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How Not to Be a Critic

Transatlantic Patterns: Cultural Comparisons of England with America

by Martin Green
Basic Books, 298 pp., $11.95

It is shameless to begin a book review by rolling out lines that have been quoted a million times:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

but they are quoted by Martin Green in his collection of essays Transatlantic Patterns: Cultural Comparisons of England with America, and what he has to say of them strikes exactly the note that makes me long to strike him.

Written when Wordsworth was a more sedate gentleman, the lines recall his feelings when the French Revolution broke out in the days of his youth. They have made their way into every intellectual household in England and America; they share lodgings with the thousand-and-one other quotations that make our furniture and form our very background. They sum up an experience that is known to half the living world—that of beginning manhood with the blissful intensity of some sort of radicalism; and the many who feel an almost personal injury because Wordsworth was unable to sustain his bliss in later years (“a resignation, a compromise, a defeat,” says Professor Green) feel as they do because they know that the change of heart is such a common one. No doubt, a million old men are sighing over their lost radicalism at this very moment, but nobody has been able to put the experience and the emotion on paper as definitively and finally as Wordsworth. Like a rose-red city half as old as time (whose author never wrote another memorable line), Wordsworth’s is a unique achievement: there is the ruin in the desert, passed by innumerable travelers but only “seen” for posterity by one.

How can this be explained? Professor Green, speaking for “the New Left,” says of Wordsworth’s lines:

It is because Wordsworth had thought that, and still thought it at the time of writing enough to be able to write those lines, that he was a great poet. The energy of mind and generosity of heart manifested there, the capacity to be a radical and a revolutionary, shown in the changed sensibility towards social classes and work as well as towards landscape, this is what we recognize and respond to in his poetic tactics and strategies. His engagement in the common cause in this sense made him a great poet.

But although Professor Green says “I entirely agree” with this judgment, he goes on to remind the New Left that Wordsworth himself “felt that something else was even more the point,” namely, that it was “turning away from primarily political hopes that made him Wordsworth the poet we know.” Professor Green agrees with this too. The Prelude, in which the quoted lines occur, is a “monumental effort” that derives from “singleness of passion, total dedication, undivided attention.”

This last conclusion is the opposite of the first conclusion—a fact worth mentioning because a great deal of Professor Green’s book suffers from his readiness to land up in too many conclusions at once. People who lecture a lot to students (Professor Green, an Englishman, is Professor of Literature at Tufts) often suffer from this habit, which grows out of a wish to placate an audience’s prejudices before contradicting them.

But what seems much more serious to me is that whichever conclusion is reached there is no mention of the poet’s ability to write poetry. I find it impossible to believe that Wordsworth’s breadth of nostalgia made him “a great poet,” or that his “engagement in the common cause” improved his writing. I am sure that making a “monumental effort” was helpful, but only because the effort had something to help, viz., a talent for choosing the right words and writing them down in the right order. In fact, I would think it very likely that most of Wordsworth’s “monumental effort” lay in a persistent struggle to find the words that would match the selected emotion and arrange them in an order that would sustain the desired tone.

I am sure that his success in doing so is what has made those two famous lines so extraordinarily memorable. I am sure that they were hardly on paper before a universal shout went up: “He’s got it! It’s in the bag!” I think that every old man in town went out and got tight, and that nostalgic tears flowed like wine.

I believe that it is very important to make this point—that good writing is good writing because it is good writing—because it is the one thing that critics like Professor Green hardly ever get around to discussing. American critics have usually been the worst sinners in this matter, and today things seem to be getting worse, not better, if Professor Green is any guide. So many questions of social relevance, such as “authenticity” and “sincerity” in life, the significance of color, the place of a true femininity, are pressing in on literary criticism that the use of words is no longer a question of interest. The use of such a phrase as “poetic tactics and strategies” illustrates exactly the reduction of art to the most commonplace politics.

The principal theme of Professor Green’s book is the reluctance of most English writers after 1918 to be party to this conception of literature. In some lines of Cyril Connolly’s he has found a descriptive word which pleases him enormously and which he uses throughout as a peg for his theme. This is the word “dandy.” Nearly all English writing after 1918 was dominated by dandies, he believes—authors with such “characteristic names” as “Sebastian, Sacheverell, Basil, Osbert, Julian, Adrian, Lytton, Evelyn; instead of, as in the previous century, Charles, William, George, Emily, Charlotte, Jane, David, Thomas.” These “fancy names” are emblems of the English swing after 1918 to a sterile aestheticism which was not to be found in America and which signifies intellectual defeat and “a failure of imagination.”

