Cleanth October Brooks

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Monroe K. Spears (review date 7 May 1987)

SOURCE: "'Kipper of de Vineyards,'" in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIV, No. 8, May 7, 1987, pp. 38-41.

[Spears is an American educator and critic. In the review below, he favorably assesses Brooks's The Language of the American South, noting his concern with the significance of language in the interpretation of literature.]

That Cleanth Brooks, after a long and distinguished career as a literary critic, should now produce a book about language may surprise some readers. But it must be remembered that language was one of his strong early interests: among his first publications were The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (1935) and "The English Language of the South" (1937, often reprinted). Besides, he is concerned here not with language for its own sake, but with its larger significances and particularly its relation to literature.

An innocent reader might easily take this short book for a pleasant but unimportant academic exercise. Yet, though never contentious, it takes firm positions on many controversial issues, and its affirmations, though tentatively and mildly made, are profound and wide reaching. The choice of subject itself might in some circles be regarded almost as a manifesto. For Mr. Brooks demonstrates that the study of language is highly relevant to the interpretation of literature, and although he says nothing whatever about matters of academic organization, this demonstration would seem to call into question the powerful trend in universities now to segregate language studies in separate departments of linguistics and semiotics, where the approach tends to be more "scientific" than humane.

Mr. Brooks begins by asserting, in opposition to the increasingly common view that such differences are superficial and trivial, the fundamental importance of the difference between northern and southern English. Citing the stubborn way the Welsh, the French Canadians, and the divided Belgians, for example, have held on to their native language "because they regarded it as a badge of their identity and because they felt that only through it could they express their inner beings, their attitudes and emotions, and even their own concepts of reality," he affirms that "the soul of a people is embodied in the language peculiar to them." He does not argue that southern English is really a separate language, of course, but rather that it is a distinct idiom and dialect. In his first lecture, "Where It Came From," he describes its origin in terms so convincing that it takes an effort to recall how furiously they have been disputed. His first point is that all American English "obviously derives from the English that was spoken in Great Britain several centuries ago"; therefore "we Americans speak an old-fashioned English." It is English English that has changed, not American. For example, the broad a in such words as path, last, laugh was a nineteenth-century innovation in England, and the pronunciation of the final g in such words as going, doing, thinking, a still later one: the pronunciation of g was restored perhaps owing to the insistence of "the Victorian schoolmarm and her American counterpart" on pronouncing words as they were spelled. But if Americans in general are old-fashioned in pronunciation, southerners, especially in the coastal regions, are the most old-fashioned of all.

How account, then, for the differences between Southern pronunciation and that of Massachusetts Bay, for example, settled at roughly the same time? By considering place as well as time: that is, the part of England from which the early colonists of each region came. For example, in...

(This entire section contains 10193 words.)

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pronouncingbarn the New Englander and southerner (unlike other Americans) agree in dropping the r, but use different vowel sounds, and Mr. Brooks suggests that the explanation is that their ancestors came from, respectively, East Anglia and southern England.

At this point, however, when to go further into the relations of American dialects to their English antecedents would require much definition and explanation, Mr. Brooks provides instead two striking illustrations of the resemblance between Coastal Southern and the dialect of southern England. Taking Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus to illustrate Coastal Southern, he notes that his gwine is also characteristic of Hardy's Dorsetshire countrymen, and that his pronunciation of pert as peart and muskmelon as mushmillion is also recorded in Dorset. Even more strikingly, he quotes an 1860 rendering of a Sussex countryman speaking The Song of Solomon. It begins:

"De song of songs, dat is Solomon's…. Cause of de smell of yer good intments, yer naüm is lik intment tipped out; derefore de maidens love ye…. Look not upan me, cause I be black, cause de sun has shoun upan me; my mother's childun was mad wud me; dey maüd me kipper of de vineyards; but my own vineyard I han't kipt…. My beloved spoke, an said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an come away…. Jest a liddle while âhter I passed by em, I foun him dat my soul loves…."

How explain the startling resemblance? Since it is inconceivable that the Sussex countrymen could have learned their speech from American blacks, "the Englishmen who emigrated to the Southern states and from whom the black man necessarily had to learn his English—from whom else could he have learned it?—must have come predominantly from the counties of southern England." Mr. Brooks limits himself to a single feature, the pronunciation of the, this, and that as de, dis, and dat. Did southern white men ever use this pronunciation? Mr. Brooks shows that the forms are recorded in Sussex and Kent as early as the sixteenth century and as late as the 1960s, though they are now almost extinct. He then cites evidence that they survive among white southern Americans, though barely. Why did they become characteristic of blacks?

The blacks, who were at first denied education and later on got only a rather poor and limited "book learning," held on to what their ancestors had learned by ear and which had been passed on to them through oral tradition. In short, they rather faithfully preserved what they had heard, were little influenced by spelling, and in general actually served as a conservative force.

Mr. Brooks notes that the blacks have influenced the language "through their intonation, through their own rhythms, through the development of striking metaphors, new word coinages, and fresh idioms." But he is at pains to deny that they perverted or corrupted it. Thus he rejects the common explanation that blacks in the nineteenth century and earlier were unable to pronounce th: "Uncle Remus apparently has no trouble with the voiceless th: he can say thin, think, and thank perfectly well. It is the voiced th that he regularly converts to a d, and this is exactly the distinction that the yeomen of Sussex and Kent were making back in the seventeenth century and continued to make for two centuries later." Summing up his "hypothesis," Mr. Brooks says that the "language of the South almost certainly came from the south of England." In addition to Kent and Sussex, Essex and London were, he says, probably important as sources of the early settlers' dialects.

