The Republic of Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

This curiously biased history of recent literary criticism opens with an elaborately “scientific” preamble which presumes to the authority of a prolegomenon. Any future history of criticism, suggests Webster, will benefit from the “theory of literary charters” which he introduces as a framework for his own study of American postwar criticism. In his effort to devise a theory of critical history flexible enough to account for any and all critical systems, Webster leans on Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962,1970), which substitutes a historical paradigm for empirical descriptions in its treatment of scientific ideas. Just as scientific ideas rise and fall in predictable patterns that have little to do with their actual scientific content, so do literary or critical theories wax and wane in patterns that have little to do with their theoretical or intellectual values. Roughly, Kuhn shifts from intellectual history to a form of sociology to account for the development of schools of scientific thought. Webster offers the same perspective for a history of critical opinion:We need . . . a model of critical history which will account for the rise, flourishing, and fall of various schools of criticism, for it is only as as we can see criticism as part of a historical process, as a manifestation of the culture and language of which it is a part, and of the personal and social values of the men who express it, that we can understand the values of various critical schools and the literary traditions they create and support.

What sounds like a reasonably historical approach stiffens into a “critical paradigm or charter” that immolates criticism to a predictable and even truistic sequence. What Webster gives us as the fate of critics could also serve for Indian chiefs and candlestick makers. First there is the “Ideological Period” when new writers call up changes in intellectual fashions and new ideas are adopted by critics from other disciplines or countries. This is followed by “The Critical Revolution” which installs a new authority figure, “charter,” and a “gestalt shift” in critical values. Next comes a stable period called “Normal Criticism” when critical communities form and develop practical criticism and a “critical voice.” This is also the time when critical careers are established and follow a predictable movement from “apprenticeship” to “superannuation.” Next comes the climax: “Crisis in Criticism”: lack of standards leads to pluralism; new writers and cultural shifts produce a “strata of critics.” Finally, critics fall into “Obsolescence” and try “to become part of history.”

Despite Webster’s insistence that his “paradigm” is designed to help readers find their way among the contradictory positions of all critical schools or theories, the pronounced determinism of this approach together with its interrelated parts makes it seem reminiscent of recent developments in literary structuralism. To see a critical school as “a manifestation of the culture and language of which it is a part” is, in these days of Roland Barthes’ “zero degree writing,” no longer a merely innocent sentiment over cultural influences. And to lock critical thought into a paradigm involving academic politics and careerism is to trivialize the fate of ideas. Even were one willing to give Webster the benefit of the doubt and grant him the right to be “scientifically” descriptive about thinking in the humanities, if that is what he wishes to do, one cannot then allow his totally unscientific prejudices to go unchecked.

The labels he uses to characterize various critical schools call to mind what Hayakawa, the...

(The entire section is 1522 words.)