Literary scholar studies critics, American fiction

November 08, 1992|By George Grella




Frederick Crews.

Random House.

213 pages. $20.

Readers concerned about contemporary literary criticism and perhaps about the spread of that dreaded disease, political correctness, should find a modicum of solace in Frederick Crews' latest book. One of the rare critics who can mediate between the tangled obscurities of the scholarly journals and the bright slickness of the popular press, Dr. Crews has dealt in the past with a number of literary subjects. In "The Critics Bear It Away," he writes with intelligence, learning and clarity about American fiction and its critics.

The book collects a number of previously published essays that started life as lengthy scholarly reviews of clusters of books on some important authors of the 19th and 20th centuries -- Hawthorne, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and John Updike. It also requires the author's introductory repudiation of the doctrinaire Freudianism that inspired his own early influential study of Hawthorne, "The Sins of the Fathers."

In his introduction, which cogently and concisely sketches out the present state of academic literary study, Dr. Crews takes the daring step of choosing to occupy the most elusive of all intellectual territories, the rational middle ground. Discussing the current debates over what should constitute accepted literature, rejects the claims of the "cultural nostalgics" that only certain sacred books should be studied and taught -- "there can be no such thing as a sacrosanct text, an innately civilizing idea, or an altogether disinterested literary critic."

He also usefully places the fashionable, generally leftist approaches that now dominate literary study in the context of 20th century criticism, reminding us of the several waves of intellectual revolution that swept through the American academy. At the same time, he demonstrates the negativism, even nihilism, of those approaches to literature, which he lumps under the rubric of poststructuralism.

He notes that both sides of the debate really believe they influence their students and therefore the culture itself, and quite correctly suggests both sides are wrong. Most students, as he points out, will neither pledge their fealty to a list of great books nor give their lives to the overthrow of bourgeois culture; rather, they will generally try to provide their deluded professors with the answers they want to hear so they can do well and perhaps have a better chance of finding a decent job in these hard times. He concludes, bravely in these days when the concept is under attack from all sides, by declaring his "unshaken allegiance to liberalism in the broadest meaning of that term."

After so sensible and readable an introduction, it would be reasonable to expect the same quality of argument throughout the book. Although Dr. Crews displays a good deal of learning and uncommon good sense throughout, the various long essays on particular authors achieve only a mixed success.

He reveals the absolute irresponsibility of many contemporary critics, who simply reject some great writers for not agreeing with their own politics -- generally the victimology of race, gender, or sexual preference -- and therefore dismiss Hawthorne, Twain or Faulkner. Quite a few others, as he points out, blithely distort or falsify evidence to make those writers and their works fit their own political views, in effect rewriting the fiction that otherwise displeases them.

On the other hand, Dr. Crews himself seems driven by some deep ideological need in his rather simple-minded belief that Faulkner, for example, should conform to enlightened political views; he seems incapable of accepting the existence of an artistic and moral vision that transcends the merely rational. In a review of several books on Hemingway, he depends far too heavily on Kenneth Lynn's obsessive and obtuse biography to mount yet another gratuitous attack on that much maligned writer.

Predictably, his professed liberalism, especially its necessarily secular and skeptical stance, impedes his discussion of artists who write within a religious context. Although he justly criticizes Flannery O'Connor's academic neatness, he seems incapable of dealing with her Catholicism.

Generally, however, it is difficult to disagree with most of Dr. Crews' dispassionate and perceptive discussions of both writers and critics. He knows American literature and its supporting scholarship very well and he wears his learning lightly. Always refreshingly sane and lucid, he remains one of the brightest and most readable literary scholars of our time.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.

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