Literary Criticism and History


I WANT to talk about the historical interpretation of literature — that is, about the interpretation of literature in its social, economic, and political aspects.

To begin with, it will be worth while to say something about the kind of criticism which seems to be furthest removed from this. There is a kind of comparative criticism which tends to be non-historical. The criticism of T. S. Eliot, which has had such an immense influence in our time, is an example of this. Eliot sees, or tries to see, the whole of literature, so far as he is acquainted with it, spread out before him under the aspect of eternity. He then compares the work of different periods and countries, and t ries to draw from it general conclusions about what literature ought to be. He understands, of course, that our point of view on literature changes, and he has what seems to me a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past as something to which new works are continually being added, and which is not merely increased in bulk thereby but modified as a whole — so that Sophocles is no longer precisely what he was for Aristotle, or Shakespeare what he was for Ben Jonson or for Dryden or for Dr. Johnson, on account of all the later literature that has intervened between them and us. Yet at every point of this continual accretion, the whole field may be surveyed, as it were, spread out before the critic. The critic tries to see it as God might; he calls the books to a Day of Judgment. And, looking at things in this way, he may arrive at interesting and valuable conclusions which could hardly be reached by approaching them in any other way. Eliot was able to see, for example, — what I believe had never been noticed before, — that the French symbolist poetry of the nineteenth century had certain fundamental resemblances to the English poetry of the age of Donne. Another kind of critic would draw certain historical conclusions from these purely aesthetic findings, as the Russian D. S. Mirsky did; but Eliot does not draw them.

Another example of this kind of nonhistorical criticism, in a somewhat different way and on a somewhat different plane, is the work of the late George Saintsbury. Saintsbury was a connoisseur of wines; he wrote an entertaining book on the subject. And his attitude toward literature, too, was that of the connoisseur. He tastes the authors and tells you about the vintages; he distinguishes the qualities of the various wines. His palate was as fine as could be, and he possessed the great qualification that he appreciated a great many kinds of writing. He was a man of strong social prejudices and peculiarly intransigent political views, but, so far as it is humanly possible, he kept them out of his literary criticism. The result is one of the most agreeable commentaries on literature that have ever been written. Most scholars who have read as much as Saintsbury don’t have Saintsbury’s discriminating taste, Saintsbury has been over the whole ground like any academic historian; but his account of it is not merely a chronology: it is a record of fastidious enjoyment. Since enjoyment is the only thing he is looking for, he does not need to know the causes of things, and the historical background of literature does not interest him very much.


There is, however, another tradition of criticism that dates from the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1725, the Neapolitan philosopher Vico published La Scienza Nuova, a revolutionary work on the philosophy of history, in which he asserted for the first time that the social world was certainly the work of man, and attempted what is, so far as I know, the first social interpretation of a work of literature. This is what Vico says about Homer: ‘Homer composed the Iliad in his youth — that is, in the youth of Greece. Greece was then all aflame with sublime passions, with pride, anger and vengeance. These sentiments are incompatible with dissimulation and do not exclude generosity; Greece admired Achilles, the hero of force. Homer composed the Odyssey when he was old, when the passions of the Greeks were beginning to be cooled by reflection, the mother of prudence. Greece now admired Ulysses, the hero of prudence. In the time of Homer’s youth, the pride of Agamemnon, the insolence and barbarity of Achilles, were what was pleasing to the peoples of Greece. In the time of its old age, they already liked the luxury of Alcinous, the delights of Calypso, the sensuous pleasures of Circe, the songs of the sirens and the pastimes of the lovers of Penelope. How could one possibly assign to the same age manners so completely dissimilar? Plato is so much impressed by this difficulty that, not knowing how to resolve it, he pretends that in his divine transports of poetic enthusiasm Homer was able to foresee the effeminate and dissolute life of the future. But isn’t this to attribute the height of imprudence to him whom he presents as the founder of Greek civilization? To publish an account of such manners before they existed, even though one condemned them at the same time, wouldn’t this be to teach people to imitate them? Let us agree rather that the author of the Iliad must have long preceded the author of the Odyssey — that the former, who came from the northeastern part of Greece, sang of the Trojan War, which had taken place in his part of the country; whereas the latter, who had been born in the southeastern part, celebrated Ulysses, who reigned in that part of the world.’

