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All Critics Are Mortal

June 14, 1998|ALFRED KAZIN | Alfred Kazin was the author of numerous books, including "Writing Was Everything," from which this essay was reprinted with the kind permission of Harvard University Press. Kazin died June 5 on his 83rd birthday

Years ago, when I was new to this curious business of being a critic and looked for guidance from my elders, I came upon two quotations in the same week that I dutifully wrote into my notebook. The first was from Goethe, who simply said, "Kill the dog, he's a reviewer!" The many composers, artists, and writers who like me have suffered and never forgotten a single line in a bad review still cheer Goethe on.

The second quotation was from Henry James, a busy reviewer in addition to being an unstoppably productive novelist, dramatist and travel writer.

"To lend himself, to project himself and steep himself, to feel and feel till he understands, and to understand so well that he can say, to have perception at the pitch of passion and expression as embracing as the air, to be infinitely curious and incorrigibly patient, and yet plastic and inflammable and determinable, stooping to conquer and yet serving to direct--these are fine chances for an active mind, chances to add the idea of independent beauty to the conception of success. Just in proportion as he is sentient and restless, just in proportion as he reacts and reciprocates and penetrates, is the critic a valuable instrument." ("Essays in London and Elsewhere," 1893).

Inspiring words, which James did not live up to. He could barely read poetry--he dismissed Walt Whitman's great opening poems on the Civil War--and tended to judge the novels of his day by his own example as a novelist. James was an incessant critic, but too much of a snob to respect as literary material any human experience he considered "low." He deprecated fiction that used dialect, and it is just as well that he paid no attention to the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He was so conscious of the Victorian moral tradition refuted and abandoned by the passionate novelists he reviewed, from Stendhal and Zola to Hardy and D.H. Lawrence--to say nothing of the lack of what he considered "form" in Tolstoy, whom he likened to an animal--that he raised prudence, in the form of pussyfooting and the art of malicious irony, to new heights.

The great critics have not been novelists but poets--Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats in his letters, Emerson, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot--whose criticism sought to change the direction of literature so that people could read their poetry in the new spirit demanded of them. Tolstoy was a great novelist but such a moral universe unto himself that he came to suspect all art. In 1850 Melville the "isolato" (as he described himself and his heroes), in the rapture of discovering a kindred spirit in Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that "genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round." Edmund Wilson, in the splendid 1943 anthology he called "The Shock of Recognition," meant it to record the development of literature in the United States by the men who made it. But the only first-class critical intellect there to deal with his contemporaries was Edgar Allan Poe, who had wonderful instincts about work different from his own--and everything was. (In the end, though, he had the shrewdness of the paranoiac about enemies who were real enough, since Poe antagonized everyone by his sense of superiority.)

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