Assault on Mount Helicon Essay - Critical Context

Mary Barnard

Critical Context

During the early decades of the twentieth century, there were two competitive and almost mutually exclusive communities of literary thinkers in the United States. The more influential and better-known, the one which controlled university departments, was predominantly British in its orientation, formalist in its philosophy of composition, and classical in its methods of critical inquiry. The other, almost entirely invisible to the public and with practically no influence in publishing or scholarship, actually surrounded the English tradition, reaching back to multinational literary antiquity and forward to a future embracing the new world. Its approach to composition was not bound by traditional literary expectation, and its critical thinking challenged the concept of a formal confine that awaited the artist’s approach. It was, in Jerome Rothenberg’s words, “a counterpoetics that presents . . . a fundamentally new view of the relationship between consciousness, language, and poetic structure.” Most students of literature during that time were inclined by exposure, influence, and the circumstances of publishing toward the academic tradition. A few, in various unique and unusual situations, were drawn toward the “revolutionary” strain. Mary Barnard, seemingly suited by character, background, and training to follow a conventional literary career, became instead a part of an outlaw network of American artists whose radical sensibility and aesthetic daring and originality finally began to achieve appropriate recognition in the last decades of the twentieth century. Her memoir overlaps both literary communities in that she worked as an assistant for the historian Carl Van Doren, attended library gatherings (such as the Yaddo colony), and knew relatively mainstream figures such as Delmore Schwartz and E. E. Cummings, but her friendship with her correspondents and her contact with publisher James Laughlin, whom she met when he was starting the legendary New Directions press, form the most memorable part of her historical record. Her book is an indispensable account of the thoughts and feelings of several major figures in American literature at a time when they were still struggling beyond the bounds of the defensive, conservative, and self-enclosed world of American letters.