MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


  • Contemporary American Fiction
  • Dangerous Pilgrimages
  • The Modern American Novel
  • The Modern British Novel
  • Modernism
  • From Puritanism to Postmodernism
  • The Modern World


It's an enormous pleasure to be invited by the Institute of United States Studies, a splendid institution I've known ever since its founding, to give the Cleanth Brooks lecture.  It's that much more of a pleasure because I knew Cleanth Brooks;  indeed he played a significant part in my life in two of the several roles he performed.  As is well known, he was a central, perhaps the central, figure of the New Criticism:  a critic, a scholar of the history of criticism, and Professor of Rhetoric at Yale University, which in his day had perhaps the premier English Department in the world.  And then, following in the great Franklinesque tradition whereby the American state department posted noted American writers and scholars to Embassies abroad – the tradition that brought Washington Irving to Madrid, William Dean Howells to Venice, Henry Adams to London, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, perhaps a little less joyously, to Liverpool – he came as Cultural Attache to the US Embassy in London.  Not all cultural attaches are, as it were, cultural;  but this was a superb appointment.  He came at a crucial time, when American Studies was emerging as a subject, when this Institute was in the founding, and when I, at the University of East Anglia, was developing a new and fresh American Studies programme.  Many embassy officers would, in those days at least, assist with the dollars.  Cleanth Brooks could offer advice, great wisdom;  he was himself one of the crucial figures of the development of American criticism and American studies.  He did, I have to say, also offer the dollars as well.  So those of us in American Studies, which flourished well in Britain, have a very great deal to thank him for.

Perhaps it was the memory of his gracious, Southern elegance and fine academic courtesy that lured me into giving a rather too drily sounding title to this lecture.  Not that his own titles were ever dry.  The Well Wrought Urn is a glorious title for a major book of criticism;  as for Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction, no two textbooks could have more effectively offered exactly what it says on the tin.  My own title just has a touch of the 'Whither Chinas?' about it, but, what's more, it might well have attracted an audience consisting entirely of Post-Colonialist Historical Materialists who are also Hermeneutic Deconstructive Feminists.  If so, you are all very welcome indeed; but I have to say my comments are not going to be highly theoretical and Eagletonian.  I am indeed a critic and a literary historian, one who professes literature, and I spent much of my life doing my share of the things we do, including devising academic programmes, engaging in intense theoretical debates, and organizing research assessments.  But I am also a writer, and have spent even more of my life – which suddenly starts to sound like an incredibly long one – writing fiction, screenplays, works of literary history, works of humour.  My standpoint is therefore double, duplicitous, dialogic.  And when I was asked to give this lecture, it seemed to me that to explore this double perspective – of someone who is both critical and creative, and not just schizoid but transatlantic – would be fair way of honouring Cleanth Brooks.

I shall be talking, then, about my own perspective on a significant episode in the history of what we used to call the postwar world, the transaction that brought criticism to the forefront of academic life, and then passed from the New Criticism to Literary Theory.  The key dates, I suppose, are these:  New Criticism probably has its starting point around 1929-30, with the publication of I.A. Richards' Practical Criticism and the development of the 'Fugitive Group' of Southern Agrarian scholars and critics in the USA.  It had its peak in the 1950s, and its trough around 1968, when, in the shadow of the Paris evenements, a new theoretical and philosophical mood swept through western literary studies.  The conventional histories of this depict an ever-growing intellectual excitement, and a movement toward greater truth and wisdom.  Thus a standard history can be found in a fine compilation called The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory And Criticism;  the ordering of the title suggests that this was published recently, in 1994.  The preface here talks of the recent decades as a period of great 'literary-theoretical adventure,' during which criticism has grown and expanded, become precise and theoretical, extended itself into "anthropology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, political science, and much else besides, even as the objects of critical analysis by 'literary' scholars encompass all forms of cultural production, literary and nonliterary."  It speaks too of a "fin-de-siecle era when the boundaries of critical theory and practices are particularly permeable to influences from other disciplines and cultural hegemonies."   Another work published five years earlier, The Future of Literary Theory, edited by Ralph Cohen, sees the new theories as the stuff of a new age of self-enlightenment, brought about not by scholarly accumulation of knowledge, but by turning criticism into a polemical philosophy, elucidating its own new guidelines and claiming its own self-empowerment.1

