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.”1 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.

Literature in the Professor’s Den

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 of him. What I heard of his voice was expressive and very clear. His histrionic gestures and shifts in emphasis played constantly between the comic and the passionate. At frequent intervals a student would read from his own text—haltingly, yet catching some of the professor’s feeling and even a few of his gestures. My host informed me that some faculty members considered Professor M’s teaching the scandal of the Spanish department; in his Cervantes seminar he simply read Don Quixote aloud, with running commentary on the language, historical background, and cross-references in the novel, and with little systematic interpretation. Yet a few graduate students always stated that they had learned a great deal from Professor M and expressed great loyalty to him. The question was moot; he would retire next year.

Further down the corridor an intense young man in a corduroy jacket and no tie had always, by the time I passed, covered the blackboard with carefully lettered diagrams, assorted symbols, and equations. He stood gesticulating with the chalk at the large class, all of whom were taking notes with a concentrated expression. According to my host, Assistant Professor N had a strong following among the graduate students in English and had attracted some good undergraduates. He had published two stunning articles combining communications theory and speech-act theory in an analysis of comic strips. He was a candidate for early promotion and had received offers from two universities to participate in special interdisciplinary programs.

Both these classroom critics faced the same problem: how does one fill the forty hours of class or lecture time we call a “course”? In the past the accepted activities in the teaching of literature seemed limited in number and free of serious challenge. The life and times of the author, a close reading “on many levels,” and an accompanying history of ideas combined personal response with the Great Tradition and usually led to some form of appreciation and evaluation. “Appreciation” grew out of an attempt to relate a work as interpreted to other literary works and to the dynamics and tensions of our lived experience.


I. A. Richards fluttered the pedagogical chicken coops a bit back in the Twenties. It took the wider ideological challenges of the Sixties to leave a lasting mark on classroom behavior. Professor M has reverted almost to the Middle Ages, when students often spent their time copying a precious manuscript read aloud by the teacher. Professor N would probaby feel a certain malaise about a Great Tradition and about attempting any form of appreciation, a word now consigned to music departments. His methods of interpretation and analysis give him an apparent command or mastery of literary works that has turned the activities of English and foreign literature departments on their heads.

An early pastiche version of what is happening today can be found in Oscar Wilde’s entertaining dialogue, “The Critic as Artist.” Gilbert, by far the more eloquent speaker, acclaims the critic’s role.

Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in a way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself….2

Gilbert’s aggressive posing has gradually been systematized and institutionalized to the point where literature may be looked upon in the most respected circles as a pretext for criticism, as a convenient armature for theory. I sense that in some graduate literature programs around the country today more extensive and more careful reading is expected of students in literary theory and methodology than in works of literature—let alone in literary history. It is not just that literature has been submerged in doctrinal thinking. A literal usurpation has begun which would depose literature and grant sovereign authority to one or more of several competing disciplines. It is impossible to describe these pretenders in any detail, but a partial roll call may help.

Various forms of structuralism appropriate literature to a set of myths that rule us through a strong binary logic. “We do not claim,” writes Lévi-Strauss, “to show how men think in myths, but how myths think themselves in men, and without their knowledge…. Myths think themselves among themselves.”3 The slippery doctrine of écriture (writing? scripture?) has delivered literature into the hands of linguistics and set out to eliminate the author in favor of language itself. Barthes stated it categorically in the Sixties: “Language is not the predicate of a subject…it is the subject.”4 (By “subject” he means not topic but the seat or agent of thought and consciousness.) It is the phenomenon, the possibility, of having significance, of being a sign, that lies at the heart of semiology (or semiotics), a discipline founded on the supremacy of a universal theory of signs.

Communication and information theory has staked a major claim to the territory of literature since Roman Jakobson’s “Linguistics and Poetics” speech in 1958.5 So far as I can discern in the writings of J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle (both philosophers) and their followers, speech-act theory originally took no interest in literature except marginally as “etiolated” or stagnant speech. This mode of analysis recently grafted onto criticism has the effect of converting literary studies into a form of sociolinguistic philosophy. Reader-response theory tends to look around and beyond the text to the reactions it elicits. Promising as a basically experimental approach, it often becomes enmeshed in interview statistics, transactional psychology, and curious notions about communities of readers. These recent theories have defined and refined their methods while both Marxist and Freudian criticism remain very active.