Except for details (like initial voiced th- becoming d- in both Sussex and early Coastal Southern) and examples, Mr. Brooks's argument here is not new; it is basically the same one that he expounded in 1935, and generally in line with the views of dialect geographers such as Hans Kurath, Raven McDavid, and Frederic Cassidy (editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English [DARE], of which the first volume appeared this year). Though Mr. Brooks has never professed to be more than an amateur in these matters, his early work was enough to establish him in a curious role as archetypal dialect geographer—a kind of culture villain or bête noir to creolists and sociolinguists who hold fundamentally different views. (Dialect geographers believe geographical origin and distribution are the most important factors in the study of dialects; sociolinguists give primacy to sociological factors; and creolists to contact languages.) There is an intriguing parallel here to Mr. Brooks's equally curious role as archetypal New Critic, or bête noir to opponents of that equally mythical conspiracy. Why should a man who is personally so mild and inoffensive and who writes with such courtesy and moderation arouse such hostility? I don't understand it; I can only conjecture that the exceptional clarity and definiteness with which he states his positions make him an easy target.

J. L. Dillard, whose books Black English and All-American English I reviewed in [The New York Review of Books] some years ago ["You Makin' Sense" (November 16, 1972); "American, Black, Creole, Pidgin, and Spanish English" (July 17, 1975)], will serve as an example of the linguistic Young Turks. In his allegorical or mythical landscape, embattled creolists and sociolinguists are besieging the bastions of the Establishment, which are defended by dialect geographers. As a creolist, Mr. Dillard stresses the role of contact languages, pidgins, some of which became creoles. In the case of Black English, his thesis is that from Gullah (the Afro-English of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, which everyone agrees was a genuine creole) developed a plantation creole which spread over the whole continent and eventually became black English.

Black English, or Black English Vernacular (BEV), as described by Mr. Dillard and his cohorts, is monolithic, the same in Detroit, New York, and Shreveport; it is a distinct and ethnic dialect, and where its peculiarities agree with those of white speech, it is because the whites were influenced by it. There are said to be structural differences between white and black English as well as differences in vocabulary, though Mr. Dillard has lately moderated his earlier views: in Toward a Social History of American English (1985), he says,

Somewhere between the extremes of the one viewpoint that Black English differs only in "use" (discourse strategies, affective devices) from Standard English and the other that large numbers of Bantu or other African language words have survived must lie the truth about Black slang.

The most striking of these structural differentia are BEV invariant be, zero copula (she a big woman), and—Mr. Dillard's latest candidate for a unique characteristic—nonpassive preverbal been as anterior time marker, e.g., I been had it a long time. (He cites this form repeatedly both in his revision of Albert Marckwardt's American English, 1980, and his own 1985 book.)

Mr. Brooks says nothing of these controversies. He has always maintained (as have many professional linguists of all colors) that the blacks originally learned their English from the whites (and therefore learned the same regional English dialects), and that the only important difference is statistical: that is, because the blacks were more isolated and less educated, their language changed more slowly, and therefore more archaic or old-fashioned forms persisted. But in the present work he makes a point of acknowledging, as we have seen, that the blacks have influenced the language in important and valuable ways, not only through intonation and rhythm but through creating words and fresh and imaginative metaphors and idioms.

In his second and third lectures, Mr. Brooks engages in a kind of criticism that is so noncontroversial that, in other hands, it has a dreadful tendency toward banality. But Mr. Brooks makes it fascinating, partly because of his well-known perceptiveness and his brilliance in interpreting literature, and partly because of the skill with which he marshals the argument and makes clear its continuity with that of the first lecture in the book. The second lecture is called "The Language of the Gentry and the Folk," and its point is not merely that the two are different, but that the close relation and interplay between them is the secret of southern writing, insofar as it has a secret. As Mr. Brooks puts it,

The strength of even the more formal Southern writers stems from their knowledge of and rapport with the language spoken by the unlettered…. Our best writers have never held in contempt the speech of the folk or used it only for comic effects.

He begins with a quotation from Allen Tate's The Fathers (1938) in which the narrator describes his father's speech (in the antebellum South) as operating on four levels, ranging from Johnsonian formal to three kinds of conversational: first, with family and friends; second, with "plain people," abounding in many archaisms; and third, with Negroes, whose speech was "merely late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century English ossified." "He would not have understood our conception of 'correct English.' Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste." Mr. Brooks remarks that this account "represents a giant's step beyond the received opinion of 1938 … and, I make bold to say, beyond even that commonly held today." After an example from Longstreet's Georgia Scenes, Mr. Brooks returns to Uncle Remus to consider another way in which the language of the folk can be used for literary effect. "Harris employs the dialect as it issues from the lips of Uncle Remus without ironic intent. He clearly admires its power to express the old man's wit and wisdom." There is no condescension toward either the medium or the character; to tell the stories without the dialect would deprive them of most of their charm. Mr. Brooks analyzes one of the stories to show its literary quality; its "comedy is firmly grounded in reality," and abounds in "sound insights into the human situation."

For examples of the language of the gentry in the antebellum South, Mr. Brooks quotes from another part of Tate's The Fathers and the Cass Mastern section of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men that follows:

So the Mantuan said, when Venus appeared and the true goddess was revealed by her gait. She came into the room and was the true goddess as revealed in her movement, and was, but for Divine Grace (if such be granted to a parcel of corruption such as I), my true damnation. She gave me her hand and spoke with a tingling huskiness which made me think of rubbing my hand upon a soft deep-piled cloth, like velvet, or upon a fur. It would not have been called a musical voice such as is generally admired. I know that, but I can only set down what effect it worked upon my own organs of hearing.

The latter quotation leads naturally to a contrasting quotation of one of Willie Stark's speeches from the same work:

"Folks, there's going to be a leetle mite of trouble back in town. Between me and that Legislature-ful of hyena-headed, feist-faced, belly-dragging sons of slack-gutted she-wolves. If you know what I mean. Well, I been looking at them and their kind so long, I just figured I'd take me a little trip and see what human folks looked like in the face before I clean forgot. Well, you all look human. More or less. And sensible. In spite of what they're saying back in that Legislature and getting paid five dollars a day of your tax money for saying it."

From an earlier novel of Warren's, At Heaven's Gate, there is an example of Hill Southern dialect:

[Marie] "would be done work and I would be waitin. Ax or layin to a crosscut all day, and I would see her comin out of that there kitchen and me waitin in the dark and the weariness was not nuthin. It was lak I was wakin up fresh and a sunbeam done smote you on the eyeball and roused you….

