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Is There Hope for English?

Ohmann never mentions the work going on in the new Marxist-Hegelian literary theory and criticism, or cognate developments in structuralism or Freudian interpretation. The way literature and reality are reunderstood can contribute to creating a new political situation. One could not imagine, from his description of literary studies, that they include such a thought as “the work of Ernst Bloch is best understood as an attempt to do for Marxism what the four levels of meaning did for Medieval Christianity.” A version of the last chapter of Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form, the book from which this remark is taken (pp. 116-117), appeared as an essay in PMLA.

In 1976, a book in which the enemy is “us” is dated even as it comes out. A single long footnote, obviously added at the last minute, recognizes this in making an about-face. The book concludes with perorations in its regular vein. One of these counters Kenneth Galbraith’s call for academic independence from the industrial system by insisting that

To stand apart from the industrial system and its menacing uses of knowledge, universities would have to be much more political—less pure—than they are. They would have to relinquish the flattering ideology of the ivory tower, the dodge of academic freedom, the false security of professionalism, and all the trappings of neutrality, which conceal a subtle partisanship.

The footnote, at the end of a chapter on our “conspiracies against the laity,” announces that in these new bad times we need “the dodge of academic freedom” after all:

in the midst of cries for “accountability,” behavioral objectives, and vocational education; in a time of cutbacks, increased teaching loads, and lagging salaries…the institutions of our profession and of the university generally—academic freedom, independence, privacy—do somewhat protect us. Better the MLA than the FBI. [Thanks!] Within professional walls, mavericks and communists and critics of society can survive.

If one is using academic freedom as a dodge, the world is not likely to respect it. But I do not want to put too much stress on a phrase from a peroration. Ohmann is led into such extreme talk by his book’s aim, misconceived as I see it, of trying to escape from the contradiction one is bound to be in as a radical working within a world one desperately feels should be changed. To have faced this contradiction, and recognized dialectically the positive things in our profession along with its complicities, would have been a more fruitful use of his admirable moral energy and intelligence.

The about-face of his footnote makes the contradiction manifest, as Ohmann suddenly realizes, in the new rough weather, the political value of the free life of mind and sensibility, not subject to “accountability,” or behavioral or vocational objectives, and requiring independence and privacy. It is time for a united front, Ohmann is saying in somewhat breathless caucus language. Indeed it is. 1 The deep-running and reliable authority and energy of our profession’s part in it will come, I think, from the investment in life and understanding we make in our study and teaching.

Giles Gunn’s study of F.O. Matthiessen is about that investment, and the commitments to which it led in an earlier, more hopeful time. “In a democracy, there can be but one fundamental test of citizenship, namely: Are you using such gifts as you possess for or against the people?” In his preface to American Renaissance, Matthiessen quoted this statement from the architect Louis Sullivan as “the inevitable and right extension of Emerson’s demands in The American Scholar.” Matthiessen’s huge book about mid-nineteenth-century authors, written at Harvard during the aftermath of the Depression and the onset of World War II, sought to show that “the total pattern of their achievement—if we will make the effort to repossess it—is literature for our democracy.”2 The book was a major impetus for the American Studies programs which developed after the war, and which Ohmann never mentions.

Matthiessen’s friends and students wrote a very good “Collective Portrait” after his suicide in 1950.3 Gunn’s compact, beautifully controlled book uses it effectively, but his concern is to present the whole arc of Matthiessen’s critical explorations: of regional heritage in Sarah Orne Jewett; of the meaning of tradition and the function of form in Eliot; of a whole age seen through its literary expression, with the tensions between democratic affirmations and tragic recognitions, in American Renaissance. He shows how in Matthiessen’s work during and after the war he moved “From the Ambiguities of James to the Bare Truths of Dreiser.” In giving generous and critical attention to the writings, placed in relation to their period with the perspective of ours, Gunn puts us in the presence of the “man working,” a scholar “capable of lifting perception to the pitch of passion” and dedicated to “the responsibilities of the critic” to society.

In 1949 Matthiessen foresaw that “textual criticism as an end in itself” could result in “a new scholasticism,” and that “in our dangerously split society,” serious critics, feeling isolated, might become aloof in “an inverted superiority.” “At that point criticism becomes a kind of closed garden.”4 This was in a lecture originally delivered, with characteristic combative satisfaction, in the garden—the Kenyon School of Letters. But he never under-estimated the difficulty, for the artist or the critic, of relating to a society in which, “flooded with rival propagandas, we have come to a still greater awareness of the distance between the official and the actual.”5

The facile appeals to national identity and folklore which have sometimes characterized American Studies and put off more rigorous sensibilities were not characteristic of Matthiessen. He did have higher hopes than seemed justified in subsequent decades about recovering a usable past to make clear “our still unspent resources,” and the hopes did sometimes, though rarely, lead to failures in critical objectivity, as Gunn notes at intervals. But to return to the writings is to realize their remarkable fidelity to the complex relationships between art and life:

It is difficult to estimate what a “healthy” literature is. The relations between what men think and write, on the one hand, and the actual state of society, on the other, are complex. Was Juvenal, in his excoriation of Rome, “unhealthy”?6

Recognizing the necessity and high value of satire and especially of tragedy to realize the inevitable mixture of evil with good in life, he believed, as Gunn says, that authentic works “by their very nature lead us towards life rather than away from it,” so that “the most fully responsive and penetrating criticism should possess an underlying social and political relevance.” He was “willing to risk personal and intellectual disruption for the sake of doing full justice to recalcitrant and even hostile materials.” At the same time he would not allow his awareness of intractable complexity “to deter him from placing all his criticism at the service of a unified core of human values.”

