(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Steven Marcus, a professor at Columbia University and an editor of Partisan Review, has done more than collect his scattered essays; his previous accomplishments, larger and more sustained efforts, have created a market for an inclusive collection of his essays, but Representations establishes quite another reason for its existence. Quietly, unassumingly, the book calls for a revolution in literary criticism and in the social sciences. Unlike such writers as George Steiner, who point out the social and humanistic failings of specific types of criticism, Marcus shows the need for revolution by positive means: he indicates what his methods may achieve.

When he assesses criticism and critics, as he does in “Three Obsessed Critics,” he proves devastatingly inclusive. Hugh Kenner, Maxwell Geismar, and Harry Levin take almost equal punishment; Kenner speaks from the right, Geismar from the left, and “Levin is at the center, the dead center.” This essay is wholly atypical, though the critical excesses Marcus catalogues reflect cultural deviancy elsewhere apparent in his essays.

“Three Obsessed Critics” takes us back to 1958, and its inclusion here suggests that Marcus has not recanted. As different as Kenner, Geismar, and Levin are socially, politically, and methodologically, their books which Marcus examines share one quality: “they are all excessive and extravagant.” The books reveal “unbalancing commitment” to distorting points of view. Marcus’ use of the word “unbalancing” suggests his chief critical virtue: he seeks balance.

The import of Marcus’ essays and his brief Introduction is unmistakable: he wants to bring together the formal part of literary criticism with the part that is referential. He wants to read literary—and nonliterary—documents in ways that allow their form to reveal something real about their meanings—perhaps, in some cases, more than their authors would gladly admit. He wants form liberated from the ties to historical conventions on the one hand, and from the “merely” aesthetic on the other hand. In the last sentence of his Introduction, Marcus admits his desire to reassert and sustain the literary scholar’s claim to intellectual seriousness.

But the world at large will not concede such seriousness so long as criticism engages in meaningless tasks, or conceals its meaning in jargon, or expatiates on the beauties of mechanical accomplishments either nonexistent or not obvious to the nonspecialist. Criticism, practically everybody’s whipping-boy, deserves many of the stripes and bruises it has lately suffered. Too often humorless and self-important, criticism has tended, in the present century at least, to forget that literature “refers to, refracts, and is part of” a real world. Equally often, the social scientist and social critic have tended to put forward theoretical constructs as if they represented reality. In such an intellectual world, actual institutions and human practices appear illusory, even capricious. One need not mention here the enormity of psychology’s and psychiatry’s claims in this respect.

A determined, even-handed application of the ideas Marcus advocates could resolve much of the conflict between the “practical” and “theoretical” disciplines. Never does Marcus deny the value of formal and theoretical approaches; in literary criticism, he himself practices the formal approach, by which he means those activities devoted to the “internal and quasi-autonomous structures.” All he asks is that formalist activities take note of the referential part of criticism and literature; he recommends the tools of the social scientist to the formalist critic.

As Marcus admits in his Introduction, his own tendency to view imaginative literature in the light of analytical methods borrowed from cognitive disciplines has become more obvious in recent years. Nevertheless, earlier essays in Representations seem unified with the later ones by virtue of Marcus’ preoccupations with what he calls the “imagination of society.” That imagination works in poets and novelists as well as in other kinds of writers, all of whom bring “preconceptions” of what they are writing about to their supposedly systematic and cognitive analyses. Marcus calls attention to the disparity between what social scientists and psychologists think they mean and their “representations” or “imaginations” of society. Marcus applies a double set of tools in order to discover how society imagines itself.

Throughout, Marcus uses the word “representations” to mean fictions. His use of that word does not imply lack of respect for literary or so-called nonliterary productions. He simply argues that nonliterary documents yield new and unexpected meanings when they are read with the skills of the literary critic. Furthermore, the literary creation, because it comments on an external world, also represents a valid way of knowing that world. Marcus seeks “meanings” possibly more valid than the ones the artist or the “investigator” thought he was expressing.

Even Sigmund Freud (as Marcus shows in a close analysis of Freud’s first great case history) sometimes confuses his role of psychoanalyst with his roles of assertive manipulator of someone else’s life story and objective recorder. Marcus’ title—“Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History”—proves suggestive. Does the order ascend or descend? Marcus establishes that Freud often employed in his case histories what we normally call “literary strategies” and was deeply conscious of himself as artificer and as character in Dora’s story.

Still, Marcus does not fault the psychologist, the social historian, or the social scientist who gets into the act and allows his personality to color, even dominate, the ostensibly objective narrative and analysis....

(The entire section is 2419 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Booklist. LXXII, February 15, 1976, p. 831.

Choice. XIII, April, 1976, p. 216.

Library Journal. C, December 15, 1975, p. 2325.

New Republic. CLXXV, November 27, 1976, p. 31.

New York Times Book Review. March 21, 1976, p. 7.

Times Literary Supplement. October 22, 1976, p. 1323.