You see that Vico has here explained Homer in terms both of historical period and of geographical origin. The idea that human arts and institutions were to be studied and elucidated as the products of the geographical and climatic conditions in which the people who created them lived, and of the phase of their social development through which they were passing at the moment, made great progress during the eighteenth century. There are traces of it even in Dr. Johnson, that most orthodox and classical of critics — as, for example, when he accounts for certain characteristics of Shakespeare by the relative barbarity of the age in which he lived, pointing out just as Vico had done that ‘nations, like individuals, have their infancy.’ And by the eighties of the eighteenth century Herder, in his Ideas on the Philosophy of History, was writing of poetry that it was a kind of ‘Proteus among the people, which is always changing its form in response to the languages, manners, and habits, to the temperaments and climates, nay, even to the accents of different nations.’ He said — what could still seem startling even so late as that — that ‘language was not a divine communication, but something men had produced themselves.’ In the lectures on the philosophy of history that Hegel delivered in Berlin in 1822-1823, he discussed the great national literatures as expressions of the societies which had produced them — societies which he regarded as great organisms continually transforming themselves under the impulsion of dominant ideas.

In the field of literary criticism, this historical point of view came to its first complete flower in the work of the French critic Taine, in the middle of the nineteenth century. The whole school of historian-critics to which he belonged— Michelet, Renan, Sainte-Beuve — had been occupied in interpreting books in terms of their historical origins. But Taine was the first to try to apply these principles systematically and on a large scale to a work exclusively devoted to literature. In the Introduction to his History of English Literature, published in 1863, he made his famous pronouncement that works of literature were to be understood as the upshot of three interfusing factors: the moment, the race, and the milieu. Taine thought he was a scientist and a mechanist who was examining works of literature from the same point of view as the chemist in experimenting with chemical compounds. But the difference between the critic and the chemist is that the critic cannot first combine his elements and then watch to see what they will do: he can only examine phenomena which have already taken place. What Taine actually does is pretend to set the stage for the experiment by describing the moment, the race, and the milieu, and then say, ‘Such a situation demands such a kind of writer.’ He now goes on to describe the kind of writer that the situation demands, and at the end of the description we discover that we are confronted with Shakespeare or Milton or Byron, or whoever the great figure is — who turns out to prove the accuracy of Taine’s prognosis by precisely fitting the description.

There is thus an element of imposture in Taine; but it is a lucky thing that there is. If he had really been the mechanist that he thought he was, his work on literature would have had little value. The truth was that Taine loved literature for its own sake — he was at his best an excellent artist himself; and he had very strong moral convictions which give his writing emotional power. His mind, to be sure, was an analytic one; and his analysis, though terribly oversimplified, does have an explanatory value. Yet his work was what we call creative. Whatever he may say about chemical experiments, it is evident when he writes of a great writer that the moment, the race, and the milieu have combined, like the three sounds of the chord in Browning’s poem about Abt Vogler, to produce not a fourth sound but a star.


To Taine’s set of elements was added, dating from the middle of the century, a new element, the economic, which was introduced into the discussion of historical phenomena mainly by Marx and Engels. The non-Marxist critics themselves were at the time already taking into account the influence of the social classes. In his chapters on the Norman conquest of England, Taine shows that the difference between the literature of the Normans and the literature produced by the Saxons was partly the difference between a ruling class, on the one hand, and a vanquished and oppressed class, on the other. And Michelet in his volume on the Regency, which was finished the same year that the History of English Literature was published, studies Manon Lescaut as a document representing the point of view of the small gentry before the French Revolution. But Marx and Engels derived the social classes from the way that people made or got their livings — from what they called the methods of production; and they tended to regard these economic processes as fundamental to human civilization.

The Dialectical Materialism of Marx and Engels was not really so materialistic as it sounds. There was in it a large element of the Hegelian idealism that Marx and Engels thought they had got rid of. At no time did they take so mechanistic a view of things as Taine began by professing; and their theory of the relation of works of literature to what they called the economic base was a good deal less simple than Taine’s theory. They thought that art, politics, religion, philosophy, and literature belonged to what they called the superstructure of human activity; but they saw that the practitioners of these various departments tended also to constitute social groups, and that they were always pulling away from the kind of solidarity based on economic classes to establish a professional solidarity of their own. Furthermore, the activities of the superstructure could influence one another, and they could influence the economic base.

