The Myth Makers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

V. S. Pritchett’s place in the literary culture of the twentieth century is secure; he has distinguished himself as a short story writer, novelist, travel-writer, critic, autobiographer, and biographer. Although he is now eighty years old, he is far from being in the twilight of his career. Within the past year he has published two books, a collection of short stories, and a set of critical essays, which make it clear that he is not yet ready for a summing-up. The quality of these creative and critical works strongly suggest that Pritchett’s literary career is continuing apace much to the good fortune of all who value the world of humane letters.

There is a connection between Pritchett the critic and Pritchett the short story writer. Like the stories in On the Edge of the Cliff, the essays in The Myth Makers are focused in large measure on traits of character and mind. As a matter of fact, almost all of the nineteen essays in the collection, ranging from Solzhenitsyn to Borges, take their point of departure from biographical or autobiographical materials. In this sense, Pritchett is an old-fashioned critic, very much concerned with the quality of a writer’s temperament and the social circumstances that helped to shape it. But this interest quite obviously springs not only from an interest in the nature of the creative life but also from a belief in the importance of the connection between that life and the work it produces.

Although he never mentions the New Criticism directly, it is clear that Pritchett takes a dim view of it—or at least of those critics who believe that a work of art can be approached meaningfully as an entity separated from the “accidental” context of time, place, and individual temperament. But it is equally clear that Pritchett cannot be regarded as an essentially Romantic critic, more concerned with exploring the nature of genius than with interpreting, analyzing, or evaluating its products. In the main, his criticism is well-balanced. His own practice makes it clear that he regards an understanding of the writer to be an important step toward the understanding of his work; and he occasionally directly records his disappointment with critics who fail to move from this point to an analysis of the distinguishing characteristics and artistic strategies of the writers with whom they have concerned themselves.

The characteristics of Pritchett’s criticism are not unlike those reflected in his fiction. He is broad-gauged, subtle, witty, compassionate, unpretentious, and, for the most part, serenely objective in his judgments. He is careful to call attention, without succumbing to the American vice of footnotes, to critics whose insights have been helpful to him; and when he takes exception to a critic, he does so gently and usually with good humor. He speaks on one occasion, for example, of a “scholarly trapeze act,” a highly speculative interpretive leap through time which he had enjoyed but could not accept. The hackles of his prose are perceptible only when he encounters technocratic or formulaic criticism, or when the English language is distorted and mutilated by the ugliness and obscurity of jargon.

Almost half of the book is given over to seven Russian writers; and, taken together, they provide an impressive overview of the great tradition of vitality and compassion in Russian literature. Pushkin, the “founding father,” was a man with a tremendous appetite for life who succeeded...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)