All this is interestingly imperialistic, though the claim seems to assert two things.  One is that the battle for a critical discipline asserted in the New Criticism has been fought, extended and won;  the triumph of true judgement.  The other is that what the battle was originally fought for – discrimination, good reading, the words on the page, interpretation, valuation, the pursuit of the best that was known and thought in the world – has been foregone;  criticism has dispensed with the critical and turned into something different, along with everything else:  the English Department, the reader, the writer, the book, the canon, the tradition, the whole idea of culture.  Now it hardly needs saying that the history of this evolution, though a significant matter, is not one of great moment for most people.  As the recent millennial stocktakings (those endless grand reckonings that make us feel grateful the millennium only happens every thousand years or so) insistently remind us, the last fifty years have been dominated by great events and powerful forces.  It was, until the coming down of the Berlin Wall ten years ago, a time of Cold War, a grim era of nuclear terror, global tension and conflict;  amazing technological innovations, radical new science, fundamental change in the ideology of international relations, the economic situation of powers.  World relations have globalized.  Human beings have touched down on the moon, Mars has been probed, Dolly the sheep been cloned.  The laws of selfhood, identity, consciousness, sexuality, gender have been transformed.  We have seen fantastical opportunities for intervention in nature, the biosphere, the human lifespan, the genetic makeup.  We have learned much more about our cosmic vulnerability.

We have seen the End of History, and the start of Post-History;  the dawn of the New World Order, and its replacement by the New World Disorder;  the age of the Internet and the possible demise of the book.  The smaller story of how we read words on the page, or whether we know what literature is, can seem of little importance.  So who truly cares about the battles of criticism, or wonders what happened to the Old New Criticism, the rise of the Newer Criticism, the dawn of what the handbooks call 'the problematic horizons' of Deconstruction?  Well, it so happens, I do:  and for two main reasons.  One is that, in some old-fashionedly humanistic sort of way, I believe in the centrality of literature to any serious and worthwhile culture.  I believe we live by the fictions of the imagination, and that literature is a shaping force in society, shaping our notions of order, history, reality, modernity.  The creative arts are central, and the way we cultivate them, develop them, judge them is a matter of great moment.  The development of literary and artistic cultures, and the means of judgement and appraisal, are crucial, and have to do with the health of the polity.  Better is better than worse; that is why we need critics and criticism.

But I also believe this with the vocational passion of the writer, and it should not be assumed that writers and critics are as one in the matter.  Over my lifetime writers and critics have often been intimate, and sometimes they have been exactly the same people.  At other times, particularly as a result of the emergence of literary theory, they have been divided and at odds; there was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when it was hard to get a serious writer to go anywhere near a campus, so arcane and aggressively anti-authorial was much critical practice.  It is not easy to be an author in the university when all the courses are entitled 'The Death of the Author.'  Yet at the same time literature, and contemporary writing, have moved ever closer to the campus, even as the campus has claimed a vaster right of intervention in modern writing and culture.  Not just for the critic, the student, or the common reader, but for the writer too, what has happened in that great 'literary-theoretical adventure' over the past 50 years has considerable importance.


As it turns out, I am old enough to have seen a good deal of it.  For me the story starts here, in these very buildings, around and after 1953.  I had just graduated in English language and literature from the small University College of Leicester, which awarded an external London degree.  The course, it's worth noting, consisted of five papers in Language (Old English, Old Norse, Old Icelandic, etc.) and five in literature, ending in 1895.  It was possible to substitute a new paper, 'American Literature,' for one of these papers (Old Icelandic, I think), on the basis that it would not be taught.  I alone of the students in that course chose this option, which explains everything about me.  I was then offered a research scholarship at the University of London, to do an MA by thesis.  I came here, working in the Senate House Library in this building and in the British Museum Reading Room opposite.

Very unusually, I had been permitted to work on contemporary literature:  the little magazines of Anglo-American Modernism, like the Egoist, the Blue Review and the Criterion, bringing the story from 1900 to 1950.  The topic had a special advantage:  most of the people I was working on were, quite unusually, alive, and some of them – like Stephen Spender, John Lehmann, Edgell Rickword, and F.R. Leavis – were extremely helpful.  One of them, as it happened, was the most famous writer and critic of the day.  This was T.S. Eliot, who had an office just across the way in Russell Square.  He was very kind, but advised me that to deal with the topic properly I would need to go to the USA.  He provided me with letters of introduction (which still existed then) to various important figures, like Allen Tate, Malcolm Cowley, John Crowe Ransom, and so on.  Above all he gave me to the great figure who sat at the heart of it all, Ezra Pound.  There was, however, one problem:  Pound was held in St Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC, unable to plead to a capital charge of treason.  As it was to turn out, if you needed to get into the federal criminal lunatic asylum, a letter from T.S. Eliot was the one thing that was required.