It may be said of Marx and Engels in general that, contrary to the popular impression, they were modest, confused, and groping where a materialist like Taine was cocksure. Marx once made an attempt to explain why the poems of Homer were so good when the society that produced them was from his point of view — that is, from the industrial point of view — so primitive; and this gave him a good deal of trouble. If we compare his discussion of this problem with Vico’s discussion of Homer, we see that the explanation of literature in terms of a philosophy of social history has become less instead of more simple.

Marx and Engels were deeply imbued, moreover, with the German admiration for literature, which they had learned from the age of Goethe. It would never have occurred to either of them that der Dichter was not one of the noblest and most beneficent of humankind. When Engels writes about Goethe, he presents him as a man equipped for ‘practical life’ whose career was frustrated by the ‘misery’ of the historical situation in the Germany of his time, and reproaches him for allowing himself to lapse into the ‘cautious, smug, and narrow’ philistinism of the class from which he came; but Engels regrets this because it interfered with the development of the ‘mocking, defiant, world-despising genius, der geniale Dichter, der gewaltige Poet,’ of whom Engels would not even, he says, have asked that he should have been a political liberal if he had not sacrificed to his bourgeois shrinkings his truer æsthetic sense. And the great critics who were trained on Marx — Franz Mehring and Bernard Shaw — had all this reverence for the priesthood of literature,

Shaw deplores the lack of political philosophy and what he regards as the middle-class snobbery in Shakespeare; but he admires his poetry as much as Swinburne did, and describes even those potboiling comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, — the themes of which seem to him most contemptible, — as ‘the Crown Jewels of English dramatic poetry.’ Such a critic does far more for a writer by showing him a real man in a real world at a definite moment of time than the impressionist critic like Swinburne who flourished in the same period of the late nineteenth century. The purely impressionist critic approaches the whole of literature as an exhibit of belletristic jewels, and he can only write a rhapsodic catalogue. But Bernard Shaw was able to do for Shakespeare what perhaps no other critic had done: give him a new vitality and meaning for the men of his own day.


The insistence that the man of letters should play a political role, the disparagement of works of art in comparison with political action, were thus originally no part of Marxism. They only became associated with it later. This happened by way of Russia, and it was due to special tendencies in that country that date from long before the Revolution or the promulgation of Marxism itself. In Russia there have been very good reasons why the political implications of literature should be particularly emphasized by the critics. The censorship of Nicholas I was certainly one of the factors which stimulated the marvelous art of implication of Pushkin, an art which set the tradition for most of the great Russian writers that followed him. Every play, every poem, every story, must be a parable of which the moral is implied. If it were stated, the censor would suppress the book, as he tried to do with The Bronze Horseman of Pushkin, where it was merely a question of the packed implications protruding a little too plainly. Up to the Revolution and right down through the plays and stories of Chekhov, the imaginative literature of Russia presents the peculiar paradox of an art which is technically objective and yet charged with a dynamic significance. In Russia under the Tsar, all social criticism was necessarily political because the most urgent necessity from the point of view of the intelligentsia was to get rid of the Tsarist regime.

Even the neo-Christian moralist Tolstoy, who pretends to be non-political, leads inevitably to politics, too, because his preaching will embroil him with the Church, and the Church is an integral part of the Tsardom. His pamphlet called What Is Art? — in which he throws overboard Shakespeare and a large part of modern literature, including his own novels, in the interests of his intransigent morality — is the example which is most familiar to us of the moralizing Russian criticism; but it was only the most sensational expression of a kind of approach which had been prevalent since Belinsky and Chernyshevsky in the early part of the century. The critics, who were usually journalists writing in exile or in a contraband press, were always demanding of the imaginative writers that they should illustrate bolder morals.

After the Revolution occurred, this situation did not change. The old habits of censorship persisted in the new socialist society of the Soviets, which was necessarily made up of people who had been stamped by the die of the old despotism. We find the peculiar phenomenon of a series of literary groups attempting one by one to obtain official recognition or to make themselves sufficiently powerful so that they could establish themselves as the arbiters of literature. Lenin and Trotsky and Lunacharsky had the sense to oppose these attempts: the comrade-dictators of Proletcult or Lev or Rapp would certainly have been just as bad as the Count Benckendorff who made Pushkin miserable, and when the Stalin bureaucracy, after the death of Gorky, got control of this department as of everything else, they instituted a system of repression that made Benckendorff and Nicholas I look like Lorenzo de’ Medici. In the meantime Trotsky, himself a great political writer, who had always had an interest in belles-lettres, attempted in 1924, apropos of one of these movements, to clarify the situation. He wrote a brilliant and important book called Literature and, Revolution, in which he explained the aims of the government, analyzed the work of the Russian writers, and praised or rebuked the latter as they seemed to him in harmony or conflict with the former.