I never taken to likker lak I use to, and likker is a sin. But a man cannot be good out of plain human kindness. He cannot be good for it ain't in a pore man. He cannot be good unlest it is good in the light of Gods eye. Gods eye ain't on him and he just swaps one sin for another one, and it was worse maybe. I laid off likker but I swapped for another sin. I laid off likker for Marie but it was because of pore human love and not for Gods love."

Mr. Brooks then proceeds to another master of the various aspects of southern speech, Faulkner, whose "range extends across the whole spectrum of Coastal or Lowland Southern, literate and illiterate." He chooses as example one of my own favorites, "Pantaloon in Black," and notes that the dialect in which the young black man, Rider, speaks makes an important contribution to the effectiveness of the story: "Prettify it or formalize it, and the magical reality is lost." When Rider comes back to his cabin after the burial of his young wife Mannie, he finds her "'standing in the kitchen door, looking at him.'"

"Mannie," he said. "Hit's awright. Ah aint afraid." Then he took a step toward her, slow, not even raising his hand yet, and stopped. Then he took another step. But this time as soon as he moved she began to fade. He stopped at once, not breathing again, motionless, willing his eyes to see that she had stopped too. But she had not stopped. She was fading, going. "Wait," he said, talking as sweet as he had ever heard his voice speak to a woman: "Den lemme go wid you, honey." But she was going.

He deals briefly with two examples from The Hamlet, one showing the poetic speech of poor whites:

They walked in a close clump, tramping their shadows into the road's mild dust, blotting the shadows of the burgeoning trees which soared, trunk branch and twig against the pale sky, delicate and finely thinned. They passed the dark store. Then the pear tree came in sight. It rose in mazed and silver immobility like exploding snow; the mockingbird still sang in it. "Look at that tree," Varner said. "It ought to make this year, sho."

"Corn'll make this year too," one said.

"A moon like this is good for every growing thing outen earth," Varner said. "I mind when we and Mrs. Varner was expecting Eula. Already had a mess of children and maybe we ought to quit them. But I wanted some more gals. Others had done married and moved away, and a passel of boys, soon as they get big enough to be worth anything, they aint got time to work. Got to set around store and talk. But a gal will stay home and work until she does get married. So there was a old woman told my mammy once that if a woman showed her belly to the full moon after she had done caught, it would be a gal. So Mrs. Varner taken and laid every night with the moon on her nekid belly, until it fulled and after. I could lay may ear to her belly and hear Eula kicking and scrouging like all get-out, feeling the moon."

The other renders satirically the speech of a Texas auctioneer:

"Them ponies is gentle as a dove, boys. The man that buys them will get the best piece of horseflesh he ever forked or druv for the money. Naturally they got spirit; I aint selling crowbait. Besides, who'd want Texas crowbait anyway, with Mississippi full of it?" His stare was still absent and unwinking; there was no mirth or humor in his voice and there was neither mirth nor humor in the single guffaw which came from the rear of the group. Two wagons were now drawing out of the road at the same time, up to the fence. The men got down from them and tied them to the fence and approached. "Come up, boys," the Texan said. "You're just in time to buy a good gentle horse cheap."

The final lecture in the book is called "The Language in the Present Day." Mr. Brooks here returns to the importance of rapport with the language of the folk in even the most formal southern writing, and convincingly illustrates this point by quoting passages from poems. In Warren's "Dragon Country" the narrator's

use of words like spectators and averted marks him as a man of some education, with a knowledge of the great world outside. But we sense almost immediately that he grew up in the country, is thoroughly familiar with the local idiom, and can give an authentic report on the impact that this horror made on his neighbors. Thus he is doubly articulate and a convincing reporter on what occurred. He even uses the speech rhythms of the plain people.

       But that was long back, in my youth, just the first of case after case.        The great hunts fizzled. You followed the track of disrepair,        Ruined fence, blood-smear, brush broken, but came in the end to a place        With weed unbent and leaf calm—and nothing, nothing, was there.        So what, in God's name, could men think when they couldn't bring to bay        That belly-dragging, earth-evil, but found that it took to air?        Thirty-thirty or buckshot might fail, but at least you could say        You had faced it—assuming, of course, that you had survived the affair.

John Crowe Ransom's lines are similarly local:

        Autumn days in our section         Are the most used-up thing on earth         (Or in the waters under the earth)         Having no more color nor predilection         Than cornstalks too wet for the fire.

The colloquial element is strong even in Tate:

        Man, dull criter of enormous head,         What would he look at in the coiling sky?

But for more obvious and extensive examples "of the literary artist's dependence upon the spoken language," he turns to prose fiction and discusses Eudora Welty's "The Petrified Man" and The Ponder Heart. Peter Taylor's "Miss Leonora When Last Seen" and "Guests" provide further examples of specifically southern kinds of speech and manners, and so does Flannery O'Connor's "The Enduring Chill"—again, one of my own particular favorites, a story at once devastatingly grim and increasingly hilarious. (Mr. Brooks quotes Robert Kiely's comparison of Joyce Carol Oates to Flannery O'Connor, ending, "If you take away the dialect, the laughter, and the redemption, that's right. She's just like Flannery O'Connor.") Finally, he discusses several passages from Walker Percy's novels. Every reader will want to add further examples—I think immediately of J. K. Toole, Padgett Powell, Ellen Gilchrist—but obviously there is no end to such additions.

At the end of the second lecture, Mr. Brooks raises the question whether it is the language that gives the southern writers their distinction or the material itself. Without going into this ultimate question of aesthetics, he suggests that it is not possible to make a sharp distinction between content and form: "When we try to describe one person to another …, what do we say? Not usually how or what that person ate, rarely what he wore, only occasionally how he managed his job—no, what we tell is what he said and, if we are good mimics, how he said it. We apparently consider a person's spoken words the true essence of his being."

