Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
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 pleasures of the table? From the pleasures of sex? From that rich and rugged individualism (and what else is "living one's own life" is not that?) which produced personalities as varied as Aunt Mary Moody, Emerson, and Davy Crockett? (pp. 16-17)
In the same essay I read this astonishing statement:
It is plain that until very recently there has really been no urgent need in America for high intellectual productivity. Indeed, the American intelligentsia developed very slowly … and what is equally important, for more than a century now and especially since 1865, it has been kept at a distance from the machinery of social and political power.
Here are two propositions. The first is that until recently there has been no need for high intellectual productivity; and the second is that the present intellectual productivity has been kept at a distance from political power. Observe that we are never told what is meant by "high intellectual productivity." But if you measure high intellectual productivity in terms of the ratio of men of learning to the total population, seventeenth-century New England produced more of it than is now produced. If you measure it by scientific, philosophic, and literary achievement (the literary including history), I can only patiently point to the extraordinary work in science done by Americans long before "The Ambassadors"; to Puritan theology, to Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin; to the transcendentalist movement; to the domination of Atlantic Coast literature by the Monthly Anthology Club, and the Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston groups; to the appearance of Kent and Story in law; to the classic work of American historians from Jared Sparks down to John Bach McMaster; to the shaping of a constitutional structure by Marshall, Calhoun, Webster, Lincoln, and others; and to various other forms of "high intellectual productivity"—and I waive the question of imaginative writing. Of course, Mr. Rahv doesn't like this kind of intellectual productivity. But is it not high? Is it not intellectual? Is it not productive? When the papers of the First Continental Congress were produced in Parliament, a celebrated English statesman said he did not know where to look for argument more ably advanced.
The second proposition is that the intelligentsia is now kept, and has been kept since 1865, far from the machinery of social and political power. I had thought that the objection to the New Deal was that the intelligentsia were too close to the machinery of political and social power; and I had supposed that the uncomfortable closeness of scientists to political power was one of the problems in Washington today. If Mr. Rahv will but bethink himself, he will find some rather close connections between the intelligentsia and the State Department, notably in the field of international cultures; he will discover a rather interesting group of intelligentsia in the United States Senate, some of them with considerable intellectual achievement to their credit; and if he will but go to Madison, Wisconsin, he will discover an interesting working liaison between the State Capitol and the State University, a pattern duplicated in other commonwealths. And if Mr. Rahv says that this is not what he means by "high intellectual productivity" or by "American intelligentsia," what, in heaven's name, does he mean? Why does he make these sweeping statements?
Mr. Rahv is an untrustworthy historian of the national culture. On Henry James, on Tolstoy, on Dostoevsky, he has many penetrating things to say. I like his essay on Tolstoy especially. I cannot get as excited about Henry Miller as he does, but this, like other matters of esthetic judgment, I cheerfully waive. But I have borne so long the bad historical sententiae found in criticism of this sort, that, as a literary historian, I must protest against the sheer, unadulterated recklessness of statement in this kind of essay. (p. 17)
Howard Mumford Jones, "Criticism at Large," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1949, copyright renewed © 1977, by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 30, July 23, 1949, pp. 16-17.