F. O. Matthiessen Criticism - Essay

R. P. Blackmur (review date 1935)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Citation of T. S. Eliot” in The Nation (New York), Vol. 141, No. 3668, October 23, 1935, pp. 478-80.

[In the following review, Blackmur provides a mixed assessment of The Achievement of T. S. Eliot.]

The great temptation in writing of T. S. Eliot's poetry is to batten upon the frequent illuminations provided for it in his critical essays; and to this temptation Mr. Matthiessen has again and again given in. His book [The Achievement of T. S. Eliot] is a citation rather than an examination of Eliot's work, and the circulating energy—what keeps the book going and unites its effects—is Mr. Matthiessen's felt appreciation of Eliot's governing obsessions. Thus the successive crises of interpretation and judgment tend naturally without a jar to appear as unrelieved quotation. There could be no better testimony of the scope, the consistency, and the expressive persuasiveness of Eliot's work once one gives in to it, and no clearer warning, perhaps, of the intellectual necessity of not always and never entirely giving in either to Eliot himself or, now, to Mr. Matthiessen's redaction. One gives in intellectually, emotionally, with all a reader's equipment, to find out what is there, but one draws back both to see what is not there and to situate what is. However valuable Mr. Matthiessen's book is, its very method of approach prevents it from being enough.

The advantage of the method is obvious: it keeps the discussion in terms which are actually pretty much those of Eliot's work. But the disadvantage is striking: there are no tools for detachment, for setting off, for placing Eliot, as Mr. Matthiessen attempts to do, in relation to the contemporary world and the body of poetry. It is a method which leads at its worst to the...

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Robert E. Spiller (review date 1942)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman,” in American Literature, Vol. 13, No. 4, January, 1942, pp. 432-44.

[In the following laudatory review of American Renaissance, Spiller considers its “importance as a contribution to American literary history and to the theory and technique of historical writing.”]

I have already reviewed Mr. Matthiessen's book elsewhere in general terms. I should like here to consider its importance as a contribution to American literary history and to the theory and technique of historical writing. Even though its method is nonchronological, American Renaissance seems to me to...

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Philip Rahv (review date 1945)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Modernizing James,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VII, No. 2 Spring, 1945, pp. 311-15.

[In the following mixed assessment of Henry James: The Major Phase, Rahv perceives Matthiessen's analysis as lacking, but deems the volume a significant study of James's later novels.]

This book [Henry James: The Major Phase] is an important contribution to the growing literature about Henry James. For all the talk of James as a neglected figure there is scarcely another American writer who has of late aroused so much critical ardor and discussion. Since the James number of The Little Review (1918) numerous appraisals of his work have appeared; and this...

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F. W. Bateson (review date 1953)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Responsibilities of the Critic, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXIII, No. 7, November, 1953, pp. 502-4.

[In the following mixed review of Responsibilities of the Critic, Bateson contends that Matthiessen was an excellent reviewer, but a mediocre critic.]

The subtitle [of The Responsibilities of the Critic: Essays and Reviews] is a little misleading. Of the fifty short critical pieces by Matthiessen that make up this book as many as thirty-nine are reviews, reprinted by Mr. Rackliffe, a tactful and intelligent editor, from the Yale Review, the New England Quarterly, the New Republic and similar journals....

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Richard Ruland (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen, Christian Socialist: Literature and the Repossession of Our Cultural Past,” in The Rediscovery of American Literature, Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 209-73.

[In the following essay, Ruland analyzes the defining characteristics of Matthiessen's critical work, and evaluates his impact on American literary theory and criticism.]

The whole book is based on the proposition that what a writer believes about man, about society, and about the universe has a great deal to do with what he writes. …

—Granville Hicks on American Renaissance (1941)...

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Kenneth S. Lynn (essay date 1976-1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen,” in The American Scholar, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1976-1977, pp. 86-93.

[In the following essay, Lynn offers personal reminiscences of Matthiessen's tenure as an American literature professor at Harvard University in the 1940s.]

Teachers of American literature who were born, as F. O. Matthiessen was, in the first years of this century, but who are still alive today, have seen the study of their subject move through three different eras. The first, which might be called the Era of Rediscovery, began with Van Wyck Brooks and H. L. Mencken around 1908; gathered strength in the nineteen-twenties and thirties from the work of Lewis Mumford,...

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Leo Marx (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F. O. Matthiessen,” in Monthly Review, February, 1983, pp. 34-56.

[In the following essay, Marx elucidates Matthiessen's political ideology and determines how these beliefs impacted his literary work.]

The bulk of mankind believe in two gods. They are under one dominion here in the house, as friend and parent, in social circles, in letters, in art, in love, in religion; but in mechanics, in dealing with steam and climate, in trade, in politics, they think they come under another; and that it would be a practical blunder to transfer the method and way of working of one sphere into the...

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William E. Cain (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Criticism and Politics: F. O. Matthiessen and the Making of Henry James,” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LX, No. 2, June, 1987, pp. 163-86.

[In the following essay, Cain contends that Matthiessen's ambivalent feelings about the work of Henry James provide insight into the critic's “conflicted attitudes toward the relation between literary criticism and politics.”]

Probably more so than any other modern critic, F. O. Matthiessen legitimated the study of American literature. Not only did he define and develop the basic analytical method—a “close reading” of texts keyed to the articulation of central “American” myths and symbols—but he...