The affirmation in [The Language of the American South] is, it seems to me, essentially the same one that is implicit or explicit in all Cleanth Brooks's more narrowly literary criticism. His vision is one of unity (and, though the phrase has grown unfashionable, one must add "organic," for the quality of aliveness is as important to Mr. Brooks as it was to Coleridge), of unity in diversity, of a fruitful tension between opposite and discordant qualities. Mr. Brooks has always maintained that attention to language is of fundamental importance in literary interpretation (or simply good reading), because we cannot separate the thing said from the words in which it is said, form from content, ideas or "messages" from metaphor, rhythm, and connotation, character from situation and narrative, and so on.

The work of art, as he sees it, exists in the interplay among all these elements, in the vision of the whole; to stress one element at the expense of the others is to distort it. In the present book he applies the same principle specifically to language, affirming its importance in literature and in life, and the value of diversity, of retaining the separate identities of Southern speech, as of other dialects and idioms, within the larger unity. As we have seen, he suggests that the close relation and interplay between folk and gentry, formal and colloquial, white and black, is the secret of the vitality of Southern language. He might be described as being against separatism: against segregating white from black English as, by implication, he is against separating the study of language from that of literature, and as he is certainly against taking any one element or aspect of the literary work for the whole. On the other hand, he is certainly opposed to the kind of total assimilation that would abolish or ignore all individual differences.

Mr. Brooks's writing, unobtrusive but highly effective in its patient logic and occasional eloquence, is very different from that of most people who deal with similar subjects. The older "establishment" linguists tend toward a dignified dullness (excepting some good and often entertaining writers such as James Sledd and the late Raven McDavid), while the "scientific" or hyphenated socio- and psycholinguists tend to ignore style and sometimes grammar, as if to demonstrate that they are not fussy about language. His conclusion is, however, one that I should think a linguist of any school would agree with enthusiastically. The most dangerous enemy of the Southern language, he says, is miseducation: "foolishly incorrect theories of what constitutes good English, an insistence on spelling pronunciations, and the propagation of bureaucratese, sociologese, and psychologese, which American business, politics, and academies seem to exude as a matter of course."

In many of his other books, Mr. Brooks has written eloquently about the relation between the debasement and corruption of our language by ruthless and manipulative people and our prevalent failure in commitment to any beliefs and in self-knowledge. To debauch the language is to debauch the minds of those who use it. He closes the present book with a comparison to Yeats's Ireland, which, like the South, had a vigorous oral literature and a brilliant written literature, mainly modern. Yeats's fear was that the mass of people would lose the virtues of the oral tradition without ever having achieved mastery of the written tradition; and Mr. Brooks fears that modern Southerners will have "lost the ability to tell a good yarn or appreciate it when told, and yet not be able to read with understanding and delight the great literature of the past and present. Such loss is not made up for by sitting bemused, watching a situation comedy or even the best programs of our public television networks for four or five hours a day." Genuine literature, he writes,

is not a luxury commodity but neither is it an assembly-line product. It cannot be mass produced. It has to be hand made, fashioned by a genuine craftsman out of honest human emotions and experiences, in the making of which the indispensable material is our common language, in all its variety, complexity, and richness.

Eric Sundquist (review date 15 November 1987)

SOURCE: A review of On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner, in The New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1987, p. 27.

[Sundquist is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he provides a mixed assessment of On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner.]

His three previous books on Faulkner have established Cleanth Brooks as one of the novelist's leading critics in the last 30 years. Still, Mr. Brooks's interpretations of major works have not always been as influential as his insights into less studied aspects of the Faulkner canon. This most recent collection [On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner] of 12 essays, all but one of them first delivered as lectures dating as far back as 1971, is no exception. The essays that treat perennial Faulkner topics—the notion of community in his novels, his women characters or his values—are the least interesting of the group. More provocative are topical pieces arguing that the Fugitive poets praised Faulkner earlier than critics have claimed, or detailing the misconceptions of the South that have characterized most British reactions to Faulkner; or surprising literary observations, such as the wide-ranging and inventive essay on "motherless children" in Faulkner's novels. Likewise, Mr. Brooks's invocation of theories from other disciplines produces uneven results. Eric Voegelin's gnostic conception of history does not help us see Thomas Sutpen's flawed grand design in Absalom, Absalom! much more clearly; on the other hand, Christopher Lasch's notions about the managerial and professional invasion of the modern self turn out to be surprisingly consonant with Faulkner's view of the decay of individualism in his late and little-known essay, "On Privacy." Witty and gracefully written, Mr. Brooks's essays are perhaps too anecdotal, and the level of discussion often rather mundane. His focus on character and theme, at the expense of attention to Faulkner's style or recent research on Southern social history that more recent critics have examined, makes his perspective seem overly conventional. At the right moments, however, Mr. Brooks remains one of the most thoughtful and imaginative readers of Faulkner.

Frederick Crews (essay date 7 March 1991)

SOURCE: "The Strange Fate of William Faulkner," The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 5, March 7, 1991, pp. 47-52.

[Crews is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from an essay that surveys several recent volumes of Faulkner criticism, he assails Brooks's recent and past interpretations of Faulkner's work as "Agrarian party line" and "indefensible."]

By the postwar era the points of irreconcilable conflict between Agrarian/New Critics and ex-Marxist intellectuals had narrowed to an extraordinary degree. All were congregating in the academy, none were pressing activist causes, and for varying reasons they all could make their peace with both literary nationalism and international modernism as it was personified, however fastidiously, in "Mr. Eliot." Since there was much in Faulkner's work that could have caused unreconstructed Agrarians and Marxists alike to accuse him of political waywardness, this blurring of old antagonisms was crucial for the coming Faulkner boom. By the 1950s, moreover, a widespread revulsion against Soviet artistic regimentation had given Faulkner's stock still another lift, creating greater sympathy for his eccentric stylistic flights, his distrust of utopian agitators, and his individualistic probing of (formerly characterized as his morbid wallowing in) private regressions and fixations.

Vast in scope, morally engaged without being propagandistic, studded with complex image patterns, and intractable to ready explanation, Faulkner's newly republished writings beckoned as an inexhaustible-looking supply of raw material for what John Crowe Ransom, without derogatory intent, called Criticism, Inc. Thus Faulkner was destined to become the object of "an outpouring of critical attention," as one observer has noted, "such as no other writer, it may be, in the whole history of letters has received so near the time of his work, and such as only a few writers have received at any time" [Richard H. Brodhead, Faulkner: New Perspectives, 1983].

