Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Inhumane Aloofness of Critics: Milder and Brodhead as Examples

Back in the mid 1970s the New Criticism still held such sway that a bright young academic could package a reading of even Melville's broken-backed Pierre; or, The Ambiguities as a unified work, as Robert Milder did late in 1974 in "Melville's 'Intentions' in Pierre." Milder showed satisfaction as he elaborated his theory that Pierre (as published) was "an intensely deliberate book," this despite the internal evidence that the book started out one way and went wildly awry when Melville suddenly decided to announce that young Pierre had been a juvenile author, and then was led into sections of new writing on Pierre's present attempts to become a great writer. Milder could mention "self-lacerating humor" in Pierre but, partly because he took the whole of the book as carefully deliberated, he showed no sense that Melville suffered during the latter time he devoted to the composition of the book. In 1962 and 1963 I had spent months in the Melville archives for my dissertation and later had become an authority on Melville's texts, but in the mid-1970s I was making myself over for an essentially biographical role as a textual theorist focused on American fiction, not just Melville. What ultimately propelled me away from studies of other writers' compositional processes into Melville biography was reading Milder's article, for I was convinced he had been altogether too complacent about what he was describing. The loss of the literary unity of Pierre was collateral damage from the spectre of the loss of Melville's career: "self-lacerating humor" masked almost unbearable anguish.

Two years later Richard H. Brodhead in Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel (1976) was even cooler than Milder as he explained "why Melville tells his story as he does." Willing to admit some lack of formal unity, he was unperturbed that "the second half of the book has little to do" with the "literary endeavor" he had identified in the first half. He also was unperturbed that "the structure" of Melville's "narrative becomes looser," as when in "Young America in Literature" Melville "shifts to topical satire." He patted the author on the head: "Melville was wise not to let a foolish consistency keep him from exploring the subjects and methods he does in these chapters; they are among the most interesting in Pierre." In this reading Melville's failures were aesthetic, but the laudable result of the failures was that they provided Brodhead with "interesting" chapters to explicate, however much looser they were than the earlier chapters.

I reacted to Brodhead's coolness with visceral horror: here was the bloodless New Criticism blandly, smugly indicting itself. In Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons (1984) I summarized biographical evidence for the "two very different and imperfectly combined creative processes" that went into Pierre, "the second one destructive of part of the achievement of the first." Then in a footnote I took up Brodhead:

While most critics find unity at all costs even in books known to have a strange compositional history, now and again a critic of the post-New Criticism generation (like a good many first generation American Literature scholars such as Leon Howard) is content to place less stock in formal perfection. Richard Brodhead, in particular, has displayed a remarkable tolerance toward Melville's altering the direction of Pierre half way through the book as we know it. Brodhead observes, as Leon Howard and many others had done, that the second half of Pierre has little to do with the first, then with mild benignity decides that "Melville was wise not to let a foolish consistency keep him from exploring the subjects and methods he does" . . . even though the inclusion of new material "has a curious effect on the book's narration." Brodhead knows the book is split in two. Rather than demanding a verbal icon, however, he makes the best of a bad situation, finding interest where he can--but at the cost of closing his eyes to the agony that lay behind Melville's decision to record his rage against his reviewers and his fears about the death of his career as a writer, even if doing so meant wrecking what might well have been the most tightly unified work he had yet written.

"Closing his eyes to the agony" sums up for me the bloodlessness of modern literary criticism written by academics trained in the New Criticism by students of the original New Critics like Charles Feidelson or their descendants. They have been trained not to think of biography as even potentially relevant to literary criticism, so that "Melville" was an intellectual construction, an abstraction, not a real person. Milder and Brodhead wrote coherent essays about an incoherent book written in part by an agonized author. My realistic scholarly account of "Why Pierre Went Wrong" by contrast was not anywhere near so polished, and in fact for years I kept amassing new documents and gradually comprehending their information and their implications so as to refine my impressions into something like a coherent description of what happened, or what almost surely happened.

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