How to Rescue Literature

Literature has two advantages over wine. A good book ages forever; and you can read it as often as you wish without diminishing its substance. The devoted reader is like a wine lover whose dream has come true. His stock will never spoil or be consumed. He can sample, enjoy, and share his cellar without fear of depleting his reserve; it will grow as he grows. He need never go thirsty.

For many people literary criticism, to continue the analogy with wine, continues to mean the unconfined medium of personal responses, informal and formal talk, reviews, and scholarship in which works of art circulate and finally locate themselves. For others, however, criticism has taken bold steps in the past thirty years. It now encompasses activities that have little relation to tasting or enjoying anything. Symbolic systems and quantified scientific analysis have become fairly common approaches to literary works. Furthermore, literary criticism has virtually abandoned a set of practices that was once considered essential to the full appreciation of literature. In order to examine this state of affairs, I shall have to touch first on a few preliminary matters.

Baudelaire and Blackmur produced two wonderfully tonic statements about criticism. “Criticism should be partial, passionate, and political, that is to say written from an exclusive point of view, but the point of view that opens the most horizons” (Salon de 1846). Baudelaire’s own criticism usually meets his standards; his writings on art and literature themselves belong to literature. Blackmur begins “A Critic’s Job of Work” with a fine slyness. “Criticism, I take it, is the formal discourse of an amateur.” An amateur is both a nonprofessional and a person who loves something very much. I could not improve on Blackmur’s emphasis.

It is worth insisting, moreover, on how large and varied the domain of criticism has become today. The journalistic reviewer addresses himself to the general public, usually on the subject of recent works. A recognized writer like Edmund Wilson uses the wide-ranging form of the literary essay. Teachers choose works to present to their classes for discussion, interpretation, and evaluation. Scholars, whether they lean toward biography, history, or interpretation, contribute to the stock of tools and materials with which all critics must work. Literary theorists and philosophers try to give it all a shape and a name and often attach literature to adjacent fields, as if to provide a safe dock in the perilous seas of critical dispute. Because it is by far the most widely practiced, the most influential, and the least acknowledged as a branch of criticism, I shall write principally about teaching, and refer to other branches as they support or disrupt it.

In a university I recently visited, I regularly passed two classes which I found myself observing with fascination through the open doors. In the first, five or six students sat around a table listening to the elderly professor read to them in Spanish from a beautifully bound book propped in front …

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Letters

Rescuing Literature: An Exchange June 26, 1980