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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A World Apart: Contemporary Literature and the Academy--Part II

Posted by Daniel Green on 09/13/06 at 01:33 PM

Note: Part I of this post can be found here.

. . .Considering that if there was a reigning critical orthodoxy at the time [Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence and Marcus Klein’s After Alienation] were written it was New Critical formalism, one might expect them to show the influence of this method, but their origin in academic discourse and assumptions is to be seen in other ways. Both books are interested not in the close reading of text, nor even really in describing the specifically aesthetic qualities of the fiction they survey at all, but in classifying and categorizing, in isolating the thematic and structural features of these works that help Hassan and Klein compose a broader treatise on American literature as a whole, on modern intellectual history, on postwar American culture. Both are thesis-driven books—in each case, the thesis encapsulated in the book’s title—that seek to capture their cultural moment or identify a “certain tendency” in current practice, in effect to stay ahead of the literary curve, able to take the comprehensive view unavailable even to the writers whose practices are at issue. In so doing, these books proved to be the scholarly model for many academic studies of contemporary fiction to follow, which together could be taken as a kind of serial attempt to find the highest ground from which to scan the literary horizon. Indeed, this sort of well-positioned survey of current fiction would become arguably the most ambitious kind of scholarly book produced by the academic critics duly charged with the professional scrutiny of contemporary literature.

In Hassan’s case, the abstracted conceptual marker is that of radical innocence, a characteristic of the “new hero” of postwar fiction, who “brings the brilliant extremities of the American conscience and imagination to bear on the equable tenor of our present culture” (6). Using this encompassing idea, Hassan makes his way through selected postwar novels, showing how in all of them “the disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation” (7). That Hassan has much bigger game than present-day novels and novelists in his sights is further evidenced just in the titles of some of his chapters: “The Modern Self in Recoil”; “The Dialectic of Initiation in America.” Although Hassan’s readings (generally brief) of particular novels and stories can certainly be insightful, and in some cases remain useful critical references for readers interested in writers Hassan discusses (the reading of Salinger, for example, which benefits in an unforeseen way from the truncated nature of his career), as a whole the book is necessarily constrained by the author’s need to fit notable postwar fiction inside the critical framework he has erected. The notion that the protagonists of the various fictions he surveys are to one degree or another marked by a “radical innocence” remains a cogent enough formulation, applicable to a significant number of American novels—not only postwar novels—but it seems unlikely that Hassan was persuaded by its cogency only after a disinterested sampling of all of the diverse kinds of fiction produced by American writers after World War II. Such a sampling would be less dramatic in its pronouncements than Radical Innocence, to be sure, and would perhaps at best result in a rambling style of discussion such as that to be found in Frederick Karl’s encyclopedic American Fictions 1940-1980. The more learned analysis of Radical Innocence certainly allows for the kind of elevated commentary that might be thought appropriate for the critic who is also a professional academic.

Many of the writers on whom Hassan focuses his attention have continued to be regarded as important postwar American writers (many of their books, at any rate, continue to be read, or least continue to be in print). A few of them, such as Jean Stafford and Frederick Buechner, are no longer very frequently discussed, a few others, such as Robie Macauley and Harvey Swados, have almost entirely faded from critical view. By and large, however, one could construct a credible syllabus for a course on American fiction of the 1950s and 1960s using those writers whose works Hassan gives the most extensive consideration: William Styron, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Salinger, Saul Bellow. Indeed, any truly comprehensive survey of American fiction in the second half of the twentieth century would readily include any or all of these writers. Radical Innocence was a considerably influential book, for many years after credited as the first general study of contemporary fiction, which inevitably leads to the question of the book’s own role in producing a consensus view of what writers really matter, in helping to determine what might be called a provisional canon of academically sanctioned contemporary writing. Was it simply obvious in 1961 that these would be the important writers of the immediate postwar period? Was Ihab Hassan especially discerning in being able to point them out? To what extent were succeeding scholars, instructors, and students persuaded by Hassan’s analysis, perhaps reinforced by other, subsequent, scholarly books and articles, enough to invest it with the authority to establish appropriate standards for this provisional canon?

Moreover, to what extent can it be said that the touchstone provided by Hassan’s book (Klein’s as well) served to initiate a process whereby “criticism” as an ongoing activity of weighing the merits of current work was brought completely within the confines of the literary academy? During the 1950s and at least partly through the 1960s there were still literary critics who worked independently of university English departments, producing intellectually respectable, albeit by today’s standards excessively “belletristic” literary criticism. With the advent of academic criticism of the sort Radical Innocence portends, such “popular” criticism begins its decline into the superficial book reviewing and book chat it essentially, with exceptions, has become. With the further transformation of text-based academic criticism into theory and cultural studies, an unforeseen consequence of the triumph of “contemporary literature” in the academy is now that very little of what previously counted as literary criticism is even published at all. Certainly Ihab Hassan could not have fully anticipated such a development, but one could argue that implicit in the project of shifting literary criticism to the academy is the possibility that it will be subject to variations in the prevailing academic paradigm.

