Last week, to wean myself of my television habit, I sat down to read a Howells biography, but glanced at the books piled beside my chair, waiting to be reshelved. Some I’ve ignored for decades, packing them in box after box in move after move. The one on top, by one of my old teachers, was published in 1965.
I’d never been much interested in theory; in those days, the study of literature was not yet dominated by meta-criticism. Then, I confess, literature seemed primarily a way to objectify and understand my own inner chaos. The level of abstraction required to think in terms of literary theories was just not the way I thought. But, that last spring at Nebraska, I enjoyed Lee Lemon’s critical theory seminar & the play of those conversations. Sometimes books wait for us; last week, I found myself lost in his. The Partial Critics beautifully embodies an attitude I remembered: respectful of literature & its bounty, of the critics he critiques with affection.
Probably some faculty lives were as chaotic as ours. But their approach to literature was reasoned, well-read, assured; in the end, it was humble. Let me give you a sense of its tone in his conclusion. For 248 pages he has described the strengths of many critical approaches to poetry, although finding each inadequate to contain its diversity. He proposes a synthesis — the poem as symbolic form — then concludes by discussing evaluative criteria.
That last paragraph begins: “In the light of all this theory, how does one judge a poem? By this time the careful reader should realize that there is no formula, there are only cautions for thoroughness and modesty.” We see openness but other virtues as well — in thoroughness we see duty & in modesty humility. He continues:
There can be no formula because there is no way to predict what any given poem will offer first to experience. It may be a beauty of sound, a profundity of meaning, or an attitude; it may be an excess of alliteration, a clumsy handling of rhyme, a failure to observe the implications of words, and so on. It may be a disparity between tone and meaning, or disproportionate length, or delicately poised symmetry, or a certain functional harshness. It is here, with his initial reaction to the poem — whatever that reaction may be — that the critic begins.
Self-consciousness may begin with the subjective but moves into the objective through discipline; we ask the “why” of art that strangely moves us or an abstract idea we find “right” or the one we love (or not, as each case may be). In the end, the thinking man must define what is worthy of respect, what invoked that feeling — or its absence. So, Lemon concludes, before the critic
has finished, he must work his way through the poem, pushing meaning, visualizing, listening, unweaving and reweaving the strands of the poem until he is satisfied that he has earned all that is in the poem — not in terms of his theory, but in terms of what the poem has to give.
Lemon’s distaste for the formulaic is hardly new; it’s the tradition of the great editors and critics. In the nineteenth century, few writers approached the novel more differently than Mark Twain and Henry James, but William Dean Howells, no mean author himself, encouraged both while counting both as friends — identifying more, perhaps, with Twain’s western experience but celebrating James’ understanding. Nor did his sympathies end there — he encouraged the rough & even belligerent naturalists and the regionalists, whose domestic world honored restraint & renunciation. Howells as critic and editor must have had a broad criteria to appreciate all these — but he was right: each is, in its own way, good literature. And Ezra Pound, a man not without his faults, saw in poets as diverse as T. S. Eliot & Robert Frost qualities worth encouraging, nurturing.
My memory is of big sky territory & a big sky department. I was lucky in my teachers and Lemon was one of the best. Every semester in intro to lit, I borrow his rich analogy from forty years ago. A Hallmark poem pulls our heartstrings and even makes us tear up. But that sentiment, Lemon argued, relies on the occasion as much as the words, on sentiment that precedes the reading. It appeals shamelessly — we buy its sentiments cheaply and it surrenders them cheaply. Such a work brings us the pleasure of a one-night stand — our quick surrender to passion, but one so often followed by the harsh light, empty bed & heart of the following morning.
On the other hand, a great poem grows as we do — each rereading delights us more, teaches us more. Our relationship with it is a meaningful one; repeated readings clear away our first subjective responses and we come to respect it — seeing it more objectively if more familiarly. In Lemon’s words, we have “earned” those meanings and are rewarded; its bounties “fund” our understanding. The complexities of its coherence as an artistic whole respond to numerous readings as does its congruence with reality as we experience it. Interweaving our lives with it, we test its richness. So, we examine meter and metaphor, rhyme and irony, structure and theme. The poet balances these — in a great poem the parts cohere harmoniously. But the proportions of each — even the ingredients — vary. To understand how harmony is achieved, we have much to learn from the critic of rhyme and paradox, of sound and sense.