I don’t think it would be useful to say too much about this “dandy” peg, because Professor Green gets into such a muddle trying to hang so many different hats on it. I can’t press the objection that the culprits didn’t choose their names but were given them by parents named Charles, William, George, Emily, Charlotte, Jane, David, Thomas, because Professor Green has thought of that too: it only means, he says, that sterility was already stewing in the background—which sounds to me more like an afterthought than an argument.

That ‘George Orwell’ changed his name to George indicates how insistently he swam against the tide,” Professor Green says; but I think he has forgotten that poor George’s real name was Eric—in England, a name associated with the worst sort of smugness. I won’t quarrel over Sherlock Holmes, who did take drugs and did play the fiddle, but I can’t believe that that ramshackle old barrel G.K. Chesterton was one of the “dandies in flight from dandyism” and that in “the assertively dowdy figure of Father Brown” he created “a dowdy dandy of the mind”: not only do I believe that Chesterton’s motives were much humbler than that, but I mistrust arguments in which awkward obstructions are cleared away by verbal tactics and strategies. That T.S. Eliot (vulgarly known as “Tom”) should have run a dandy branch in conjunction with religion seems unacceptable too—in fact, quite laughable, considering the severity of his verse and critical writing, to say nothing of his wish to look like a bank clerk.

That there were dandies aplenty in England then, as there have always been, nobody will deny, but to build a theory on them means that one must either distort the character and writing of many who weren’t, so as to fit them in, or leave them out because they are too difficult to fit. I don’t think the Sitwells will mean much to posterity, but I think that E.M. Forster, Wyndham Lewis, Roy Campbell, and Auden may mean a great deal, and that by refusing to let them affect his argument Professor Green shows too much frivolity.

But what has puzzled me more than anything is Professor Green’s passion for Evelyn Waugh. He believes Waugh was the comic genius of the century (George Bernard is dismissed as a mere dandy who “encouraged the British mind to a distrust and dislike of seriously emotional and seriously rebellious and seriously unhappy people”) and devotes numerous pages to his life and work. I think it brave of the professor to have such a bent, in view of his sympathy with the New Left, with D. H. Lawrence, with Dr. Leavis, and with everything else that Waugh detested, and the strongest reason I can find for his liking is that though Waugh came out of the dandy stable he turned into a pugnacious and formidable critter before very long. Professor Green likes him as such—“outrageous” and “incisive”—and regrets the Wordsworthian switch that Waugh made in his later novels, when he asked us to admire kindly old Roman Catholic gentlemen and the honorable decency of the officers mess. He thinks the earlier novels—Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, Put Out More Flags—are the best because they are the most scandalous, and he argues that Waugh is only first-rate Waugh when he is scandalous.

He and we under his influence take far more acute, perceptive, wide-and deep-spreading pleasure in the opposite types, the brilliant, the audacious, the unreliable, the elegant, the outrageous, and in the things they do that affront dullness and decency.

This is a good way of modernizing Waugh and finding him a place in today’s permissive and rebellious world—even if this is the world that Waugh despised. The preference for the earlier novels is also a most reasonable one on critical grounds, though Professor Green makes things much easier for himself by his usual method of simply leaving out the bits that don’t fit, i.e., there are plenty of “audacious” and “unreliable” characters who “affront dullness and decency” in the later works, but as they would spoil the sharp contrast between “early” and “later,” they are treated as nonexistent.

But the main trouble is that in Waugh, Professor Green has really chosen a tiger to ride. There is no more difficult author to pin down or to adulate, and Professor Green demonstrates this fact by trying in dozens of different ways, and always at great length, to draw up explanations of Waugh which are in fact little more than expressions of his own struggles. The influences at work in Waugh he sees as including Dickens, Wilde, Firbank, the pantomime, the commedia dell’arte, the Keystone Cops, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Petrouchka, and others, most of which tend to cancel one another out.