Trotsky is intelligent, sympathetic; it is evident that he is really fond of literature and that he knows that a work of art does not fulfill its function in terms of the formulas of party propaganda. But Mayakovsky, the Soviet poet, whom Trotsky had praised with reservations, made a famous joke when he was asked what he thought about Trotsky’s book — a pun which implied that a Commissar turned critic was unmistakably a Commissar still; and what a foreigner cannot accept in Trotsky is his assumption that it is the duty of the government to take a hand in the direction of literature.

This point of view, indigenous to Russia, has been imported to other countries through the permeation of Communist influence. The Communist press and its literary followers have reflected the control of the Kremlin in all the phases through which it has passed, down to the wholesale imprisonment of Soviet writers which has been taking place since 1935. But it has never been a part of the American system that our Republican or Democratic administration should lay down a political line for the guidance of the national literature; and as long as we happily remain a non-totalitarian country we can very well do without this aspect of the historical criticism of literature.


Another element of a different order has, however, since Marx’s time been added to the historical study of the origins of works of literature. I mean the psychoanalysis of Freud. This appears as an extension of something which had already got well started before, which had figured even in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and of which the great exponent had been Sainte-Beuve: the interpretation of works of literature in the light of the personalities behind them. But the Freudians made this interpretation more exact and more systematic. The great example of the psychoanalysis of an artist is Freud’s own essay on Leonardo da Vinci; but this is pretty much an attempt to reconstruct a straight case history. The best example I know of the application of Freudian analysis to literature is in Van Wyck Brooks’s book, The Ordeal of Mark Twain, in which Brooks uses an incident of Mark Twain’s boyhood as a key to his whole career. He has been loudly attacked for this by Bernard DeVoto, and he has himself since repudiated the general method on the ground that nobody but an analyst can ever know enough about a writer to make a valid psychoanalytic diagnosis. This is true, of course; and the method has led to bad results where the critic has built a Freudian mechanism out of very slender evidence, and then given us merely a romance based on its supposed working instead of a real study of the writer’s life and work. But I believe that Brooks really had hold of something when he fixed upon that incident of which Mark Twain gave so vivid an account to his biographer — that scene at the deathbed of his father when his mother made him promise that he would not break her heart. If it was not one of those crucial happenings from which the complexes of Freud are supposed to stem, it has certainly a typical significance in relation to Mark Twain’s whole psychology. The stories that people tell about their childhood are usually profoundly symbolic even when they have been partly or wholly made up in the light of later experience. And the attitudes, the compulsions, the emotional ‘patterns’ that recur in the work of a writer are of the greatest interest to a critic.

These attitudes and patterns are embedded in the community and the historical moment, and they may indicate its ideals and its diseases as the cell shows the condition of the tissue. The recent scientific experimentation in the combining of Freudian with Marxist method, and of psychoanalysis with anthropology, has had its parallel development in criticism. There is thus another element added to our equipment for analyzing literary works, and the problem grows still more complex.

The analyst, however, is of course not concerned with the comparative values of his patients any more than the surgeon is. He cannot tell you why the neurotic Dostoevsky produces work of immense value to his fellows while another man with the same neurotic pattern would become a public menace. Freud himself emphatically states in his study of Leonardo that his method does not make any attempt to account for Leonardo’s genius. The problems of comparative value remain after we have investigated the Freudian psychological factor just as they do after we have given due attention to the Marxist economic factor and the racial and geographical factors. No matter how thorough and complete our explanations of works of literature may be from the historical and biographical points of view, we must be ready to try to estimate the relative degrees of success attained by the products of the various periods and the various personalities in some such way as Eliot and Saintsbury do. We must be able to tell good from bad, the first-rate from the second-rate. We shall not otherwise write literary criticism at all, but merely social or political history as reflected in literary texts, or psychological case histories from past eras, or, to take the historical point of view in its simplest and most academic form, merely chronologies of books that have been published.