Reading Radical Innocence today, however, one can’t help but be struck by how inexactly it appears to fit any single academic paradigm. Influenced by American studies, incorporating elements of existential philosophy, myth criticism, and cultural anthropology, but not identical with any of these, it is, as I have already stressed, still a notable book in part because it helped to create a place for the study of contemporary literature, in effect to build a new paradigm suitable for academic discussion of current writing. Yet if it does not conform to any particular version of the then sanctioned scholarly methodology, it might not either be regarded by today’s academic readers as altogether “scholarly” in its presentation, at least according to presently preferred procedures and standards of decorum. Chapter 4, “The Victim with a Thousand Faces,” begins:

History in the West seems to be consumed before it is made. The modern age belongs already to the past, the contemporary period yields to the immediate present, and the present in America fades in pursuit of an uncreated future. Obsolescence is the tribute we pay to our faith in perfectibility. And yet we continue to wonder about the internal logic, the unheard voice and the impalpable fatality, of the moment in which we live. (61)

The degree here of undocumented assertion, of outright, naked pronouncement, would probably not easily be accepted in the now prevailing cooler climate of scholarly discourse (however heated the underlying issues). But ultimately such prose, characteristic of the book, although not exclusively so, is not so much insufficiently academic—judged by complexity of thought rather than an established orientation to subject or style—as it is only the most obvious indication that Hassan’s overriding purpose in Radical Innocence is to express his own vision of the “modern condition,” contemporary fiction offering him the most immediately salient representations of this condition.

That much postwar American fiction does conveniently illustrate Hassan’s thesis is undeniably true, but it is also true that something like “radical innocence” is a character trait deeply rooted in American literary history and that it many ways it is not surprising this trait would reemerge with particular color and urgency in the years not simply following on World War II but also marking the beginnings of the Cold War. This is not so much a criticism of Hassan for a lack of originality or a willingness to rely on critical conventional wisdom as a more general point about the kind of stock-taking, multi-author study Radical Innocence represents. Any genuinely penetrating analysis of works of literature requires attention to particulars, if not exhaustive treatment of a particular work then careful consideration of any given work in the context of its author’s other works, at the least an assessment of the concrete effects of such tangible matters as, say, genre, or unmistakable anxieties of influence. Books that, following Radical Innocence, seek to in effect disclose the essence of contemporary writing or identify the truly significant contemporary writers, however much they may capture some relevant feature of recent literary fiction inevitably miss the many other more immediately “existential” features one actually encounters in reading individual works of fiction in favor of academic abstraction.

No more than Hassan is Marcus Klein in After Alienation much concerned with the aesthetic particulars of the works he examines, although he does discuss his five authors in more detail and across the full range of their at the time published fiction. He asserts quite explicitly, in fact, that “[t[he something new in these writers. . .is to be defined historically. . .in terms of the relevance of these writers [Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Wright Morris, Bernard Malamud] to the age.” Their importance “does not reside in any formal inventions or in any preferences of technique.” Rather, their fiction, “for all that it tends away from explicitly social subjects, is shaped by the social and political pressures of an age that is the most desperate in all history” (294). The hyperbole here is especially striking, since Klein’s enunciated thesis is that what makes his chosen writers “relevant to the age” is, presumably in response to the “social and political pressures” that under the circumstances could only be overwhelming, their work represents an “accommodation” to the realities of modern life, an “adjustment to the social fact” (29) in contrast to the typically modernist attitude of “alienation.” To adjust to the social facts of “an age that is the most desperate in all history” would seem a literary feat of remarkable rhetorical skill indeed.

Nevertheless, it is just such a determination to avoid the moral evasions of alienation that Klein locates in the work of Bellow et. al. For if Hassan draws on more eclectic sources of critical analysis, Klein seems a more straightforward moral critic of the kind perhaps most prominently represented in the postwar era by the New York intellectuals. These critics, associated in particular with the publications Commentary and Partisan Review, were indeed notable for the serious attention they gave to the work of current writers, and, initially at least, were mostly unaffiliated with university literary study. But by the mid 1960s not only were a number of the more prominent New York intellectuals (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) increasingly moving into university-sponsored positions, but younger critics in part inspired by them were also entering the university as bona fide academics. Klein, who received his Ph.D from the Columbia University English department of Lionel Trilling and Richard Chase, seems clearly to be writing from within the ambit of the New York critics and their focus on the social and cultural efficacy of literature, and his book represents both the exhaustion of Partisan Review-style criticism as an independent critical movement and its assimilation into the broader authority of academic literary study, as well as a kind of final capitulation to that authority about which even someone as thoroughly ensconced in academe as Trilling had expressed reservations (Leitch 109-14).

