This collection of essays, generally short, on some two dozen authors, chiefly novelists, underlines “the delight of great books,” to borrow a phrase from John Erskine.  It fits the definition that Anatole France (one of the writers treated) gave of literary criticism: “les aventures de son âme au milieu des chefs-d’œuvre” (“the adventures of one’s soul amid masterpieces”).  The straightforward approach emphasizes the ways in which authors’ personalities (understood broadly) shape or are revealed in their creations.  The book stands in striking contrast to much of what has passed for literary criticism in America in recent decades, under the unfortunate influence, absorbed too readily, of various French mandarins, among them Jacques Derrida, with their theories of authorship.  Auchincloss’s very title, implying the premise of his volume, would be nonsensical if he were to grant Derrida and his followers that, each text always referring regressively to other texts and “discourses” (as words are defined by other words), writers always speak in the voice of others, that is, no one.  “Criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance—or death—of the author some time ago,” announced Michel Foucault in 1969.

Fortunately, independence of mind and letters of literary nobility—a distinguished production comprising 60 works of fiction and nonfiction—have allowed Mr. Auchincloss to ignore entirely that claim and others by which postmodernist critics would kill off literature.  These other claims include attacks on the idea of human identity and the assertions that the self is only a linguistic construct, that the real is without the least meaning, that writing is impossible—an obvious self-contradiction for writers—and that language always leads to the constitution of an imperialism.  Henri Mitterand, an eminent Zola scholar, summarizes these postmodernist arguments (which he rejects): “If the subject, in his identity, authenticity, homogeneity, autonomy, is only an illusion, a fortiori all his supposed mastery over his thought and language is denied.”  In a recent attack on the near elimination of biographical criticism from the French lycée curriculum in literature, Mitterand adds, with broad sarcasm: “The history of a writer, his being, his confrontation with the world and history?  Surely you’re not thinking of it.”

In addition, Auchincloss has not been paralyzed by the dogma of the New Criticism that dominated American literary studies in the mid-20th century—illustrated in The Well-Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks and W.K. Wimsatt’s The Verbal Icon—an approach that, while acknowledging the biographic and ontological authority of those who produce literature, treated it—especially poetry—as disengaged from its authors’ lives and minds and from all intentions or authorial presence, as though, like Athena, it had sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus or were a strange organic object, found on some distant island, subject only to its own laws.  Nor is Auchincloss a slave to any body of psychological thought—again, a pleasant contrast to the oppressive and reductionist psychological interpretation, mostly Freudian, sometimes Jungian, generally wrongheaded, which literary criticism long featured.

The premises here are that words have meaning; that the world to which they refer is real; that selves truly exist; that literature affords not only aesthetic pleasure but insight; and that authors put into their work, by various means, a great deal of themselves, on occasion to its detriment, more frequently as its wellspring.  Auchincloss quotes Sam A. Lewisohn’s statement in Painters and Personality: “In the creation of significant art the personality of the artist is the decisive factor.”  This may not apply always, Auchincloss acknowledges; but, of course, wanting to suppress one’s personality, or allowing it oblique entry, is revealing, too (as was the case with Flaubert, an author treated here, who expressed the ideal of circulating in his fictional world like God in His—present everywhere, nowhere visible—and yet, in a famous quip, also said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”).  What of authorial personality materializes in the work is often, Auchincloss believes, for readers’ greater edification, although, he notes, some may be uncomfortable in its presence.  It is an organic and legitimate dimension; hence, knowing something about it, or identifying it, enriches one’s understanding of the work.

Whereas 19th-century literary criticism (Hazlitt, Sainte-Beuve, Taine, and less cautious followers) often overemphasized the connections between author and works, going so far, for instance, as to extrapolate from Shakespeare’s poems and plays to portray the man, Auchincloss is more cautious and sensitive; he avoids naive identifications, oversimplified causal relationships between writer and writing, and other deterministic reasoning.  (Reductive biographical criticism has not disappeared, as a 2004 book by Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare, Will in the World, illustrates.)  Ties between an author and his fiction, and the characters in that fiction, may be very complex, mediated through various literary devices.  The work can even escape from the author, revealing, against his apparent intentions, his secrets, his obsessions.  Even if literature is often confession, the latter may be artificial, the product of a mask or pseudo-self.  And while acquaintance with writers’ personalities as revealed through other sources may shed light on their works, the man or woman as observed by his contemporaries may appear very different from the authorial figure manifested in the work.  I shall add that, perhaps, as Paul Valéry observed, an author’s relationship with his work may be a reciprocal one: The writer creates the work, but it can also “create” the writer—create the man capable of producing it.