And now how, in these matters of literary art, do we tell the good art from the bad? Norman Kemp Smith, the Kantian philosopher, whose courses I was fortunate enough to take at Princeton twenty-five years ago, used to tell us that this recognition was based primarily on an emotional reaction. For purposes of practical criticism this is a safe assumption to go on. It is possible to discriminate in a variety of ways the elements that in any given department go to make a successful work of literature. Different schools have at different times demanded different things of literature: unity, symmetry, universality, originality, vision, inspiration, strangeness, suggestiveness, improving morality, socialist realism, and so forth. But you could have any set of these qualities that any school of writing demanded and still not have a good play, a good novel, a good poem, a good history. If you identify the essence of good literature with any one of these elements or with any combination of them, you simply shift the emotional reaction to the recognition of the elements. Or if you add to your other demands the demand that the writer must have talent, you simply shift this recognition to the talent. Once people find some grounds of agreement in the coincidence of their emotional reactions to books, they may be able to discuss these elements profitably; but if they do not have this basic agreement the discussion will make no sense.

How, you may ask, are we to distinguish this elite who know what they are talking about? They are self-appointed and self-perpetuating, and they will compel you to accept their authority. Impostors may try to put themselves over, but these impostors will not last. The position of the people who understand writing (as is also the case in every other art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know.


But what is the cause of this emotional reaction which is the critic’s divining rod? This question has long been an object of study by the branch of philosophy called Æsthetics, and it has recently been made a subject of scientific experimentation. Both these kinds of investigation are likely to be prejudiced in the eyes of the critic by the fact that they are often carried on by persons who are themselves obviously deficient in literary taste. Yet one should not deny the possible value of explorations in this domain by men of acute minds who take as their given data the aesthetic emotions of other men.

Almost everybody interested in literature has tried to explain these emotions to himself; and I of course have my own explanation.

In my view, all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience — that is, to make life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them. Euclid, working in a convention of abstractions, shows us relations between the distances of our unwieldy and cluttered-up environment upon which we are able to count. A drama by Sophocles also indicates relations between the various human impulses, which appear so confused and dangerous, and brings out a certain justice of Fate — that is to say, of the way in which the interaction of these impulses is seen in the long run to work out — upon which we can also count. The kinship, from this point of view, of the purposes of science and art appears particularly clearly with the Greeks, because not only do both Euclid and Sophocles satisfy us by making patterns, but they make very much the same kind of patterns. Euclid’s Elements takes simple theorems and by a series of logical operations builds them up to a climax in the square of the hypotenuse. A typical tragedy of Sophocles does much the same kind of thing.

Some writers (as well as some scientists) have a more specific message: not content with such an effort as that of Sophocles to make life appear more sensible, and hence to make it more bearable, they try, like Plato, to explain the conditions for making it something different and better. Other kinds of literature, such as Sappho’s lyrics, have less philosophical content than Sophocles. A lyric gives us nothing but a pattern imposed on the expression of a feeling; but this pattern of metrical quantities and of balancing consonants and vowels has the effect of reducing the feeling, however unruly or painful it may seem when we experience it in the course of our life, to something orderly, symmetrical, and pleasing. It also relates it to the more comprehensive scheme, works it into the larger texture, of the body of poetic art. The discord has been resolved, the anomaly subjected to discipline. And this control of his emotion by the poet has the effect at second hand of making it easier for the reader to manage his own emotions. (Why certain sounds and rhythms gratify us more than others, and how they are related to the ideas which they are selected as appropriate for conveying, are questions that may be passed on to the scientist.)

And this brings us back to the historical point of view. The experience of mankind is always changing; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has not yet been expressed, must master new phenomena which have never yet been mastered. With each such victory of the human intellect, whether in the language of philosophy or the language of poetry, we experience a deep satisfaction: we have been cured of some ache or disorder, relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events.

This relief that brings the sense of power, and, with the sense of power, joy, is the emotion which tells us when we are in the presence of a first-rate piece of literature. But, you may say, are not people often solaced and rejoiced by literature of the trashiest kind? They are: crude and limited people do certainly feel some such emotion in connection with work that is limited and crude. The man who is more highly organized and has a wider intellectual range will feel it in connection with work that is finer and more complex. The difference between the emotion of the more highly organized man and the emotion of the less highly organized one is merely a matter of gradation. There are certain books that seem to mark exactly the grade between the definitely superior and the definitely inferior — the novels of John Steinbeck, for example. When I was speaking a little while back of the experts who establish the standards of taste, I meant the people who can distinguish Grade A and who prefer it to the other grades.

  1. 1 A lecture delivered at Princeton University.