Lawrence Lipking

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2068

The Idea of the Humanities has been designed to do justice to Crane as a humanist—a scholar not limited to any particular subject matter or set of problems. The range of the book is immense. First of all, it spans three (or four) separate fields: the humanities, the history of...

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The Idea of the Humanities has been designed to do justice to Crane as a humanist—a scholar not limited to any particular subject matter or set of problems. The range of the book is immense. First of all, it spans three (or four) separate fields: the humanities, the history of ideas, and literary criticism and literary history. Its essays (themselves written over a third of a century) travel in time from ancient Greece to the immediate past…. We see Crane in many fields, in many moods, in many circumstances. (pp. 455-56)

[The] exploratory nature of Crane's work along with its abundance, is the main lesson this book has to teach. When we add Crane's various eminence as an editor, a bibliographer, an educator, and a reviewer to the command of many fields he demonstrates here, we have a diversity that few scholars can match. The point is important. Crane can be accused of having a limited sympathy for certain types of writing, or of being limited in his approach, but his activities, the reach and grasp of his mind, have not been limited. (p. 456)

The appreciation [Crane] brings to a text is adjusted to the nature of its art, the knowledge appropriate to it, and "the principles of its kind," and the necessity of making such adjustments is his constant theme. As a means of inquiry, criticism (Crane believes) must always demonstrate awareness of its own methods and processes. Just as the process of reading involves a constant accommodation of the expectations of the reader to the messages conveyed by the text, so the languages of criticism come to terms with the structures of poetry they half perceive and half create. The critic searches not only for the principles of construction embodied in works of art, but for the critical art which distorts least by its act of apprehension. Thus the besetting sin of criticism is to mistake its own operations for what it hopes to observe, or to consider itself a kind of knowledge rather than a mode of inquiry. (pp. 457-58)

[Whatever] one thinks of Crane as a critic or scholar, one can hardly deny his excellence as a reviewer. His capacity for summarizing an argument, and the methodological presuppositions that underlie an argument, amounts virtually to genius. During those days when Crane was reviewing regularly for this periodical, any candidate-scholar writing about the Restoration or Eighteenth Century ran the risk of having his assumptions, not merely those he had declared but those he had counted on concealing even from himself, ruthlessly exposed in public. Seldom have reviews been so rigorous, so searching…. In many ways Crane is an ideal reader: not the sympathetic, forgiving reader we fantasize about, but the scrupulous, demanding reader who forces us to be true to ourselves and still more true to hypotheses and facts that contradict our own cherished favorites….

Reading Crane, one remembers that summary can be an art, and that any art on a level as high as this is rare. Many scholars, for example, have tried to summarize the organization of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, but I know of none who rivals Crane in compactness, comprehension, and truth. Without ever divorcing Locke's ideas from their context, Crane patiently demonstrates how much of the Essay can be understood in terms of a central analogy: as motion is to the world of physical things, so thought is to the soul, and as the active arrangement of things by cause and effect is to the workman or artist, so the active arrangement of ideas by cause and effect is to the mind. (p. 459)

The summary of the Essay is a triumph not only of Crane's intelligence, then, but of his principles. Scrupulously accommodating his discussion to Locke's own problems and methods, he finds a coherence that has not hitherto been distinctly noticed, but now appears obvious. (p. 460)

Nevertheless, the method of analysis demonstrated by so much of The Idea of the Humanities is taxed for its strengths. It pays most severely with its prose style. While Crane's prose rarely becomes as murky as that of some of his Chicago colleagues, it seldom rises above dim twilight; it is a prose we read doggedly and put down readily and do not always pick up again. In some respects it resembles the style of the later Henry James. (p. 461)

Crane labors to leave nothing to the imagination, to specify every assumption, to name all the members of each category, to restrain the very power of language to be allusive. In summarizing the beliefs of an age or the argument of a book, he surrounds the key terms with hedges of quotation marks and qualifying phrases that strive to restore the original context. His scruples are thus essentially uncreative. With a strict regard for the rules of evidence, with a determination not to be tricked by rhetoric into saying more than common sense warrants, Crane fashions a prose style that carefully adds nothing to his statements or his methods. (pp. 461-62)

Crane's prose style approaches an insuperable barrier. Short of quoting a literary work in its entirety, we can never completely recreate its context, and our most careful summary will be, after all, in a context of its own. A critical style which pretends to be non-existent will only surrender a degree of self-awareness. At times Crane seems insensitive to the whole spectrum of expressive possibilities. On the other hand, many of us may feel that a critic who errs on the side of structure rather than texture, of commonsense adequacy rather than ingenious subtlety, of selflessness rather than self display, still has something to teach us. (p. 462)

Crane's most influential contribution, however, has been to the history of ideas, to which he has brought the same rigorous concentration upon those methods and systems that regulate the internal structure of an argument. (p. 463)