I should remind you of the climate of the time:  literary, cultural, political.  In 1953-55, we in Britain had just become the New Elizabethans, but had not yet started having it so good.  Austerity continued, goods were rationed (this included sex), and the intellectual environment was provincialized and confined.  It was the time of early Cold War, the Truman doctrine, the Berlin airlift, atomic anxieties;  the Welfare State, the Scholarship Boy, and the Angry Young Man was just about to come to the boil.  There was existentialism, anguish, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Juliette Greco, Colin Wilson, black berets and outsider attitudes.  But Europe was still a shattered zone, slowly being lifted toward economic renewal and democratic politics, mostly through Marshall Aid.  There were travel and currency restrictions, meaning that the young postwar generation of students, writers, politicians, would-be intellectuals were to a considerable degree cut off from the traditional source of intellectual and cultural supplies, continental Europe.  One fundamental result of this was that cultural attention shifted toward the USA.

In fact Western Europe was now firmly if quarrelsomely in the American orbit.  American generosity funded European reconstruction and development, supported a near-bankrupt Britain, and stretched intellectual life and allegiance between two great superpower ideologies:  liberal capitalism, totalitarian communism.  Culturally, European intellectuals passionately deplored the growing evidence of popular Americanization:  chewing gum, Hollywood movies, Mickey Mouse, Lucky Strikes, hamburgers, Dallas on TV.  Yet for most of the century they had been incorporating American populism into European high culture:  from the skyscraper and the futurist megalopolis to jazz, ragtime, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner.  All this can be seen clearly in retrospect as part of a great cultural shift that had been happening right through the century.  In the earlier part of the century American writers had come to Europe:  Eliot, Pound, Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the Twenties 'lost generation.'  At the time Fitzgerald (never trivial in his reading of contemporary culture) noted that something subtle had passed to America, the style of man.  It was a great cultural truth;  one obvious feature of the Twenties is that , even as American writers paid their homage by expatriation, European writers and artists were paying theirs to America, acknowledging the Great War represented the disastrous collapse of European culture and social order, one of the fundamental crises underlying all Modernism.

By the 1930s that was a fundamental, terrible fact:  in Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Stalin's Russia, and in many other European powers threatened from within or without by dictators, many great cultural figures – Stravinsky, Mann, Brecht, Nabokov, Van Der Rohe, Benjamin Britten, Auden – became emigres to the USA.  It was a complicated enough transaction, as high cultural figures became Hollywood screenwriters or wrote movie scores, adapting European high cultural prestige to American populism.  Bauhaus became Our House:  the social apartments of Middle Europe turned into the corporate office blocks of Fifth Avenue.  That process itself internationalized or Europeanized American culture, which increasingly appeared remarkably cosmopolitan.  These pre-war exiles and emigres had helped Europeanize and historicize American culture and academic life; they also helped shape the new alliances and connections that developed between affluent superpower America and the emerging postwar Europe.  I have written a book about many of these complicated transactions, Dangerous Pilgrimages:  Transatlantic Mythologies and the Novel.  But what lies behind the book is the personal experience of this particular era, the era of our Americanization:  the climate I grew up in, went to university in, began to write in, finally travelled to America in.2

The formation of postwar literary and intellectual life in Britain was a strange affair.  By around 1950 it was clear the high Modernism of the first half of the century had collapsed, not least in the form of its British arm, Bloomsbury;  the double demise can be dated from the deaths of Joyce and Virginia Woolf in 1940-41.  But the literary culture of the Thirties, the Marxising decade, was also dying in deaths and apostacies.  Auden left Marxism for Christianity, and other Thirties writers reported their disillusion in The God That Failed.  Orwell's later fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, some of the most important writing of the Forties, were texts of political revisionism and rejection, a declaration that the totalitarian societies of the first half century were affronts to liberalism and decency.  Orwell died in 1950, and by that time the demise both of Modernism and Thirties political literature was clear.  It was also in 1950 that the two most significant literary magazines of the wartime decade, John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing and Cyril Connolly's flamboyant Horizon, expired.

