F.O. Matthiessen
F.O. Matthiessen; drawing by David Levine

Richard Ohmann’s English in America: A Radical View is a very insistent book. It insists that the English teaching profession serves destructive capitalism and cannot do anything else unless “we teach politically with revolution as our end.” Wallace Douglas contributes a chapter on “Rhetoric for the Meritocracy” in which he describes the change from the small nineteenth-century college for the propertied class to the pluralistic, departmentalized modern university, along with the change from gentleman’s Latin and Greek to English. What Eliot created at the new Harvard in the 1870s was an institution to train organization men to serve property in the industrialized society. Ohmann argues that the modern English department grew fat in this situation primarily because it met the need to teach composition as a managerial skill. Literary studies were shaped by the need for English scholars to justify themselves as professionals by making “contributions to knowledge,” in competition with other specialized departments.

Ohmann has a retrospective essay on the boom in literary studies in the Fifties and Sixties, which uses the New Criticism to convict the profession of separating literature from politics. The university

is where the administrative class learns to think, where the scientific foundations of technology are laid, and where ideology is built to sanction the distribution of power and wealth. In this last task the American literary profession has cooperated, in part by insisting that the means to personal well-being and wholeness is through withdrawal from social action and the achievement of all-embracing states of mind. That is where the New Criticism pointed us, and where most of us, under the banner of humanism and the advancement of knowledge, gladly went.

Anything that the new apologists for literature (or the old, for that matter) say about its positive influence on individual lives or society Ohmann puts aside. The individual can only be “a comfortable man of letters within society” and “this has to mean society as it is.” “Now, against any substantial analysis of society, all of this is a parlor game, and the social pieties of the New Critics themselves are the sort of horn-tooting that you might indulge in while asking the National Endowment for the Humanities for some money.”

Ohmann is himself a very successful academic, with experience as a senior administrator at Wesleyan and as the very able editor of College English, in which he has published articles asking all sorts of hard questions. He is remorselessly determined not to let us off the hook of bad conscience. The hook is in us. To counter that we cannot be responsible for a world we never made will not do in a time when the mood of desperate protest about Vietnam is being succeeded by profound dismay about the huge organization for exploitation, at home and abroad, of which we become increasingly aware as its failure to function becomes more obvious. We do depend on that exploitation and, like it or not, contribute to it. But I think Ohmann is nevertheless very gravely mistaken, from his own radical standpoint, in writing off the profession of literature unless people in it make themselves over into professional revolutionaries.

One way to get at what seems to me his mistake is to consider the political weakness of his case, which goes with the impoverishment of sensibility to which his book bears witness. Granted that English in America is not about literature but only the professors of it. But it excludes almost all consideration of the radical potential of literature itself, which is mentioned chiefly in arguing that our “mystification…encysts it in our safe corner.” Ohmann’s own style, brisk, argumentative, witty, but never humorous, is likely to put off the very people whom he seeks to persuade (besides himself), for his chief audience must be other English professors. The insistent, monotonous voice comes to sound like those of the rationalist radicals in Dostoevsky whom there is no way to answer on their own terms.

Ohmann’s cogency is limited, too, by his never looking inside actual classrooms to see what happens there—especially in the years since Vietnam modified for many of us our relation to our students. A major section, “English 101 and the Military-Industrial Complex,” sets out to show that we teach students to do the “alienated” written work of business, the professions, and government, by training them in techniques for handling assignments in a situation insulated from their real concerns or a real audience. Ohmann’s procedure is to examine fifteen (15!) randomly selected Freshman English handbooks. The educational process which his acute analysis infers from them does indeed bear out his troubling diagnosis, though any experienced teacher is well aware that the authors of such handbooks are forced by the situation to be sophists, and that any teacher worth his salt works to counter unreality and depersonalization.


Then we look at the supposed results of composition, as taught in colleges, in a selection of what Ohmann calls “Writing, Out in the World.” The samples chosen are by futurists, Toffler et al., by liberal experts on foreign policy, and (one could have guessed it) by the memoranda writers in The Pentagon Papers. Ohmann, a specialist in applied linguistics, is skillful and amusing in hawking in on fudge words and syntax. “How to argue in liberal”: define the situation as a problem, find that it is complex, make it into data for theory. Here again his analysis is disquieting as he brings home the evasions of responsibility which impersonal styles abet. But the targets are, after all, sitting ducks.

