The Humanist Critic

Douglas Bush

From The Kenyon Review, Winter 1951, Vol. XIII, No. 1

I have a very simple mind, and my simple creed could be set forth in a paragraph. But it is a matter of strong conviction, and, though a degree of emotional fervor is not an adequate substitute for the intellectual subtlety of modern criticism, I can at least claim to represent the body of common readers in all ages. While my articles of faith are few and elementary, it will take a little space to explain why they are what they are and why I feel strongly about them; and I should like to provide some perspective with a brief sketch of recent developments in scholarship and criticism, however familiar these may be.

Various approaches, old and new, from appreciative impressionism to Marxist dogmatism, have shown both their varying utility and their deficiencies and dangers, but I shall look only at the two chief kinds of criticism, which often lock horns nowadays, the historical and the analytical.

If it is self-evident that works of literature produced in our day are conditioned by the impact of our whole civilization upon the writer, it is no less self-evident that that holds for every writer and work of the past. Logically and ideally, therefore, historical criticism is committed to the knowledge and application of all branches of cultural history. Actually, of course, the historical critic does what he can with those segments of knowledge that he is able to compass. Like the coral animals of bygone theory, he adds his mite to the sum-total of historical learning and criticism and expires, having helped, some would say, to build such a coral reef of background and bibliography that no one can get at the work of art itself. Yet the thoroughly justifiable aim is to re-create all aspects of the past that we can make ourselves virtual contemporaries of an author and understand his intention and achievement in the light of his own age. The method may be most completely successful for those authors who most simply reflect their age, but it is no less essential for those who transcend it. It is only through historical scrutiny that we can distinguish, in both ideas and technique, between the commonplace and the original, between historical and permanent significance. If we see more in a work than its own age saw, or perhaps more than its author saw, historical criticism keeps reinterpretation within bounds; and the historical critic would say that there are such bounds—even if historical interpreters themselves sometimes go off the rails.

Some typical aims and achievements of historical criticism might be illustrated by a couple of examples, and first by a glance at Shakespeare. Whatever the penetrating insights of Lamb, Hazlitt, Keats, and above all Coleridge, romantic criticism was unhistorical and undramatic. Although the final elaboration of the 19th Century attitude, Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, remains an experience for students, modern criticism has taken a very different line. Historical scholarship re-created the conditions under which Shakespeare worked, and saw him, not as a poet writing dramatic poems to be studied in private, but as a man of the theatre appealing with dramatic immediacy to an Elizabethan audience. This emphasis on the plays as dramas has been developed especially by Professor Stoll, who has combined historical scholarship with wide-ranging aesthetic criticism. It is possible of course to carry the theatrical point of view too far, to slight the total patterns and particular subtleties of image and symbol that may seem to belong more to poetry than to the Elizabethan stage, and some recent critics have revived or reinterpreted Shakespeare the poet as against Shakespeare the practical playwright. This new romanticism has its obvious pitfalls too.

The generations of American scholars just before our own were for the most part concerned with literary sources and influences, especially in medieval literature. The finest and one of the last monuments of this kind of scholarship, The Road to Xanadu, was not of course medieval, and Professor Lowes’s imaginative reconstruction was far above the common process of bricklaying. But even on the lower levels this kind of scholarship accomplished a great deal; the seven seas of literature were charted with a learned thoroughness that must inspire respect, if not excitement, and that at least prepared the way for informed criticism.

Purely literary and historical research, however, could be external and mechanical, and many of the younger generation desired objects and methods more fully in keeping with the high significance of literature in their own lives. One result was a new concern with the history of ideas; another was “”the new criticism.” To speak of the former, it would be hard to name any period that has not been illuminated by exploration of religious, philosophical, scientific, and other branches of thought; and most of the major writers, poets especially, have been reinterpreted in the new light. For instance, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, indeed about all the authors of the 16th and 17th Centuries, have been studied in relation to the whole pattern of beliefs and ideas that goes under the name of Christian humanism. The cultivation of other areas has yielded similarly rich fruit. But while the history of ideas has enlightened us in all directions, it has its liabilities. The most obvious one is a tendency to lose the work of art in its philosophical background, to isolate its ideas and treat it as a document, a process in which great works may be reduced to the level of poor ones. The method in itself carries no standard of values—though its exponents may.