By the early 1950s, on both sides of the Atlantic, there were signs that a new literary-cultural climate was forming.  In Britain round this date Angus Wilson, Doris Lessing and Anthony Burgess appeared;  1954 saw the appearance of three major first novels, Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, and William Golding's Lord of the Flies.  Along with this, a new postwar mood was emerging, very anti-Bloomsbury, anti-Modernist, and anti-romantic in spirit.  (Part of the explicit meaning of Lucky Jim is the rejection of Bloomsbury and the cultural vision it stood for.)  And – despite the fact that in One Fat Englishman Amis explored his own profitable quarrel with American academic culture – the power and influence America was exerting on British cultural life was growing ever more evident.  Most of the contemporary writing I read myself was American.  And where the American literature of the Thirties had established itself on very American credentials – Faulkner's South, Caldwell's Tobacco Road, Steinbeck's Route 66 – the new American writing of the Fifties made its claim on its world-historical understanding:  its recognition of the crises of history, and all that had gone with it.  Writers like Bellow and Salinger and Ellison recognizably wrote of the world of love and squalor, the horror of the holocaust, and the new anguishes and responsibilities of the absurdist, existentialist decade, world history shamed and disgraced by the sins of the age.  Hemingway and Dos Passos, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Hannah Arendt and Norman Mailer, Dave Brubeck and Milt Jackson, became European high cultural heroes and heroines.

'What a strange irony of history that Europe should search for its lost secrets in an American mirror,' John Lehmann observed in one of a series of broadcasts, The Impact of America on European Culture, that was broadcast on the BBC's new Third Programme and appeared in book form in the USA in 1951.3  Lehmann, as editor and publisher, had much to do with this (he published Bellow and Delmore Schwartz in important editions in the 1940s), and he noted how deeply American culture now penetrated British and European, and European writers were becoming ever more aware of and influenced by American ones.  But the process was two-handed:  in the postwar world American and European culture were expanding and cross-fertilizing to create a new transatlantic culture.  Even the magazines were becoming American.  For, as the older magazines died, mostly thanks to rising printing costs, the chief periodicals circulating in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe) in the early 1950s started to be American:  Partisan Review, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, and so on.  They circulated to libraries right across the country, including the small public library in my own Nottingham suburb, under the financial support of the Ford Foundation.  Significantly, they were intellectual magazines, high-minded, and displaying the strengths of contemporary American literature, and, especially, contemporary American criticism.  Then in 1953 the dearth of British magazines was relieved by the appearance of the intellectual review Encounter, edited by Melvyn Lasky and Stephen Spender.  This too was generously funded, by something called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, based in Paris;  and it had an important role in giving Britain a literature in the 1950s.


A fascinating book by Frances Stonor Saunders called Who Paid the Piper?The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, published this year, establishes what I think was generally half-understood at the time.4  This was the age of American aid and harsh austerity, and also the time of While You're Up, Get Me a Grant.  And the Ford Foundation and the Congress for Cultural Freedom were not exactly innocent donors, generously disinterested sponsors of the arts:  in the days before exploding cigars, they were actually fronts for that important and newly emergent arts-sponsorsing body, the CIA.  It was all part of the great postwar kulturkampf, the crucial battle for intellectual allegiance that was waged between America and Russia, west and east, capitalism and communism, which tore at the minds and tugged at the allegiances of all serious writers on either side of the Iron Curtain.  You did not literally have to know that this congress, this magazine, this festival you went to was part-funded by the CIA, or for that matter the KGB, to understand that the role of the writer was locked in a world that was filled with conspiracies and betrayals, that everywhere there were loyalty oaths and pressures on loyalty, and that a serious understanding of history, ideology, historical responsibility, and the recognition of intellectual and moral duty was all part of the serious business of being a writer.

