Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 1983

Volume 10 Issue 1
    • 1Barbara Herrnstein Smith
    • One of the major effects of prohibiting or inhibiting explicit evaluation is to forestall the exhibition and obviate the possible acknowledgment of divergent systems of value and thus to ratify, by default, established evaluative authority. It is worth noting that in none of the debates of the forties and fifties was the traditional academic canon itself questioned, and that where evaluative authority was not ringingly affirmed, asserted, or self-justified, it was simply assumed. Thus Frye himself could speak almost in one breath of the need to “get rid of…all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value-judgments” as “the first step in developing a genuine poetics” and of “the masterpieces of literature” which are “the materials of literary criticism” (AC, pp. 18, 15). The identity of those masterpieces, it seemed, could be taken for granted or followed more or less automatically from the “direct value-judgment of informed good taste” or “certain literary values…fully established by critical experience” (AC, pp. 27, 20).

      In a passage of particular interest, Frye wrote:

      Comparative estimates of value are really inferences, most valid when silent ones, from critical practice…The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet than Blackmore. But the more obvious this becomes, the less time he will want to waste belaboring the point. [AC, p. 25]

      In addition to the noteworthy correlation of validity with silence (comparable, to some extent, to Wimsatt’s discreet “intimations” of value), two other aspects of Frye’s remarks here repay some attention. First, in claiming that it is altogether obvious that Milton, rather than Blackmore, is “a more rewarding and suggestive poet [for the critic] to work with,” Frye begged the question of what kind of work the critic would be doing. For surely if one were concerned with a question such as the relation of canonical and noncanonical texts in the system of literary value in eighteenth-century England, one would find Blackmore just as rewarding and suggestive to work with as Milton. Both here and in his repeated insistence that the “material” of criticism must be “the masterpieces of literature” (he refers also to a “feeling we have all had: that the study of mediocre works of art remains a random and peripheral form of critical experience” [AC, p. 17]), Frye exhibits a severely limited conception of the potential domain of literary study and of the sort of problems and phenomena with which it could or should deal. In this conceptual and methodological confinement, however (which betrays the conservative force of the ideology of traditional humanism even in the laboratories of the new progressive poetics), he has been joined by just about every other member of the Anglo-American literary academy during the past fifty years.

      See also: Barbara Hernstein Smith, Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories

      Barbara Herrnstein Smith is University Professor of English and communications and director of the Center for the Study of Art and Symbolic Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of, among other works, Poetic Closure and On the Margins of Discourse. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories,” appeared in the Autumn 1980 issue. The present essay is part of a full-length study of literary and aesthetic value and evaluation.

    • 37Charles Altieri
    • It is unfortunately a lot easier to raise an arch eyebrow than it is to describe critical terms that might account for the values in idealization while preserving a pluralistic sense of possible canons and their uses. Instead of facing the challenge directly, I shall rely on what I call a contrastive strategy. Were I simply to assert a traditional psychology with its attendant values, I would expose myself to a host of suspicious charges about my pieties and delusions. So I shall begin by concentrating on the limitations I take to be inherent in the empiricism of the critical historicists’ position. If, by deflating idealization, their arguments prove reductive, they should provoke us to ask what it is they reduce. We will find ourselves forced back within the circle of literary and existential expectations I suspect most of us still share. But now we might appreciate the force and possible uses of that training when we measure it against all we cannot do if we accept an alternative stance. That we can measure at all, of course, may emerge as the most significant consequence of this experiment in using contrastive strategies.

      The subject of self-interest provides us with a clear test among these competing positions, and it establishes some of the psychological concepts we will need if we are to describe the cultural functions canons can serve. Critical historicism concentrates on two basic aspects of self-interest—the desire for power over others and the pursuit of self-representations that satisfy narcissistic demands. Out of these aspects, ideologies are generated and sustained. But this is hardly an exhaustive account of needs, motives, and powers. I propose that at least two other claims seem plausible, each with important consequences for our understanding of the canon—that some people can understand their empirical interests to a degree sufficient to allow them considerable control over their actions and that a basic motive for such control is to subsume one’s actions under a meaning the self can take responsibility for.4


      4. I use the term “empirical interests” in what I take to be a Kantian sense. “Empirical” refers to interests one simply accepts as preferences, without any need for justification. These interests invite ideological analysis, since, for Kant, they come essentially from outside as heteronomous rather than autonomous features of a subject’s life. The opposite of “empirical,” in this sense, is interests one tries to rationalize on principles that, at some level, have criteria not selected by the agent and also applicable to some other agents. For a historical account of the concept of interests, see Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton, N.J., 1977). For a clear conceptual analysis of problems in attributing all motives to self-interest, see Paul W. Taylor, Principles of Ethics: An Introduction (Belmont, Calif., 1978), chap. 3.

