The Tale Bearers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In protest to Romanticism’s doctrine of self-expression, New Criticism stormed American literary critics in the 1930’s. Books abundant with symbols and literary allusions like James Joyce’s Ulysses helped lead such scholars as R. P. Blackmur and Cleanth Brooks to separate literature from other types of discourse such as philosophy and science in search of the intrinsic meaning and thus the intrinsic value of any given poem or novel. Although never blanketly accepted, New Criticism has most recently been attacked by deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida in France and Paul de Man in the United States who insist that literature is composed of an arbitrary sequence of words which bears no necessary relation to the writer’s situation or intent. Scholars deconstruct literature by discerning the full range of possible interpretations, any one of which a reader might accept validly. Despite the appeal of the debate, neither New Criticism nor deconstruction, both of which find support in scholarly journals as well as even The New York Times Book Review, has enlisted such prolific critics as V. S. Pritchett who view the academic debate with disdain.

Although Pritchett usually treats his subjects with kindness and even generosity, he occasionally snipes at academic critics in his latest book, The Tale Bearers. During a discussion of Max Beerbohm, Pritchett says, “I feared what would happen to Max if he was put through the American academic mangle. There seems to be a convention that this machine must begin by stunning its victim with the obvious... .” In an essay on E. F. Benson, he muses,I have often thought that professors of English Lit. should take time off from the central glooms of genius and consider these lesser entertainers who are deeply suggestive; but perhaps it is as well that the Academy winces at the idea for we would hate to see our fun damped down by explication.

Yet, in The Myth Makers, last year’s companion anthology, he decried “the present academic habit of turning literary criticism into technology.”

Pritchett’s literary accomplishments provide the powder for his rock and salt shots at academic literary criticism. The Tale Bearers is the eighty-one-year-old’s thirty-second book and his seventh volume of literary criticism. It follows five novels—of which Mr. Beluncle is his most celebrated, ten short-story collections, two biographies, two autobiographies, and six travel books, including The Spanish Temper, a model for that genre. Pritchett, who was knighted a few years ago for his literary accomplishments, abstains only from writing poetry and essays on poetry and poets’ lives, largely perhaps because poetry criticism has become an enterprise of academicians.

Although he is vocal, Pritchett counters the academics chiefly by example. He is concerned with the nuances of a writer’s personality and the social milieu that helped to fashion it. He is capable of precise and complex scrutiny of style, and he will exercise this capability from time to time, but he usually analyzes a writer by digging for the wellsprings of personality and watching for the ways that they will surface in the writer’s works. Often this search for the sources of personality becomes a modified Freudian analysis: Pritchett writes about Henry James the hermaphrodite (James is not alone), and he classifies imagination into pre- and post-puberty. The themes of childhood and adolescence recur prominently. Pritchett does not emphasize the psychological at the expense of the social, though, so he offers the reader an effort at balance.

“E. M. Forster: A Private Voice” is indicative of Pritchett’s method of explication. Among his nineteen books, including Where Angels Fear...

(The entire section is 1557 words.)