Much of the literature we value most and take most seriously from the postwar era, from either side of the Iron Curtain, was created in this climate, and that has much to do with its historical reality and its value:  easy to forget now, in this age of Bridget Jones and the literature of self-awareness or relationships.  Frances Stonor Saunders has splendidly researched the ever-opening archives, and established a great deal of new information about the allegiances, the intentions, the attitudes of the most notable players, and the pressures, compromises and radicalisms of a period when, as Philip Roth, one of the great recorders, once observed, the actuality was constantly outdoing the talents of any writer.  Saunders, though, does see the subject with a latter-day innocence, and fails to observe some of the larger ironies.  Most of the writers and for that matter critics or scholars in the period found their own ways of negotiating through a world where, for instance, if you did a lecture tour in Eastern Europe you found yourself pressured by a State Department spook on one side and a KGB minder on the other.  And he who paid the piper did not exactly call the tune.  So oblique and distant were the fundings, so obscure the kind of influence that was intended to be exerted, so sceptical were the recipients of favour, that the CIA and KGB frequently got the opposite of what was intended.  In the end they became the sponsors of a complex, veiled, critical, morally anxious era of writing, art and culture.  Little since has come up to these standards, or had the same sense of history, politics, reality.

In truth, the world of postwar writing, where writers across Europe and the States were pushed and pressurized by shadowy and dangerous Cold War politics, is filled with an unmistakeable aroma – of moral anxiety, anxious responsibility, liberal crisis.  It was a mood that ran through the magazines that I mention, for instance in Partisan Review's famous symposium on 'Our Country and Our Culture,' where ex-Marxist critics and writers made a new if guarded affirmation of allegiance.  The new mood is best summed up in the preface Lionel Trilling wrote for a book of criticism, The Liberal Imagination, which also appeared in 1950 and greatly influenced the decade.  Trilling had been leftwing himself in the Thirties, and he now looked at the appropriate link that should exist between writing, criticism and politics – especially, he said, "if we do not intend the narrow but the wide sense of the word politics.  It is the wide sense of the word that is nowadays forced upon us, for clearly it is no longer possible to think of politics of culture, the organization of human life toward some end or other, toward the modification of sentiments, which is to say the quality of human life."  The word 'liberal,' which these days has been driven into discredit, is the great affirmation, representing the departure from ideology and the move into literature's openness, impersonality, critical disinterestedness, its 'variousness and possibility.'  As Trilling puts it:  "The word liberal is a word primarily of political import, but its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages, by the sentiments it desires to affirm."  Literature, in short, lies beyond the self and beyond ideology, in the realm of decency, which is also the realm of paradox, ambiguity, and irony, where real life is lived and the great contradictions and dialogues of literature are forged.  Trilling's book reminds us that criticism then was, amongst other things, a very public debate about literature, that the New Criticism had a setting, and belonged with the culture of an age.5


The emergence of criticism in the 1950s was as striking a phenomenon as the process of Americanization, and it is interesting to ask why it should have occurred.  In part it had to do with the postwar role of the university, now opening up to a new generation of meritocratic students or scholarship boys, such as myself.  In the United States an even more massive expansion of universities was occurring, as returning servicemen came home to be offered courses via the GI Bill.  English Departments, themselves a fairly modern invention, had largely been concerned with an historical or a philological approach to literature;  during the 1930s this had begun to change.  To some degree the presiding figure was the Anglo-American writer and critic from whom I received my letter of introduction to another great figure, Ezra Pound.  Eliot's Selected Essays (1932) had laid fresh emphasis on the impersonality of reading, and the need for a common pursuit of true judgment.  At Cambridge I.A. Richards took Eliot's famous early criticism up for the English school, and his own two books, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), essentially led to the birth of the New Criticism, which shifted attention from social or historical context or generic analysis to the work itself, the poem on the page, revealed as a site of difficulty, meaning, irony, ambiguity.

Richards himself went to America, to Harvard, at the start of the war.  Hence the key influence in Britain was a strange puritanic figure in an open-neck shirt, the Sage of Downing, F.R. Leavis.  Though other literary magazines had died, his critical journal Scrutiny, founded as far back as 1932, had not.  By the 1950s, in books like New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and, mostly recently, The Great Tradition (1948), he had established great influence.  His values and those of his supporters were determined, precise and judgemental. Their essays were 'scrutinies,' 'discriminations,' 'revaluations,' and were a rebuke to the trivial, the insufficiently written, the morally unexamined.  The great canons he established in poetry and the novel may have been imperfect (modern poetry ended in Ronald Bottrall, modern fiction in L.H. Myers) but the principles were splendid:  literature, taken seriously, was the fundamental humanistic value, the centre of a felt moral life.  He was at the centre of my own early fiction and criticism, much influenced by Lawrentian passions, as he was at the centre of much literary argument in Britain in the 1950s.  For he was the critic of the new generation:  anti-metropolitan, anti-bourgeois, anti-bohemian, anti-Bloomsbury.

