Saturday, February 2, 2013



I don’t like conspiracy theories even when evidence points toward them. I don’t read JFK assassination books. I do read Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels even though Hunter thought armadillos had made their home a few hundred miles north some decades before global warming drove them up to Mena and beyond.

I am reading Hunter’s THE THIRD BULLET.

In THE THIRD BULLET I learn that a very bad fictional character, a murderer, had three real-live mentors, Samuel Colt, Cleanth Brooks, and Cord Meyer. The Brooks paragraph is on 196-197. Here is part of it, within fair use: “Dr. Brooks had his problems, about which I will remain discreet, but he was the founder and high priest of an early-fifties discipline called the New Criticism. It held, with Spartan rigor, that text was everything. It didn’t matter what you read about a fellow in TIME or LIFE, or what movie star he’d married or whether his dad had beaten him or his first wife had belittled the size of his dinger, none of that mattered. He didn’t even matter. Only the text mattered . . . . I loved the discipline of it, the zeal of it, the sense of probity. I suppose I longed to apply it to life, and I suppose I did, in some fashion.” Later, on p. 377, this very bad man smugly recalls that “after Vietnam” he “grew a reputation for ruthless rationality—applying the precepts of the New Criticism again.”

Now, a lot of somewhat younger people knew Cleanth “after Vietnam.” He was among the first generation of academics to have been liberated by Henry Ford, and in the 1980s, even, he and Tinkum thought nothing of getting in the car and going off several hundred miles to a regional literary conference. Cleanth took on professional assignments in his 70s, even. I knew him for many years and relied on some of his letters in the last chapter of my 1984 FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS. I don’t know what problems Hunter’s very bad fictional character was remaining discreet about.  I know aspects of Cleanth that I would not trust to the understanding of any politically correct self-righteous Yankee (excuse any redundancy here), and I will be discreet about them. I also know that he was outraged, late in life, at the assumption that he had never had scholarly training but ONLY had been a theorist and a critic.

What kind of monstrous novelist could imply that Cleanth Brooks by his mentorship could have propelled a student into ruthless rationality in which he could dehumanize and murder without scruple?

What could Hunter have had in his mind? Well, I think Hunter did not mean JUST Cleanth. He was using Cleanth as the obvious Yale embodiment of the New Criticism, and obviously Cleanth would never have claimed to have been “the founder” of the New Criticism, its sole inventor.

Well, this is where Hunter and I converge. In the new MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE I explain how my education, such as it was, kept me on a very lonely path of textual study (which was biographical in essence) and outright biography. I see by searching Google that one of the earliest protests against the New Criticism as dehumanizing great writers came in the 1970s—and is in my part of a joint article! In the 1984 FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS I still more strongly protested against the New Criticism for making a critic blind to Herman Melville’s agony at realizing (two months after the publication of MOBY-DICK) that his literary career might be doomed. The critic, Richard H. Brodhead, was blithely happy to have more pages to explicate no matter how the author suffered in writing those pages. I was sickened, in the years before 1984, at the way the New Criticism had allowed this critic to dehumanize Melville.                                                               

I was slow to make the next step. Hunter may have stolen further through the underbrush silently and far more swiftly. In his 2013 book he’s there, right where I am.

In 2002 Richard Brodhead, then dean of Yale College, lied about my integrity as a biographer in his review in the New York TIMES, implying that I only surmised the existence of the 1853 THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and saying flat out that only I in my “black hole” had fantasized the existence of POEMS (the book Melville had ready for publication in 1860). Others piled on, repeating the lies, and adding flourishes: Andrew Delbanco, a chaired professor at Columbia, and Elizabeth Schultz. They and others played havoc with my reputation and left me 5 years of sleepless nights, until I began speaking out in 2007.

It took me a long time to realize that whatever viciousness may have been in the critics’ character from childhood, much of their bland savagery toward dead authos derived from the dehumanizing effects of the New Criticism. If you think information about the writer’s life is always completely irrelevant to the high art of interpretation, you can say anything about the writer with impunity. Writers have no feelings, certainly not long-dead writers.

