What’s wrong with the New Yorker?

I’ve just finished reading Louis Menand’s article on T. S. Eliot, part of the New Yorker’s “Critic-At-Large” series, which I’d guess accounts for most of the “literary criticism” its subscribers read on a weekly basis. (That’s not condescension; literary criticism is still a large part of “what I do,” and even I usually won’t read it unless I have no choice.) These essays aren’t just reviews of books, telling you whether or not to read something. They present arguments about writers and writing. Menand’s take on Eliot starts with Eliot’s bumpy entry into the Bloomsbury social circles, moves on to Eliot’s unhappy marriage, and ends with Eliot’s own literary criticism, which Menand claims basically invented the modern English Department.

Menand on Eliot the social butterfly is merely trivial; Menand on Eliot’s unhappy marriage is boring. He indulges in psychologizing Eliot, writing that Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” was the result of the bad marriage. This is pathetically reductive — if Vivienne was his muse, why would Eliot almost abandon “The Waste Land” after reading Joyce? All this, however, pales beside Menand’s huge leaps at the end of the essay.

[Eliot’s] route to influence and renown passed through an institution he had pointedly scorned [...] Cambridge academics [...] found in Eliot’s books the template for a new method of teaching English. Their American counterparts, the New Critics, were also Eliot’s devoted exegetes [...] Together, they created the modern English department.

The historicizing is so vague that it’s basically wrong. I don’t know what Menand means by “the modern English department.” English got started as a university subject in the 19th Century, and contemporary English departments are shaped by French postmodernism and political funding decisions. Anyway, onwards:

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that “stand for” something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the author’s own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.

If Menand is seeking to curb the influence of English professors, he needn’t worry: most English departments are facing catastropic budget shortfalls, and even the most talented graduate students can’t find steady, “tenure-track” jobs anywhere.

In fact, he’s delivering these kicks to a half-dead discipline in order to flatter and tickle his readers. You have everything you need by way of literary training, he implies. You don’t need to know what a Upanishad is in order to read “The Waste Land” — you just need to have had one or two bad relationships, and some friends who make you anxious. If English professors weren’t so intent on creating jobs for themselves, we would come to our senses and realize how little we need them.

These positions are dishonest and wrong. First of all, if Menand is right about literary criticism, then his essay is just as pointless as the tradition it seeks to undermine. Why should I care what Woolf said about Eliot, or Eliot about Joyce? Why should I bother with Eliot’s letters (Menand’s putative subject)? They weren’t his official literary creations, and as celebrity gossip, they’re pretty thin.

Second, Menand has no basis for his generalizations about how English professors think about the general populace. He has no idea what “most English professors” think, and neither do I. I can, however, put to rest this false opposition between an intuitive grasp of literature and a critical vocabulary. Of course people have an intuitive grasp of literature: they read it and study it because it delights them. A critical vocabulary is simply a means of achieving a further intimacy with a fascinating book: what it can do, what it cannot, what it says between the lines, how it creates order, how it provokes, to whom it shows deference, and what circumstances affected it most.

Mysticism about reading books is not an invention of English departments. It is something that English departments inherited from the classical discipline of rhetoric and the Scholastic discipline of exegesis. An untrained person has little chance of swaying Parliament, or of coming to profound conclusions about the mind of God.

Statements like that still seem beyond dispute, but when it comes to literature, instead of providing intellectual leadership, the New Yorker promotes Menand’s apology for complacency and comfortable ignorance. Perhaps he has not seen the crowds of students, in community colleges across my state, arriving to find their English classrooms locked and dark, with a note taped to the door. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, in two volumes, costs $90. Most people won’t intuitively “get” them unless there are libraries, serving students of English, to “purchase” them. So, if you see dear Mr. Menand, tell him I bring the horoscope myself.

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