Lemon quickly dismisses edification theories, but early argues that “symbolic form” usefully “restores the poem to the world, seeing poetry as analogous to other modes of knowledge.” (19) Successive readings lead to a different relationship with the art; indeed, our relationship is meaningful — much like the love maturity & time grant us. Most often, of course, human nature is its subject. Analogous to other modes of knowledge: we become conscious. When we learn another language, we realize we have taken the structures of our own for granted; we are more aware of what we intuited & used so casually in our native tongue. When we find that poem’s reality congruent with ours, we become more conscious of both aesthetic and insight. How can we not learn from such objectification, such intensity, such density?
His book makes two arguments for the serious study of literature. First, his contention is that these critics created a box of tools, each of which enlarges our understanding of literature — learning to use them is a discipline worthy of study. As he notes in his introduction: “the literary critic’s chief obligation is to evaluate works of literature and to make his evaluations intelligible; all his other professional tasks are subordinate to this double duty.” (3) (As an aside, this is what first drew me in – imagine a critic arguing that one of his two major responsibilities is to make the value of a piece of literature “intelligible”!) A critic has a craft; it serves rather than supersedes art — thus the humility. But this useful discipline rewards those who undertake an apprenticeship.
Secondly, Lemon’s joy in close reading – moving from reaction to analysis – demonstrates the rewards of that training. The pleasure derived from even the most naïve of readings is intensified with close, informed analysis. His chapter on “open” form summarizes his argument: “If richness is the potentiality of a poem for arousing and satisfying various desires, funding is the process that makes it possible for the reader to grasp, eventually, the full value of a poem.” (166) “Richness” he tells us, “makes funding possible.” (167)
He sees “funding” as “the cumulative residue of more than one experience of the poem.” He notes “each successive reading tends to become more and more accurate and complete (the improvement is not inevitable, but highly probable) because each reading is an interplay of two factors: the poem, which is a constant, and the special and partly temporary mental set of the reader.” (167) Our first readings are “loose,” heavily influenced by what we bring to the poem. But “with each reading a more precise and complete version of the poem emerges.” (167)
I enjoyed the book because of its clarity, because of my own nostalgia, but also because he explains why a teacher like me — one not much good at theory, who fritters away her life — still deserves authority and feels responsibility standing at the front of the room. Lemon speaks of the “accumulation”: this is not the first time I’ve read the text. I may have read it as a child, in my teens and several times more in my twenties; now I reread much I teach yearly. I’ve read biography & criticism, what the author read & those who came after. Sure, I haven’t plumbed that richness as a true scholar has, I’ve not worked at it as hard as I should. And, I readily admit many can give my students a brilliance that is not mine. Still, I’ve read the works a good many more times than they — that’s why I’m paid and they pay. My interpretations have been “funded” by a long apprenticeship, years of rereading; my readings have aged as I have. And he inspires us to keep rereading, rethinking.
Many see the scholarship of English departments as mushy, pretentious; students are set adrift, finding their way by dead reckoning. I’m not going to defend MLA’s political positions nor Stanley Fish; I’m not going to defend careerism & self-righteousness, sloppy readings & disrespect for students, taxpayers, art. I certainly am not going to defend the faculty at Duke, the leading school of theorists during the eighties & nineties. The last year has revealed — as if not already painfully obvious — what turf battles & a belief critics are outside history, outside the western tradition has wrought. Assuming words like right & wrong, innocence & guilt, truth and lies should always be clothed in quote marks left the Duke English department with so pinched an understanding of human nature & their students, of the rule of law & the western tradition, certainly of their own compromised integrity that they are unable to even acknowledge (conceive?) their complicity in what is an old tendency of man: mob think. Their vulgarity, their lack of self-awareness, is the natural consequence of a barbarism which sees art as plunder, not to be respected & cherished but to be appropriated for oneself, deconstructed, used to build one’s sense of self-righteousness — and then tossed aside. They disdain the careful analysis of reaction central to critical theories like Lemon’s much as they disdain its essential humility. Both Emerson & Orwell (in their different ways) observe that rot of thought leads to rot of language and rot of language to that of thought. No, I won’t defend the thinking that led to that unfortunately representative reaction to the lacrosse team nor what passes for political thought in the academy.