The main image of Faulkner to emerge from all that early attention, however, would necessarily reflect both the dominant critical style of the universities and the specific politics of the southern-born professors who largely shaped that style. For many years, and with surprisingly few exceptions, the academy contented itself with a formalist-Agrarian Faulkner—formalist, because his works were assumed to possess a unifying "moral vision," and Agrarian, because the alleged content of that vision flattered southern traditionalism without counting its cost in misery. The result was a body of criticism that occluded Faulkner's improvisation and interior debate, reduced his often daring characterizations to illustrated moral lessons, and subtly adulterated and softened his anguish over southern history.

The leading book in this vein also happens to have been, thus far, the most influential, as well as the most widely assailed, of all Faulkner studies: Cleanth Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963). Teachers still pull it from the shelf when they need to sort out Faulkner's bewildering social world, and even today one can discern its residual effect on critics who resent the main drift of contemporary criticism. To them, Brooks is not an ideologue but merely an affectionately objective critic who happens to know Faulkner's South at first hand. What Brooks actually gave us, however—and what became the leading strain of Faulkner criticism for a whole generation of teachers and students—was in effect the Agrarian party line.

For Brooks, Faulkner is primarily a spinner of instructive tales about the Old South and the New as they are typified in a single northern Mississippi county. In characteristic Agrarian style, the critic holds that the admittedly exploitative plantation system coexisted with a nobler, poorer South made up of independent white farmers whose values—courage, honor, perseverance, loyalty to family and village and religion—derived from a life of working the soil that their hardy forefathers had cleared from the wilderness. The chief offenses against those values, Brooks believes, can be found not in slavery, which was at least partially redeemed by its paternalism, but in secular northern materialism, especially as it corrupted the helpless South after 1865.

According to Brooks, Faulkner's novels relate the lingering consequences of that incursion while nevertheless showing how local solidarity has managed to survive as both a fact and a standard. "Community" thus becomes the central Faulknerian value in Brooks's hands, and "fanaticism" the error that inevitably brings about misfortune. In his view, for example, Light in August teaches us to beware the self-destructiveness of outsiders, like Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, who lack a stable local identity and so cannot temper their extremism with mundane and humanizing involvements. And Absalom, Absalom! purportedly depicts a similar tragic flaw in Thomas Sutpen, whose fierce disregard of his neighbors leads to his eventual fall and, what seems almost worse, reveals him to be not a southerner at all but a generic American innocent driven by abstract (i.e., northern) notions.

As many recent critics have shown, these are highly dubious interpretations. The main reason for Brooks's dwindling appeal, however, lies not in this or that misreading but in the high price we must pay for assenting to his notion of community. Brooks would have us see an absolute opposition between Faulkner's criminals and zealots on one side and, on the other, the solidly rooted burghers and farmers of the town of Jefferson and its surrounding acres. But that provincial enclave as Faulkner depicts it looks like anything but a showcase of southern virtue. It is rather a bastion of segregation, chicanery, night-riding, lynching, and the routine oppression of women; and its antebellum record, in Faulkner's rendering, is no better, beginning with the theft of the land from gullible Indians and culminating in the incestuous union of Carothers McCaslin with his own half-white slave daughter and his racist spurning of the resultant child/grandchild. Brooks quite gratuitously assumes, and asks that we, too, assume, that all those crimes and vices are outweighed in Faulkner's scale of values by the bare fact of social cohesion among the conforming whites.

For a long while now, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country has been an object of faint praise and increasingly fierce denunciation. Brooks, however, has continued to fill out his original picture of Faulkner, serenely addressing himself to various works and problems that had found no place in his first study. After William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), came William Faulkner: First Encounters (1983), and then On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (1987). Those books show an understandable decline of critical energy but no retreat from a position that now appears indefensible.

It would be pointless, then, to dwell on the shortcomings of Brooks's most recent collection of talks and essays. Suffice it to say that he remains determined to regard Faulkner's novels as the fictionalized illustration of holistic ideas, especially those that show off southern virtue to best advantage. "A great literary artist such as Faulkner," as he puts it, "helps the rest of the country and the rest of the world to understand us better." Some of the values thus paraded appear to unravel in the very act of being named—for example, "the feminine principle," which Faulkner is said to have treasured because male energies "require being checked and channeled into fruitful enterprises." Brooks's deeper liability, however, remains what it always was, the formalist's overeagerness to sift homilies from texts that could otherwise yield any number of disruptive implications.

Carol M. Andrews (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Cleanth Brooks on Faulkner: Yoknapatawpha and the Vanderbilt Tradition," in The Vanderbilt Tradition: Essays in Honor of Thomas Daniel Young, edited by Mark Royden Winchell, Louisiana State University Press, 1991, pp. 189-96.

[An educator and critic, Andrews frequently writes about William Faulkner. In the essay below, she analyzes Brooks's studies of Faulkner.]

Cleanth Brooks writes with an authority not easily matched in Faulkner criticism. His firsthand experience of southern culture, his comprehensive knowledge of literary tradition, and his clear sense of humanity enable him to cut through the absurdities and extravagances of much writing about Faulkner. Yet this very authority can pose a problem for the reader trying to understand the complexities of Faulkner's fiction; it can be difficult to separate Brooks's own critical precepts from the fictional world he makes so accessible to the reader. The New Criticism, which Brooks inherited from the Fugitives and developed into a revolutionary method for analyzing the verbal structures of a work of literature, carries with it the conservative values of a patriarchal, agrarian society. Focusing his study of Faulkner on the concept of community, one of the central concerns of the Vanderbilt group, Brooks sees in Yoknapatawpha an inherent order that may be a product of his own desire for order.

