In Praise of Dispraise

Invective is an art form like any other, but it has gone out of style
More

Francis Jeffrey, famous in the early nineteenth century as the editor of the influential Edinburgh Review, is now remembered—if he is remembered at all—as the critic who began his review of Wordsworth's Excursion with the curt announcement: "This will not do." John Wilson Croker, an eminent critic in his day, achieved posthumous notoriety by deriding Keats as a poet of the Cockney School. Charles A. Dana, the managing editor of Horace Greeley's Tribune, declared Leaves of Grass "uncouth and grotesque"—words quoted by every biographer of Whitman.

What hapless men we consider these critics now (though others since Croker have fallen asleep over Endymion). Their foolish judgments serve to vindicate the axiom that we can never know in our own time what will endure and what will be forgotten. And they further cheapen the dubious prestige accorded literary critics, whose verdicts on the work of their contemporaries can always be dismissed as mere opinion, the babble of ignorant journalists. Let history judge. "I shall not pollute my fingers with touching his book," Wordsworth proclaimed of Jeffrey—a sentiment echoed by many another writer making that unbelievable claim "I never read my reviews."

But even critics are right on occasion, and there have been reviews that altered a reputation forever—generally for the worse. A lively negative review tends to stay in the mind. The language of disparagement is simply more vivid than the language of praise. Henry James's description of Russian novels as "large loose baggy monsters" is worth pages of his panegyrics to George Eliot and Balzac. One can read Randall Jarrell's fifty-page advertisement for The Man Who Loved Children without encountering a single phrase as memorable as his succinct description of Karl Shapiro's Trial of a Poet as "a sort of bobby-soxer's Mauberley." It is the dismissive review that we remember, the clever deflation, the impudent reappraisal of an honored name—not Dr. Johnson's encomium to Pope but his observation of Paradise Lost that "none ever wished it longer."

Why is a stern critical denunciation so invigorating? It appeals, I think, to the punitive, grudging, envious impulses we generally suppress in our daily social transactions, gives expression to hostile, aggressive instincts through a sanctioned mode of discourse. Like jokes, negative review can articulate forbidden wishes—for revenge, for superiority over a victim, or the subversion of authority. "Parody and travesty," Freud noted in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, "accomplish the degradation of the exalted"—and so does a good negative review. Its candor is a fugitive from the unconscious, which scorns polite revision.

Invective is an art like any other; when brought under rigorous aesthetic control, it can be persuasive even if the reviewer's animus is clear. Norman Mailer, flailing about in a meditation on what he called "the talent in the room" in Cannibals and Christians, managed to land a few punches because of his insolent, vigorous prose. William Styron's Set This House on Fire was "the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy," "a bad maggoty novel" in which "four or five half-great short stories were buried like pullulating organs in a corpse of fecal matter." (It was pretty bad.) John Updike's Rabbit, Run was spoiled by "imprecise, flatulent, wrynecked, precious, overpreened, self-indulgent, tortured sentences." Mary McCarthy's The Group featured "piss-out characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed, or depth of feeling." Hardly well-mannered assessments; but they have a brutal, gangsterish authority.

More chilling is the dismissal fomented by no apparent grievance, in which the critic appears to go calmly and coldly about his work—a gravedigger bent to his gruesome but necessary task (and as the gravedigger in Hamlet says, "the houses that he makes last till doomsday"). I know of no more damaging instance of this efficient, hand-rubbing method than Stanley Edgar Hyman's essay on Edmund Wilson in The Armed Vision. The innocuous subtitle, "Translation in Criticism," gives no clue to what lies ahead, and his introductory remarks have a deceptively neutral, even generous tone. (Shaken by the critical devastation Hyman wrought on Wilson's career, I returned to these opening paragraphs like a detective in the Loeb and Leopold case trying to figure out what made such nice boys do it, and came away bewildered by Hyman's geniality.) There are, to be sure, references to the "novice reader" presumed to be Wilson's audience; but these condescending asides are muffled by the recital of Wilson's virtues: his talents as a popularizer, his erudition, his "formidable qualifications for exegesis."

Only when Hyman labels Wilson "a writer of epistles to the philistines," and slips in a reference to his "skillful use of other men's researches and insights, sometimes without credit," do we begin to suspect that what we have before us is hardly an hommage. It isn't long before Wilson is faulted for "sniping at" poetry and "booming" Edgar Allan Poe—verbs that resonate with ill-concealed contempt. In this bristling atmosphere, even Wilson's modest explanation of his strategy—"first to get books for review or reporting assignments to cover on subjects in which I happened to be interested; then, later, to use the scattered articles for writing general studies of these subjects; and finally to bring out a book in which groups of these essays were revised and combined"—seems dishearteningly lame.