All these approaches can widen our horizons in ways Baudelaire would have approved, and challenge us to reexamine the relations between criticism and its host, literature. What we should beware of is the temptation to subordinate literature to the claims of any extra-literary discipline to superior authority or knowledge. (In a moment I shall discuss the claims of linguistics.) Literature is not autonomous and unrelated to our daily lives; on the contrary, we all to some degree live by and through it. But it does not belong to any domain outside the domain of art, and we are shirking our responsibilities if we look the other way while self-styled “literary” critics deliver literature into the hands of one or another branch of the social sciences.

We would do well to remember something of the past. It has taken approximately two hundred years to free literature from the authority of established religion, royal patronage, and bourgeois values. The heroes of that struggle—Swift and Diderot and Goethe, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, Joyce and Proust—were above all independent writers who submitted their work to no authority beyond the conflicting traditions of literature itself and the demands of their own sensibilities. Do we now, out of loss of confidence in literature or out of doubts about how to spend class time in a difficult season, want to surrender literature—or criticism—to a new set of masters?


A disturbing aspect of these raids on literature and criticism by outlying disciplines is their common aspiration to the objectivity and certainty of science at the very moment when the tendentious and teleological nature of much scientific activity is coming to light.6 Not the existence of this ambition (already pronounced in Taine’s theory, not in his practice) but its spread should trouble us. In the introduction to Cours de linguistique générale Saussure, a consistently exciting and clearheaded thinker on language, called for the creation of “a science which will study the life of signs in the midst of social life” and named it semiology. In a beautifully self-fulfilling prophecy, comparable to the gaps in Mendeleev’s periodic table anticipating the discovery of new elements, Saussure wrote that “its place is determined in advance.”7 A number of influential literary critics, including Northrop Frye and Roland Barthes, have followed his lead. Frye suggests that

It may also be a scientific element in criticism which distinguishes it from literary parasitism on the one hand, and the superimposed critical attitude on the other…. Everyone who has seriously studied literature knows that the mental process involved is as coherent and progressive as the study of science…. If criticism is a science it is clearly a social science.8

Do we wish to adopt this stringent approach to enter a field that, for many readers, still encompasses individual consciousness, free will, accountability, and human values? Should we as critics postulate the perfect uniformity and coherence of literature and deal with it systematically in terms of laws and equations, models and statistics, and nonlinguistic symbolic systems? Such projects should indeed be tried out and the results evaluated; we have reason to take alarm when they begin to undermine the study and teaching of literature as one of the humanities.

I would trace yet another important aspect of this scientism to Saussure. For it is he who, by fiat, in his introduction, banishes individual or personal speech from the house of linguistic study.

The study of language contains two parts: one, the essential part, takes langue for its object, which is essentially social and independent of the individual;…the other, the secondary part, takes individual speech (parole) for its object….

Such is the first bifurcation one comes upon as soon as one sets out to form a theory of language. One must choose between the roads, both of which one cannot follow at the same time.9

Since Saussure omits any consideration of individual speech (except to call it “diachronic”)10 this bifurcation amounts to a beheading. When combined with the thought of Marx or Freud, of Lévi-Strauss or Lacan (as is often the case), this position incinerates the whole humanistic tradition of persons and scatters the ashes across a landscape composed of language, myth, the unconscious, and other collective entities. To dismiss parole means to dismiss individual acts of communication, including literary works. True, the willful crotchets of individual acts of communication do not submit readily to scientific study, linguistic or otherwise; stylistic analysis has succeeded in dealing far more adequately with individual cases. Nevertheless, linguistics as a science seems to have invaded literary criticism, brandishing its claim to be the central human social science that holds the key to all the others. The claim will not stand up; the price of neglecting persons and their acts is too high.

We all behold the obvious results of this growing scientism among literary critics: aggressive and often turgid new terminologies, the displacement of discussions of literary works by discussions of theory and method—even in the classroom; and the growing demand of critics (without Wilde’s wit) to stand as the full peers of “creative” writers. We have not reckoned fully yet with feedback effects whereby writers may be composing linguistically generated, non-personal, systematically ambiguous works in order to provide critics with the fodder they seek. For, increasingly, particularly in the United States and France, writers are critics and are also professors of literature. This plurality of offices can lead to an intellectual conflict of interest unforeseen by Baudelaire when he insisted that “all great poets naturally and fatally become critics.”11

What Then Can We Do?