In opposition to, or as supplementary to, both literary and philosophical history arose the “new” analytical or aesthetic criticism (which began with the Greeks). This method, inaugurated by men of letters rather than professional scholars, has attracted so many of the younger academic intelligentsia that most departments of English are divided between the “Auld Lichts” and the “New Lichts.” While the new critics differ among themselves, they are united by some common principles. Their aim also is to re-create and share the author’s original experience, although, it generally appears, within the limits of language and technique rather than in its totality. But if the end of all scholarship and criticism is the elucidation of works of art, the new criticism may be said to come nearest to that end. It has done and is doing great service in teaching a slack-minded generation how to read, and in replacing vague impressionism with rigorous, concrete analysis. Like other methods, however, this one may seem to have its liabilities. One is a practical if not theoretical indifference to the historical method that may result in incomplete or misleading interpretations. Another seems to be a definition of poetry that virtually excludes everything that is not in the “metaphysical” tradition. Finally, it seems to me that this method cannot be said, any more than other methods, to be based on any satisfying criteria of value (apart from technical values). Critics conditioned by modern scientific scepticism, who maintain a detached scientific objectivity, seem to assume that literature is written and read with the aesthetic intelligence only, and to hold aloof from the elementary but central things that have always made literature a necessity of life. These objections may be ill-founded, but they can arise in the mind of an outsider who is not, especially in regard to the last point, prepared to take so much for granted.

The historical and analytical methods that have been touched upon, and other methods, such as the psychological, that have not been touched, have their evident merits and shortcomings, and one moral that emerges from the briefest discussion is that no one approach is adequate by itself. It may be hoped that all students of literature endorse, in theory at least, all scholarly and critical means and methods that contribute to understanding, from technical bibliography to aesthetic contemplation. Obviously talents do not come in a plenary shower, and most of us can only row a skiff, not an eight-oared shell. But it is important, for the harmonious well-being of literary studies, that all students, whatever line they themselves follow, should recognize the value of other methods and not condemn them out of hand as wrong-headed and futile. In connection with the whole subject it might be observed that criticism has of late years been elevated from the essential but humble role of acolyte to priestly sanctity and authority, and it is always well to remember that most of the greatest writings we have were composed in periods when scholarship and criticism were either unborn or unweaned.

However, scholarship and criticism are no doubt here to stay, and the problem is the range and direction of such activity. The methods we have noticed, essential as they are, do not, it may be thought, furnish an answer to the ultimate question—why we should read literature at all. It is obviously a good thing to know the literature and culture of the past, but historical knowledge is not an end in itself. It is obviously a good thing that our aesthetic sensibilities or nervous system should be stimulated, but that also is not an adequate end in itself. What is the ultimate end, according to my creed, is that literature is ethical, that it makes us better. It is hardly necessary to say that I do not take literature to be a branch of homiletics. And I do not mean what many educationists seem to believe, that it is a decorative appendage to Civics. That notion is only a deformed and flat-footed ghost of what I do mean, the creed that was central in Greek and Roman antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, and well up into the 19th Century. To mention the men who have held this creed would be to catalogue most of the great names in literature, and not merely critics but imaginative writers. In the course of its long reign this creed operated in various ways, on various levels of sophistication, but in essence it was unchanged; and many great writers, from Aristophanes to Milton, from Pope to Tolstoi, were avowedly didactic. Unless literature is in its effect didactic (I repeat the unpleasant word), I do not know any sufficient reason for its existence, at least on the higher planes that we are here concerned with. That is not to say that all ethical writers have been conscious teachers, or that even conscious teachers have not had other and perhaps stronger motives, or that readers go to literature as they go to the doctor or the psychiatrist.

