Philip Rahv Howard Mumford Jones - Essay

Howard Mumford Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I am not sure that I know what the "new criticism" is, and I am not certain that Mr. Rahv is a new critic. But his essays [in "Image and Idea"] display one quality which has become tiresome. It is the habit of making dark and dogmatic statements about the American literary past, notably in relation to the American literary present, at least, that is, as interpreted by Mr. Rahv.

For example, the opening essay ["Paleface and Redskin"]. This lays down the proposition that American writers "viewed historically" appear to group themselves around two polar types—paleface and redskin. The paleface is James, the redskin is Whitman, and the national literature "suffers from the ills of a split personality." The palefaces dominated nineteenth-century American literature, and the redskins dominate twentieth-century American literature. When this sort of obiter dictum was uttered by the late Irving Babbit or other members of the neo-humanist group, you took it for what it was worth as propaganda for their side. But Mr. Rahv seriously presents this formula in the first essay of his book as something profoundly serious and profoundly true. It is only a half-truth, one of those half-truths, uttered dogmatically, that lead me to distrust the obiter dicta of contemporary criticism.

A second essay, "The Cult of Experience in American Writing," takes off where the first ends. Here are some representative sentences:

While the idea that one should "live" one's life came to James as a revelation, to the contemporary European writers this idea had long been a thoroughly assimilated and natural assumption … it represents a momentous break with the then dominant American morality of abstention. The roots of this morality are to be traced on the one hand to the religion of the Puritans and, on the other, to the inescapable need of a frontier society to master its world in sober practice.

This seems to mean that at some indefinite time in the nineteenth century, an indefinite group of European writers had "assimilated" the idea that one should "live" one's life. But what writers? Did they mean "live" in the sense that James is supposed to mean it? Did James discover this startling truth only when he went abroad, as the old dig said, to read Turgeniev, or did he learn it primarily from that exciting, transcendentalist-flavored intellectual climate out of which his father came and in which some of his formative years were passed? And about this distinction between redskin and paleface—did they both "abstain"? if so, what becomes of the distinction between them? Abstain from what? From the...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)