In the face of these efforts to use literary works as the subject matter for a science that anatomizes literature, what can we do to keep literature whole, especially as it is taught, and to encourage an integral process of reading? For it is as if each province of criticism today wanted to limit itself to only one element in the communication-theory model I referred to earlier. Structuralism works away on the message or text sealed off from author and reader and recircuits it into myth and language. Semiotics “breaks” or “cracks” the literary work like a code to produce not so much a set of interrelated meanings attributable to author or audience as a protracted commentary on the infinite possibilities of meaning. Speech-act theory concentrates on a segment of intentional performance linking speaker to message (“illocutionary act” is a particularly infelicitous term for it) and shuns literature as parasitical. Reader-response theory finds its pertinent evidence in the addressee. Much criticism today is characterized above all by its myopia.

The rest of us would do well to keep our heads, eschew intellectual fashions, avoid cleaving to one method as suitable to all circumstances, and attempt to approach a work of literature without rigid preconceptions, without a grid of theory. No, there is no “innocent reading” any more than there is an “innocent eye.” But it is possible to temper experience and mastery with a kind of induced innocence—negative capability or lâcher prise—which discourages the kind of usurpation I have been deploring. And in the domain of teaching literature which concerns us here, I would also favor certain kinds of exercises—busy work even—that have fallen totally out of favor: word for word copying, dictation, reading aloud, summarizing (précis writing), memorizing, and translation. All of these activities enforce close attention to what a piece of writing is actually doing without requiring an elaborate theory of literature to begin with. Reciting aloud, in particular, impresses me as both a fruitful form of reading and a sturdy antidote to some of the abuses I have been discussing. Another anecdote will make the point.

A visiting professor from France widely respected for his command of semiological approaches gave a lecture recently on Apollinaire’s poem, “Le Pont Mirabeau.” At the start he handed out copies of the two successive versions of the poem Apollinaire published, which differ markedly in format and punctuation. After giving the audience time to read the two texts, the lecturer began a highly perceptive analysis, with diagrams and symbols, of the poem’s verse structure, rhyme, sound pattern, and syntax. A number of neglected relations emerged. In his conclusion he detected in filigree behind the consonants the name of the woman (Marie Laurencin) whose love the poem celebrates. Then he stopped. That was all.

In what it said the talk was brilliant. Its omissions distressed me. First the lecturer failed to mention a third version: Apollinaire’s own recording of the poem in a strikingly mannered and haunting voice—a version that, without being definitive, would throw into question some of the lecturer’s insistence on the nonlinear qualities of the text. (He was indeed acquainted with this recording.) Second, even though much of his talk addressed itself to auditory aspects of the poem, he never tested any of his hypotheses by reading the poem aloud—not a stanza, not a single line. Those in the audience had to create these sounds and the complex emotional effects for themselves in their inner ears—and in a foreign language. “Le Pont Mirabeau” was left in pieces on the blackboard.

At this point I shall let Henry James and Valéry speak for me.

It is scarcely necessary to note that the highest test of any literary form conceived in the light of “poetry”—to apply that term in its largest literary sense—hangs back unpardonably from its office when it fails to lend itself to vivâ-voce treatment…. The essential property of such a form as that is to give out its finest and most numerous secrets, and to give them out most gratefully, under the closest pressure—which is of course the pressure of the attention articulately sounded.12

Poetry on paper has no existence at all. In that condition it is no different from a machine in the closet, a stuffed animal on a shelf…. It comes to life only in two situations—in the state of composition in a mind that ruminates and constructs it, and in the state of recitation [diction].13

I do not propose here to enter the ancient debate over the priority of the visual or the auditory in our perception of the world and the formation of our sensorium. John Hollander, Walter J. Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Rudolph Arnheim, and Jean Piaget have published important works on the subject.14 Rather I wish to suggest that the critical activity of teaching literature should include as one of its essential goals the oral interpretation of literary texts. The analytical dismantling of a work or passage would then lead up to a performance serving as verification and demonstration, a means of actually experiencing the forms and features previously discussed at the remove of critical interpretation. If the author’s biography or the work’s narrative structure do not help us to hear the voice and tone of the whole, the articulation of its parts, and the pacing of its language, then they are largely irrelevant to the study of that work—though they may interest us for other reasons. At least for literary criticism as it is practiced in the classroom and lecture hall, the acid test is not the intellectual brilliance of the teacher’s argument but the demonstrability of his interpretation when he (or someone else) actually reads aloud a sizable passage. I would not maintain that every literary effect will be clear in an oral interpretation. But the continuous challenge of recitation keeps us alert to gesture and tone of voice, and to the burden of argument and figurative language which they weave together.

