All Critics Are Mortal

<i> Alfred Kazin was the author of numerous books, including "Writing Was Everything," from which this essay was reprinted with the kind permission of Harvard University Press. Kazin died June 5 on his 83rd birthday</i>

Years ago, when I was new to this curious business of being a critic and looked for guidance from my elders, I came upon two quotations in the same week that I dutifully wrote into my notebook. The first was from Goethe, who simply said, “Kill the dog, he’s a reviewer!” The many composers, artists, and writers who like me have suffered and never forgotten a single line in a bad review still cheer Goethe on.

The second quotation was from Henry James, a busy reviewer in addition to being an unstoppably productive novelist, dramatist and travel writer.

“To lend himself, to project himself and steep himself, to feel and feel till he understands, and to understand so well that he can say, to have perception at the pitch of passion and expression as embracing as the air, to be infinitely curious and incorrigibly patient, and yet plastic and inflammable and determinable, stooping to conquer and yet serving to direct--these are fine chances for an active mind, chances to add the idea of independent beauty to the conception of success. Just in proportion as he is sentient and restless, just in proportion as he reacts and reciprocates and penetrates, is the critic a valuable instrument.” (“Essays in London and Elsewhere,” 1893).

Inspiring words, which James did not live up to. He could barely read poetry--he dismissed Walt Whitman’s great opening poems on the Civil War--and tended to judge the novels of his day by his own example as a novelist. James was an incessant critic, but too much of a snob to respect as literary material any human experience he considered “low.” He deprecated fiction that used dialect, and it is just as well that he paid no attention to the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” He was so conscious of the Victorian moral tradition refuted and abandoned by the passionate novelists he reviewed, from Stendhal and Zola to Hardy and D.H. Lawrence--to say nothing of the lack of what he considered “form” in Tolstoy, whom he likened to an animal--that he raised prudence, in the form of pussyfooting and the art of malicious irony, to new heights.


The great critics have not been novelists but poets--Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats in his letters, Emerson, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot--whose criticism sought to change the direction of literature so that people could read their poetry in the new spirit demanded of them. Tolstoy was a great novelist but such a moral universe unto himself that he came to suspect all art. In 1850 Melville the “isolato” (as he described himself and his heroes), in the rapture of discovering a kindred spirit in Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that “genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” Edmund Wilson, in the splendid 1943 anthology he called “The Shock of Recognition,” meant it to record the development of literature in the United States by the men who made it. But the only first-class critical intellect there to deal with his contemporaries was Edgar Allan Poe, who had wonderful instincts about work different from his own--and everything was. (In the end, though, he had the shrewdness of the paranoiac about enemies who were real enough, since Poe antagonized everyone by his sense of superiority.)

What is so special in the criticism written by the creatively great is the inspiration they take from each other. Keats reading Shakespeare came to such self-recognition that he wrote in 1818, “Many have original minds who do not think it--they are led away by Custom. . . . Now it appears to me that almost any Man may, like the Spider, spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel. . . . Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbor.” Turgenev, hailing Tolstoy as “Great Writer of the Russian Land,” pleaded with him to give up his pose as a religious pilgrim and go back to writing fiction. Dostoevsky, at the dedication of the monument to Pushkin, reached such heights of rhetoric, in the way only Russians can in celebrating Pushkin, that long irreconciled enemies in the audience were moved to embrace one another. Nabokov so adored Pushkin that he insisted in his translation of “Eugene Onegin” on making the most literal possible version. Gorky said, in his poignant short memoir of Tolstoy in old age, “I am not an orphan on earth so long as that man exists.” Thoreau told a friend that he had found in Emerson “a world where truths existed with the same perfection as the objects he studied in external nature, his ideals real and exact.” Emerson, in his turn, wrote from Concord to Whitman in Brooklyn, July 1855: “I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of ‘Leaves of Grass.’ I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. . . . I give you joy of your free and brave thought. . . . It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.” And Emily Dickinson, in a letter: “We thank thee, Father, for these strange minds that enamor us against thee.”

Now in all these fraternal tributes from the great to the great, there is a noticeable omission. No one is telling anybody exactly how to read a particular text; no one is warning anybody to discount as fallacious, ignorant, sexist or politically dangerous someone else’s reading. Keats, Turgenev, Emerson and Thoreau are not professional critics--that is, people whose function is to tell other people How To Read, which naturally will include directions on what to look for in a text that other professional critics have missed.

For many years now, academics high and low have preempted serious criticism, have been riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount. This will get them closer and closer to the work of art. What nonsense. What gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art. Only a plurality of choices can open up the new thinking in a work of literature that excites and liberates us. The poet Rilke said that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness, and nothing so little as criticism can reach them.” What is of use to us in criticism is the mind of the critic. As Randall Jarrell once noted, some critics have the influence on young married couples that liberal clergymen used to have. Lionel Trilling was so compelling that he mesmerized many of his Columbia students for life, away from what he regarded as the illusions about progress fostered by the liberal imagination.


By contrast with such minds, in the 1930s the influence of Marxism-Leninism on the usual run of conformists was such that my students refused to read H.G. Wells because he was a bourgeois liberal. At a Modern Language Association convention in 1989--the session was called “The Muse of Masturbation,” and it was thronged--it was noted that the hidden strategy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is in her use of “encoded images of clitoral masturbation to transcend sex-role limitations imposed by the 19th century patriarchy.” The basic idea was that Dickinson loaded her work with references to peas, crumbs and flower buds in order to broadcast secret messages of forbidden onanistic delights to other female illuminati. “Why does she write in such short, explosive sentences?” the speaker asked. “The style is clitoral, as far as I’m concerned.”

