In response to:
The Great Tradition from the December 12, 1963 issue
To the Editors:
To aggrandize Lawrence with stature chipped away from Eliot has been for two decades part of the Great Tradition, but the extension of this process from Eliot’s renown to his canon is, I trust, an innovation against which there may yet be time to protest. At any rate Mr. Poirier’s review of the collected Scrutiny contains the first instance I have seen. “Lawrence himself wrote of tradition that ‘It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”‘ Are there still schoolboys who know (1) that this is the most unLaurentian sentiment imaginable; (2) that it is quoted from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”?
Richard Poirier replies:
Mr. Gill corrects an obvious slip with seasonal goodwill. Mr. Grant is also being seasonal, warming up for the Winter meeting of the Modern Lanugage Association where, as secretary to the conference on literary theory, he will doubtless find support in his distaste for literary criticism. He leaves no place for it at all, and small wonder, given the defenselessness of his own prose. To say that Scrutiny is “right half the time”—when it is enthusiastic—is to say that if it had liked everything it would have been right all the time. And to make the phrase “had little use for” synonymous with “enthusiasm” is to reveal an incapacity to see how Scrutiny has, in fact, a great deal of “use” for Spenser, Milton, Shelley, and Joyce in defining a tradition that escapes Mr. Grant’s comprehension. Similarly, I have more than “a little use for” the works of Northrop Frye even though its tendencies, especially when developed by others, seem to me reactionary and often trivial. But here again I violate Mr. Grant’s ruling that “categorical judgments,” whatever these could be as applied to his letter or to Frye’s work, have priority over “value judgments.” I used to know the answer to this formulation but I can’t now remember what it was. Even so, I trust that Mr. Grant can recognize that a failure of memory in this instance belongs in a different category from the failure noticed by Mr. Gill.
All that Mr. Kenner’s letter reveals is an effort to turn a slip into a platform from which he speaks with necessary explicitness. No one would suspect that he could make his admiration for Wyndham Lewis and the prose style of Whitaker Chambers compatible with a taste for Lawrence.
January 23, 1964