The Company We Keep (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Prominent critics of the late twentieth century have taken turns announcing the death of ethical criticism; in this new book, Wayne Booth dares to declare its rebirth—as well affirming its centrality to the very act of reading and interpreting literature. Despite the daunting task Booth has set for himself in this learned, weighty treatise, he is clearly more than equal to it. During his illustrious academic career, Booth has published a number of important, well-received books on literary theory as well as more than a hundred articles, essays, and reviews on various rhetorical and other literary topics, including the teaching of writing. Since Booth has also served as the coeditor of Critical Inquiry, a preeminent journal of literary theory and criticism, it is not surprising that this current volume should merge two of the reigning interests reflected in his published work: exploring the processes of literacy—how and why writers and readers do what they do—and ascertaining the sources of the value placed on reading literature.
Just as Booth’s first work, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), almost single-handedly revived the rhetorical study of fiction, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction offers the prospect of rehabilitating the notion of evaluative criticism—that is, of assaying the responsibilities authors and readers have to one another and to the texts that bring them together. Booth continues his stabilizing influence in contemporary criticism by mediating between extremes in warring critical camps and establishing moderating boundaries for a responsible pluralism in contemporary criticism. Refusing to align himself with any one critical camp, Booth attempts to articulate a wholeness and balance in the critical response to literary texts. This new work specifically addresses the question of how personal or corporate values within a culture can influence the creation, understanding, and interpretation of texts and how every reader is licensed to enter the “conversation” about their literary merit.
The Company We Keep in many ways exemplifies the rhetorical strategies characteristic of Booth’s other principal works: challenging orthodoxies while at the same time calling for the restoration of neglected or forgotten notions and modes of inquiry. Here, too, his prose is at once playful and profound, comprising both witty conversation and determined polemic. He regards his reader as an interested and interesting friend. One is never lectured or cajoled, and Booth plays the game according to the rules he tries to articulate in this work. At its best, The Company We Keep engages readers on many levels. While concentrating on “literary” issues, Booth still manages to educate the attentive reader broadly with wide, quite breath-taking surveys of what such disciplines as philosophy of science, psychology, sociology, linguistics, and physics might contribute to one’s understanding of the theory and practice of ethical criticism. Even Booth’s frequently expansive footnotes are instructive—even indispensable—often rivaling in informative value the main texts of less talented contemporary critics and theorists. Any given page from this book seems not so much to contain information as to overflow with it, the product of the fertile argumentation of a writer whose early reputation as a master rhetorician is consistently upheld. Yet nothing here is gratuitous or obscurantist; eschewing the opacity and sleight of hand embraced by other practitioners within literary theory, Booth makes every argument count, each one fitting into the elaborate foundation he has designed to undergird his apologia for ethical criticism.
Booth divides his book into three parts: “Relocating Ethical Criticism,” an attempt to explain why “ethical criticism fell on hard times” and how it might be revived; “Criticism as Ethical Culture,” where Booth delineates how authors, readers, and texts ingratiate themselves as lively components within a reading community, and then how each proceeds both to reflect and to challenge received notions about what constitutes an ethical act; and “Doctrinal Criticism,” a final elucidation of how specifically ideological criticism—feminist criticism is the prototype here—often operates to affirm and, unwittingly, to undermine the program of depoliticizing discourse. A comprehensive bibliography of ethical criticism and related works adds to the usefulness of the book and underscores the comprehensiveness of Booth’s achievement in this book.
Booth begins his rehabilitation of ethical criticism with an anecdote recalling his uneasiness twenty-five years earlier when a young black colleague at the University of Chicago denounced Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) as a racist work for its demeaning depiction of blacks and refused to teach it. Booth suggests that he and his fellow teachers at the time regarded this response simply as naïve or uninformed. Upon later reflection, Booth declares that he has come to realize that what this black professor had in fact uncovered is the illegitimate but unacknowledged tendency in modern academic criticism to divorce oneself blithely from the moral implications of a text—to focus instead on its supposedly neutral and extractable “aesthetic” qualities and to leave...
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