Life of the Mind

Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History

Joseph North. Harvard University Press, 2017. 261 pages. $39.95.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Christian Gauss Award


By John McWilliams

North has given us a brave and informed account of major schools of twentieth century literary criticism, British and American. Two initial caveats, however, are in order. North’s title is somewhat misleading. His book is certainly political and often concise, but it is not a “history” in the broad chronological sense of the term. Aside from a few fleeting mentions of Matthew Arnold and William Morris, North’s History begins with I.A. Richards and William Empson. Aristotle, Sidney, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, and Shelley, all of them unmentioned, are of no account here. Secondly, if “history” connotes judicious, non-partisan disinterest, North has delivered a polemic, rightly self-described as “ruthlessly focused,” and explicitly addressed to “interested general readers,” “students and professors of literature,” and “my friends on the left” in that order. North writes with admirable regard for conditional qualifiers, but his judgments upon critics are aggressively preferential (T.S. Eliot is consigned to an appendix) and his demands for present critical change are proactive.  His book is a selective polemic, a treatise not a history, which does not make it either imperceptive or wrongheaded. Indeed, it may well prove of timely benefit. 

Both general and professional readers will here find much to learn. North uncovers surprising lines of connection, well beyond Cambridge University, between I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and Raymond Williams, all of whom North treats as major representative critics of their separable times. He asks three provocative questions of the presumably progressive nature of the critical “crisis” of the late 1970s: “To what extent were second-wave feminist critiques of the welfare state likely to secure basic structural changes and to what extent were they working to replace a materialist politics with a mere politics of recognition?” “Which of the new race critiques were genuinely challenging to the existing racial order, and which were in fact expressions of that racial order in its newly ‘diverse,’ ‘multicultural,’ and US-expansionist forms?” “Was deconstruction activist or quietist?” As scholar/critics grew increasingly tired of the New Critics’ “Close Reading,” could an alternative like Franco Moretti’s “Distant Reading” really be described as ‘reading’ in any plausible sense? The greatness of I. A. Richards lay in his insistence that the value of literature must ultimately reside, not in professional academic scholarship, but in its affect upon the reader’s sensibilities. Against both Leavisite judgment and critical and scholarly careerism, North repeatedly quotes Richards’ memorable conviction: “It is less important to like ‘good’ poetry and dislike ‘bad,’ than to be able to use them both as a means of ordering our minds.” 

What then is the substance of North’s polemic? Evidently much influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, North argues that “The Historicist/Çontextualist Paradigm,” which has dominated literary scholarship since 1980, has been the fundamentally illogical result of selective misreading of important works such as Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature. Similarly, Raymond Williams had selectively misread F.R. Leavis, and both of them, along with the New Critics, had selectively misread Richards. The crucial result is that considerations of aesthetics and the practice of “sensibility” within literary criticism have both virtually disappeared, swallowed up by a merely academic scholarship that proceeds upon the premise that literature is to be studied as the expression and product of contextual historical forces. Our current critical paradigm of literary study, in short, can do no more than inform us about time-bound aspects of particular cultures.  

North traces the lines of successive misreading carefully and convincingly. He might also have chosen to consider other kinds of evidence that would have affirmed his conviction that the reigning paradigm has diminished the importance of literature in advanced education. Louis Menand’s recent account of the diminishing numbers of university English majors, of literature faculty, and of students enrolled in literature courses, could have added grist to North’s argument. Even as the study of literature now ostensibly points outward, it has in fact turned inward, safely confining itself within an academic world, about which the governing voices of capitalist economics really do not even care. Dare we call up the specter of radical leftist tenured professors depositing their comfortable salary checks in some subsidiary of a big international bank? 

Like so many polemics, North’s Literary Criticism is stronger in diagnosing crises than in resolving them. He calls for a paradigm beyond Historicist/Contextualist scholarship that would include the following: deep concern with aesthetics and form, “sensitivity to feeling and affect,” ability to move broadly across times, places and cultures, willingness to use literature as a means of ethical (or political) education, and a restored commitment of literature to some kind of influential “public role.” These are admirable general goals, but what specifically do they entail and how are we to realize them, given the shrunken authority of literary study? North offers no blueprints here; the solutions seem to be left to a new generation to discover.

North’s book has the kinds of abstract vacuity so often characteristic of literary theory. He uses many terms that are never defined: Left, Right, Radical, Conservative, Liberal, Left-Liberal, Neo-Liberal, Materialism, Christian, and Aesthetics. Such terms are used and referred to as if all readers agree upon their meaning, but in fact we readers will bring widely different connotations to these words, thereby opening the promise of the next paradigm to conflicting if not opposed interpretations. Perhaps such openness, too, could prove to be to the good. 

Another kind of abstract vacuity, however, remains more troublesome. In North’s entire book, there is not one mention of a single work of literature, no literary text offered as an example, no quotation of a poem, a play or a fiction, in short, no “Practical Criticism” of the kind favored by North’s much admired I .A. Richards. As abstract critical concepts shift from one critical movement into the next, specific referents become lost in a muddle of terminology; to cite an older pair of critical terms, the vehicle loses its tenor. The question remains: will North’s book be read to its end by more than just a very few advanced academic specialists in literary theory? I suspect not, but I hope so. The “Historicist/Contextualist paradigm” has yielded many fine works of scholarship, but it needs to be replaced if the authority of literature is to survive at all.   


John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is an emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


(Posted on 8/6/2018 )