During the 1950s criticism flourished, greatly in America, a little more slowly and modestly in Britain.  It was, in fact, the age of the writer and the critic, as well as of the literary academic.  Fresh links existed between the writer and the university, and between creation and criticism.  The new wave in fiction came from a number of writers – Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Iris Murdoch, Anthony Burgess – who were themselves university teachers, one reason for the dawn of campus fiction.  In poetry, similarly, many of those who were associated with what was called 'the New Movement' were also 'University Wits':  Amis, Wain, Donald Davie, Charles Tomlinson, Laurence Lerner, D.J. Enright, and younger poets like John Fuller, Andrew Motion, Douglas Dunn, Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, while Philip Larkin was a university librarian.  And now that Bloomsbury had disappeared and bohemia faded, many of the emerging magazines had university connections, like Critical Quarterly and Universities' Poetry.  This was an age before the professionalization and bureaucratization of university teaching and the pressure toward theoretical systematization.  Hence practical criticism, close reading, which positioned the reader close to the text, offered an intense experience of literature.

The same was even more so in the USA, where the postwar university, like Paris in the 1920s, was now attracting some of the most significant writers:  Bellow, Nabokov, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Bernard Malamud, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, as well as critics like John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren.  Some taught literature;  others, increasingly, taught creative writing, including Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gass, Stanley Elkin and Paul Auster.  Many of the best magazines and often the best publishers were campus based.  Not everyone welcomed this;  some saw it as the death of an independent avant garde.  But the avant garde was dying in any case, or turning into something else – the Beat Generation, for instance, which itself had strong academic links, not least to Columbia and Lionel Trilling.  At any rate, in 1955, following Eliot's advice, I won myself a Fulbright travel grant, and an English-Speaking Union fellowship to go as a graduate assistant to an American university in the middle of a Midwestern cornfield.  Thus, with a letter from Eliot and an MA thesis in my hand, I put down my Leavis, put on my levis, and took ship to America.


This was the age of Stepping Westward and Changing Places.  I travelled, as it happened, on the Queen Mary, tourist class in a cabin for four, all now leading figures in literary, academic and political life.  Little was it known up in First Class, but down below the waterline was a whole remarkable generation of young men and women who belonged to the Sabbatical Generation.  All had grants:  Fulbrights, Commonwealths, Guggenheims, Jane Eliza Proctors, Henries and Harknesses.  Most had fellowships to universities, and on arrival we fanned out in various directions, in white convertibles if you had a Commonwealth, on the Greyhound bus if you didn't.  I went to Indiana University, in Bloomington, where I taught courses in the full stop and the comma to girls in cantilevered bras, tight skirts and thick make-up, and huge football players.  In fact Indiana had a leading graduate school, which had attracted young scholars from all over the States, and I quickly found myself in the middle of a critical revolution.  That year the English Department had as visiting professor Ronald S. Crane, the Chicago Aristotelian, also known as a serious adversary of the New Criticism, and indeed specifically of Cleanth Brooks.  But the summer school was also host to the Kenyon School of Letters, and the summer session featured Brooks in his turn.  The argument between the Aristotelians and the New Critics was the first evidence I saw that criticism was not just a matter of enjoyment, thoughtful close reading and evaluation, but also a dangerous war game.

The nature of this conflict may seem arcane now, but it was a major polemic of the time.  In an essay, 'The Critical Monism of Cleanth Brooks' (in Critics and Criticism) Crane argued that the excessive emphasis on the irony and tension of a given text led to a dehistorization of literary study.  Like Brooks, Crane himself wished to make criticism pre-eminent, but his emphasis was, appropriately for an Aristotelian, on structure, narrative evolution and development, rendered emotion, disposition of effect, on precisely the things that we find in Aristotle's Poetics and which, for that matter, we will find again in many modern ideas of narratology.  I studied with Crane, who was a highly distinguished and splendid teacher.  I listened to Brooks, who was a powerful and persuasive critic.  My own ideas were influenced by both of them, which probably meant they would have properly satisfied neither.  John Crowe Ransom would observe in an essay 'Humanism at Chicago' that future critics would find quaintness in the feuding, between the critics who believed in plot and structure and those who believed in poetry as a special language, a concrete universal.  Yet this dispute or quarrel, part of a growing body of polemic over matters of method and interpretation, has often been seen as leading onward to the next stages of development – which pressed the argument towards structural and structuralist questions, to linguistic ones, about the nature of literary language and the distinctiveness or otherwise of a literary text, and so on.6  By the end of the Fifties I had returned to America, and this time I went as a graduate student, working on American literature, and to the heartland of it all, Yale.  Again I met and better came to know Cleanth Brooks, and, as it were, assimilated to a far greater degree than before his side of this memorable argument, and its highly creative consequences.