The fact that modern linguistics as shaped by Saussure restricts itself to competence (langue) and neglects performance (parole) need not influence our reading of the special class of texts called literature. For instance, the widely read volume Style in Language, the proceedings of a conference called in 1958 to bring together linguists and literary critics, devotes more than half its discussions to auditory aspects of literature. Oral performance, however, is favorably considered only once, in relation to early American folk narratives and Lincoln’s artistry as a performer of them.15 In at least six places oral interpretation is rejected as not capable of conveying “the poem itself.” “Wimsatt and Beardsley insist that the poem itself is not to be identified with any performance of it or with any subclass of performances.”16 And in a discussion of metrics Jakobson quotes as “a sage memento” a similar statement: “A performance is an event, but the poem itself, if there is any poem, must be some kind of enduring object.”17 Furthermore, it is surprising that speech-act theory and reader-response theory should have entered the arena of literary study without encouraging experimental performances of the complex expressive actions that constitute communicative speech. The conspiracy against the spoken work seems to be deep-seated and powerful.18


Five major considerations lead me to speak out in favor of voicing literary works as a means of interpreting or appreciating them.

  1. Oral interpretation restores the freshness and urgency of older works, and puts them in a collective setting which improves on the intimist convention of the author murmuring directly into the reader’s ear. Performance requires the creation of another projected voice, that of “the text itself,” not for all time but for this time. And, in the delicate process of locating that voice, criticism can reinsert itself into the physical act of reading rather than having to trot along always after or before the fact, as commentary. One metaphor occasionally used to suggest the difference between reading silently and reading aloud is that of looking at a map compared to walking over the actual terrain. Only a few critics have spoken their minds as forcefully on the subject as C.S. Lewis:

They have no ears. They read exclusively by eye. The most horrible cacophonies and the most perfect specimens of rhythm and vocalic melody are to them exactly equal. It is by this that we discover some highly educated people to be unliterary.19

  1. The practical attention to the physical words enforced by reading aloud protects a work from being usurped by the ambitious categories of much contemporary criticism. For example, when a work is read aloud the speaker implied or projected by speech-act and communication theories no longer remains a phantom, a putative off-stage role never available for examination. He enters and speaks his text for us to hear and respond to. Reading aloud also obliges us to register literary works first in linear human time, with its subtle aspects of evanescence and renewability, before the text can be converted into a synchronic structure out of time and subsumable under a diagram. The presence in live performance, however informal, of all three elements of the communication transaction (addresser, message, addressee) discourages premature concentration on one of these as the object of criticism. Oral interpretation can at least delay the abduction of the text by method, theory, or system.
  2. An emphasis on oral interpretation in literary criticism would restore our sense of the power of the speaking voice. Unlike the ideographic languages of the East, which aspire to picture thought directly, Western phonetic languages have articulated the sounds of human speech. And because of the way it is produced and received, vocal speech can convey thoughts and feelings not available to vision. Our need for vocal communication, wrote Saint Augustine, “is occasioned by the deep of the world, and by the blindness of the flesh, which cannot see thoughts; so that there is need to speak aloud into the ears.”20 Sound rather than vision appears to be the most effective and sensitive transmitter of human thought and feeling and therefore capable of uniting us in the experience of the present. Writing records this experience without reproducing it.

The most deep-seated reason for the privileged status of speech in our lives probably springs from its close relation to fundamental biological rhythms. In The Biological Foundations of Language Eric Lenneberg explains, “It has long been known that the universal rhythmicity of the vertebrate brain…is the motor for a vast variety of rhythmic movements.”21 He refers to breathing, heart beat, walking, and speech. The physicality of speech and its reliance on the presence of two parties at least marginally in communication with each other keeps it in touch with the whole of our being, mind and body, reason and feeling. Most of the relevant quotations are widely known.