Among the authors examined here are several British novelists: Thackeray, Trollope, the Brontë sisters, Eliot, Meredith, and Forster; the American writers Hawthorne, James, Henry Adams, Wharton, Dreiser, Cather, Lewis, Marquand, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald; and, from France, two classical dramatists (Corneille and Racine), Mérimée, Proust, and those mentioned earlier.  The approach to Fitzgerald is illustrative:

The Great Gatsby glows with the reflection of the personality of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It is all there: the casual disillusionment with the meanness and hypocrisy of the everyday world, and the rising above it with the aid of wit, nonchalance, fatalism, alcohol, constant partying, temperate friendships, and temperate love affairs—but above all with the aid of a strong innate sense of personal superiority.  Yet nothing can alter the fact that this hedonism in Fitzgerald is always darkened by the sense of its briefness.

Similarly, on Forster, whose precepts in Aspects of the Novel are less rigorous than some critics intimate and who appears as a flexible practitioner of the genre: “E.M. Forster put more of himself into his fiction than any other great English novelist since Thackeray.  He never hesitated to insert what was frankly his own personal point of view.”  Of Anne Brontë, Auchincloss observes that, if her personality had been allowed freer entry into her fiction, rather than being stifled by didacticism, she might have been almost the equal of her sisters.  Meredith, to whom nearly 30 pages are devoted despite his low standing among critics now, clearly interests Auchincloss especially.  Meredith was known to be reticent; hence, perhaps, the spilling over of his personality into his books.  He

is always present to his readers.  He is sitting, so to speak, before us, and chatting at considerable length . . . about the vicissitudes of his characters, commenting freely and frankly on their oddities and the problems with his devious plots, expressing his views on politics, military preparedness, and the corrupting vulgarity of a money-mad society . . .

James, “that self-appointed cleaner-up of the messy Victorian novel,” receives a very astute reading, from which slavish praise is absent.  Auchincloss traces his attitude and conduct after Fort Sumter and his pretensions to heroism—in connection to his fiction, where observers are granted the same authority as participants.  (James appears also as a critic and fellow reader, being quoted on Meredith, Wharton, on what Auchincloss calls “the strong and seemingly unbreakable ties between the lives of the three Brontë sisters and their novels,” and the way Emma Bovary reflects Flaubert’s own romanticism.)  George Eliot, whose Middlemarch is called “the greatest novel of manners of the Victorian age,” expressed elsewhere “a personality very different from the bright and colorful scenes that she so brilliantly evoked”—as in The Mill on the Floss, where “she allowed the deep and serious aspect of her own grave character to permeate her pages.”  Concerning the famous (though overstated) impassiveness of the author of “Carmen,” Auchincloss quotes from Walter Pater to argue that personality can be revealed in its very repression: “Mérimée’s superb self-effacement, his impersonality, is itself but an effective personal trait, and, transferred to art, becomes a markedly peculiar quality of literary beauty.”  Similarly, Auchincloss is right to observe that, although Proust attempted to distance himself from his first-person narrator in Remembrance of Things Past, he constantly lets in through the window what has been chased out the door: his obsession with Jews (he was half-Jewish) and their place in society, his even greater obsession with homosexuality and perversions that, apparently, he practiced himself, then projected onto other characters.

Writers and Personality furnishes a short course in both literary creation and literary appreciation, reminding one of books one has read, others one has not but should, how these works were shaped by their authors’ intimate selves, and what that may reveal.  The style is literate, lively, engaging; one is almost in a literary salon.  John Updike—who certainly knows his books—is right to compare the book to what Edmund Wilson used to provide.  Only occasional typographical errors and wrong or missing accents in French distract from the smooth, pleasurable experience of reading enlightened criticism that serves as the handmaiden, not the executioner, of literature.


[Writers and Personality, by Louis Auchincloss (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 125 pp., $24.95]