Although he dislikes the term "New Criticism," Brooks has long been considered one of the foremost practitioners of the approach. The New Critics—T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and the Nashville group, particularly John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—see the work of art as a self-contained entity, independent from biographical and historical considerations, that through its internal relationships imparts a unique vision of reality. Brooks states in Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) that

Hobbes reduced the poet from the status of maker to that of copyist by making the imagination merely the file-clerk of the memory. He would have the poet take literally the phrase "to hold the mirror up to nature." A mirror can reflect the poetic object placed before it. But if we are to use the term mirror at all, it is rather a distortion mirror which the poet carries, or better still, a lens with which he gives a focus to experience. At all events, the emphasis must be placed on the poet's making.

As Frank Lentricchia points out [in "The Place of Cleanth Brooks," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism XXXIX (Winter 1970)], the "lens" to which Brooks refers gives his theory a radical character when compared with the mirror of Aristotle and the lamp of Coleridge, for "his intention is no less than to elevate poetry to a unique position in human culture by giving the poem itself the autonomous capacity that will enable it to contribute to the very constitution of the total body of knowledge on which the culture stands."

The New Critics themselves apparently saw no conflict between their radical aesthetic philosophy and conservative social values. The Vanderbilt group felt the devastation of World War I as a loss of "a world order, a civilizational community," and therefore launched the Agrarian movement as a part of "the quest for a symbolism of community, for the restoration of a symbolism of order" [Lewis P. Simpson, introduction to The Possibilities of Order: Cleanth Brooks and His Work, edited by Simpson, 1976]. I'll Take My Stand (1930) fiercely decried the way that industrialism and progress had separated Americans from the humane values of Western civilization. Poetry, with its unique relationship to culture, could be one of the ways of linking the present with the past.

Brooks, who attended Vanderbilt as an undergraduate from 1924 to 1928, did not participate in the making of I'll Take My Stand but was deeply influenced by the "self-conscious, highly literate Vanderbilt clerisy." He applied their philosophy to literature in Modern Poetry and the Tradition, evaluating poetry according to its participation in the larger community of literary tradition. According to Brooks, the Victorians, as well as Americans such as Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, wrote a "poetry of exclusion," limited and sentimental, that denied the poetic tradition preceding them. In contrast, John Donne, T. S. Eliot, and the Nashville group achieved a synthesis of past and present in a "poetry of inclusion," which Brooks sees as a more complex embodiment of reality. Ironically, then, the "New" Criticism is more a search for connections with an older tradition than it is a rejection of historicism. Like Eliot, Brooks values a poetic tradition that provides a community of voices.

Brooks also considers the text of a work to be a kind of community. In The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), his next full-length study, and A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft (1971), a much later collection of essays, he set himself the task of "discovering whether a poem is truly unified or chaotic, whether its parts are related or unrelated, whether it embodies order or is rent apart by disorder." Thus, as René Wellek points out [in "Cleanth Brooks, Critic of Critics," in Simpson], he was seeking in the structure of a poem the same connections and disjunctions he has found in literary tradition and civilization itself. But the "inclusiveness" of a poem is of a particular kind; "the principle is not one which involves the arrangement of the various elements into homogeneous groupings, pairing like with like. It unites the like with the unlike." The "total pattern" of a poem can "incorporate within itself items intrinsically beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive"; it makes use of irony, ambiguity, and paradox in order to produce a new ordering of reality.

Although this critical approach was developed for poetry, it seems admirably suited for Faulkner, who presents his readers with seemingly irreconcilable incongruities, contradictions, and paradoxes. When Brooks began to teach the Mississippi novelist's work at Yale in 1947, few critics had attempted to examine it for internal principles of order and coherence. George Marion O'Donnell (1939) and Malcolm Cowley (1946) had found organizing allegories or myths, Robert Penn Warren (1946) had written on recurrent themes and images, and Conrad Aiken (1939) and Warren Beck (1941) had analyzed style. But no one had attempted the synthesis of form and content that Brooks's approach to poetry would make possible.

Most of Brooks's work on Faulkner appears in four books: William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963), William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), William Faulkner: First Encounters (1983), and On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (1987). The Hidden God, published in 1963 but originally delivered as lectures in 1955, contains a chapter entitled "William Faulkner: Vision of Good and Evil," and several later essays published elsewhere are included in A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft (1971). The chapter from The Hidden God establishes some of the patterns Brooks sees as characteristic of Faulkner's world, but this essay merely sketches what The Yoknapatawpha Country develops in depth and detail.

In The Yoknapatawpha Country, Brooks set for himself what he called "the central critical task: to determine and evaluate the meaning of the work in the fullness of its depth and amplitude." The method of New Criticism, focusing on internal relations of the text itself, allowed him to avoid two dangers he saw in Faulkner criticism at the time he was writing: the sociological-historical approach that found Faulkner's subject matter trivial or distorted, and the "symbol-mongering" that lifted details out of context. Thus, to a great extent, his readings of the novels are corrective, but their strength is that they move beyond mere correction and present Faulkner's world as palpable, ordered, and profound.

In looking at Faulkner, Brooks focuses more on patterns of character and action than on the verbal patterns he examines so closely in his study of poetry. This shift can be seen in the themes he chooses to examine, which include "the role of the community, the theme of isolation and alienation, Puritanism under the hot Southern sun, the tension between the masculine and feminine principles, and the relation of the characters to the past." He examines the oppositions or polarities Faulkner so often presents in his novels—community and isolation, masculinity and femininity, present and past. Brooks resolves the tension of these oppositions by choosing one side by which to judge the other—community, masculine honor, the eternal feminine, the past—just as his teachers preferred the values of an earlier civilization to the dislocations of the present.

The chapter on Light in August, which in its focus on the community serves as a touchstone for Brooks's other readings, illustrates how he makes his judgments. Early in the chapter he describes the community as "the powerful though invisible force that quietly exerts itself in so much of Faulkner's work … the circumambient atmosphere, the essential ether of Faulkner's fiction." As an organizing principle, this sense of community might allow the mingling of contraries that is so crucial to Brooks's conception of literature: a community is defined by both its responsible citizens and its pariahs. Brooks pays careful attention to both sides of this contrast, considering the relation of all the outcasts to the community of Jefferson, but he finally comes down on the side of the community and its values: "The community is at once the field for man's action and the norm by which his action is judged and regulated." He distinguishes between Faulkner and other modern writers on the basis of community: "It sometimes seems that the sense of an organic community has all but disappeared from modern fiction, and the disappearance accounts for the terrifying self-consciousness and subjectivity of a great deal of modern writing. That Faulkner had some sense of an organic community still behind him was among his most important resources as a writer."