I lay it down as an educational axiom that in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies. Above all the art of reading aloud should be cultivated.22

Recitation has been defended as the true test of the quality of a poetic work by Frost, Eliot, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Sentences are not different enough to hold the attention unless they are dramatic. No ingenuity of varying the structure will do. All that can save them is the speaking tone of voice somehow entangled in the words and fastened to the page for the ear of the imagination. That is all that can save poetry from singsong, all that can save prose from itself. (Robert Frost)23

What I call the “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings, in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality. (T.S. Eliot)24

…above all, remember what applies to all my verse, that it is, as a living art should be, made for performance and that its performance is not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long swells on rhyme, and other marked syllables and so on. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)25

The gradual dissociation after Socrates of thought from speech and the ultimate displacement of oratory and dialectic by the privacy of print 26 have not prevented literature from remaining deeply oral—even prose fiction. Flaubert shouted his sentences to himself in his gueuloir in Croisset. Tolstoy read his chapters aloud to his family as he wrote them. The innovations of modernism, such as free verse from Whitman to Cummings, stream of consciousness in Joyce, verbal inventions from Gertrude Stein to Barthelme, and even Proust’s long-distance periods, are all largely oral. How can we read, let alone teach, any of them without assaying their auditory nature? That certain authors, like Dreiser or Hegel, sound clumsy when read aloud provides an accurate commentary on their deafness to language. They survive by other means.

  1. The oral approach to literature can help establish among the young the opportunity to improve voices for expressive and pleasing speech. A large part of religious training and military discipline is based on the ancient belief that by learning and performing the outward physical signs of emotions and moral attitudes we will come to experience those emotions and attitudes inwardly. Training the voice in control and expressiveness very probably enlarges the scope of mental states available to us—particularly in a culture where the tonalities of speech have fallen badly into neglect and abuse.

“The quality of life,” to which we now pay close attention, depends greatly upon the tonality and dynamics of the voices with which we communicate with one another. Those vital sounds influence our moods more subtly than the weather and music. My own experience in a fairly large university course in world literature has taught me that the lecture-discussion method of presenting literary works leaves a far more vivid and lasting impression on students when it is directed toward some form of interpretative reading. Certain authors, indeed—and by no means only poets and dramatists—cry out for oral performance and remain difficult of access without it: Milton, Diderot, Goethe, Wordsworth, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Flaubert, Chekhov, Eliot, Proust.

More important than my own testimony is the fact that a professional discipline of oral interpretation already exists in this country at several colleges and universities, sometimes organized into an independent department or program, sometimes taught in the drama or speech departments. Many of these students go into college or high school teaching. The gulf of ignorance and neglect that separates these programs from the traditional study of literature in English and other literature departments is, to my mind, scandalous to the point of looking like a conspiracy to suppress the opposition. But no, the standoff is probably attributable to the monopoly of the written word and to the deep-seated reluctance of most literature teachers to read aloud, to interpret orally.

  1. The arguments that oppose the ideas I have been voicing belong to a tradition as old as the invention of printing. “The pen is the tongue of the soul,” wrote Cervantes. Emily Dickinson, protective of all the nuances she compressed into her tiny verses, made her conviction clearer: “A Pen has so many inflections and a Voice but one.”27 Such direct or implied declarations of faith in silent reading are rarely assembled and systematically examined.28 The clearest presentation of the arguments I have discovered is contained in Suzanne Langer’s Feeling and Form. Unlike music, which arises from our perception of “the passage of time made audible by purely sonorous elements,” poetry “is not a fabric of tönend bewegte formen,” and therefore lends itself to silent reading. She grants that some poetry “profits by, or even demands, actual speech,” but argues that

much poetry and nearly all prose should be read somewhat faster than the normal rate of speech. Fast speaking does not meet this demand, because it becomes precipitous. Silent reading actually is faster, but does not appear so, because it is not hurried at the quicker tempo, whereas physical enunciation is. The images want to pass more swiftly than the spoken word. And furthermore, in prose fiction as well as in a good many poems, the voice of a speaker tends to intrude on the created world, turning formal lyric address such as: I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless…into genuine speech, addressed by the poet’s proxy—the speaker—to another real person, the listener. A novel that centers chiefly in the creation of virtual personalities almost always suffers, when read aloud, by the peripheral presence of the reader….29