It must be said that these were remarkable times.  As the jacket-copy of a 1957 collection of essays, Critics and Criticism, by the Chicago critics, rightly said:  "The revival of literary criticism during the past generation is one of the outstanding literary events of the times.  Critical writing – again a major intellectual activity – has brought out a profusion of conflicting theories...".7  And indeed criticism, and the criticism of criticism, its claims, arguments, enterprises, adventures, acquired an importance it had not had before, or for that matter since.  The reasons, as I've suggested, were several:  the revitalization of universities after the war as a result of the GI Bill, bringing returning servicemen into the academy;  the disappearance of the old bohemias, and their replacement by the campus, which served a new avant garde function as the meeting place of writers and the intelligentsia;  the prevalence of magazines and reviews, funded by whomever;  the intellectual excitement that swept through postwar America as a result of growing international influence and contacts;  the need to construct a sufficient argument for the role of English or literary study at the heart of the humanities programme;  and the need, in the light of changed world events, and the impact of war on the sense of history, to reconsider the question of literary heritages and traditions.

One result was a period of major critical publication.  Many of the most important and thoroughgoing modern critical works come from that decade, and in the same way some of the most important books of that decade are actually works of criticism:  Leavis's The Great Tradition and Trilling's The Liberal Imagination;  Richard Chase's The American Novel and Its Tradition, R.W.B. Lewis's The American Adam;  Charles Fiedelson's Symbolism and American Literature;  M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp;  W.K. Wimsatt's The Verbal Ikon;  Philip Wheelwright's The Burning Fountain, and so on.  Wimsatt and Brooks, both at Yale, collaborated on the influential Literary Criticism:  A Short History, published in 1957.  It not only showed that Brooks and Wimsatt, as much as Crane and the Aristotelians, saw the roots of all literary argument going back to Plato and Aristotle;  it also means, itself, to be argumentative:  "Call it" says the preface, 'An Argumentative History of Literary Argument in the West."8

These books were in many cases were original, large-scale synoptic readings, a mixture of close reading and large-scale cultural exploration, and they have not been superseded and in many cases not equalled.  They were fed, in particular, by a sense of the need to understand and amend the great traditions and canons, above all those of American literature;  to assimilate modernism, and the aesthetic theories of modernism;  to open out new readings of text, especially obscure or misunderstood texts, to celebrate creativity.  Yale, as it happened, was a centre of a very large part of this endeavour;  and at the heart of literary studies at Yale was Cleanth Brooks.  My association with him and that university helped give me my critical orientation, my literary philosophy, my fascination with the great writers of myth and symbol, my deep preoccupation with American literature.  It was indeed a remarkable era, and I was fortunate to have been part of it and close to its leading figures.


It also had striking consequences.  Back in 1938, John Crowe Ransom, who was Brooks' teacher at Vanderbilt, had written a striking article called "Criticism, Inc".  (It was, incidentally, Ransom who delightfully wrote that the critic is surely himself a literary creator, and his work "starts with a spontaneous surge of piety, and is inducted by the contagion of art into a composition of his own.")  In this essay he proposed, with much of his teasing spirit on display, but also with very great prescience, that criticism should not be removed from the hands of amateurs, where it had resided, and be given to the true professionals:  "Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism, Ltd."  And indeed, in America by this date, the older age of the critic as writer – the age of Eliot and Pound, Valery and Woolf;  of Arnold and Emerson, Coleridge and Shelley, Dryden and Johnson – was closing.  The era was becoming academic, and the campus was the agora of criticism.  As universities grew, so did criticism.  By the 1950s, Ransom's corporation – we'll call it CRINC for short – was well in process of being founded.  By the end of the decade it was flourishing, indeed was dominant. Corporate meetings for executives and shareholders were held in the great conference hotels of America;  these occasions were called MLA or Modern Language Association Conventions.  Thousands attended, many of them youthful aspirants, would-be critics with fresh PhDs, holding out their cvs for inspection in the lobby. young soldiers ready to enter the critical fray.