      See also: Jerome J. McGann, The Meaning of The Ancient Mariner

      Charles Altieri is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Washington. He is the author of Act and Quality: A Theory of Literary Meaning and Humanistic Understanding (1981) and Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (forthcoming) and is presently working on value in ethics and esthetics. His previous contributions to Critical

    • 61Lawrence Lipking
    • In the beginning was an aborted word. The first example of a woman’s literary criticism in Western tradition, or more accurately the first miscarriage of a woman’s criticism, occurs early in the Odyssey. High in her room above the hall of suitors, Penelope can hear a famous minstrel sing that most painful of stories, the Greek homecoming from Troy—significantly, the matter of the Odyssey itself. That is no song for a woman. She comes down the stairs to protest.

                  “Phêmios, other spells you know, high deeds

                  of gods and heroes, as the poets tell them;

                  let these men hear some other, while they sit

                  silent and drink their wine. But sing no more

                  this bitter tale that wears my heart away.

                  It opens in me again the wound of longing

                  For one incomparable, ever in my mind—

                  His fame all Hellas knows, and midland Argos.”

      It seems a reasonable request. But her words meet an immediate brutal rebuff from an unexpected source: her own son Telemachus.

                  “Mother, why do you grudge our own dear minstrel

                  Joy of song, wherever his thought may lead?

                  Poets are not to blame, but Zeus

      who gives what fate he pleases to adventurous men.

      Here is no reason for reproof: to sing

      the news of the Danaans! Men like best

      a song that rings like morning on the ear.

      But you must nerve yourself and try to listen.

      Odysseus was not the only one at Troy

      never to know the day of his homecoming.

      Others, how many others, lost their lives!”9

      Men like to hear the news; women must learn not to take songs so personally! And Penelope gives in. Marveling at the wisdom of her son, she goes back to her room and cries herself to sleep.

      Telemachus’ words do not seem very much to the point. Penelope had not asked Phêmios to stop singing, after all, or to sing something fit for women; she only asked him to choose some other adventure. And to reproach her for not considering that others besides Odysseus had failed to come home seems irrelevant as well as cruel. The fact that others feel pain is hardly a reason for her not to feel it. Penelope cannot bear even to name her husband, but Telemachus seems to take pleasure in saying “Odysseus.” By proclaiming his own indifference to pain, he argues just like a man. And that, of course, is the point. The scene has been contrived exactly to show his new maturity. He proves himself no longer a boy in the time-honored fashion, by rejecting any tenderness of heart and by putting down a woman. Henceforth he will be equal to the suitors.

      See also: Elaine Showalter, Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness

      Lawrence Lipking is Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University and director of the program in comparative literature and theory. He is the author of The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England and The Life of the Poet, which won the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa in 1982. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “The Marginal Glass” (Summer 1977) and “Arguing with Shelly” (Winter 1979). The present essay was originally given as a lecture at the School of Criticism and Theory in the summer of 1982. It is part of a book, Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition, which is to appear in 1984.

    • 83James E. G. Zetzel
    • The Alexandrian emphasis on smallness, elegance, and slightness at the expense of grand themes in major poetic genres was not preciosity for its own sake: although the poetry was written by and for scholars, it had much larger sources than the bibliothecal context in which it was composed. Since the time of the classical poets, much had changed. Earlier Greek poetry was an intimate part of the life of the city-state, written for its religious occasions and performed by its citizens. But eh conquests of Alexander had altered the structure and the boundaries of the Greek world to an astonishing degree. Alexandria, the center of the poetic culture of the new age, was a city that had not even existed at the time of Euripides; it was in Egypt, not in Greece, and was a huge, polyglot community. As immigrants immersed in a new, impersonal, and bureaucratic society, the poets not unreasonably sought out what was small, intimate, and personal in their verses. The heroes of early Greek poetry are larger than life; those of Alexandrian poetry are life-size. They are human, like us; they have a childhood and an old age; they are afraid or in love or caught in a rainstorm. It was simply one way of reducing the world to more manageable dimensions. At the same time, the new world of Alexandria needed a new poetry. To continue writing epics about a mythology that seemed very far away was senseless; it was impossible to recapture either the style or the immediacy of Homer, lyric poetry, or Attic tragedy. The scholar-poets of Alexandria admired the literature of classical Greece; for them Homer was incomparable and inimitable, to be studied—but not to be copied. Far better, then, to find a new voice on a more manageable scale: instead of oral epic, erudite epyllion; instead of lyric, epigram; instead of tragedy, mime. The poets of an urban and unheroic world might long for but could never re-create the grandeur of the past.