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Jonathan Arac (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen and American Studies: Authorizing a Renaissance,” in Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 157-75.

[In the following essay, Arac addresses the often contradictory nature of Matthiessen's work and assesses “the possibilities for a new literary history in the practice of American Renaissance.”]

For decades since his suicide in 1950, F. O. Matthiessen has exerted a compelling attraction. The documentation, analysis, and controversy around him bulk larger than for any other American literary scholar born in the twentieth century, and they grow.


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William E. Cain (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen's Labor of Translation: From Sarah Orne Jewett to T. S. Eliot,” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 355-84.

[In the following essay, Cain examines Matthiessen's critical writings of the late 1920s and 1930s, maintaining that with these works the critic forged his identity as a literary critic.]

F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941) is one of the landmark texts of American literary studies, and it is the book to which critics naturally turn when they examine Matthiessen's impact and influence. As Sacvan Bercovitch has recently stated—and...

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Eric Cheyfitz (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Circumscribing the Revolution,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, June, 1989, pp. 341-61.

[In the following essay, Cheyfitz explicates and reconciles the contradictory images of Matthiessen in American literary critical theory.]

In 1963, reviewing four books of criticism, including F. O. Matthiessen's posthumous The Responsibilities of the Critic, Leslie Fiedler marked a moment of critical exhaustion. Three of these works, including the Matthiessen, Fiedler told his audience in The Yale Review,

are the victims of our new canon—a brief series of literary works...

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James W. Tuttleton (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Politics and Art in the Criticism of F. O. Matthiessen,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 7, No. 10, June, 1989, pp. 4-13.

[In the following essay, Tuttleton perceives a discrepancy between Matthiessen's literary criticism and his political views.]

Down with non-partisan writers!

—V. I. Lenin

At the time of his suicide in 1950, the Harvard professor F. O. Matthiessen was one of the most influential figures in the development of the academic criticism of American literature. Others—like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, William Empson and R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis and...

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Paul A. Bove (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Love of Reading/The Work of Criticism: F. O. Matthiessen and Lionel Trilling,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 373-82.

[In the following review of William A. Cain's F. O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism, Bove praises Cain's reading of Matthiessen's work.]

What magnanimity!

—Daniel O'Hara

When the historical sense reigns without restraint, and all its consequences are realized, it uproots the future because it destroys illusions and robs the things that exist of the atmosphere in which alone they can live....

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Michael Cadden (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Engendering F. O. M.: The Private Life of American Renaissance,” in Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism, edited by Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden, Routledge, 1990, pp. 26-35.

[In the following essay, Cadden determines how Matthiessen's sexuality influenced his views on Walt Whitman and discusses the incongruity of his public and private writings on the poet.]

“To work out:—The sexual bias in literary criticism. … What sort of person would the critic prefer to sleep with, in fact.”1

—E. M. Forster

“‘Dosce, doce,...

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David Bergman (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “F. O. Matthiessen: The Critic as Homosexual,” in Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 85-102.

[In the following essay, Bergman considers the impact of Matthiessen's sexuality on his work.]

Despite the publicity that attended F. O. Matthiessen's suicide in 1950, and the books that were subsequently written about him, including May Sarton's 1955 novel Faithful are the Wounds, it was not until a quarter of a century later that his homosexuality became public knowledge. During his life, Matthiessen had not tried to hide the fact, but neither had he made it a public issue....

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Marc Dolan (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Wholeness' of the Whale: Melville, Matthiessen, and the Semiotics of Critical Revisionism,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 27-58.

[In the following essay, Dolan determines Matthiessen's important role in the critical rediscovery of the work of Herman Melville.]

Last year we observed two important anniversaries in the history of American literature: 1991 marked both the centennial of Herman Melville's death and the semicentennial of the publication of F. O. Mathiessen's American Renaissance. In the half-century between those two occurrences, Melville went from being an obscure New York writer of sea stories to his...

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Philip Horne (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Henry James: The Master and the ‘Queer Affair’ of The ‘Pupil’,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 75-92.

[In the following essay, Horne discusses Matthiessen's reading of James's “The Pupil.”]


Perhaps I can best indicate some of the troubles I want to raise in this essay by quoting from a 1990 volume entitled Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. One of the editors, Michael Cadden, has an interesting meditation on the great, homosexual critic F. O. Matthiessen—‘Engendering F. O. M.: The Private Life of American Renaissance’—where in effect he...

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Charles E. Morris III (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Responsibilities of the Critic’: F. O. Matthiessen's Homosexual Palimpsest,” in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 84, No. 3, August, 1998, pp. 261-82.

[In the following essay, Morris maintains that Matthiessen's literary criticism provides insights into his attitudes toward his sexuality as well as the practice of gay historical criticism generally.]

“It is important to recognize that criticism creates American literature in its own image because American literature gives the American people a conception of themselves and of their history.”

Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs (199)...

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Jay Grossman (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Canon in the Closet: Matthiessen's Whitman, Whitman's Matthiessen,” in American Literature, Vol. 70, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 799-832.

[In the following essay, Grossman analyzes how Matthiessen's sexuality influenced his perception and discussion of the literary relationship between Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.]

An artist's use of language is the most sensitive index to cultural history, since a man can articulate only what he is, and what he has been made by the society of which he is a willing or an unwilling part.

—F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance


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