The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy

Frederick Crews
New York: Random House, 1992

O. Alan Weltzien
University of Montana-Western

Frederick Crews has been a literary critic of some repute for a generation now, so his new collection, The Critics Bear It Away, merits close study. Crews lent prestige to psychoanalytical criticism with his highly influential Hawthorne study, The Sins of the Fathers (1966). A few years later he entered the composition textbook industry with the hefty Random House Handbook, whose third chapter, on the art of being reasonable in argumentation, seemed to me one of the best chapters on that complex topic.

My personal favorite, though, has been The Pooh Perplex, a satiric survey of the whole enterprise of literary criticism which bears filial relation to the new book. Though dated in some respects it remains an effective tonic, a spoof the playfulness of which has been largely forgotten in these more acrimonious times. More often than not a dreadful, deadening earnestness accompanies the polemical bravura of contemporary literary criticism. It takes itself far too seriously and parasitically obscures if not consumes literary texts rather than enlarging them. The Critics Bear It Away does not consume literary texts, or writers, in the service of a particular critical credo.

I recommend The Critics Bear It Away with some enthusiasm because of Crews's continuing commitment to balanced appraisals and his clear writing. Most of its eight chapters appeared earlier, as he acknowledges, in the New York Review of Books. Several of them are review-essays, rather like those appearing towards the end of College English issues, for example, wherein the writer slowly surveys several recent titles. In his Introduction, Crews states that he wants the "literary academy" "to remain a pluralistic arena"; he does not want to be counted among the "cultural nostalgics." That said, he goes on to attack what he deems the more grievous excesses of "New Americanist criticism," which is sponsored in part by poststructuralism. Crews sees the biggest critical problem in his field to be "the ad hoc adjusting of investigative premises to forestall politically unwelcome implications" (xx). The subsequent chapters on Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Connor, and Updike try to substantiate this general indictment by way of many recent critical titles. For myself, his indictment seems mostly on the mark.

Crews advocates, apparently, a revised biographically-grounded criticism. He argues that critics primarily need to go about "putting preconceptions in abeyance and following the writer's individual path wherever it may lead" (xxi). Crews's chapter on Hemingway represents a good example of his orientation, as Crews uses Kenneth Lynn's massive 1987 biography to sift through all the Hemingway mythology (much of it perpetuated by Hemingway himself, of course) and probe the writer. Obviously, a writer's oeuvre and any biographical documents take precedence over any preconceived critical disposition. For Crews it has become, more often than not, the other way around, and the resulting distortions impair not only our ongoing understanding of the American canon--whatever it is at the moment--but the act of criticism itself.

In light of his general line, Crews's first chapter, "The Sins of the Fathers Revisited," stands as his most revealing because he takes himself to task. Looking back on his earlier book from the vantage of the late 1980s, Crews issues a careful recantation, condemning his own psychoanalytical excesses. He writes, "If much of Sins still feels right to me today, that is because Hawthorne-as-problem, not Freud-as-solution, usually remains in view" (6). Crews discusses the flak he caught from those who have judged him a turncoat, and generalizes from his experience by chastising critical "apriorists" and celebrating "empiricists," those for whom a critical theory works only when it combines "logical coherence, epistemic scrupulousness, and [a] capacity to explain relatively undisputed facts at once more parsimoniously and more comprehensively than its rivals do" (15). In his chapter devoted to that splendidly dissonant Twain novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, he again champions "empiricism" after eliminating three other critical postures.

The Connecticut Yankee chapter focuses more narrowly than most of the others in Crews's book. By contrast, the second chapter, "Whose American Renaissance?," ranges broadly. F.O. Matthiessen's classic 1941 study that has spawned countless books and courses has served as a whipping boy for some years now; indeed, it has formed, perhaps, the main target in American canon-bashing. Crews calmly reviews the achievement of the book as well as the pressures inherent within it, and then analyzes several recent books that have attacked it. He concludes that "American Renaissance is indeed an ambivalent book, poised between communitarian longings and an admiration for eccentric isolatoes who had cast their conflicts into ambiguous symbolism" (25). Matthiessen's critical legacy divides his own book: the "precariously balanced aesthetic-political vision, at once poignant and impossible, has by now split into two styles of thought that tend to correct each other's prejudices" (46). Certainly Crews sympathizes with that precarious balance more than he does with the hostile, mutually exclusive camps that have descended from it. He answers his chapter's title question at the end, after bashing the New Americanist enterprise for "its self-righteousness, its tendency to conceive of American history only as a highlight film of outrages, its impatience with artistic purposes other than 'redefining the social order,' and its choice of critical principles according to the partisan cause at hand" (40).

Crews lauds such biographical enterprises as Kenneth Lynn's Hemingway tome, which for him always tracks the writer rather than appropriates him to fit some critical agenda. By contrast, he condemns Susan Gillman's Dark Twains as a critical exercise suffused with "ideological tendentiousness" that loses sight of Twain. He holds O'Connor in high regard, for example, even though he subjects her work to severe scrutiny, believing her style of story the exquisite example of New Critical biases. Ever a canny reader, Crews says of O'Connor's Catholicism that "the church and its sacraments...were especially turn her gift for demolition to godly ends, but she was shrewd enough--and also sufficiently confident of divine approval--not to mollify the pitiless caricature and jarring metaphors that turned her otherwise taciturn prose into a minefield of harsh surprises" (163). I get the feeling he holds Updike in less than high regard, which suits me fine. In more than one chapter he works dialectically, summarizing and evaluating opposing critical viewpoints and then staking out some middle ground to occupy. Certainly Crews distances himself from the "old-fashioned" concept of authorial intentionality; as he mentions in the Faulkner chapter, he advocates "the idea that literature is a site of struggle whose primary conflicts, both intrapsychic and social, deserve to be brought to light rather than homogenized into notions of fixed authorial 'values'" (124).

I praise Crews's unswerving commitment to a writer rather than a critical theory per se. The same voice that delighted us in The Pooh Perplex animates these essays: its satiric humor may be mostly absent, but its wit is not.

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