The professional critic cannot tell people how to read without being bossy about what to read. There is a good deal to be gained from a strong-minded critic who forces you to follow his reasoning, if not his taste. When the feisty traditionalist Allen Tate came out for Emily Dickinson setting her against a background of declining religious belief in New England, he was disapproving of the decline, even condescending about it in his hierarchical Southern way. But he did understand the anxious suspension of belief that Dickinson was talking about in her poetry, and hence the tension that makes her glorious. And that’s what true criticism is: the ability to state preferences, to make choices on the basis of what is said in the only way available to that particular writer to say it.

But this is difficult and rare. Edmund Wilson had such a fine-tuned literary instinct that he considered Dante a steadier, greater craftsman than Shakespeare. But he didn’t have enough patience with Dante’s theology to show how the craft worked on the basis of the vision. In his marvelous first book of criticism, “Axel’s Castle” (1931), Wilson knew exactly what Proust was doing because he could make connections: “Not only do his hero and most of his other characters pass into mortal declines, but their world itself seems to be coming to an end.” Wilson’s timing was fortunate when he finished toiling through Proust’s seven books (13 volumes) in his own immaculate French. It was 1932, the Depression was on, and he knew what a society in decline was like. Similarly, he read the early published fragments of “Finnegans Wake” with such meticulous care that, for all the ingenuity of Joyce’s style, he recognized how essentially passive, conventional and even domestic Joyce’s values were.

But who was there in the first decades of the century to recognize that despite all Dreiser’s clumsiness, despite Theodore Dreiser’s very personality, one might say, “Sister Carrie” was a true work of art and “An American Tragedy” an even greater one? H.L. Mencken championed “Sister Carrie” because its brutal honesty about sex knocked to pieces the WASP tradition that allowed Professor Charles Eliot Norton to warn Edith Wharton that no first-class work of fiction had ever been written about “illicit passion.” Mencken was a German, he hated WASPS, and Dreiser was another German. But Mencken, as reactionary as Calvin Coolidge, could not tolerate the social truth of “An American Tragedy.”


It is all rather funny in a way. I have lived through the Marxist ‘30s, when Proust was consigned to the dustbin of history; and the New Criticism of the ‘40s and ‘50s, when hungry sheep looking up to be fed found no Donne-like tension, paradox, or ambiguity in poor simple Walt Whitman; and the angry ‘60s, when I heard that William Faulkner contributed nothing to the civil rights struggle; and the unfocused ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, when the tides of ideology washed over me without mercy. Living through all of this I have to say that, between racial-sexual-political partisanship and the devaluation of individual authorship by deconstructionists, criticism has become a threat to what my dear old teacher Mark Van Doren gallantly held up as the Private Reader.

Criticism as theory has so come to dominate the academy that Jonathan Culler at Cornell readily pronounces:

“Another way to put this would be to say that formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but that now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism. Specifically, the history of literature in our day depends on what happens in the critical communities in universities: what is canonized, what is explicated, what is articulated as a major problem for literature.”

But that’s not the whole problem. Nor is it just that so many people are angry. We live in a time that ominously foretells our future, and people are right to be dumbfounded by the thought. George Orwell, immediately after the Second World War, in an essay called “Why I Write,” said that the writer’s “subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in--at least this is true in tumultuous revolutionary ages like our own--but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”


The problem is that everybody has their reasons. No doubt this is what all the fratricide is about. But it so affects us that the common bond our culture once assumed no longer exists, when works of art conveyed an irremovable sense of the past (Faulkner said the past is not even past), and such was the central dimension of literature. We seem to forget that, just as theology takes the idea or the fantasy of immortality for granted, so literature seeks to reclaim the world that is constantly receding from us. The aim of literature has always been to reconcile us to life by showing that it is not limited to the actual data of existence. A real novel is harder to read than an essay in criticism because the key to a work of imagination is the necessary relation of one part to another and of each part to the whole. Interpretation is generally loose, tries to make points. But criticism dominates when readers are insecure and easily impressed by any show of guidance. Only in an age so fragmented, so ignorant of the unlosable past working in us, can presumably literate persons speak of Dante, Beethoven or Tolstoy as “dead white European males.”

It is true that literature can no longer be regarded anywhere as the truth about human existence, but then neither is science regarded like that. Despite the valiant claims--from Matthew Arnold to Wallace Stevens--made for poetry as a replacement for religion, nothing on that order of cosmic imagination has taken place. Poetry is too often satisfied with technical perfection and verbal surprise and, the early modernists aside, has little to say that requires so intricate a form of thinking as poetry. It is true, all too true, that literature is besieged by movies and hijacked by television, so commercialized that the million-dollar advances handed out to macho spy novelists make life difficult for quieter talents. But is it necessary to value literature too by all that high-minded rage, to leave no quiet spot on Earth for us to rejoin ourselves by reading, as it were? We have to remember our common humanity, leaving our much-needed liberations aside for the moment, and to realize that what drives the writer on is the radical insufficiency of language.

This does not mean that language is suspect in itself. Of course language is not the god that the romantics proclaimed. But what makes us uneasy is not what language does or doesn’t do but how it betrays the human heart. Language does not lie, brutalize, distort, exaggerate, evade or kill; we do. When I despair of how little literature in our time expresses the shrinking of hope, the end of more than our century itself, I will go back to a certain passage from Chapter 12 in “Madame Bovary” (in Francis Steegmuller’s translation). After many weeks of lovemaking, the cold and shallow libertine Rodolphe is growing tired of Emma’s passionate protestations of love:

“Since he had heard those same words uttered by loose women or prostitutes, he had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them now: the more flowery a person’s speech, he thought, the more suspect the feelings, or lack of feelings, it concealed. Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”