Because of the great range of his interests, it is very difficult to predict what Professor Jeffrey Hart will next produce. Hart writes out of a devotion to literature as “the principal vehicle for transmitting the ideas and feelings that constitute our shared public culture.” Following the examples of public-spirited critics running from Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold to T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling, Professor Hart explicitly rejects the coterie culture of deconstruction and the new literary history that make of the critic a hierophant occupied in the unfolding of mysteries or a tasteless malcontent mired in endless accusations. “The assumption throughout [these] essays is that the study of literature is central to our discourse and that the habits of mind generated by the study and discussion of literature can be applied to a wide range of subject matter”: that the literary education is the best possible preparation for the study of the culture at large. But not if we neglect that part which is specifically literary. Hart has not done this. He writes well about George Herbert, about the poetry of Frost and Eliot and the fiction of the Spanish novelist José Maria Gironella. He does formal explication as I was taught to understand that enterprise and also, in an essay on Boswell and Johnson, traditional literary history. We can look forward to a Hart monograph on Hemingway and Fitzgerald from the University of Missouri Press.
Out of such grounding, on the basis of so various a literary education, it is not surprising that Hart as a man of letters in the antique sense of that term has followed closely and perceptively developments in political and social theory, in the sociology of knowledge, theology, poetics, and in the art where all of these concerns meet and resolve, rhetoric. For he needs all of these competencies to translate form into the language of our time. Nor is it surprising that he has written speeches for the campaigns of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, all of the lines of inquiry that gather in the thought of Jeff Hart combine and reinforce one another in Acts of Recovery.
The prototype for this book is The Liberal Imagination (1950) of Hart’s immediate preceptor in the business of criticism, Professor Lionel Trilling of Columbia University, whom Hart honors in his preface. But the distance between Hart and Trilling is more instructive than their connection—a distance of which Hart speaks when he describes his book as essays that “represent an attempt to push beyond Trilling’s hesitation and doubts to explore the possibility that there really is a wider and deeper tradition than what Trilling believed in 1950 to be ‘our sole intellectual tradition'” (i.e., naturalism and/or positivism). Because it is even more radically skeptical than Trilling’s modernism, because it doubts the usually unchallenged assumptions of the left as much as it does older attitudes that have lost their vitality in thoughtless repetition, the conservative imagination as recommended in Hart’s example is not at all ideological.
Hart cannot invest too many of his hopes for a civilized future in what the universities may achieve. On this point he quarrels with Allan Bloom, who is too much a man of the Enlightenment to be a conservative. He reasons, rather, the other way around, that the most important things may have to be written and circulated outside “the regular channels for orderly intellectual exchange”—as with Belloc, with Lewis as apologist, Chesterton, and Kendall.
For the way in which intellectual fashions develop and ideas achieve currency has, as he describes the process in Ideas in Culture, very little to do with their intrinsic or intellectual substance—their ability to survive a rigorous critical examination. Furthermore, the regnant metaphors functioning in a universe of discourses may tell us more about what thinking that context will allow than the discursive achievement of its philosophers. Even so, with or without a push from the academy, the intellectual habits that have dominated most Western thought since the Renaissance are rapidly losing their authority and momentum. Jeff Hart points in support of his analysis to the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as demonstrating that modern rationalism is a doctrine now surviving only by default. Other evidence to the same effect which he discusses appears in the recent history of those New York intellectuals who once trusted the sanguine promise of socialism. Their biographies are beginning to appear, and the unexpected finding of this generation is that the old authorities have turned out to be the best: that we are, as we were told, circumscribed by links and derivations, by patrimony and the huge skein of an a priori social matrix; that geographical placing signifies that with our “given” identity we require for our guidance, at a minimum, revealed truth and a full knowledge of history, not dialectics or abstract principles.
I might say more about Professor Hart’s felicity, both his ability to speak always as himself in a voice that is both serious and ironic, genial and amused: a conversational voice that attempts to close a few questions, to silence few adversaries (except for dogmatism), but which nonetheless lives up to his stated definition of the critic’s task—to be “the best reader of a poem or prose work that erudition and native intelligence can produce.” I might further sound a note of impatience with Hart on pornography. Though he is probably correct in his assumptions about the Realpolitik of the question as it operates presently in American law and culture, however strong the trends in motion in our world, it continues to be true that what becomes of a society depends upon the care with which it protects the physical dignity of its women—whether they want that protection or not.
But this is to cavil at one chapter in 21 that stand well together in a splendid book. Instead I will conclude with Hart on Spain and the literature of the Spanish Civil War. In his essays on Hemingway, Gironella, and recent historians of Spain one finds texts read carefully within the widest possible tangle of reference. Moreover, these are commentaries untroubled by the mythic passion of the left for this particular war.
No American critic writes better of this material in the context to which it rightfully belongs.
[Acts of Recovery, by Jeffrey Hart (Hanover and London: University Press of New England) 256 pp., $19.95]