      See also: Anne Burnett, The Scrutiny of Song: Pindar, Politics, and Poetry

      James E. G. Zetzel is associate professor of classics at Princeton University and editor of the Transactions of the American Philological Association. He is the author of Latin Textual Criticism in Antiquity (1981) and, with Anthony T. Grafton and Glenn W. Most, has translated Friedrich August Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum (forthcoming).

    • 107Joseph Kerman
    • Since the idea of a canon seems so closely bound up with the idea of history, there should be something to be learned from the persistent efforts that have been going on for nearly two hundred years to extend the musical repertory back in time. What is involved here is nothing less than a continuous effort to endow music with a history. From the workings of this process in the nineteenth century, we learn that where the ideology is right the past can indeed yield up a canon of works and even a canon of performance.


      Bach, to take the most weighty example, would appear to have entered the canon—Hoffman’s canon—before entering the repertory. The history of the nineteenth-century Bach revival begins as a triumph of ideology over practice. Only after J. N. Forkel, in his famous biography, canonized Bach as the archetypal German master was The Well-tempered Clavier published for the first time—and if any one work of music deserved to be called canonic, it would have to be The Well-tempered Clavier.14 (But when did it really enter the repertory? Not really until the formation of a new repertory, the repertory of the modern harpsichord, in our own time.) Gradually other Bach works, works which fitted better into nineteenth-century concert life, did enter various nineteenth-century repertories; Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion is a famous landmark, and various piano transcriptions and orchestral arrangements, not to speak of Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” followed in due course. Bach was made to sound like a premature Romantic. There was as yet no call for historical “authenticity.” But I do not think it was Bach that Hood was thinking of when he complained of musical traditions of the past whose “real identities are gone.” The skeleton may not have been bodied out with authentic flesh and blood, but it was made into a handsome waxwork which was quite real enough for the nineteenth century.


      14. This point is made by Crocker, “Is There Really a ‘Written Tradition’?”

      See also: Joseph Kerman, How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out

      Joseph Kerman, professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Opera as Drama, The Beethoven Quartets, The Masses and Motets of William Byrd, and (with Alan Tyson) The New Grove Beethoven. He is also coeditor of Beethoven Studies and Nineteenth-Century Music and is presently working on a concise study of modern musical scholarship. “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out,” his previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, appeared in the Winter 1980 issue.

    • 127Jerome J. McGann
    • I want to argue…that to read Rossetti’s religious poetry with understanding (and therefore with profit and appreciation) requires a more or less conscious investment in the peculiarities of its Christian orientation, in the social and historical particulars which feed and shape the distinctive features of her work. Because John O. Waller’s relatively recent essay on Rossetti, “Christ’s Second Coming: Christina Rossetti and the Premillenarianist William Dodsworth,” focuses on some of the most important of these particulars, it seems to me one of the most useful pieces of scholarship ever written on the poet. The essay locates the special ground of Rossetti’s religious poetry in that peculiar Adventist and premillenarian context which flourished for about fifty years in mid nineteenth-century culture. In point of historical fact—and it is a historical fact which has enormous significance for the aesthetic character of Rossetti’s poetry—her religious verse is intimately meshed with a number of particular, even peculiar, religious ideas.18 From the vantage of her strongest poetry, the most important of these ideas (along with the associated images and symbols they helped to generate) were allied to a once powerful religious movement which later—toward the end of the century—slipped to a marginal position in English culture.

