Author, Author

The title of this essay is not a reference to that enthusiastic but misguided shout from his friends in the audience at the St. James Theatre in 1895 that brought a reluctant Henry James to the stage at the end of his play Guy Domville, only to be greeted by whistles, shouts, and insults from the irate denizens of the gallery, one of whom had somewhat spoiled the dramatic effect of the actor’s climactic line—“I am the last of the Domvilles”—by shouting: “And a bloody good thing y’are!” My title is the rubric of an infuriating competition that appears every week in the pages of the London Times Literary Supplement; it offers three quotations, all dealing more or less with the same subject, and defies the reader to identify the authors. Since the fiends who concoct these puzzles have carefully avoided passages likely to turn up in anthologies, have, in fact, ransacked their authors’ lesser-known works for texts innocent of such clues as proper names, dates, or allusions to historical events, the reader unwise enough to take a hand in the game has to rely on indications of the personality of the author.

Not, obviously, the historical, biographical personality, but the literary personality: the characteristic attitudes and concerns, the rhythms, tones, and levels of discourse, the literary individuality that enables us to distinguish a paragraph of Jane Austen from one of Henry James, and either of them from one of Ernest Hemingway, or the epic blank verse of Milton from that of Keats or Tennyson. This literary identity is now the target of academic assaults from many quarters, of which I propose to single out two in particular—the Roland Barthes-Derrida denial of the author’s identity or even of his or her existence, and the New Historicism, which confines that identity to the stringent limitations of the author’s time and place.

The first aberration treats the author’s work as a “text,” material for the discovery of intertextuality, subtext, and—a word that I have not seen in print but that, if not yet born, is surely close to delivery from the womb of the goddess Terminologia—meta-text, which, on the analogy of “meta-theater,” would denote a text discussing its own textuality. In the deconstruction of the text the author disappears; Barthes in fact proclaimed the “death of the author.” But though such theories are usually thought of as French products of the Sixties and Seventies, their origins can be discerned in much earlier work done by Americans in the Forties, the years that saw the birth of that New Criticism which Norman Fruman recalls in his short history of our Association,1 reasserting its basic principle: that “there should be a primary focus on literature as literature and not as something else.” I am myself a child—an aging child—of the New Criticism; the first article I ever published had a title that sounds like a parody of the typical New Critical title—“The Serpent and the Flame.” The editors of the American Journal…

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