It is also a material example of the rightward political drift of the New York school as whole by the mid 60s, in this case manifested not so much in the neoconservative political views to which many of the original New York intellectuals became increasingly inclined but in Klein’s outright disdain for the legacy of modernism, or at least the American version of this legacy, which he reduces to the assumed attitude of “alienation.” The New York critics are remembered largely as the expositors of modernism, champions of modernist complexity, although their enthusiasm for modernist writing was allied with a belief in its political potential. Klein continues this preoccupation with “social engagement”—“Social engagement,” he writes at one point, “is the meaning of accommodation” (26)—but the social/cultural significance Klein discerns in the fiction he singles out in his book is of a decidedly moderate if not utterly conformist character. In isolating those qualities of this fiction that allow him to argue it shows an accommodation to the social realities of postwar America one could also say that Klein robs it of its capacity to do anything other than affirm, and in so doing take its orderly place in Klein’s own accommodationist Cold War sociology.

That Klein would prove to be wildly wrong about, at the very least, the endurance of this move toward accommodation among American writers—even as Klein was publishing his book an intensely iconoclastic and unaccommodating strain of comic and experimental fiction was beginning to appear and would eventually come to seem the most significant development in postwar American fiction—and even arguably exaggerated the degree of accommodation expressed in, especially, Ellison, Baldwin, and Malamud is not the most important point to be made about After Alienation, however, although it does insure that few people would want to read it now aside from its historical interest. But it does have historical interest as the prototype for the academic survey in which contemporary literature provides a useful tool for sounding out fluctuations in the cultural atmosphere, however much the writing itself stands in as notional subject. The book further offers a compelling illustration that an interest in literature as political instrument or as the means for “cultural criticism,” no matter how “radical” its origins or “engaged” with the social and moral issues to which literature affords a point of access, is ultimately fully consonant with an academic criticism that likewise exploits the cultural standing of literature as a way of elevating its own discursively distinct project. In both cases, moreover, the aesthetic import of work not yet fully assimilated into even the most expansively defined literary “canon” is not merely ignored but implicitly judged not to be the concern of criticism at all.

If anything, After Alienation is even less interested in aesthetic analysis than Radical Innocence. Klein’s chapters consist mainly of a series of plot synopses and cursory explications that keep the writer focused on the book’s thesis that the important American writers after World War II move toward accommodation, which Klein at least manages to stress with some efficiency. It is noteworthy that, at a time when the prevailing academic critical method was –or is now broadly perceived to have been—New Criticism, these two books that first bring extended scholarly attention to postwar American fiction so resolutely resist formalism altogether, much less the specific presuppositions now attached to the New Critics. This approach to contemporary fiction—as a source of ideas or examples or cultural generalizations but not really as the object of detailed formal or aesthetic critique—has been prevalent enough in subsequent years that one could wonder whether there doesn’t after all lurk beneath the expanding scrutiny of contemporary fiction a residual uncertainty about its artistic value in the long run. How far beyond the disdain for contemporary writing embodied in the curriculum against which Klinkowitz rebelled is it really to allow certain writers and their work a kind of utility for advancing a brand of academic cultural commentary but implicitly regarding it as otherwise ill-suited to the ends of aesthetic inquiry? (To the extent, of course, that aesthetic inquiry is itself regarded as relevant to the business of academic criticism.)


Comments

Thank you, Dan, for having brilliantly articulated the problems with Klein’s book, which I’ve for years been fumbling toward identifying.

By on 09/13/06 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan writes: “The book further offers a compelling illustration that an interest in literature as political instrument or as the means for “cultural criticism,” no matter how “radical” its origins or “engaged” with the social and moral issues to which literature affords a point of access, is ultimately fully consonant with an academic criticism that likewise exploits the cultural standing of literature as a way of elevating its own discursively distinct project. In both cases, moreover, the aesthetic import of work not yet fully assimilated into even the most expansively defined literary “canon” is not merely ignored but implicitly judged not to be the concern of criticism at all.”

What I don’t understand is this: Dan argues that academic criticism “exploits” the cultural capital of literature for “its own discursively distinct project.” The next sentence states that such criticism ignores the aesthetics of literature, so I’m assuming that the binaries look like this:

contemporary literature : academic criticism :: aesthetics : social and political ideas
form : content

At the same time, how can you argue that writers like Bellow, Ellison, and Malamud aren’t themselves trying to gauge the existential and social and ethical and political atmosphere of their times?  I agree that criticism that ignores form, or believes that you can simply extract content without attention to form (like many New Historicists), is often limited or misguided.  But while there are pleasures in form for form’s sake, the novel is rarely a literary mode that revels in them.  The novel has, from the start, been a formal means of anatomizing a society.  A good Ellison critic must attend to the dense symbolism and brilliantly constructed narrative voice; but s/he must also attend to how Ellison puts aesthetics in the service of an existential and social vision.  (And then a good scholar would also show how Ellison’s forms and content relate to other arts, and other social discourses, of his era.)