Gunn teaches Religion and American Studies at Chapel Hill. He is effective in showing the tension, which he does not think is inconsistency, between Matthiessen’s undogmatic Christianity, his high valuation of tragedy, and his socialist commitment. To put it simply, in phrases from a self-assessment written while in Europe after the war, his Christianity was a corrective for “the nineteenth-century belief in every man as his own Messiah,” and centered on the acceptance of man’s fallibility and the need for “humility before the love of God.” He cited Shakespeare and Melville as “witness enough that man is both good and evil.” He quoted more than once a quatrain by Melville about Shakespeare which he rescued from an otherwise indifferent poem:

No utter surprise can come to him Who reaches Shakespeare’s core;
All that we seek and shun is there—Man’s final lore.

He summarized his socialist position very simply: “Evil is not merely external, but external evils are many, and some social systems are far more productive of them than others…. It is as a Christian that I find my strongest propulsion to being a socialist.”7 Wide historical knowledge also led him to socialist conviction. Much as he admired Emerson, he understood deeply and concretely what his trust in the individual as his own law became in “the amassing of nearly all our great fortunes,” the individual against the group, the destructive effects “written widely over our history, in the private seizure of what belonged in the public domain,” “travesties of freedom in the name of free enterprise.”8

Esthetic criticism, if carried far enough, inevitably becomes social criticism.” Political action, to which he committed himself in working in the Wallace campaign, for the defense of Harry Bridges, and in many other ways, was never fully satisfactory, but necessary as a way of working with people in the larger world who were also committed to changing it. He quoted characters in Winesburg, Ohio: “Men coming from Europe and given millions of square miles of black, fertile land…have produced out of the stately order of nature only the sordid disorder of man…. Every one has come here for gain, to grow rich, to achieve. Suppose they should begin to want to live here?”

He spoke of Anderson trying “to awaken his readers to ‘the thing beyond words, beyond passion—the fellowship in living, the fellowship in life.’ “9 Teaching, as well as its extension into politics, was grounded for him in this fellowship, while he remained open to unsparing critical awareness, including outspoken criticism of much that Ohmann deplores in our profession. It was a heroic commitment. His death was therefore tragic, not merely terribly sad, as Gunn makes clear by “finding the man in the work.” As one of many for whom Matthiessen was extremely important as a teacher and an example, I am grateful for a book that brings into a single focus the whole scope of the achievement, with scholarship and wisdom worthy of its subject.

In the present discussion, Gunn’s book makes the point that literary study need not mean “withdrawal from society” for the sake of “the achievement of all-embracing states of mind,” as though on a drug trip. On the contrary, literary study can be, indeed I think usually is, a source of energy for politics which aims, whatever the tactical situation, at “fellowship in living.”

At the close of American Renaissance, Matthiessen made perhaps his fullest brief statement of the generous and tough sense of life to be found in literature in praising what Melville did in Moby Dick. It was not, he noted, a Paradise Lost or a Faust, “neither so lucid nor so universal.” But when “the Pacific called out the response of [Melville’s] united body and mind, he wrote the enduring signature of his age.”

He gave full expression to its abundance, to its energetic desire to master history by repossessing all the resources of a hidden past in a timeless and heroic present. But he did not avoid the darkness in that past, the perpetual suffering in the heart of man, the broken arc of his career which inevitably ends in death. He thus fulfilled what Coleridge held to be the major function of the artist: he brought “the whole soul of man into activity.”


Battleground August 5, 1976

Battleground August 5, 1976

  1. 1

    The first issue of The Radical Teacher, sponsored by the Radical Caucus in English and the Modern Languages, appeared last December, with Ohmann as a member of the Editorial Group (Reamy Jansen, Editor, 316 West 107th Street, Apt. 3A, New York, NY 10025). It contains an essay on “Retrenchment—What the Managers Are Doing,” by Paul Lauter, originally delivered at the 1974 MLA meeting, and along with essays on teaching, radical journalism, and working class novelists a very moving interview with a recent PhD living minimally on part-time jobs—the bitter situation which faces so many able and fully qualified people until we can change our national life.

  2. 2

    American Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1941), pp. XV-XVI.

  3. 3

    Edited by Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman (Henry Schuman, New York, 1950). Originally published in the October, 1950, issue of Monthly Review.

  4. 4

    The Responsibilities of the Critic (Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 5-6.

  5. 5

    Ibid, p. 136.

  6. 6

    From the Heart of Europe (Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 57.

  7. 7

    Ibid, p. 82. For the quatrain, American Renaissance, p. 512.

  8. 8

    Ibid, p. 89.

  9. 9

    The Responsibilities of the Critic, pp. 137-138.

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