The King of the Cats and Other Remarks on Writers and Writing
When F. W. Dupee’s critical biography of Henry James appeared, it came at a time of such superfluity of James items that the reader who had been actively, faithfully consuming in the market felt he could not find room for another word on this subject. But Dupee’s book was not a redundance, a glut. Instead it was a work of rare interest and success. It summed up James’s life and art with a balance and assurance that were valuable and also charming. Indeed, Dupee’s Henry James is one of the best critical biographies we have. And yet I have been told—with what accuracy I cannot judge—that this beautiful book is not sufficiently appreciated in the academic world. They do not know how to place it, what use to make of its modest rightness. Shouldn’t it weigh in heavier, bigger, fuller, like other professors’ books? And this is the question with all of Dupee’s critical writing. What shall we say of a man simply doing as he pleases, refusing to increase his volume of business, tending the store in a relaxed manner, without regard for his reputation, his image? For my own part I do not know whether to condone Dupee’s fidelity to his own way—I think he waits for a kind of inspiration even when he writes the briefest review—or to feel that he should lengthen, fatten, digress, and repeat, along with the best of them.
I opened his new book—a collection of reviews and prefaces, “remarks on writers and writing,” as he calls it—with a good deal of emotion. I had read most of the pieces before and felt I knew the creative effort that had gone into them, and also that I could guess at the roots of the rather unusual diffidence that marked their structure, their length, and their tone. Courtesy, purity of taste, fineness of style are maintained without intermission. Every page of The King of the Cats is admirably done. The writing goes along with an ease perhaps intemperately untroubled, but it is an ease nevertheless, born of craft and intelligence. The title is taken from an essay on Yeats, an essay that is a model of the author’s manner. He describes Yeats’s friendship with Lady Gregory:
He [Yeats] rejoices in his periods of residence at Coole Park, her country home; the “great rooms” (in the plural) are splendidly silent and there are no fewer than seven woodlands, all magnificent. In all this there is something of the eternal spirit of the bachelor; he must make his nest all the cozier, and chirp the louder over it, because it is a nest for one. The spirit persists after Yeats’s belated marriage, when he begins to celebrate his wife’s feats of housekeeping and decorating, and the attractions of the houses that he himself is now in a position to acquire.
And there is Dupee himself. His long connection with Partisan Review, his Trotskyite youth, his several decades on the New York literary scene, his teaching posts at Bard and then, later, at Columbia. He has been a part of so much of the Thirties and Forties, and yet his book is rather queerly shy of all those interests one would have expected. First of all, not a single essay is political or social in the usual sense of those phrases. There is, for instance, social criticism in the remarks on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Dupee watches that blaze with an outstanding coolness. He does not feel convinced that Baldwin’s threats are precisely those our society will have to yield to. But in the end we feel it is Baldwin’s manner, his apocalyptic sermonizing that offend Dupee’s idea of what is really useful on the matter of race relations. And so even this essay is literary after all.
The political and social are absent, and even more striking is the absence of that acerbity and aggressiveness so many have seen as the inevitable pimple on the cheek of the radical, literary intellectual. No, the essays are generous; they look for the possible, the achieved, and do not make light of the hardships of other writers. And Dupee, unlike most other critics, is not always vigilant to withhold himself from the present, from the uncanonized. He is very interesting on Kenneth Koch’s poetry, on Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers.
We would then have to say that the articles collected in this book do not directly engage the scene of which Dupee has for such a long time been a part; and yet I think in an oblique way they have much to say about a certain kind of literary mind, one of a special contemporary shape. First of all, the brevity, the casualness, the miscellaneousness of Dupee’s work are the result of certain attitudes. In his Introduction he says, “No doubt this volume as a whole will strike some readers as deplorably miscellaneous. Again, I can only plead that I have liked being miscellaneous, at whatever cost to outward consistency and inward commitment.” But beyond his own temperament and preference, Dupee’s writing is marked by an absolute rejection of academicism and in this way he is a good example of the intellectual of the Thirties and Forties. His criticism is done for his own kind; the critic does not want to tell his ideal readers what they already know or bore them by including what they don’t want to know. He will not fill in, round out, mention each work, provide a handy reference here and there. He is not to be read for use in a term paper, he is to be read for an almost unparaphrasable insight or impression. When he addresses his audience he does not assume the desperate graduate student or the weak-memoried teacher who want their lists of works and dates and their summaries of past opinion. This criticism rests on ground of opinion. In offering his opinion the critic is offering himself as a sensibility. And his work will have to stand or fall on the rightness of his insights and the aesthetic strength of the critical writing itself. In the end the main effort is to give pleasure. Buried poets and story writers show their skeleton smiles in the perfect cadences of the talented reviewer. And what a hard lot it is! William James, after working on his first review, cried out in despair that a life gained at this price was not worth having.
Few writers would wish to put so much effort into short literary pieces. The discovery of essences, the orchestration of large historical themes are likely to prove more substantial than opinion or impression. And that is the despair we feel so piercingly, so frequently, in the miscellaneous critical writer. The effort so great and the reward so small. Decades of reading go into a few pages on Proust; the whole of “modern art” is not too much to round out your paragraphs on Gertrude Stein.
With Dupee you feel that he knows so much and yet cannot yield to a more eager or more robust exploitation of his gifts. Even at that he has made too spare a collection from his past writings. This book does not display those dazzling and sometimes threatening shifts of mood we know him to be capable of; it does not give witness to that bleakly efficient radar by which he discovers a smudge of self-interest on the pearly screen of self-sacrifice. Still, it does show what a superb writer he is and what a high standard he sets for his work. That one might say it is too high and bought at too great a cost is another matter.