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 out somehow narrow but penetrating. What is narrowed away is the humanity of his authors.

Fitzgerald agrees that Auerbach lost the author, but he also suggests that many of the other assembled critics had missed him as well.One would not have supposed that a soul there was in touch with the hounded sick man [Baudelaire] who loved as if it were flesh the depth of summer twilight; who hated his military foster father, hated les cuistres and la femme Sand. The author named in literary discussions is a peculiar being, with a peculiar relation to flesh and blood.

There were other voices raised about Emma Bovary as a tragic figure. It was a lively discussion, and although Fitzgerald at the time had many doubts about Auerbach’s approach, many drew upon him for later observations; he fertilized their thinking more fully, perhaps, than any other seminar leader.

The next seminar leader was Francis Fergusson, the author of the influential The Idea of a Theatre: A Study of Ten Plays, the Art of Drama in Changing Perspective (1949). His approach was rooted in the New Criticism, but, Fitzgerald suggests, he “diverged from the purely literary critic” in his study of the poetic process. In addition, Fergusson was striving to heal the divisions which he saw between science and art and the critic and the artist; Fitzgerald describes Fergusson’s task as “getting an effective balance between works of reason and works of art.” The most important element of Fergusson’s analysis was the view of any work of art, not just a play, as a “dramatic action.” Fergusson then showed how some key cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio from La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy), even the overtly philosophical canto that contains Marco’s speech, were examples of dramatic action. He emphasized as well Dante’s criticism of excessive rationality, describing the pilgrim as full of “congested rationality.” Fergusson also consciously tried to bring together the sciences and the humanities. He compared the two views, mythopoeia and rationality that the pilgrim in Dante needs to understand his situation to theoretical physics, which needs two theories to explain light. Fergusson also used some ideas from Auerbach’s seminar to show how Marco’s style moves from logic to “angry-despairing rhetoric.”

The only question or discussion reported is Erich Auerbach’s “making fun of Fergusson’s theory that every canto had the curve of dramatic action.” There is, however, no debate reported on this objection to...

(The entire section is 2703 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

American Literature. LVII, May, 1985, p. 363.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, January 2, 1985, p. 21

The New Republic. CXCII, March 18, 1985, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, January 13, 1985, p. 39.

The New Yorker. LXI, June 10, 1985, p. 140.

Times Literary Supplement. May 17, 1985, p. 560.