The Death of Literary Criticism
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Does anyone read Lionel Trilling any more? For that matter, does anyone read literary criticism these days? Does literary criticism even exist any longer? Of course, we have book reviews in newspapers—although the numbers of such papers that include significant review sections continue to diminish—and then there are the longer essays on books in places such as The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books (though these are British papers and as such are less accessible to many American readers and are not engaged with American culture and literature in the same ways that Trilling and others once were), but these reviews and essays lack the broad intelligence and learning of a Trilling or a Edmund Wilson or an Alfred Kazin.
In spite of the popularity of “blogs” on the internet, almost all blogs—the onomatopoeia of the term itself even reminds us how boring and “blah” most of them really are—about books are superficial and resemble little more than the inflated, but ill-informed, opinions of those who write them. Blogs can never be the successors to the literary criticism and the essays that featured so prominently fifty years ago in journals and magazines such as Partisan Review, The Nation, The New Republic, or Kenyon Review. Of course, one of the reasons that blogs can’t succeed the criticism of fifty years ago is that we lack a common culture. Look at any issue of Partisan Review under the editorship of Philip Rahv to see the difference between our culture and that culture. The writers contributing to those issues of the journal shared a common political commitment (or at the very least a deeply engaged intellectual disagreement with this political commitment), and their writings reflected it. For Trilling, Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, Edmund Wilson, and Irving Howe, a discussion of Stalinism motivated their discussions of the value of Proust, Mann, Austen, T.S. Eliot, or Joyce for society. Another difference between their culture and ours is that we lack a shared, or common, literary culture. In those days, one critic could easily make an allusion to Hans Castorp or Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom and readers knew—without consulting a facile resource like Wikipedia—the reference and the meaning of the writer’s allusive meaning. In spite of Oprah Winfrey’s cheerleading for Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, or Faulkner’s novels, our lack of a common literary culture means that the allusive mythical layers (Morrison’s novel is at once a retelling of Genesis 1-3, Dante’s Paradiso, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, not to mention More’s Utopia) of these novels is missed completely. Many writers that our culture calls critics are simply “admirers” and stylists, more taken with the elegant turn of a phrase or the lilting voice than with engagement of literature with culture. With the death of Susan Sontag in 2004 and the death of Elizabeth Hardwick in December, our culture lost two genuine literary critics, leaving behind only one or two writers whose critical writing transcends the banality of most book reviewers and engages the cultural, moral, political, and social worlds of literature.
In the introduction to his The Liberal Imagination (1950), Lionel Trilling offers one of the most useful and enduring observations about the role of literary criticism and literature in society. “The job of criticism would seem to be, then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty. To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the imagination, literature has unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” Trilling’s elegant essays—collected in a number of books, including The Opposing Self (1955), Beyond Culture (1965), and A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), among others—on novels as diverse as Mansfield Park, Anna Karenina, and Little Dorrit, to name only a few, demonstrate the possibility and complexity that literature offers culture. In his essay on Mansfield Park (in The Opposing Self), Trilling observes, “It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being . . . She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of ‘sincerity’ and ‘vulgarity’ which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, and so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty.” Everyone familiar with Fanny Price’s world in Mansfield Park—and by extension the worlds of Pride and Prejudice and Emma—can clearly understand Trilling’s arguments about Austen’s novels and their cultural meanings.
Yet, Trilling was not alone in probing the depths of the moral, political, psychological, and aesthetic questions that literature raised for American culture. Richard Cook’s magisterial new biography of Alfred Kazin—Alfred Kazin: A Biography (Yale University Press; $35)—reminds us that there was indeed a time when literary criticism did matter to culture. The following list of books offers a kind of syllabus for anyone interested in real literary criticism that deals with enduring works and enduring cultural questions eloquent and vivid prose.
Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942)—Kazin wrote this book sitting in the reading room of the New York Public Library.
Alfred Kazin, The Inmost Leaf: A Selection of Essays (1955)
Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries (1962)
Alfred Kazin, God and the American Writer (1997)
Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings, edited by Ted Solotaroff (2003)
Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870 to 1930 (1931)—The Library of America has just released two volumes of Wilson’s critical writings, and these are good places to start with the prolific, and admittedly sometimes uneven, Wilson.
Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays and Fables (1962)
Randall Jarrell, The Third Book of Criticism (1969)
Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953)
F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad (1949)
F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit: Critical Essays (1952)
Elizabeth Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974)
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will
This list represents merely a beginning, but it offers an entry point to the best and the brightest literary critics (to paraphrase Matthew Arnold) our culture has to offer.
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