The Critics Bear It Away is a collection of eight essays by Frederick Crews, dating “from the later 1980’s and early 1990’s,” starting off, after the accurate road map of the “Introduction,” with “The Sins of the Fathers Revisited,” an afterword written to accompany the 1989 reprinting of The Sins of the Fathers (1966), which Crews describes as “the most influential of my critical studies,” one that seems to have “helped to establish a vogue for Freudian criticism not just of Hawthorne but of American writers generally.” More than 20 years of active critical engagement since then have allowed Crews the chance to change his mind about some things, to modify some earlier judgments, and, at the very least, to admit to the need for a much more expanded and complicated context than strictly “the intrapsychic realm” of Freudian psychoanalysis. Moreover he recognizes, in a personal, at times confessional, stance and tone that he himself has now become part of the picture, someone with his very own piece of the action: “My drastically changed relation to Sins and to psychoanalysis has itself, I realize, become a topic of academic notice, provoking responses ranging from puzzlement to titillation to dismay.” The other essays, versions of most of which appeared in Crews’ familiar public showcase, the New York Review of Books, are mostly extended book reviews and are arranged in a more or less chronological sequence of critical concerns, moving from a fairly general statement of point of view (“Whose American Renaissance?”) to a more specific focus. The final essay is a close reading (and demonstration of method) of John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version (1986). In between there are two pieces on Mark Twain and one each about Hemingway, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor.
As anyone familiar with any of Crews’ other work (including the lucrative Random House Handbook, which is at once gloriously funny and extremely useful and practical) knows, all of it is highly intelligent, wonderfully sane, often very witty, frequently subtle, and sometimes right on the memorable and aphoristic money: “Throughout most of the previous decade, sexual and religious aspiration had been a single blur for Updike. But nobody’s adolescence can last forever.”
Mainly, as the title promises, this book is a critique of contemporary academic critics of various kinds, their acts and ways being set against the background of attack and counterattack on the brutal battlefields of “our currently polarized academy.” Crews presents himself as something of a moderate, standing between those he calls the New Americanists (defined by “connection to our historic national shames—slavery, ‘Indian removal,’ aggressive expansion, imperialism, and so forth—and to current struggles for equal social opportunity”) and those he names as “cultural nostalgies,” who are “people who conceive of the ideal university as a pantheon for the presentation of great works and great ideas.” Moderate as he may be, especially when compared to space-age savages like Jane Tompkins, Frank Lentricchia, and Sacvan Bercovitch, Crews clearly leans more toward the cult of the politically correct than that of the “conservative Jeremiahs”; and he shares any number of common attitudes popularly held among prominent New Americanists, simply taking for granted, for example, that it is accurate to define the historic Deep South as an “old blend of vileness and aristocratic pretense.” Not surprisingly he finds Tom Sawyer to be demonstrably “haunted by violence, fear, guilt, sadism, and suggestions of universal egotism and cowardice.” Of Hemingway he argues: “What Hemingway needs is an ideal reader who can discard everything that is meretricious in our image of him but then do justice to the literary art that remains.” And, a little farther along, he adds: “To arrive at that vulnerable and exacting artist, we must first learn to forgo the Hemingway legend.” Hemingway is seen as King, “bloodthirsty,” and impotent—”Hemingway evidently fancied an unclimactic fondling that evoked infantile passivity and gender confusion.” Even worse, there seems to be something to the suspicion that he was sometimes anti-Semitic and homophobic. Or, anyway, some of his central characters, whom Crews assumes, when he pleases, to be mouthpieces for the author, are so discovered to be depicted. Similarly we have to come to terms with “the egregiousness of Faulkner’s sexism and racism.”
Crews’ best essay may be his title piece on Flannery O’Connor, if only for his persuasive account of O’Connor as a child of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the New Criticism. “A cynic might say, then,” he writes, “that in lionizing O’Connor the American university has not so much acknowledged a literary genius as bestowed a posthumous laurel on its most diligent student.” And Crews cannot be faulted for pointing out that her great achievement comes chiefly through “the perfecting of a single hard-edged mode.” But someone who can casually write, as he does in an earlier essay, about “the most politically conservative concept of sin,” someone who views the “explicitly Christian expansion of sympathy” in “The Artificial Nigger” as “a regressive political act,” cannot be taken as a completely just authority in his appraisals of either Catholic (O’Connor) or Protestant (Updike) faith. Crews seems to have minimal sympathy for or understanding of Christianity except as a matter of intellectual history, a diminishing part of the embattled canon.
But there is much about The Critics Bear It Away that may be valuable, and not merely Crews’ insights (and there are plenty), nor, indeed, the genuine pleasures of his writing in general and detail, nor, for that matter, his serious arguments for sensible moderation, a quality surely and sorely needed in English departments everywhere. One considerable service is that he freely quotes and paraphrases the arguments and outrageous statements of some of the leading figures among the New Americanists, thus leading the reader directly to the happy conclusion that we need not waste any more precious time and energy reading any more of their efforts. We may consider Crews an advocate and mediator in this matter (not our only one, but at least a worthy witness); and we can return to the original texts, Twain and Hemingway and Faulkner and O’Connor and Updike and all the others in the sure and certain hope that we need no New Americanist critic to guide us to our own destination.
[The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy, by Frederick Crews (New York: Random House) 215 pp., $20.00]
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