That throughout its golden ages literature has been conceived of as didactic, and that many of the greatest writers have regarded their office as priest-like, is not a naive theory but a plain historical fact, though it is stated here with unqualified brevity. If most great literature from Homer and the Bible to, say, Conrad (to name only one especially positive modern moralist) has fortified and enriched the human spirit, why should the guardians and expositors of literature so largely remain outside the inner shrine of ethical-aesthetic experience? While it is a main part of the critic’s function to display the imaginative and artistic power of literature, it is surely no less essential that he be a moralist, that he try to appraise its ethical value. It is no objection that critical moralists, from Plato to Irving Babbitt, could have their excesses and shortcomings; so do critics and scholars who pursue other interests. Most of the great critics of the past have been more or less ethical in their judgments, and the need of such criticism was never greater than it is now, when the confusion and loss of ethical values is the most familiar and paralysing of cliches, and when philosophy has abandoned its traditional ethical concerns in order to become the tail to the scientific kite. Even on the most general grounds it might seem that what was fundamental throughout the great past would be our best guide for the present and future. Without slighting either historical knowledge or aesthetic analysis, I should like to see the study of literature fired by something like the spirit with which George Chapman approached Homer’s Achilles and Odysseus (if I may use again a favorite quotation):

In one, predominate perturbation; in the other, overruling wisdom:
in one, the body’s fervour and fashion of outward fortitude to all
possible height of heroical action; in the other, the mind’s inward,
constant, and unconquered empire; unbroken, unaltered, with any
most insolent and tyrannous infliction.

If the modern mind is confused about ethical values, it is still more so about religion—unless it rests securely in a simple naturalism that begs all the questions; and the recent symposium, “Religion and the Intellectuals,” suggests that a number of the finer minds are not less befuddled than the rest of us. I have assuredly no revelation to offer. But I do think that we can achieve a partial conquest of disorder by submitting ourselves to the literature of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The classical-Christian beliefs and ideas that made up the general creed of that age may be no longer tenable in themselves, but the great and less great writers who held them possessed an ethical and religious vision of man and life that is, one may think, more comprehensive, more central, more realistic, more satisfyiing, than is commonly found in the great writers of later times. And a bath in that literature has a restorative power. Against its ethical sanity and religious insight, its double vision of man as both a god and a beast, may be measured those later writers who, with the decline of the old religious and ethical tradition, became more subject to individual confusions and aberrations. If the modern mind is to find the “truth,” it seems to me that we are more likely to find it through the past than in a present and future increasingly cut off from the past. The process of severance, which may be said to have been begun by Descartes, is being completed by modern positivism. Since the positivist brushes aside religion and metaphysics as meaningless, he can hardly help brushing aside traditional intuitive ethics also. If the literature of the past which is ethical and religious and metaphysical is to be thrown out, and the writer of the future is to live on the husks of a “scientific morality,” we are indeed entering a new Dark Age. The loss of an active consciousness of our religious, ethical, and cultural tradition is a much worse menace than atomic or hydrogen bombs; and if critics do not labor to preserve and fructify it, who will?

Another article of my creed has been implied already, that one function of criticism is to reach people outside the inner circle of initiates, to make untrue the painful saying that a liberal education ends on Commencement Day, to “make reason and the will of God prevail.” (One encounters sniffs at Arnold’s lack of analytical power, or his lack of historical knowledge, but he was in the great tradition of criticism.) I do not think that this or that exclusive end can be set up as a permanent absolute; needs vary from age to age. We needed more historical knowledge and more technical analysis, and both instruments will continue to be needed. But it seems to me that at the present time, when culture is threatened by barbarism within as well as without, the most urgent function of criticism is not to enlarge the learning of the learned, or to refine the perceptions of the refined, but to enlarge and refine the saving remnant. If this be damned as propagandist heresy, so be it.

As a matter of fact, I am only wishing for a fuller return to the broad and central road of criticism. If we look at the last few decades and then at the many earlier centuries, we must conclude that most of our problems are of recent origin, that it is the modern approach to literature that has become divided and complicated—a situation that is very unhappy at a time when the voice of scientists and social scientists, a voice that is not still nor small, proclaims that they have blueprints and statistics for saving a muddled world. Some symptoms have grown so familiar that we take them as normal: that the body of general readers, who were once the mainstay of literature, has dwindled into groups of self-conscious highbrows; that people genuinely interested in the literature of the past are an infinitesimal fraction of the reading public, and that few college graduates, even among those who majored in literature, read much beyond the contemporary or the ephemeral after leaving college; that scholarship and criticism have become the small preserve of academic specialists who write mainly for one another. While it may be granted that cultural disintegration is not a new phenomenon of our age, it is also notorious that it has of late been especially rapid and radical.