      The whole question [of premillenarianism] was overshadowed first and last by the Tractarian Movement, Anglo-Catholicism, and the resulting Protestant reaction. And we can see in retrospect that all through the years [1820-1875] the theological future actually belonged to liberal, or Broad Church, principles. By the middle 1870s, apparently [the issues raised through the premillenarian movement] were no longer very alive.19­­

      In this context we may begin to understand the decline of Rossetti’s reputation after the late nineteenth century, when she was still regarded as one of the most powerful and important contemporary English poets. Her reputation was established in the 1860s and 1870s, when Adventism reached the apogee of its brief but influential career. Thereafter, the availability of religious poetry was mediated either through the Broad Church line (which stretches from Coleridge and the Cambridge Apostles and Arnold, to figures like Trilling and Abrams in our own day) or through the High Church and Anglo-Catholic line (which was defined backwards from certain influential twentieth-century figures like Eliot to include the Noetics, Hopkins, and various seventeenth-century religious writers). The premillenarian and evangelist enthusiasm which supported Rossetti’s religious poetry had been moved to the periphery of English culture when the canon of such verse began to take shape in the modern period.

      To read Rossetti’s poetry, then, we have to willingly suspend not only our disbelief in her convictions and ideas but also our belief in those expectations and presuppositions about religious poetry which we have inherited from those two dominant ideological lines—Broad Church and High Church and Anglo-Catholic. Waller has drawn our attention to the general premillenarian content of her work, and I should like to follow his lead by emphasizing another crucial and even more particular doctrinal feature of her poetry.


      19. Waller, “Christ’s Second Coming,” p. 477. For a general discussion of millenarianism in the early nineteenth century, see J. E. Harrison, The Second Coming, Popular Millenarianism, 1780-1850 (London, 1979).

      See also: Jerome McGann, Philology in a New Key

      Jerome J. McGann is the Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of Humanities at the California Institute of Technology. His two most recent books are The Romantic Ideology. A Critical Investigation (1983) and A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983). His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Formalism, Savagery, and Care; or, The Function of Criticism Once Again” (Spring 1976) and “The Meaning of the Ancient Mariner” (Autumn 1981).

    • 145Arnold Krupat
    • Although not exactly continuous, the Native American challenge to the canon, as I have tried to show, has been of comparatively long standing. Nonetheless, inasmuch as Native American literary production and Euramerican writing influenced by it have only barely begun to enter the courses in and the anthologies of general American literature, that challenge cannot be said to have been effective as yet. No doubt it will take more time for poets and teachers to recognize what Native American literatures aboriginally were and, to some extent, still are; to recognize when and if the influence of these literatures is present in work by Native and non-Native writers. It is only since the 1950s and 1960s that philological and structural work has begun to make this recognition possible in any case.

      It is only more recently still that an adequately sophisticated criticism for these literatures has begun to develop, with the publication of Abraham Chapman’s basic and eclectic collection of essays, Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations (1975); Karl Kroeber’s uneven but valuable introduction to the subject, Traditional Literatures of the American Indian: Texts and Interpretations (1981); and Hymes’ “In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics (1981), a collection of Hymes’ seminal and indispensable work. The broadest and most sophisticated collection of essays—gathering work by Hymes, Tedlock, Toelken, Kroeber, and others—has only just appeared: Smooting the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature (1982) is edited by Brian Swann, a poet and translator of Mative American song.61 These developments are encouraging for Native American literatures. As American society continues to move away from anthropocentrism and textual authority, the Native tradition may for the first time effectively assert its claim upon the canon of American literature.


      61. For his translations, see, for example, Swann’s Song of the Sky: Versions of Native American Songs and Poems (forthcoming). Swann works from texts, not performances, from English language versions, not transcriptions of Native languages; as a result, he has made a point of insisting, “These poems of mine are not translations” but instead “versions” of Native American poetry. Although he has given up specific claims to authenticity, Swann has nonetheless shown how much can be done by the non-Native poet and scholar responding to the Native tradition as a powerful source.

      See also: Arnold Krupat, An Approach to Native American Texts

      Arnold Krupat is a member of the literature faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the coeditor of the University of Nebraska Press’ Native American Autobiography Series and is currently completing an anthology of Native American autobiographies, Indian Lives. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “An Approach to Native American Texts,” appeared in the December 1982 issue.