What’s interesting is the shift that takes place in the canon of contemporary American fiction.  Once the “pure” postmodernists begin to take over, criticism (shaped by semiotics, structuralism, and deconstruction) often becomes purely formal.  Look at much of the work on John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Sorrentino, Pynchon, etc.

By on 09/14/06 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But while there are pleasures in form for form’s sake, the novel is rarely a literary mode that revels in them.”

I guess we haven’t read the same novels.

By Dan Green on 09/14/06 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan, when I say that few novels seem to revel strictly in form for form’s sake, I’m thinking of novels like Barthelme’s *Snow White*, in which formal play is—according to some readers—raised above, or removed from, the level of content.  Or some of Robbe-Grillet’s work, in which he refuses content entirely.  John Hawkes early work might also be an example of fiction more interested in form than content. 

But even the most formally self-conscious fiction I can think of—Kafka, Proust, Joyce, late James—experiments with form in the service of a philosophical and/or social mission: Kafka’s attacks on the idea of authority; Proust on how memory and idealization work; Joyce and James on social taxonomy and interrelation. 

As I wrote, a good critic must attend to these formal aspects.  But to do so without also attending to (a) the content of these forms; and (b) the content expressed through these forms, would be to distort the literature as much as a purely content-based reading. 

So even a reading of Robbe-Grillet would need to contextualize his formal experiments in relation to his writing on the novel and metaphysics and how he viewed the content-less work of art as a rebellion against instrumental rationality. 

I do agree that the early 60s marks a moment when the American critic decides that criticism must do something similar to the literature of his time: define and critique “the American social climate.” So we get Hassan and Leslie Fiedler and others reacting against purely formal readings and attempting to use criticism, like the New York critics, or like the essays of Ellison and Baldwin, to get at the Social through the high cultural. 

But as I asked before, why do you suppose that, by the late 60s and 70s, the novelists (Barth), poets (LANGAUAGE), and critics (semiotics, deconstruction) turn away from such immediate social criticism and shift toward language play, the ludic, the formal?

By on 09/14/06 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just don’t agree that the writers you mention wrote novels “in the service of a philosophical and/or social mission.” I know of no evidence whatsoever that any of these writers was on any kind of “mission” at all except to write the kind of formally challenging fiction they did indeed write. Academic critics have found “attacks on the idea of authority” and “social taxonomy and interrelation,” but nothing in my reading of this fiction convinces me that Kafka and Joyce were primarily interested in this sort of thing. Thus, the postmodernists didn’t “turn away” from social criticism; they were extending that part of the modernist project that rejected social “engagement.”

By Daniel Green on 09/14/06 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So Daniel, you’re willing to say that Joyce and Kafka, for example, chose their content randomly or without any concern, that their only concern was with challenging artistic form?

By “philosophical and/or social mission,” I don’t mean a political or ideological program.  I mean that they had ideas to experiment with and think through, and that literary form is a way of thinking, not simply a way of being. 

Nearly every Kafka text is a guilty challenge to authority.  To say that he didn’t have a social mission—that he had no ideas or thoughts to communicate to others—seems odd.  To say that his ideas aren’t tied intimately to his forms seems odd as well.

And did the modernists really reject social engagement?  Pound’s life work was ethical, political, and economic in nature.  Eliot was constantly diagnosing the spiritual decline of the West.  Woolf’s feminism is important here.  Reznikoff and Zukofsky, Dos Passos—classic 30s political ideas.  Faulkner and Fitzgerald take on, like WC Williams, american national myths.  They might have rejected allegiance to a particular social movement—like Dedalus and Irish nationalism in *Portrait*—but they certainly didn’t reject ideas of social reformation and the way art might be tied to moral, ethical, philosophical, and political concerns.

By on 09/14/06 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So Daniel, you’re willing to say that Joyce and Kafka, for example, chose their content randomly or without any concern, that their only concern was with challenging artistic form?”

It would be silly to say they chose their subjects “randomly.” (I don’t use the word “content,” because I don’t know what it means other than as a synonym for subject.) Who would make such a suggestion?

“I mean that they had ideas to experiment with and think through, and that literary form is a way of thinking, not simply a way of being.”

They did indeed have literary ideas to think through, but, again, nothing in my reading of Joyce and Kafka (especially Joyce) makes me conclude they saw fiction as a way of communicating “ideas” of the kind you’re talking about. I don’t think literary form is either “a way of thinking” or a “way of being.” I think it’s a way of creating literary art.

By Daniel Green on 09/14/06 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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