Even though his name might not be recognized outside the ranks of those concerned with the history of literary criticism in English, William Empson’s accomplishments as a superb textual analyst as well as gifted poet make him a figure of modern as well as historical significance. Building on his mentor I. A. Richards’s insights into how readers actually respond to words, Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) began to apply his own remarkable critical abilities to the interpretation of the literary text as the site of a complicated and quite possibly indeterminate series of meanings, a process that he would continue to develop and refine throughout the course of his career. This New Criticism, as it would come to be called, became the dominant method of textual study in the 1940’s and remained so well into the 1970’s. Although subsequently eclipsed by first structuralist and then poststructuralist developments in literary theory, the New Criticism remains a source of useful critical techniques well worth the attention of anyone interested in the formal properties of literary works.
As John Haffenden emphasizes, Empson’s freewheeling critical procedures were in many respects significantly different from those of more rigidly empirical practitioners of the New Criticism such as F. R. Leavis and John Crowe Ransom. Empson respected the creative complexity of the writer’s linguistic process and, in opposition to what became the orthodox version of the New Criticism, did not attempt to reduce the text to a finite set of meanings recoverable by those equipped with the proper critical apparatus. This aspect of Among the Mandarins is an important contribution to a more nuanced understanding of how New Criticism originated and should prompt some rewriting of the standard accounts of its inception.
Thus Empson remains a generative force in literary studies and so a likely subject for biography. John Haffenden, a friend of Empson whose The Life of John Berryman (1982) demonstrates his own abilities as both biographer and critic, has in the first part of what will be a two-volume work covered Empson’s career from his birth in 1906 to his return to England from a teaching post in China in 1940. Haffenden has been engaged in researching this project for more than two decades, and if there are any serious omissions in his account of Empson’s life, times, and companions, they were not noticed by this reviewer. From his account of several centuries of family history to his groundbreaking inquiries into Empson’s hitherto somewhat obscured sojourns in Japan and China during the 1930’s, Haffenden provides an exhaustively detailed and often surprisingly dramatic narrative of a story of achievement in both life and literature.
Empson’s childhood years are not well documented, and in its early chapters Among the Mandarins relies too heavily on formulations of the “Empson must have felt” and “Empson may well have thought” variety in attempting to imagine his responses to familial and school events. In the absence of more direct biographical evidence, Haffenden supplies an extensiveand at times excessiveamount of information about the history of the Empson clan and those people and institutions with whom young William came into contact. Occasionally, as when the question of Richards’s salary is afforded detailed attention, such digressions seem utterly pointless. More frequently, as in a twenty-five-page description of Empson’s involvement with a fledgling literary magazine, the subject is obviously relevant but is considered at such exhausting length that one begins to wish Haffenden would step up the narrative’s pace.
Fortunately, subsequent developments in Empson’s literary and academic careers are both more intrinsically interesting and far better documented. His undergraduate years at Magdalene College, Cambridge, were marked by recognition of his abilities as both student and writer, which made him a figure of note to his contemporaries and thus the subject of some revealing recollections. The portrait that results is one of a young man determined to go his own way in sampling what life has to offer, whether that be new forms of prose and...
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