Then something else happens to those who practices the New Criticism: they begin treating other living people as if they are not human . The best thing I have seen on the background of what happens is William Deresiewicz’s Summer 2008 AMERICAN SCHOLAR article, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Deresiewicz says: One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.” An elite education like Brodhead’s (or Delbanco’s) may often lead such privileged people to think that they are more valuable than people who do not graduate from such schools—indeed, to think that people who do not graduate from such schools do not have lives worth considering. Just as Melville is not imagined as a real human being, biographical critics may be seen as unreal, not human, and therefore not capable of feeling pain.

In MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE I trace in particular Richard Brodhead’s disdain toward great authors and others, including biographers and a lacrosse coach and lacrosse players falsely accused of horrific crimes. I make the argument that prolonged practice of the New Criticism can lead to dehumanizing real living people. You can brand a biographer like me as unreliable. If you dehumanize Duke students (or the subset of lacrosse players), you can refuse to look at hard evidence (an ATM video) that would have proved the innocence of one of the falsely accused lacrosse players. You can proclaim that whatever the lacrosse players did was bad enough—bad enough to deserve 30 years or more in jail?

Before you denounce Stephen Hunter as a crackpot for associating Cleanth Brooks with ruthless murder, read MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. How very strange, that Hunter and I start from such different points and end up coming to the same shocking conclusion—that the longterm effects of the New Criticism show up in behavior in areas of life that have nothing to do with literary theory.

1 comment:

  1. This is Gerald Graff paraphrasing Richard Palmer. Notice that Palmers sees a deumanized READING as demanded by the New Criticism: the reader is to bring scientific objectivity to a text.

    Richard Palmer's Hermeneutics, a book which summarizes the general phenomenological approach to literature and interpretation draws together many of the typical phenomenological argument against New Critical objectivity and impersonality. . . . The author's intentions, too, are held rigidly separate from the work; the work is a "being" in itself, a being with its own powers and dynamics. A typical modem interpreter generally defends the "autonomy of being" of the literary work, and sees his task as that of penetrating this being through textual analysis. The consequences of this way of interpreting literature is a kind of depersonalization and dehumanization of the experience of reading. The image of a scientist taking an object apart to see how it is made has become the prevailing model of the art of interpretation. Students in literature classes are sometimes even told that their personal experience of a work is some kind of fallacy irrelevant to the analysis of a work."

    Palmer sums up his criticism as follows:

    "We have forgotten that the literary work is not a manipulable object completely at our disposal; it is a human voice out of the past, a voice which must somehow be brought to life. Dialogue, not dissection, opens up the world of a literary work. Disinterested objectivity is not appropriate to the understanding of a literary works.

    Later, Palmer uses even stronger language in attacking disinterested objectivity. Such objectivity, he suggests, is "a forceable seizure, a `rape' of the text," whereas interpretation ought to be "a loving union" between the text and the interpreter.6 Objective theories of interpretation are thus "rape theories of interpretation," 7 producing "cold analyses of structure and pattern." 8 These theories derive from "the modern technological way of thinking and the will power that lies at its root," and thus express a ruthless quest for "mastery of the subject." ° That the New Criticism is for Palmer not merely an example of such misguided technological thinking in literary criticism but the most influential expression of it is clearly indicated throughout the book. For example, at one point Palmer asserts that for the New Critic, "the text becomes an object and explication a conceptual exercise which works solely within the `given,' accepting the restrictions of scientific objectivity." 1° Palmer does at several points suggest that the matter may actually be somewhat more complicated than such a statement suggests, especially when he acknowledges the existence of contradictory tendencies in New Critical theory. "The philosophical base of New Criticism was always shaky and uncertain," Palmer says, "vacillating between realism and idealism." 11

    Now, end of quotation from Graff on Palmer.
    Think what comes next: thinking of the great author you are reading as unreal, so that you have no interest in him or her as a person, no interest in the circumstances of the production of the text you are manipulating. Then after a while, after you spend your months and years writing this kind of bloodless criticism, your heart hardens, and while you may love your family and friends you shut off most of the world from your attention. You treat people who are your inferiors (and who, really, is not inferior to you as New Critic?) as if they did not bleed if you cut them. This is what Stephen Hunter is getting at.