Brooks also makes a choice in terms of the novel's form; trying to decide between the possibilities of tragedy and comedy, he finds that the comic prevails: "Finally and generally, I believe, the mode is that of comedy…. Its function is to maintain sanity and human perspective in a scene of brutality and horror." Using one character by whom to evaluate the experience of the others, Brooks writes: "It is Lena and her instinct for nature, Lena and her rapport with the community, Lena as a link in the eternal progression from mother to daughter who provides the final norm for our judgment. In this connection Faulkner's abiding concern with man's endurance and his ability to suffer anything—compare the Nobel Prize speech—is worth remembering." Brooks does not allow for the radical questioning of the community's values implied in the life and death of Joe Christmas, a radicalism that cannot be contained by Lena's nonintellectual awareness. Faulkner, instead of placing a tragic story within a comic frame that contains it, uses the juxtaposition of the tragic and comic to reflect the complexity of experience.

When, in Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Brooks investigates the influence of romantic and decadent writers like Keats, Swinburne, Wilde, Gautier, Housman, and Eliot on the young Faulkner, he uses the traditional literary terms of romanticism and realism to define the poles of Faulkner's imagination. According to Brooks, Faulkner's invention of Yoknapatawpha County "provided him with a social context in which what was healthiest in his romanticism could live in fruitful tension with his realistic and detailed knowledge of the men and manners of his own land," while at the same time "the realistic, earthy life of Yoknapatawpha could be invested with the aura of the imagination, a mythic quality that could give vital import to what would otherwise have been drab and pedestrian."

In this second volume, Brooks also defines his understanding of Faulkner's modernism, again using the image of the lens to raise the question of localism versus universality: "The issues dealt with in his Yoknapatawpha novels ultimately concern universal human nature and they have reference to the world of the present. Faulkner uses Yoknapatawpha as a special lens that allows us to view with illuminating magnification and emphasis our own modernity." But Faulkner's modernism as seen by Brooks is not very modern. He continues to find in the novels "a coherent ethical and moral position that is traditional and conservative."

It is this last point, perhaps, that makes Brooks vulnerable to the charge of attempting to turn Faulkner into one of the Fugitives by claiming that Faulkner and they share the same values. Daniel Aaron, for example, says [in The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War, 1973] that "the exegesis of Warren and especially of Cleanth Brooks influenced Faulkner scholarship so profoundly, in fact, that the differences between him and the Nashville group have been obscured." This accusation is hardly fair or accurate, as no criticism that I know of has confused the two. In his reply "Faulkner and the Fugitive-Agrarians," Brooks denies that his and Warren's work was designed to make it appear that Faulkner shared their views: "In any case, Faulkner was too big to be attracted into anybody else's orbit. Warren and I would have been fools to think so."

Aaron argues, essentially, that Faulkner viewed the South with a certain detachment, whereas the Fugitives wrote southern propaganda. Brooks points out what he sees as Aaron's oversimplification by appealing to the texts, demonstrating that the Fugitives shared with Faulkner the need for southern self-criticism and that Faulkner shared with them the idea that there were certain southern virtues "worth defending and preserving." Ironically, Brooks thus does consciously what Aaron has accused him of doing unconsciously (finding a common ground for Faulkner and the Fugitives), but as he does so his close exegetical approach maintains the integrity of the texts at hand.

A more serious problem is raised by John Duvall in his essay "Faulkner's Critics and Women: The Voice of the Community" [in Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, eds., Faulkner and Women: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1985, 1986]. He uses Brooks as an example of "how Faulkner critics often appropriate the voices of the Southern community (as represented in Faulkner's novels and short stories) for their own writing practices." His criticism shows how such a point of view remains partial:

Brooks, the outside interpreter, consistently (if indirectly) identifies Faulkner with the utterances of certain male characters who exhibit benevolent paternalism. Such interpretive moments are a strategy of containment, and rhetorical violence adheres in the deductive leap to formations beginning "For Faulkner …" since they are always an appeal to the authority of the author, part of critics' attempts to legitimate their readings.

So many of Faulkner's novels find their subject matter in the multiple ways in which characters make meaning for themselves that it is impossible to reduce his view to one conservative, patriarchal version of southern history.

One side of Faulkner, the public figure given to pronouncements about what he called "the eternal verities"—qualities like pride and sacrifice and pity—does seem to reinforce Brooks's interpretation. Yet many characteristics of the novels themselves call this side of Faulkner into question. In constructing a "cosmos of his own," Faulkner seemed to need to distance the actual world from the artistic construct. He wrote many of his novels about absent characters who become the objects of narrative obsessions, with the symbolizing imaginations of the narrators replacing any real dealings with another person. He often gave up one narrative stance to adopt multiple narrative voices that, in their isolation, preclude the sharing of values necessary to a true community. His radical experiments with form, which cause no two novels to be alike, reflect an alien world, not a familiar one, with the dislocations of modernism part of their purpose. Faulkner does seem to share Brooks's idea of the work of art as an autotelic entity, as in the image of the vase "like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside" in Faulkner's posthumously published introduction to The Sound and the Fury, yet the interconnections among the novels complicate the issue, making the whole of Faulkner's work one intricate world.

On the one hand, New Criticism separates the work of art from politics, social issues, and even the historical context in which it was produced; on the other hand, the conservative values of its practitioners project or create a historical context that may distort the work. Brooks solves this conflict to his own satisfaction by seeing his traditional values as universal, inhering in human experience itself and therefore quite rightly represented in a work of art that separates itself from historical flux. The idea of a community of shared values in a self-contained work of art thus seems to him to be a natural, even necessary correlation. His conservatism, however, may not allow him to see the radicalism of Faulkner's experiments in fiction.

