Litcrit summarized in 750 pages, no pictures, from JHU's press

BOOKS AND AUTHORS

February 27, 1994|By James H. Bready

Everything went so well there in Toronto last December, you'd have thought events were following a script. The bindery came through on time with delivery of the book. The Modern Language Association had scheduled its annual meeting in the home city of the book's two editors, who were present. Next thing, as convention-goers stood in line to buy this unreviewed, $65 book, the Johns Hopkins University Press display booth was sold out -- every copy it had.

Not that "The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism" burst on that scholarly scene as any sort of surprise. In the works since 1985, with several hundred people involved, the book had buildup. Now a new clamor is due -- as nonparticipants go through its 750 double-columned pages (no pictures; but also no footnotes) and perhaps find bones to pick.

A first in its field, "JH Guide" strives to be encyclopedic: in time, from Plato and Aristotle to Umberto Eco and Wole Soyinka; in range, from African theory and criticism to value theory. This is the world of ideas as expressed in literature: the world known on campus as litcrit.

Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, professors of English at the University of Western Ontario, circulated their book proposal among university presses; JHUP and its editor-in-chief, Eric Halpren, won out. Then came the rigors of selection: which ideas and thinkers (some 225, finally) to be summarized and expounded by which contributors (about 200, from all over -- many of them young, and 98 percent from the academic grove).

How much Homewood in "JH Guide"? (A Johns Hopkins glory is that it pioneered in history-of-ideas inquiries; today, the quarterly Journal of the History of Ideas is one of 40 learned journals published by JHUP.) In the list of "JH Guide" articles, which average three-plus pages, names stand out: J. Hillis Miller, Paul de Man, Stanley Fish, Rene Girard -- but these are Hopkins faculty members who then left for other universities. Charles S. Peirce rates an article; George Boas, Maurice Mandelbaum, Leo Spitzer, Hugh Kenner -- passing mention.

All this with one exception. The foreword to "JH Guide" is by Richard A. Macksey, professor in the Humanities Center. Now in his 36th year at Homewood, Macksey is polymath, gown-town bridge, film fancier and assembler of what may be Greater Baltimore's finest private library; some will call these 3 1/2 pages Dick Macksey's finest hour. His byline is also on two articles: "History of Ideas" (much of it invoking the distinguished Homewood shade of Arthur O. Lovejoy) and "Longinus."

Let us be frank: One doesn't rush through this both-hands book. Among its article subjects are feminist theory and criticism (20 pages), Adrienne Rich, New York intellectuals, Chinese theory and criticism (15 pages), biblical theory and criticism (nine pages), Chicago critics, gay theory and criticism (eight pages), postmodernism, film theory, Edmund Wilson, Japanese theory and criticism, Edgar A. Poe, Moscow-Tartu School, Cambridge ritualists, deconstruction (six pages).

It helps to handle easily such words as grammatology, aporia, catacresis; to find obvious the difference between hermeneutics and exegesis; to recognize Jacques Derrida, the fountainhead of deconstruction, as philosopher, not critic.

Even-handedness is a central but not stifling theme. The article on Susan Sontag may cause her to ignite.

At Johns Hopkins University Press, the news is: The 6,000-copy press run of "JH Guide" being now exhausted, a second printing is on the way.

*

Begone! sleet, ice, snow, slush. Spring is here, approximately. Well, the spring lists from local publishers are here. So, think butterflies, 61 species of them. That's the Eastern Shore's known total, as set forth by Elton N. Woodbury in "Butterflies of Delmarva," which Tidewater Publishers promises for May.

Out on the bay, there are zero native species of passenger steamers. But once (1813-1963) they swarmed. Come April, come "Chesapeake Steamboats: Vanished Fleet" (also Tidewater), by David C. Holly.

The many fans of Jean McGarry must wait for May, but -- "Home at Last" (Johns Hopkins University Press) is a dozen new short stories.

Next month brings "Maryland's Vanishing Lives" (JHUP), by John Sherwood of Severna Park, a former Evening Sun feature writer. He profiles 66 people with values and skills -- such as operating a swing bridge -- that are quickly disappearing.

And (April, again) -- the first of a new generation of H. L. Mencken biographies, by Fred Hobson of North Carolina; titled, simply and directly, "Mencken: A Biography" (Random House).

*

A book already out is "Other Voices," by James M. Merritt (Charlestown Retirement Community, 715 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville 21228; $5). The title will be familiar -- it's the name of The Evening Sun's op-ed page, which first printed these occasional old-Baltimore recollections, by an authentically old inhabitant. Mr. Merritt, now a Charlestown resident, somehow still has them both: alertness in the eye for detail and keenness in the sense of humor. Mike Bowler, editor of both "Other Voices" and Other Voices, contributes an introduction.

*

Too soon for flowers? Well, the Avant Gardener, a magazine in that subject area, choosing the "25 best books of the 25 past years," has included 1973's "The Complete Flower Arranger," by Amalie Adler Ascher.

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