meant to write essays” . . . She observes that essays seem a “diversion, the region of the trivial, no matter how momentous the subject.” Certainly she has trouble believing, initially at least, that essays have the same weight as fiction because essays do not invent, they summarize. In the end, however, the essays felt “as much scouted and discovered as stories themselves. And that—in an era when the notion of belles-lettres is profoundly dead, and when the capacious idea of the person-of-letters who can take on a range of available forms in no more than a legendary glimmer—can be the only justification for [the essays] having been written at all.”
We are richer for Ozick’s decision to continue writing essays as well as fiction. In so many ways, she resembles Trilling, who thought of himself as a failed novelist whose reputation was made as a literary critic. Ozick’s range is astonishing; in this new collection she opens with an essay on the late Susan Sontag’s brilliance in breaking the vessels of high culture on the rocks of contemporary film, art and literature. After Sontag’s famous essay “On Camp,” (1965), Jane Austen and Patti Smith could be spoken of in the same breath. Ozick’s collection closes with a scathingly funny “An (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James” in which a young female reporter from the twentieth century probes the Old Master on his homosexuality and his demeaning treatment of women (in his novels and in his life). Sandwiched between these potent takes on the devolution of literary art and culture are essays on forgotten writers such as Gershom Scholem, Isaac Babel and Helen Keller as well as breathtaking portraits of Trilling and Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow and John Updike.
Anyone who has read Updike knows that sex and religion weave themselves through his luxurious prose in serpentine fashion. Focusing on his early stories rather than his well-known forays into religion and lust such as A Month of Sundays, Ozick contends that Updike’s sex scenes have an antiseptic flavor while his scenes depicting religion send ecstatic shudders up the spine. “What is notable, and curious, in Updike is that his sexual scenes seem as distanced and skeptical as a lapsed seminarian’s meticulously recited breviary, while his God-seeking passages send out orgasmic shudders, whether of exaltation or distress.” Updike, our James and Hawthorne rolled into one, pulls off this erotic God-talk in lyrical language and breathtaking prose. According to Ozick, “language in all its fecundity is Updike’s native country, and he is its patriot.”
In a wonderful reflection on Sylvia Plath’s Journals, Ozick compares and contrasts the incendiary Plath of the poetry—always burning with desire and envy and the fire of destruction—with the domestic Plath of the journals—the maker of lemon layer cakes and the keeper of the household. With a marvelously funny turn of phrase, Ozick points out that Plath was “both Emily Dickinson and Betty Crocker—which is why the journals are inscrutable, and in this respect more shocking than the suicide.”
Ozick produces in this new collection one of the finest tributes to Lionel Trilling and his work now available. Drawing primarily on Trilling’s unpublished notebooks, she points out that he thought of himself as a failure because he was not a novelist (his hero was Hemingway) in spite of the acclaim that he received from his students and the literary culture at large. Despite such feelings, Trilling’s contributions to American literary culture have been so significant—it’s very hard to imagine Ozick without Trilling—that his wide-ranging essays about culture as the best that has been thought have not been surpassed. “It is Trilling himself who represents the buried life of American literary culture—the brooding body of his essays, their opalescent crisscross of clauses, the minute waverings of his oscilloscopic mind, above all his now nearly incomprehensible influence.” Ozick’s high regard for Trilling serves a means of recovering this brilliant for our times.
In the collection’s title essay, Ozick ponders the place of the novel in a world filled with a din that increasingly crowds out the din in our heads that novels produce. “How, in this maddening American hour, to put a distance between the frenzy of crowds and the mind’s whispered necessities? Get thee to a novel!—the novel, that word-woven submarine, piloted by intimation and intuition, that will dive you to the deeps of the heart’s maelstrom.” With fears of the novel crumbling away and being replaced by the video game or DVD or Internet, Ozick stringently and boldly reclaims the novel as necessary for our sanity. It’s the place where we can go to get away from the maddening crowds that would shut out hopes of solitude or escaping the banalities of our everyday worlds. With generous hope, she concludes: “The din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread—where, in age of machines addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found? In the art of the novel; in the novel’s infinity of plasticity and elasticity; in a flap of imaginary wallpaper. And nowhere else.”
As long as we have Cynthia Ozick’s dazzling intellect and her bravura critical performances, literary criticism is not dead. We should all embrace her and thank her profusely for the new life she breathes into our literature.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at