Michael L. Hall (review date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: "Well Wrought Facts," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. C, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. xxxviii-xli.

[Below, Hall favorably reviews Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry and compares it to Brooks's earlier work The Well Wrought Urn.]

Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry will be especially rewarding, as the title suggests, for readers interested in the good minor poetry of the seventeenth century. Some familiarity with the poets collected by H. J. C. Grierson and Geoffrey Bullough in their once standard Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse (1934), a book earlier generations of English doctoral students studied in preparation for oral qualifying examinations, would be helpful, but is not essential. The more general sort of educated readers will be happy to learn, however, that with Historical Evidence Cleanth Brooks also continues his lifelong project of teaching us how to read, understand, and appreciate literature.

Most obviously Historical Evidence may be approached as the demonstration Brooks claims it is of a method of reading old poems. In his introduction he remarks that his choice of seventeenth-century poetry was somewhat arbitrary, that he might just as well have performed his demonstrations with poems of a different period. He says he was "seriously tempted to choose poems printed between 1840 and 1890." He intends primarily to demonstrate that history is a valuable component of literary criticism: "Sometimes the biographer, the literary historian, and the lexicographer hold the keys necessary for unlocking a poem's full meaning, especially if the poem dates from an earlier time." Those startled to discover that Brooks still believes poems have meaning, full or otherwise, should be forewarned that he also speaks throughout this book of "literary value."

Brooks makes no effort, though, to join in recent critical debates. Nor is Historical Evidence a belated attempt, after more than forty years, to provide a corrective for the New Critical practices of The Well Wrought Urn (1947). In a brief epilogue Brooks notes connections between the two books and draws some obvious conclusions, but he makes no apologies. There remains, nevertheless, a complicated relationship between Historical Evidence and The Well Wrought Urn that should not be passed over lightly. Both books are, after all, demonstrations of interpretive practices that are usually applied to short lyric poems. Both begin with basic critical or theoretical assumptions but move quickly to specific examples. Both reprint the texts of the poems and rely heavily on close readings.

In other respects the two books offer contrasting mirror images. The Well Wrought Urn performs readings of some of the best-known poets of the canon: Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Herrick, Pope, Gray, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and Yeats. In many ways Brooks intended his earlier book to show that New Critical methods would work in all periods and on all poets. With Historical Evidence he turns to minor poets of a single period and to poems nearly forgotten by everyone, save an older generation of literary scholars and a few specialists in the seventeenth century—poems by Henry King, Richard Corbett, James Shirley, Aurelian Townshend, Sir Richard Fanshawe, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Sir Richard Lovelace, and Andrew Marvell. With the exception of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," "The Garden," and "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland," and perhaps not even excepting the last, these poems and poets will not be well known.

The Well Wrought Urn relies on familiarity and takes history and biography for granted, although not entirely. From time to time Brooks may remind us that "legend" "in Donne's time meant 'the life of a saint,'" or recall that Herrick was an Anglican parson to complicate the irony of "Corrina's Going A-Maying," or allude to the allegoric figures "which clutter a great abbey church such as that at Bath or at Westminster" to explain references in Gray's "Elegy." But in Historical Evidence he expects unfamiliarity and performs virtuoso readings by means of detailed historical and biographical references, as well as frequent recourse to the OED and other sources for contemporary seventeenth-century meanings of a poem's words. His learned and sensible account of Marvell's use of the word glew in "To His Coy Mistress" should finally dispatch any lingering notion that the poet thought his young lady was coated in "youthful glue."

Despite these contrasts, however, the two books are finally much more alike than they are different. Both exhibit a range of address now almost absent from literary criticism. Both concentrate attention on literary qualities now more often ignored than illuminated. Both insist on the necessity to let the poem "speak for itself" even after the historical evidence is presented, even against this evidence. After a particularly effective reading of Henry King's "An Exequy To his Matchlesse never to be forgotten Friend," Brooks reminds us that the Anglican Bishop who so lamented the loss of his wife Anne, and who in the final stanzas of his most successful poem looks forward to his reunion with her in death, "I shall at last sitt downe by Thee," not only may have married again but certainly was not reunited with Anne in a common grave, since as bishop of Chichester he was buried in his cathedral. Then Brooks challenges us with a familiar question: "Let us suppose that some scholar should come upon documentary evidence that Bishop King had remarried. Ought we in that case to think less of 'The Exequy'?" His answer comes as no surprise to readers of The Well Wrought Urn. After demonstrating that we cannot fully understand the meaning of King's "Exequy" without recourse to history and biography, Brooks reminds us that "this magnificent poem stands above and apart from all the vicissitudes of King's personal life" and "now enjoys a life of its own, not to be affected by what subsequently happened to its author or what he caused to happen."

Brooks's impressive range of address in Historical Evidence results in part from his allusions, often to poems that appeared in The Well Wrought Urn, but also to other poems both of the seventeenth century and afterward. The discussions of Hardy's poetry are a particular bonus, especially the comparison of "The Country Wedding" and John Hall's "On a Gentleman and His Wife," in which Brooks shows us why we may prefer Hardy to Hall, and why this is a poetic judgment on the relative success of the two poems as poems. Similarly his reading of James Shirley's "The glories of our blood and state" compares Shirley's poem to Gray's "Elegy," and then more briefly Gray's to Milton's "Il Penseroso," and finally concludes with a reading of Hardy's "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations.'" None of these allusions is incidental. Each helps to demonstrate connections between the specific historical context a poem may have grown out of and its ability to make contact with larger human universals.

Not that Brooks ignores differences. Noting contrasts is an important part of his method of reading, but his point is that the specific historical reading must give into a larger context that includes our knowledge of other periods and other styles of poetry. Brooks intends to demonstrate, finally, that his method of historical reading is not antiquarian but serves a larger purpose, and part of that purpose is to remind us why we would want to read these old poems, or any other works of literature, in the first place: "No one has ever doubted that poems (and novels and plays) are products of the culture out of which they came, and consequently at some level they must reflect that culture. But that fact does not prevent our assessing these literary documents on other levels, including what they can tell us about ourselves and about the universal human condition."

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