Like a mob emboldened by its own lawlessness to ever more daring acts, Hyman then ventures to suggest that Wilson's enthusiasm for Poe indicates "some form of personal identification"—in other words, Wilson was a neurotic like Poe. Appropriating a theory formulated in The Wound and the Bow, where Wilson speculated on the connection between creativity and some crippling psychic disorder, Hyman rudely surveys Wilson's own work in search of such a connection, and comes up with a good deal of embarrassing evidence: the crude, clinical treatment of sex in I Thought of Daisy; the misogynism that flickers through Europe Without Baedeker, the querulous arrogance of his self-interviews. "If any of this applies to Wilson himself," the relentless Hyman concludes, "and if the wound-and-bow theory makes any correlation between the extent of the wound and the power of the bow, we are reduced to wondering why Edmund Wilson is not the foremost artist of our time." By this point, any admirer of Wilson must be thoroughly flustered.

But the ordeal isn't over yet. Having cornered his victim and pawed him over, Hyman is prepared to finish him off. Modulating his voice toward unctuous sympathy, he observes that Wilson's later work is suffused with nostalgia for a vanished era—an era, Hyman notes with sudden malice, "when Edmund Wilson was a young writer fresh out of college and full of promise." The implication, of course, is that Wilson is washed up. Referring to a passage in Europe Without Baedeker where Wilson lamented that one of his favorite magic tricks had failed to interest some young Athenians, Hyman concludes with remorseless acerbity: "Even the children seem to have grown tired of seeing that pocket handkerchief turn into a mouse." No wonder that when Hyman's name came up in conversation with Brendan Gill, Wilson muttered, "That fellow Hyman is bad news."

What could provoke such a merciless appraisal? Can a review that goes to such great lengths to destroy a writer's reputation properly be called objective? Hyman works hard to produce an impression of reasoned argument, reluctant disapproval ("I'm only doing my job"), yet there are moments of gleeful jocularity that verge on insult: the taunt that Wilson's essays on Russian literature “held the literary world tense with the revelation that the Russian language has all sorts of interesting words and sounds"; the derisory observation that To the Finland Station was so basic "it might have been called Men Who Made Our Marxism and sold to the Junior Literary Guild." Could it be that Hyman was jealous? Wilson was, after all, the most eminent critic of his day (though Hyman thought his reputation "abnormally inflated"); and it clearly annoyed him that Wilson was a celebrity in England—which Hyman attributed to "the fact that almost all of his books of criticism have been published in England" (unlike Hyman's). Moreover, Hyman considered himself the better scholar (as he demonstrated in an elaborate digression about the history of criticism from antiquity to our own day, working in such household names as Anaximander, Stesimbrotus, and Fulgentius), forced to labor away in academic obscurity while the worldly, privileged (non-Jewish?) Wilson made a name for himself.

That Hyman felt competitive with Wilson doesn't invalidate his criticism. Indeed, the most exhilarating negative reviews—those forceful, unsparing cross-examinations that question a writer's whole achievement—are usually prompted by some latent resentment, some inspirational abrasion. Irritated by the success of James Gould Cozzens, whose truculent, reactionary attitudes could hardly have been more at odds with his own progressive ardor, Dwight Macdonald set about demolishing what was then a considerable reputation with such ferocity that Cozzens never recovered. What Macdonald accomplished in his review of By Love Possessed, the number-one best seller of 1957, wasn't criticism; it was a sustained display of rage, a methodical dismantling of Cozzens's pretensions to literature provoked by the fear that he was "getting away with it."

Where Hyman edged up to Wilson with faint praise, Macdonald declared in his first sentence that Cozzens's triumph was "the most alarming literary news in years." The main character was "a brute," "a prig," "a club bore" capable of musing: "I've often wondered how far anyone can see into what goes on in someone else. I've read somewhere that it would pose the acutest head to draw forth and discover what is lodged in the heart." ("Now where could he have read that?" Macdonald wondered.) And the prose was lamentable: a sex scene was said to involve "the disposings of accustomed practice, the preparations of purpose and consent, the familiar mute motions of furtherance," "moist manipulative reception" and "the mutual heat of pumped bloods" (an image Macdonald likened to "a Fortune description of an industrial process"). Cozzens was guilty of pointless inversions ("Owned and operated by Noah's father was a busy grist mill"); melodrama ("Deaf as yesterday to all representations of right, he purposed further perfidy"); and impossible dialogue that reminded Macdonald of "two grunt-and-groan wrestlers heaving their ponderous bulks around without ever getting a grip on each other." From the distance of twenty-four years, Macdonald's demolition of this "tongue-tied Dr. Johnson" scarcely seems worth the trouble.

Yet By Love Possessed, hard as it is to believe after reading this review, won virtually unanimous acclaim. Malcolm Cowley and Brendan Gill raved; Time put Cozzens on the cover; newspapers across the land were ecstatic. Macdonald's quotations from the critics were as damaging to this country's literary culture as his quotations from the novel were to Cozzens. "He is not a literary man, he is a writer," admonished Bernard De Voto; Whitney Balliett spoke of his "dark, supernal intelligence"; Granville Hicks lauded his "great eloquence and even poetic power." And the provincial reviewers were quick-in the words of Carl Victor Little in the Houston Press-to "ditto the dithyrambs."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In