If Professor Green could admit that Waugh was a satirist, he might start from more solid ground, but this he refuses to admit, arguing that “by satire we mean making a thing funny by holding it up against some standard the writer fairly consistently recommends.” It seems strange to me that a critic who has so immersed himself in Waugh should not be able to see how well this description of satire applies to him. The standard that is recommended can be seen clearly in Waugh’s very first book, a study of Rossetti. It is not always waved in the air, but it is shown plainly in A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, and the war trilogy, Sword of Honour. It is a standard of honor, knightly devotion, bravery and chivalry, and if Professor Green cannot see it as such even though he remarks it in his essay on Mark Twain, he cannot hope to explain the vindictive humor and sarcasm that was Waugh’s retort to its absence.

Of the American essays in the book, those on Twain and Whitman are the most interesting—at least in what they have to tell us about the wrong way of criticizing books. The Twain piece is on A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, and Professor Green begins with a long quotation from that novel. No sooner do I leave the professor’s prose for Twain’s than I feel a stirring of interest and a sense of pleasure that lift me out of the ranks of seriously unhappy people. It is not that the passage quoted is remarkable for its humor or for what it says, not that it can be compared to any page of, say, Life on the Mississippi. There is simply the immediate sense of coming into contact with a writer who has a proper command of his words—exactly the same sense, I think, that comes over us when we see a real horseman going into a jump, or sit in the passenger seat of an automobile beside an exceptional motorist.

And where good prose is concerned, there is the all-important ability to match the words to a chosen tone—to know the key that the subject requires. Twain was an accomplished master in these matters, and though it is true to say that the “Twain style gradually petered out,” it is also true to say that most styles peter out: as Compton Mackenzie used to remark, all authors get stuck playing one record in the end.

But it is not the fate of authors that concerns Professor Green. He has caught the wretched humorist in a much more shameless act of wickedness—that of giving vent to a “death-lust.” Twain’s novel concludes with 25,000 brainless knights, “the chivalry of England,” being massacred by the cunning Yankee and a handful of followers—which allows Professor Green to conclude that the humorist’s

preference for minds over men is revealed to be the smiling face of scientism and mechanicism—of that fatal mentalism which modern prophets (Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer among our contemporaries) have pointed to as the original sin of Western man, as ultimately responsible for the horrors of scientific warfare.

I think it is that “fatal mentalism,” that “preference for minds over men,” that is the undoing of many academic critics when they write about works of fiction and that gives the impression that they are really social workers combing a head for nits. Surely it should be known that when a professional humorist comes to the end of a long piece of writing, he wants to be shot of the damn thing, and the “horrible slaughter” of 25,000 knights of his own inventing doesn’t seem to him too high a price to pay for getting off the hook. Professor Green is right to say that the massacre spoils the book: all such violent conclusions spoil books because they are out of key with what has gone before. When Henry James burns the house down in order to finish The Spoils of Poynton, he spoils his novel, just as Beethoven spoils a composition by keeping on banging in order to stop. In all such cases, the strain has been great and the artist has run out of “mentalism” just when he needed it most.

Whitman presents no such problem. In him “an ecstasy of libidinal awareness transcends the limits of heterosexuality and even of genitality in a very modern way”—which I take to mean that in Whitman’s world no holds are barred either for women or for men, and that the inner man and inner woman may achieve satisfaction regardless of their outstanding characteristics. This makes Whitman a valuable poet, because (as Professor Green says in another essay), “In some sense everybody nowadays lives, in his imagination at least, by his erotic conscience.”

It is all very well to talk in this erotic way, but what about the writer, and the critic who is supposed to write about the writer? Will their erotic consciences do anything to make them use their talents creditably, or provide them with the “singleness of passion, total dedication, undivided attention” that were necessary to Wordsworth? The new form that Whitman invented to express his “libidinal awareness” is still a much more interesting matter for debate than the views he expressed in it, and the reason for this is plain to see.

Views do nothing to enhance the quality of literature; usually they enjoy a short life, a merry vogue, a temporary power. Without form, without talent, without organization of a high order they cannot endure at all, and this rule applies as much to critical writing as it does to poetry and fiction. Skeptics who find this difficult to believe and who require written evidence of it are urged to read Professor Green’s book without delay.

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