Now what Langer is getting at, I believe, is closely related to a debate in film criticism about the relative virtues of a novel and a film version of it. Since words only signify and suggest, and do not in any way embody a world, a written text projects a virtual or implied space which the reader’s imagination must actively fill out of its own experiences and associations. By contrast, in performance or in a film, this space is filled in by the speaker’s or director’s imagination. The ambiguities and mysteries in the printed text are channeled into a limited range of rhetorical and dramatic effects. Saint-John Perse took this position in opposing any oral recitation of his works and favoring a mental reading. But Langer’s observations do not, as I see it, necessarily establish the superiority of silent reading. Rather they seem to suggest that silent and oral readings can be seen as complementary. Furthermore, she is dead wrong about rate. Most good prose and poetry, particularly when they contain images, should be read slower than the normal rate of speech. Precisely this shift of pace enables reader and listener to experience the subtleties of the passage.

The burden of my argument here is not to suppress silent reading but to advocate the need for both. I am trying to repair the present imbalance and give oral reading its deserved place. These two modes of approach to a work feed each other; the classroom offers a particularly good opportunity to combine them. An oral interpretation may well extend our understanding of a work beyond the range of our own experience and imagination more convincingly than a commentary could do. This is precisely because reading aloud is a public act, open to examination, shared by many observers who can then discuss the “reading” as they cannot so readily discuss their several private and silent readings.

I would not suggest that reading aloud produces a definitive or authoritative version of “the work itself.” The purpose of reading aloud is basically heuristic. In trying out several different oral versions a group can explore the meanings released by a passage more effectively than if it discussed an incompletely shared set of private readings. A similar assumption lay behind the once universal exercise of translating classic texts—not to produce a perfect version but to show students the subtleties of language and literary discourse through translation.

Following the virtual reversal of the classical ideal of “clarity” in literature that has occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many contemporary critics take an intellectual delight in discovering the greatest possible number of meanings in a text. Seven types of ambiguity led to polysemy, which led in turn to valuing quantity of meaning over quality, and then to the practice of tricking out the printed word in hyphens, parentheses, slashes, double columns, fold-outs, and nonlinear format, in order to redouble the overlay and iridescence of meanings. (Some of these devices amount to directions for oral performance.)

Yet if literature is to be valued as a shared enterprise we must find a common ground of meaning and a limit on the splash and overflow of divergent interpretations. Even information theory sets a ceiling to the number of “bits” the human mind can process; every channel has a capacity.30 Oral interpretation can serve as a kind of test or verification that will suggest just how much of a work can be transmitted by speech to a community of listeners. It is true, as Emily Dickinson’s one-liner states with beautiful economy, that an oral presentation may require the reader to choose between, say, an ironic and a naïve tone of voice, whereas a silent reading would allow those two moods to flicker in the mind. In a reading by a competent performer, however, the vividness of the meanings conveyed will more than compensate for those set aside.

If not all critics, at least most teachers are potential performers, and all of us can develop our skills in that direction according to our gifts and opportunities. The tradition of reading aloud in the family circle barely survives today in the face of competition from stereo recordings, television, movies, transistor radios, and engineered sound amplification. The formidable group of nineteenth-century British authors who, without loudspeakers, turned professional readers and lecturers for lucrative American tours (Thackeray, Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, and many more; plus our own champions: Emerson and Mark Twain) served to encourage domestic readings in a pre-media era. In our contemporary electronic paradise, what is to become of our faculty of speech and its potential to foster feelings and community? The pervasive force of television confronts us with what is only a phantom oral culture: it offers no presence (the visual side is often redundant and dispensable), no participation, no exchange, no sense of collectivity—a depressingly one-directional enterprise.31

Those of us who deal with language and literature can do far more than we are now doing to keep the spoken word alive and responsive to its expressive resources. We need constantly to reconsider our theories of literature and our methods of approaching it. But the vast exercise of criticism that goes on in the form of teaching literature in school and college will serve its purpose handsomely if it turns a substantial part of its attention to the trials and rewards of oral interpretation. The best literary works will grow with each reading. Perhaps old Professor M should be kept on a year or two to teach Don Quixote.32

This Issue

April 17, 1980