Monday, March 21, 2011

Series: Academics in the Death-Grasp of the New Criticism, No. 1, Robert Milder, Part 1

In the Melville chapter of the COLUMBIA LITERARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (1988), Robert Milder ignores all new documentary discoveries about Herman Melville (even the rich and well-publicized trove of papers acquired by the New York Public Library in 1983), yet begins with this intrinsically biographical sentence: "Reading Herman Melville in his fullness means attending to the peremptory inward development that impelled his most ambitious books,strained the confines of his literary forms, and gave his career an organic unity that subsumes and transcends the cumulative achievement of his works."

Do you see how dehumanizing this is? Melville is a New Critical artifact embodying an "organic unity." Here Milder extrapolates the old New Critical version of organic unity onto biography (without looking at biographical evidence) although Melville's own career suffered violent truncation rather than anything that obviously resembles an organic progression.

The critic can talk around the forbidden topic of biography (without doing the scholarly work of biography) only by converting a ragged, truncated career into a smooth, shining New Critical artifact. "Gave his career an organic unity"! It breaks your heart.

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