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An Age of Criticism

THE ADVENT of literary genius is unaccountable. The creators appear unheralded, like men coming from the sea. Thereupon, and at once, appear the critics, who are tame creatures of the land, to escort them and mediate for them with their public. There is little mystery about the critics, and the public scarcely expects to see forming for them in turn an escort composed of critics of the critics. The critic springs up like the member of any other profession, because he is needed in the economy of things, to cope with the novel utterances of the creators, and assimilate them into the permanent sense which the race has of its literature. A good deal is done by the critic if he does this. Though he has no existence independently of the creative artist, yet ideally he is formidable, he is possessed of quick sensibility and capable of powerful conviction. By this standard today we have critics of unusual quality. There is also an extraordinary quantity of them, but that is not an accident. Perhaps a fine artist will give employment to half a dozen critics, depending on his felt human importance, and the public difficulty in receiving his innovation. But in the half-century just finished we have witnessed a furious burst of creative activity, and many artists so far ahead of their public, yet causing such a passion of teased interest, that they employed critics for a whole generation before the public could have comfortable possession.

By and large, the critics have made slow work, not quick work, of such artists as Proust and Mann and Kafka, Conrad and Ford, Joyce, Robinson and Frost, Yeats and Eliot, Lawrence and Forster, Dreiser and Anderson, Hemingway and Faulkner, Auden and Dylan Thomas, Shaw and O’Neill and Christopher Fry. (I call names casually, not as trying for a best list.) Evidently the period is not quite finished, nor are the critics finished with the period. But the great surge from the deep seems about to have spent itself at the moment when it is survived by its best and most numerous company of critics who are left lingering on the strand. Shall we say that they were called into professional existence in force exceeding the occasion? Are they the casualties of an occupation which is only “seasonable”? Or is it their cue now to turn and attack each other to see who is strong enough to take the lean livelihood which is left?

But of course not; these are absurd ideas. For what is it that actually happens? The literature produced in our desperate half-century was both ingenuous and sophisticated, but either way it was almost discontinuous with the literature to which we were accustomed. Only by hard work did the collective critical intelligence master and define it; by straining the existing sense of literature to accommodate it. And unquestionably there were strains which most critics thought they could not make in the name of literature, works which they refused to canonize. But now a reverse operation is proceeding. The illumination cast by the new is turned backward upon the old, and some of the old literature alters appreciably in that light. Our age has to use literature in terms of its own urgencies. Succeeding ages are certain to reject many of our prepossessions, yet some of them may prove to be final; our literature has appealed to human interests unusually immediate, radical and vital. However that may be the older literary works are under busy reconsideration by the critics, and some of them prove sturdier than we knew while others lose substance. In our American literature the modern critics confer new life upon Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, and find desiccation in other writers once fully as reputable. Among the giants of British literature the critics make displacements too; in the fictions, of course, and in the anthology of lyric poetry. So our critics still find a great deal of work to occupy them. If it is not with current production it is in administering the ancient literature estate which has been inherited; that is, in taking the fresh look at it, to keep it liquid and usable.

But many critics grow in the range of their intellectual interest, and some are brilliantly equipped. They do not stop with applying their modern perceptions to the re-study of the older literature. They plunge into literary theory. They generalize, for example, about the structural techniques of fiction, or the diction and topology of poetry. This is a study which the philosophers would bring under logic. Yet that is no stopping-place. From there they are led into the metaphysics of literature, and discuss its curious manifestations in terms of a reality principle. In literature we are in a world of fantasy and imagination. What is the human purpose which drives us there, and what is the reality of these constructions? These questions occupied Coleridge, who perhaps is first in the line of modern critics. It was out of entire familiarity with these questions that Matthew Arnold declared that poetry dealt in the same fluid existences as did religion, but escaped the dangerous commitments of religion. But Arnold did not engage in formal philosophy, nor did he have the modern philosophy of the unconscious. Discussion of this sort is probably the intellectual limit of our criticism, or of any criticism. In this area the moderns are in the act of writing their versions of literary aesthetics. It is too soon to tell what it will be worth, but not to Say that at a certain point in the growth of a critic it becomes imperative. So here is criticism, on its modern scale, with its spirited personnel, in its variety and in the unevenness of its intellectual levels. It is tempting to draw a long bow and say that it is a new event which the whole course of literature has been preparing. Professional criticism as we have it could hardly come into existence till the art of writing developed, and then the art of printing, and then the technique of mass-producing the books, with its corollary of universal education; and not even then till a spectacular creative outburst could start it off. In our talk about the advent of the creative artist there is usually a pretty gyration, and something of an anachronism. What are we going to do in actual practice with the utterance that “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.” Being Walt Whitman’s, it is the utterance of a very late oracle, and it is a romantic figuration, still coveting for literature the primitive, the oral, occasion. The age when everything is printed, and everybody can read, is the age of literature meant for the eye; and the study; and though a true work of literature, in prose or verse, is indubitably meant for the ear too, it is for the ear of the imagination responding to the eye, and it is physically sonorous only in the final act of authentication. It is therefore quite feasible to have the poet both come and go before the audience appears. It is the critics who will find and prepare the audiences— who are simply the readers—finding them first among the veteran readers in their private leisures; and if the critics are ever to find the audiences “en masse,” as Whitman required, then it will be later: it will be in the schoolroom.