I am, however, quite willing to defend classes such as Lemon’s, views such as his. The skills he taught are ones of analysis and thought; they give comfort but also encourage speculation. They require thoughtful application & reward it with pleasure. His discussion of the aesthetic experience is at once internalized & objective. “An aesthetic experience, then, is an integrated experience, and the only object that can produce such an experience is one with an unusually high degree of integrity.” (241) The response is disciplined: “A satisfactory evaluation is an evaluation of an experience referred to the full data of the object. More than this is effusion; less is partial criticism.” (246) Modest appreciation builds skills that enable us to better understand our tradition, our values, and ourselves. Our training was useful — we learned to connect dots.
I remember we discussed conclusions in his class. A fellow student noted that the only ones aesthetically pleasing reflected the true nature of experience — we all die. I remember saying something (inchoate) about the nature of our experience. She turned to me in shock, beginning to grill me on my potentially sentimental attachment to a life hereafter. (I’m quite sure that wasn’t what I meant, but I also thought that was a pretty dumb aesthetic.) He intervened — this wasn’t where he wanted the class to go. Lemon argued, instead, that he was tired of this particular structural cliche – it showed up in all the stories submitted to a literary journal he read for. Besides, he argued, it was a gross formula — literature is congruent with reality in more complex & subtle ways. Indeed, he said, he expected his death to be one of the least interesting & important moments in his life. Our lives are not any one moment. And so, I finish with questions more peripheral. I wonder, what did he make of his life?
After delighting in The Partial Critics, I looked on Amazon and printed out a short vita. Despite my lengthy apprenticeship, I have no ties to the department (which explains my tendency to see it as more idyllic than it probably was). But now, much older than he was then, I look at Lemon’s biographical facts with respect: born in 1931, two years in the army, Ph.D. in 1961, he was hired at Nebraska the same year. I remember his anecdotes of heavy labor — building skyscrapers in Chicago but it may have been in the Gary steel mills. He was not built like nor did he act like an aesthete. He’d worked hard; my impression was his childhood had not been easy. Still, by 1965, he was a full professor with four children; that same year Partial Critics came from Oxford and his edition of Russian formalists was published by Nebraska. In 1971 with two more books from Oxford, he was only forty. But his next, an analysis of fictional portraits of artists, didn’t come out until 1985.
There are later editions, but why didn’t he do more? We usually begin narrow and develop breadth — at 34, he’d begun with meta-criticism. Did he peak too soon, did a review hit home in a way it wouldn’t in an older person, or, on the other hand, did the early success of what was his dissertation lead him to unrealistic expectations, to the hesitation early success can prompt? Was it the chaos we all manage in some way or another to make of our lives? Was it that he chose to create another pattern — one he found more rewarding? Certainly, a man’s life is not circumscribed (indeed might be seen as limited) by the facts on an academic vita or Amazon. What do I know. But, I wonder, how could his view of the critic’s responsibility have been at home in the meta-criticism of the next decades? Those critics seldom interact with the text, are cynical, even nihilistic. That later meta-criticism sees itself outside history (remarking upon the fallibility of long-dead authors, seeing the past with little ability to empathize). For all its emphasis upon the evaluative, such willfulness was not the meta-criticism of The Partial Critics.
Apparently filled out in 2001, his biographical data lists “doubtful” for religion and for politics “independent.” But, as many before him, he seemed to find purpose as well as pleasure in his craft. As self-expression & then a lust for power swept through the old institutions of church & state & press, they may have also swept aside the amorphous and fragile, even Arnoldian, world of which Lemon’s classroom had been a resonant part. If so, that was a loss.