Philip Rahv

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Julian Moynahan

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

[In "The Myth and the Powerhouse," Rahv is too often] found fighting a species of rear-guard action against troops who have long since retired from the field or may never have left the barracks in the first place. For instance, he looks with suspicion upon a religious revival "current" among intellectuals in the early 1950's, yet from the perspective of the present the only real question is whether such a revival ever occurred. Similarly, he views with alarm the illiberal and anti-historical assumptions of "myth" critics—people who come up with archetypal and symbolic readings of novels and poems while ignoring or hypostasizing personal and historical dimensions of meaning in literary works. But who nowadays pays any serious attention to myth critics, or to New Critics, or to psychoanalytic critics, or to Camp critics, or to you-name-it critics?…

Mr. Rahv is out of step with the new tendencies and as a critic has really nothing to recommend him except taste, experience, honesty, humaneness, knowledge of several foreign tongues and literatures, and a rather single-minded devotion to the idea that the theme of human history is freedom. He is attracted to the novel as the dominant modern literary form because in its conquest of historical actuality, in its "realism," the novel spotlights the social arena in which the issues of freedom are to be fought out. It therefore becomes important to him to emphasize Gogol's social realism in opposition to Vladimir Nabokov's portrayal of Gogol as a sheer fantasist, to reinterpret with great care the "dialectic of power" in Dostoevsky's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," to insist in his essay on "Fiction and the Criticism of Fiction" that the greatness of a novel does not depend on the "criterion of language or style in the poetry sense of the term."

In this essay, Rahv's search for special nonstylistic norms defining the main tradition of the novel is far from convincing. Certainly verbalists like Flaubert, Joyce and Melville served human liberty at least as effectively as mud-hens like Trollope and Dreiser; and Samual Beckett, a poet not at all manqué, has been using words, cadences and even broken sounds, rather than the "real concrete individual," to tell us, more compellingly than any other contemporary novelist, what and where we are. After all, the substance of fiction is language, and that reader who spends all his time reading between the lines is going to end up a very blank reader indeed.

"The Myth and the Powerhouse" concludes with seven reprinted reviews or "critical sketches." These display qualities of candor and of tough-mindedness in alliance with sensitivity not exactly widespread in the subprofession of book reviewing. Leading into a discussion of a book by Leslie Fiedler, Rahv mentions "the kind of manic verbalization nowadays widely confused with excellence of style"—for all the world as if he were announcing the literary debut of Mr. Tom Wolfe. His own sober, lucid and discriminating writing is worlds apart from the modern manic manner, and in fact is more Arnoldian than either pop, op, hip or neo-zowie.

Julian Moynahan, "Where the Man Stands," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1965, p. 4.

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