Enlarging the Change
Enlarging the Change: The Princeton Seminars in Literary Criticism, 1949-1951 is an unusual book for a variety of reasons. First, while the book is subtitled The Princeton Seminars in Literary Criticism, 1949-1951, it is not a collection of lectures or essays by various critics but is, in part, a report, or “meditation,” by the author-editor, Robert Fitzgerald, on those lectures and discussions. Second, as the title indicates, the seminars began years ago and have been resurrected out of the oblivion of a filing cabinet to be presented at a time when the critical scene is dominated by such esoteric systems as poststructuralism, and texts are to be deconstructed, not constructed as in 1949. Fitzgerald was aware of this problem, as the conclusion of his preface makes clear: “I do not think that any of these changes, or all of them, render obsolete the course of the discussions recorded in this book.” Indeed, many readers may welcome the airing of such unfashionable views from some very distinguished critics of that time. Fitzgerald himself was not a literary critic but a distinguished poet and translator; as he put it, speaking of himself in the third person, “The writer was not a New Critic nor indeed a critic of any title at all, though he had for some years put his mind on books and written about them for a living.” Fitzgerald’s mediating voice is a welcome guide for those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of literary criticism.
There are two important themes that underlie the seminars and the way in which Fitzgerald reacts to these presentations. The first of these is the perception, at the time, that the humanities were being slighted while the sciences were triumphant. The explosion of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima had occurred only a few years before, and that achievement demonstrated, more than any other, the power of science. Furthermore, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer were, at the time, both in residence in Princeton, New Jersey, at the nearby Institute for Advanced Studies. So, the seminars were an attempt to bring science and the humanities together. The second theme is the quarrel between literary critics and literary creators. During that time, criticism was flexing its muscles, and the creators were being ignored. The so-called New Criticism had demonstrated an ability to dissect literary works and reveal the nature of a poem or novel more fully than before. These critics were entrenched in universities and seemed at the seat of power. This rivalry can be seen throughout the book, since the reader sees everything through the eyes of Robert Fitzgerald.
The first seminar leader was Erich Auerbach, the author of Dargestelle Wirklichkeit in der Abendländischen Literatur (1946; Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 1953). Auerbach’s approach to three French writers was via “stylistics.” He dealt with the antithetical sentences of Blaise Pascal, the mixed styles of Charles Baudelaire, and the detailed realism of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovery (1857). He took as his model short passages from each writer; these were then analyzed in detail by Auerbach and the other participants. Auerbach’s critical method was and will remain an important part of literary criticism, and his analysis was very detailed. Yet, there were numerous comments about and challenges to his views. The most striking, perhaps, came from Auerbach’s former teacher, Ernst Curtius.Curtius objected to the whole category of “realism” as applied to Flaubert. Auerbach (stung): Why question the characteristic things called realism in the textbooks? Curtius (Olympian): Because the textbooks are all wrong.
R. P. Blackmur also objected to the use of “realism,” but in a more profound way.No matter who hammers against him, Auerbach must insist on his “realism.” When he applies his method to three authors with whom he is out of sympathy, as he has here to Pascal, Baudelaire, and Flaubert, he comes...
(The entire section is 2,740 words.)