In response to:
Lit in Trouble from the June 28, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
I have no quarrel with Mr. Ehrenpreis’s opinions on Celestial Pantomime (NYR, June 28). though I feel his vehemence badly serves his cause. However, I am curious about his peroration: though I “belong to the state of Illinois,” I make unkind “judgments about other communities,” specifically about Toronto, Cambridge, and Chicago—the latter, because of where I “belong,” being particularly heinous on my part. Such judgments, Mr. Ehrenpreis tells us, stand in contrast to my “tenderness” about and “devotion to Connecticut,” and are devoid of the special graces bestowed on those “living a day’s journey from Williamsburg.”
Though he concedes I lack “provinciality,” I must say this sure is pretty fuddlin’ stuff to us boondoctors. Is it that criticism which once had to do with goodly states of mind now has to do with states—period; and that critical perspectives are now determined by local loyalties, like baseball teams? For the hermeneutical spiral, I take it, we are now to substitute the regional fixation; and for Johnson and Arnold, Montesquieu and Taine.
Mr. Ehrenpreis delights in the power of positivist thinking, as did his colleague, E.D. Hirsch, when savaging Frank Kermode in the previous issue of NYR. Perhaps we have here a new school of criticism in Charlottesville, a new return to the village, and our American positivists are by their great guff cosmographers grown. Certainly, then, we should have the parting of names: we already have the Chicago Aristotelians, the New Haven Mafia, and now Messrs. Hirsch and Ehrenpreis from the Commonwealth of the virgin spleen. They want a name, an uncommon want. I oblige.
The original European Positivismusstreit was between Frankfurters and Wieners—O happy, happy heuristic! as Keats might have exclaimed. Bring on the T-shirts and bumper stickers! Welcome The Virginia Hams—eponymously satisfying Mr. Ehrenpreis’s idiosyncratic geographical requisite, and also sounding like a baseball team. Bring on the pom-pom girls, the baton twirlers (pray, undo this baton), the cheerleaders: hamlettes, cutlettes, cutelettes?—a theme worthy of Coover: Swifty Ehrenpreis on the mound, master of the low ball; Junior Hirsch in the bullpen. (Though on Mr. Ehrenpreis’s premises, since in fact I live nearer to Northern Illinois University than to Chicago, this rather puts me in the critical bush league—Shakespeare’s “rooky wood.”)
Mr. Ehrenpreis closes with a quote from Leviticus: another emulable stroke. I proffer after Ezechial—albeit transformed by some denizens of Virginia in less ebullient times—the query, will this critical school live, will these bones rise? Is the kneebone connected to the hambone, the hambone connected to the jawbone, etcetera? (The jawbone of what? a biblist like Mr. Ehrenpreis might inquire.)
And now, true southern gentleman that I am (south rim of the moraine defining the lake of Michigan), I leave the last word to Mr. Ehrenpreis, hoping that he will not again force us to blush at such a torrent of clichés—those platitudinous seas incarnadine.
Justus George Lawler
November 8, 1979