Farewell to a Pair of Literary Scholars

June 26, 1994|By JOHN E. McINTYRE

Death carried off Cleanth Brooks and Harry Levin last month. You could be discovering that on this page -- given that American newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are not much inclined to notice the passing of superannuated literary scholars. But if you studied English literature in college at any time over the past 40 years, these men touched your life, however indirectly or anonymously.

Both followed the classic American pattern of rising from the heartland into prominence -- Levin, born in Minneapolis in 1912, becoming a professor at Harvard; Brooks, born in Murray, Ky., in 1906, becoming a professor at Yale.

Both, in their long service to letters, contributed to America's coming of age in literature. At a time when theory was the province of the Germans or French, and the British believed that English literature belonged to them, Brooks helped to establish an American school of criticism, and Levin demonstrated our competence in the realm of comparative literature.

Both helped to establish our national literature as a body of work to be taken seriously.

Before the rise of the New Critics, literary criticism tended to be biographical, historical or sociological. Vulgarized for undergraduate consumption, it examined works of literature as evidences of The Poet's Life or as illustrations of The Spirit of the Age.

Cleanth Brooks and his fellow New Critics helped to put a stop to that -- insisting that a work be discussed on its own formal terms, in the context it establishes for itself, not to be explained by mere paraphrase or external information. His essays on Pope's "Rape of the Lock" and Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in "The Well Wrought Urn" (1947) are supple and rewarding to this day. In "Understanding Poetry," which he wrote with Robert Penn Warren, he shaped the pattern of reading and teaching poetry in this country.

Harry Levin devoted his career to the belief that American students of moderate abilities could be introduced to the austere pleasures and arcane sophistications of literary modernism. His introduction to the work of James Joyce, published in 1941, has been useful for decades, and the subjects of his published books display his broad range of facility: the French Realists, the works of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

Brooks' study of William Faulkner's fiction and Levin's book on "the power of blackness" in Poe, Hawthorne and Melville helped us to recognize the achievement of some of the foremost American writers. Both further helped to establish that our national literature deserves a place on the international scene.

But literary careers, as Samuel Johnson thoroughly demonstrated in "The Lives of the Poets," are rich in irony. The New Critics' emphasis on the text by and in itself has been succeeded by deconstructionism. Brooks lived to see the text understood not only on its own terms but dissociated entirely from the writer -- to be understood now as a word machine to be disassembled before the reader's eyes. A critical school that sought to show how each text was unique gave way to a method of showing that all texts are much the same. Once run through the grinder, anything becomes sausage.

Levin's lifelong work was to establish an appreciation of modernism as an international movement. He lived to see the rise on university campuses of a post-modern multiculturalism that, in its extreme manifestations, appears to subordinate the very ideas of merit and achievement to a clamor of tribal or parochial interests.

Art is long-lived, but criticism has its day and passes. If deconstruction and post-modernism are irksome to you, reflect that they have already been on the scene for 20 years and are thus coming up toward the time when their practitioners will be regarded as creaking relics.

Cleanth Brooks and Harry Levin had a good run: For two generations they influenced our perception of literature. They showed us the possibilities of being literate and cultivated. They opened the door onto the richness of a whole world of literary art, and they taught us how to see that richness with fresh eyes.

John McIntyre, a deputy copy desk chief at The Sun, was a graduate student in English.

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