Philip Rahv

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Richard Chase

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

What one admires most in Philip Rahv's essays [in "Image and Idea"] is the determination to search among our modern cultural closures and total ideologies for "the cultural forms of dissidence and experiment." And what one admires about Rahv's critical method is his abundant ability to use such techniques as Marxism, Freudian psychology, anthropology, and existentialism toward his critical ends without shackling himself to any of them…. The characteristic success of these essays is a success of reclamation: the appropriation toward humanist ends and by methodical means of the irrationality, apocalypticism, and chaos of the modern mind.

Mr. Rahv affirms that modern literature "bristles with anxiety and ideas of alienation," that its frequent informing image is the depersonalized, homeless man of the city, and that the proper task of modern creative writers has been to give the quality of "felt life" to the inner tensions and contradictions imposed by contemporary existence. He tends to regard the devices of the imaginative writer—naturalism, the subtle refinement of Joyce and Proust, the use of symbol and myth—as stratagems employed by the writer for circumventing his personal and cultural plight.

For the contemporary critic Mr. Rahv suggests an "ideal aloofness from abstract systems" and exhorts him to remember that in respect to metaphysics "the art-object is first to last the one certain datum at his disposal." This is a healthily pragmatic attitude, the more so because Rahv is on the whole anything but aloof from the moral and historical meanings of the art-object. Rahv is above all a political critic, in the sense that his criticism takes literature to be involved in the upshot of history and the practical transactions of men and public ideas. His skill in handling a complex criticism which is only infrequently allowed to vanish away into the rigidities of a narrow technique, places these essays among the very best written by the leftist critics of the 1940's. (p. 89)

All critics have their self-perpetuating weaknesses, and Rahv's weakness is characteristic of the leftist criticism of the last decade—a failure in moral perception. In speaking of Rahv's criticsm one must immediately amend the charge to mean a failure in moral perception which is likely to appear wherever broad and crushingly effective historical actions are absent or submerged. It is this which accounts for his inability to cope with Hawthorne and for the shortcomings, far less notable, of his writing on James.

The error of the Hawthorne essay is that, failing his own ideal, Rahv does not examine the romances as "art-objects," which are, among other things, moral and cultural constructions. Seeing the romances only as documents of the author's "alienation," he describes Hawthorne's "dark ladies" as symbols of the dangerous seductions of "experience" by which Hawthorne was both fascinated and terrified. Thus the misery or death of these ladies is something the shocked and vindictive author himself inflicts on them, rather than, as Hawthorne doubtless supposed, the fate which issues for them out of their moral relationships with other characters. In dealing with Hawthorne and Melville, most of our leftist critics are still unable to move beyond the notorious distortions of Parrington. But, by default from his better self, Mr. Rahv points toward the difficult future task of developing techniques of criticism for the study of American literature comparable on the score of efficiency to those he now brings to European literature and to cultural matters generally.

Finally, it is largely on moral grounds that one wishes to question the symbolic formulation of American literature posed by "Image and Idea." The term "redskin" will do well enough for the super-plebeian realist and Americanist like Whitman. But are Hawthorne, Melville, and James "palefaces"—that is, puritanical, refined, estranged from experience? Perhaps, but that is not all they are. I offer to Mr. Rahv, for these last three authors, a third category, which ought to broaden the critical scope: the "half-breed," one image of whom appears in "The Ambassadors" as Waymarsh, a grand archetypal combination of Sitting Bull and—Henry James. (pp. 89-90)

Richard Chase, "The Modern Writer," in The Nation (copyright 1949 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 169, No. 4, July 23, 1949, pp. 89-90.

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