A glance beyond our age, however, indicates that, from the time of Sir Philip Sidney up through the 19th Century, critics wrote mainly for the general body of cultivated readers, readers whose knowledge, taste, and outlook were much the same as the writers’. There was one language, that of educated people; there was not our variety of jargons developed by various professional tribes and now partly taken over into criticism. Both writers and readers had as a rule a substantial and uniform education. There was a cultural tradition that commanded general allegiance and sustained established values. That this relatively unified and conservative tradition had its drawbacks one would not of course deny, but, looking back upon it in 1950, one may feel some envy. Moreover, such conservative solidarity did not prevent the emergence of a higher proportion of writers of genius than our enormously enlarged English-speaking world can now show.

It seems to me that we have paid much too high a price for the rapid advancement of knowledge, not merely in science but in literature as well. The extreme specialization that has made such advancement possible has impoverished us as individuals and helped to disintegrate the cultural tradition, to isolate literary students from one another and from the public. Neither scholars nor critics have given much attention to the common reader. If the common reader is now almost extinct, or devotes his time to books on Russia and atomic energy, or has delivered her soul to the book clubs, the process of reconversion will be uphill work. Most of the active forces in our civilization are against us—as they always have been against the humanities, even in more auspicious times. Moreover, if the scholar or critic does address the public (in anything except a biography), his efforts will be largely ignored by lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow reviews alike. None the less, I think the effort ought to be continually made. Unless modern man is hopelessly debilitated and corrupted, we must believe that he cannot live without the humanities, and that he will in time respond if scholars and critics keep the humanities alive and humane. We scholars might have in mind the fate of the ancient classics and ask ourselves if our historical projects are or ought to be of interest to even a theoretical homo sapiens. And the critics might ask themselves if their exegesis is or ought to be of interest to even a superior type of homo sapiens. And members of both parties might ask themselves if their enterprises would have the blessing, say, of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, who were not merely gentlemen of letters. I do not mean that there ought to be a law against esoteric inquiries; I only mean that the main energies of literary study should aim at a common denominator. We may remember that Sidney, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Addison, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and others did not address academic scholars or academic critics but the whole body of cultivated readers. If there is now no such body, then it needs to be created by critical and pedagogical exertion.

To mention these critics is to be reminded that they—and their Continental counterparts—were all brought up on the classics, that they belonged to an unbroken tradition; and we might allow ourselves to be startled by the paradoxical fact that, while the great bulk of English and other modern literatures is closely related to Latin and Greek, an increasing majority of professional students do not read either language. (Our academic forebears, who generally knew both, were intent only upon preserving a knowledge of Gothic.) We might, as Professor Ernest Hunter Wright suggested a while ago, require Latin and Greek for the Ph.D., though the imagination falters at the reconstruction of our whole educational system that that would entail. Yet every teacher may wonder how long the great writing of the past can be understood and appreciated by readers ignorant even of Latin, and what the non-Latinist makes of the great effects of Anglo-Saxon and classical combinations in English prose and poetry—not to mention the body of classical literature, which zealous students can read “in translation.” But if our “creed” is to deal only with things possible, I will not list belief in a classical education as a tenet; this is only a nostalgic footnote—and a declaration that I do not think the value of the classics has been outmoded by psychology and anthropology.

To sum up these far from novel or fashionable observations, I believe that criticism should use all helpful means and methods for the study of literature; that historical knowledge and aesthetic analysis need to work together, and preferably in the same mind, not in different minds; that, our outer and inner worlds being what they now are, the scholar or critic cannot be content with the elucidation of works of art, central as that function is; that he has the further and traditional function of actively conserving the ethical and cultural inheritance that we are in danger of losing altogether; and that he has a social or (if the word be allowed) a missionary obligation, to labor to convert the heathen. If my position is naive, reactionary, and unrealistic, I can only say that I would rather go to hell with a Christian Platonist than to heaven with a naturalistic positivist.

This paper embodies parts of a discourse on modern critical approaches to literature, the last of a series given by various scholars and critics at the University of Rochester in 1949-50.

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