    • 173John Guillory
    • Nostalgia is only the beginning of a recognizably ideological discourse. The way through to the ideological sense of Tennyson’s “failure,” beneath the phenomenal glow of Eliot’s nostalgia, lies in the entanglement of minority in this complex of meanings, the determination that Tennyson is properly placed when seen as a “minor Virgil.” The diffusion of a major talent in minor works suggests that what Tennyson or Eliot might have been was another Virgil, and for Eliot that means simply a “classic.” In “What Is a Classic?,” we are told that English literature has no classic poet who would exalt, as Virgil or Dante did, the truths of his age.14 The absence of a modern classic reflects not an individual failure but rather the absence of a universal truth, which has been hidden in the minor works. Here is the reason both for the ambivalence Eliot expresses about the fact of minority (a valuing of the right things and yet a deferral of greatness) and for the peculiar, and certainly not necessary, association of poetic minority with a marginal elite.15

      It is the latter point to which I now want to turn. If it has been shown that the canon Eliot legislated in his early career was not merely an arbitrary set of aesthetic preferences, we have not yet fully evinced the ideological sense of Eliot’s canonical principle. We have only determined that one way to reconstruct Eliot’s canon would be to list those “minor” poets. But the essential quality of their minority, what drives them away from the “mainstream” of English literature, is what Eliot approved as their fidelity to “tradition.” Such a concept of tradition must be exclusive as well as revisionary, because it implies that the major poets of English literary history cannot also be “traditional.” Eliot finally understood that his canonical principle was the literary reflection of a more fundamental evaluative norm, extrinsic to literature, which he identified as “orthodoxy.” So he tells us in After Strange Gods that he is rewriting “Tradition and the Individual Talent” by substituting “orthodoxy” for “tradition,” and this is unquestionably an ideological correction.16 In the same way, the canon of minor writers is established retrospectively as determined by the rule of orthodoxy. Neither they nor the young Eliot need be orthodox Christians for this rule to have enabled their productions. It is precisely Eliot’s meaning that these elite, like the “elect” before them, may come at some point to a conviction of their election, yet they were always the elect. In this sense, Eliot’s conversion to Christianity was the recognition that he already belonged to a marginal elite, whose membership had been polemically foreshadowed by the construction of an alternative canon.


      14. The whole argument of “What Is a Classic?” is interesting in this respect. Eliot’s standard of classical value is “universality,” which is opposed to the “provincial.” The closest English literature comes to a classical age is in the eighteenth century, and this too fails because its “restriction of religious sensibility itself produces a kind of provinciality: the provinciality which indicates the disintegration of Christendom, the decay of a common belief and a common culture” (OPP, pp. 61-62).

      15. But at least a hint about how to make this connection is given in Eliot’s “The Classics and the Man of Letters,” To Criticize the Critic (New York, 1965): “The continuity of literature is essential to its greatness; it is very largely the function of secondary writers to preserve this continuity, and to provide a body of writings which is not necessarily read by posterity, which plays a great part in forming the link between those writers who continue to be read” (p. 147).

      16. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (New York, 1933), p. 22.

      See also: John Guillory, The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism

      John Guillory, assistant professor of English at Yale University, is the author of Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (1983). He is currently working on a study of canon-formation.

    • 199Richard Ohmann
    • Categorical names such as “The English Novel,” “The Modern American Novel,” and “American Literature” often turn up in catalogs as titles of college courses, and we know from them pretty much what to expect. They also have standing in critical discourse, along with allied terms unlikely to serve as course titles: “good writing,” “great literature,” “serious fiction,” “literature” itself. The awareness has grown in recent years that such concepts pose problems, even though we use them with easy enough comprehension when we talk or write to others who share our cultural matrix.

      Lately, critics like Raymond Williams have been reminding us that the categories change over time (just as “literature” used to mean all printed books but has come to mean only some poems, plays, novels, etc.) and that at any given moment categories embody complex social relations and a continuing historical process. That process deeply invests all terms with value: since not everyone’s values are the same, the negotiating of such concepts is, among other things, a struggle for dominance—whether between adults and the young, professors and their students, one class and another, or men and women. We don’t usually notice the power or the conflict, except when some previously weak or silent group seeks a share of the power: for example, when, in the 1960s, American blacks and their supporters insisted that black literature be included in school and college curricula, or when they openly challenged the candidacy of William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner for inclusion in some eventual canon.1 But the gradual firming up of concepts like, say, postwar American fiction is always a contest for cultural hegemony, even if in our society if is often muted—carried on behind the scenes or in the seemingly neutral marketplace.


      1. See John Henrik Clarke, ed., William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (Boston, 1968).

      See also: Carol Ohmann and Richard Ohmann, Universals and the Historically Particular

      Richard Ohmann is professor of English at Wesleyan University. He is the author of English in America and is presently working on studies in mass culture.