Ohmann says that a “chapter 6-1/2” of “empirical research” could show in sociological detail how English 101 does in fact inculcate these styles, but that it is missing because it would take ten or fifteen years to write. If such empirical research were possible—and I doubt it—it would have to include those who took Freshman English and wrote against the war by making Vietnam real in words, and many others—including Ohmann himself—who were put on the way to independent critical awareness of the abuse of language.

Ohmann is dead set against the idea that our arrangements can be reformed within the present social order: “I have no specific cure, no ingenious plan for English or the humanities, no project for the National Endowment. These solutions are precisely the ones that I have meant to make a case against, in this book. The one I do endorse will not surprise readers who have come this far. And if socialist revolution sounds like a cure incommensurate with the sickness itself,…I can only say: nevertheless, that’s where my argument leads.”

In fact, his argument does not lead to socialist revolution. Different economic and social structures and their possible consequences for culture are never considered. It is simply assumed that socialist revolution is necessary and would change in some undefined way the abuse of the humanities. The two big words are Ohmann’s way of committing, in his turn, “the fallacy of leaving-out-everything-in-between” which he attacks in Toffler and other futurists.

What his argument actually leads to is social revulsion. The revulsion embraces, indiscriminately, professional scholarship and criticism, which he dismisses as organization writing in his chapter on the Modern Language Association. This is a revised version of an article written shortly after the 1968 shake-up of the MLA when Louis Kampf was arrested and then elected vice-president. In describing that event, Ohmann quotes conservative fulminations at length. In fact, the conservative huffsnuffing had no effect whatever on what was done, and proved to be the response of a minority. The resolutions against the war, the draft, and the repression of writers passed by the militants who took over the business meeting were endorsed by a mail ballot of the whole membership.

Ohmann never considers whether this large group came out decisively against the war, in a time when few were doing so, because their sensibilities were shaped by literary studies. Those who in that time of crisis stimulated the political commitment of the larger group were also people, on the average younger, who cared about the humanities.

The MLA’s structure in the years since 1968 has become more open, indeed wide open, with an elected constituent assembly instead of the back-benchers’ business meeting. Elected committees now select the papers delivered, seminars take place on any topic fifteen members want to talk about (more than 300 were held at the last meeting in San Francisco), there are large meetings of the Radical Caucus of English and the Modern Languages. Ohmann plays down or ignores all this. He complains that the MLA returned to being chiefly concerned with literary studies. He reprints the table of contents of a 1970 PMLA with the comment that with one exception the “articles are all scholarly, and a list of their titles is instructive as to the Association’s channeling of its members’ energies.”

Ohmann wants a closed-corporation image of the MLA, and so emphasizes the fact that after the crisis well-known scholars mostly from major schools are still being elected to its executive committee. Counter to this is the fact that the essays in the “new” PMLA are frequently written by unknown and untenured people, and people from little-known places. Of sixty-three authors, twenty-six have been untenured, or students, or unaffiliated, as I happen to know because I am on the editorial board which is working to select articles of interest to the whole membership. But it is still undeniably channeling energies into literary study.

Ohmann speaks of the profession producing an ever-enlarging archive of unread articles and books. Of course he is half right. Too much is published, too much of it made-work, trivial or dull. There is not enough mind to go round; there never is. He describes the traumatic experience of reading over a hundred studies on “the modern period” for an omnibus review, and observes that no one ever again will read all those books together. But nobody should. No one normally reads scholarship or criticism in that way; you read it, discarding the chaff, when you need it because you are absorbed in what it is about. When you have no such need, it can all come to seem otiose and odious.


Reading as an editor, you have a reason to pay attention across the board. It can be discouraging, but more of the work than one assumes from outside does have something vital to say about literature. And often, therefore, about life, and therefore, implicitly or explicitly, about politics. A young scholar takes a new look at the social and psychological circumstances around the “rape” in Clarissa. A teacher at a predominantly black university reads Swift’s passionate protest in the Drapier’s Letters about the English making the Irish into brute animals, and asks whether in Gulliver’s Travels the Houyhnhnms are not shown turning the Yahoos into Yahoos.

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.”

This Issue

May 27, 1976