Whether the history of ideas itself can survive this uncompromising insistence upon the unique meaning transmitted by each idea in relation to its context is an open question. Certainly Crane's methods do not allow for much intercourse between different periods or works. British scholars, used to an easier and more intimate conversation with the works of the past, are fond of saying that only a country as innocent of history as America could regard the Chicago critics as historians. Crane himself regards most of what passes for history of ideas as more properly "fashion of ideas," the reshaping of history to fit a model constructed a priori. For better or worse, he brings into sharp focus the evasions that sustain what we customarily think we know about literary history and ideas alike. Amid humanists who preach the interrelatedness of all human achievements, Crane is a humanist who shows that each human achievement is separate and complete in itself. (p. 464)

Perhaps the first qualities that should be noted in Crane as a critic of works of art are his geniality and his shrewdness. Having no single hypothesis or ingenious interpretation to force upon his audience, he can afford to be as genial, as modest, as any uncommonly intelligent common reader…. Having a keen eye for the process by which the author's choice of his subject and treatment leads to the choice of detail after detail, he seldom fails to be shrewd about the artistic problems that underlie specific literary effects…. One always senses that Crane has begun his analysis with a keen objective reading, not with a formula or a prejudice, and that his criticism is describing a recognizable work. It is not faint praise to say that he refuses to be too clever, or to be stupid.

Finally, however, Crane's writings on works of art lack something: they are not so intense, so interested, as we expect from our best critics. Partly this must result from his admitted preoccupation with theory, and consequent reluctance to spend much time on explication. Partly it must reflect … that his methods of analysis are best suited to "well-made" works whose principles of art admit of systematic formulation. But partly, I think, it stems from his scholarly suspicion of those explanations of works of art, and sometimes those works of art themselves, that tend toward the esoteric rather than the common understanding, toward brilliant texture or insight rather than steady professional competence. Crane has no great sympathy for the mysterious or the imperspicuous, even in literature, and therefore he discounts most criticism which centers upon the creative process or upon human experience, instead of upon the axis between the created and structured work of art and the audience it is meant to satisfy…. Crane's distrust of such mysteries and complexities (not only of chatter about them) sets radical limitations on his criticism.

These limitations are real and evident, and many critics will consider them all-important. The lot of a pluralist is hard. The disparity between his theoretical willingness to entertain any reasonable proposition or artistic donnée and his practical preference for some ideas over others must always be on display, and nothing is easier than to demonstrate that the pluralist lacks the universal sympathies and open-mindedness he recommends. Certainly Crane's pluralism can be faulted on this score. He has a taste for the literal and causal in criticism, and for Renaissance and eighteenth-century achievements in literature, and his taste for other critical languages or literary achievements sometimes wears thin. Nevertheless, when all the qualifications and rebuttals have been made, the genuine pluralism of Crane's analyses is remarkable. Anyone who doubts this should read the series of lectures on the humanities, with their clear descriptions and discriminations of, for instance, Quintilian, Vives, Bacon, Hugh Blair, and Arnold, each presented in his own terms and in a context adjusted to his own problems. Crane's limitations are not those of ego, not those of dogma. The characteristic pleasure offered by his best work is indeed pluralistic: the manifold joys of entering another man's mind or problems or arts and appreciating them for what they are.

How then to assess Crane's achievement? In the long run, his very ability to submerge his interests within those of the works he is studying may tend to hide his own individuality. Crane promulgates no single "approach," no pithy and memorable critical formula. The nearest one can come to such a mnemonic aid is the title of a lecture of 1956 (now first published): "Every Man His Own Critic." But this sort of phrase is calculated not to win disciples. Like other teachers of languages, Crane relinquishes his control when a student develops his own fluency. Rather than brand a small area of scholarship with his name, he has tried to keep many areas unbranded and open.

Of necessity, then, Crane's work has gone against fashions and fads. Insofar as his ideas have changed, that is because he has shifted to oppose whatever dogma was most popular at a given time. Indeed, one of the most striking qualities of The Idea of the Humanities is its timelessness. Since Crane's historical writings usually deal with primary sources, and represent them accurately, they are not likely ever to be obsolete…. Many of the scholars and critics with whom Crane shares an affinity—men like E. W. Dow and William Minto and C. A. Moore—belong (literally or figuratively) to an earlier century, when a breadth of reading and a modesty about the significance of one's own critical insights were more frequently met than now. If Crane's local reputation rests on his work as a founder of the Chicago school of critics, the effort of his career as a whole may serve to remind modern scholars and critics that their schools have supplemented, not replaced, the humanistic achievements of the past.

Nevertheless, almost in spite of himself Crane has influenced more than one generation of scholars, and that influence has not been at all conservative. Its full range can be appreciated, I think, only by looking beyond Crane's immediate effect upon such works as Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction to his less palpable effect upon the scholarly community at large, even (if I am not mistaken) upon scholars like M. H. Abrams and Northrop Frye whose work has gone in directions radically different from his own. (pp. 467-70)

Lawrence Lipking, "R. S. Crane and 'The Idea of the Humanities'," in Philological Quarterly (copyright 1968 by The University of Iowa), Vol. XLVII, No. 3, July, 1968, pp. 455-71.

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