No Success Like Failure

Selected Essays of R.P. Blackmur

edited and with an introduction by Denis Donoghue
Ecco Press, 372 pp., $17.50

Wayward Skeptic: The Theories of R.P. Blackmur

by James T. Jones
University of Illinois Press, 216 pp., $24.95

R.P. Blackmur was much possessed by failure, by what René Wellek calls an insight into human insufficiency. Perhaps the most brilliant member of a brilliant generation of critics—he was born in 1904, died in 1965—Blackmur worried more than any of them over what can’t be said, can’t be faced, over the places in history and personal life where hope winds down and possibilities seem to die. “We burn the last dry lifewood of the mind,” he wrote in a poem in 1945; but he was always doing that, and then finding life after all in the ashes. His criticism was, as Denis Donoghue has said, a way of postponing failure, but it was also a way of probing and celebrating it, of turning it into a distinctive glory. Blackmur wished he could show, “clearly, self-evidently, and irrefutably,” how criticism resembles art.

But only revelation can do all that. I think it has something to do with radical imperfection. I risk it that in literary criticism you get the radical imperfection of the intellect striking on the radical imperfection of the imagination.

Radical imperfection looks like a desperate cousin of original sin, and yet could be a mercy after all, since it may save us from delusions of sufficiency and from all the quicker, soothing forms of failure. “Most failures come too easily,” Blackmur sternly wrote. “A genuine failure comes hard and slow, and, as in a tragedy, is only fully realized at the end.” And again: “Pascal is not a great man manqué; he is a great man, and also manqué.” No success like failure, as Bob Dylan used to drone.

Blackmur was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and spent most of his early life in Cambridge. He left school at fourteen and received no further formal education. He learned much of what he knew (which was a lot) in the bookstores where he worked for several of his young years. Honors descended on him later in life—he was a full professor at Princeton, adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation, lecturer to the Library of Congress, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—but he retained, as Russell Fraser suggests in his intelligent, slightly cryptic biography,* the mild pedantry of the self-taught, the habit of reaching for the dictionary and the arcane word. He was a mandarin, but an upstart mandarin. His major critical work was done early, in the 1930s, when he was widely taken (by Eliot, Winters, Tate, and others) to be the best reader modern poetry had found. He had, Fraser says, what Blackmur himself called a prehensile imagination, able to wrap itself around its object, “like the monkey’s tail on the branch, or the fingers on the ladder rung when the foot slips.” Blackmur was an editor of the magazine Hound and Horn for part of its brief life (1927–1934: it started at Harvard, then moved to New York). He eked out a precarious free-lance existence through the Thirties, sustained by his wife’s…

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