The Fifties were the expansive and confident days;  but things began to change.  By the Sixties, CRINC had opened various European offices, not least in Paris, in the rue des Ecoles.  The French and European branches proved to have a lot of fresh thought to offer;  you can now find their outlets everywhere, from Bucharest to Japan.  Out of Existentialism there had come Structuralism.  Now out of that came Post-Structuralism, which in the course of a year or so (1968, three books by Derrida) had become Deconstruction – and so it went on.  If the early buildings put up by CRINC were large modernist building blocks, concrete edifices that structured entire traditions or offered vast and subtle interpretations of major literary powers (the power of symbolism in American literature, for instance), the newer buildings were much stranger and more obscure.  They mirrored and refracted and parodied and quoted themselves.  What they added they also took away.  They found mirrors in the ceiling, cracks in the pavement and black holes in the cosmos:  aporias, into which tradition and canon, symbol and figure, irony and paradox themselves slipped.

The new order would finally declare itself on the very spot where the old order had taken its stand, in the Humanities programme of Yale University.  In 1970 the graduate school changed decisively, when a group of major figures associated with Deconstruction, including J. Hillis Miller, moved from Johns Hopkins to Yale, and Paul de Man was appointed to the Sterling Chair of Humanities.  It so happened that I was involved in this moment too, since I was teaching Paul de Man's courses at Zurich over the period of this change.  Yale had once again taken the lead in the development of criticism, which now pointed, as De Man observed, the way to literary theory.  'Literary theory can be said to come into being when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic, considerations, or, to put it somewhat less crudely, when the object of discussion is no longer the meaning or the value of the modalities of production and of reception of meaning and value prior to their establishment...,' he observed in a famous essay of 1982, 'The Resistance to Theory.'  The essay is a challenge to fundamental ideas of literariness, as well as to the idea of being able to fix a determinable meaning to a text;  it seeks the de-aestheticization of literature, and so marks a major ideological shift, which he, Jacques Derrida, who also came to teach at Yale, and others affirmed.9

From around 1970, the spirit of the English Department, of literary studies and of critical activity undoubtedly transformed.  The poem was no longer the place of educated reconciliations, the writer neither a source of wisdom nor an explorerer of realities, and the preoccupations of the creative imagination were turned toward a philosophical outcome.  The change of mood and approach reflected fundamental changes in an America that had itself become more multi-cultural, and in which the purposes of education had changed in a world filled with a hunger for expression and self-empowerment.  Contemporary culture was moving away from concepts of hierarchy and value, explicit deference to the idea of tradition, or the sanctity of the classic or of the literary book.  One overt effect of the change was to set an alien distance between the text and the reader, and at the same time the reader was given a new posture of authority relative to the text or to the author.  Traditions were politicized and recanonized in favour of reader-interest.  At the same time the discourse with which the critical, philosophical and political argument was advanced grew far more academic, more complex, and – since language was slippage anyway – far more obscure.  One consequence was a rising alienation between writer and critic or literary theorist;  good writers increasingly found themselves at odds with, or unable to have a profitable relationship with, what was happening on the campus.


As I said at the start, my particular interest in this topic is as a writer and critic.  And it was just at the time that Deconstruction and related theories were becoming institutionalized in the new humanities school, and the intimacy between writing and theory grew more abstract and harder to manage, that I found myself turning in a different direction, looking for a fresh relationship between literary creation and vocation and the university's English department.  In 1970, at the University of East Anglia, I set up with Angus Wilson an MA programme in Creative Writing.  At the time it was regarded as a rogue or cuckoo subject, an unsuitable American import like the hamburger, the hoola hoop, the telephone or powered flight.  The programme was started for several reasons:  we had already been informally working with a significant number of fine young student writers;  there was a crisis over the future of contemporary literary fiction, and it was growing harder for the new writer to get published or supported in any way.  But there were also firmly academic reasons, about how to represent contemporary writing and writers in the English department, and establish the process of writing itself as an object of study.

It was also a way of sustaining another tradition that came out of the age of the New Criticism, something that to me made it exciting and seminal.  For the culture of New Criticism had generally supported the common roles of the writer and the critic.  Eliot, of course, was a major writer and a decisive critic, for whom criticism was nonetheless, as he said, "a prolongation of the thinking that went into the formation of my own verse."  I.A. Richards was a poet, and William Empson an extremely good poet.  The Vanderbilt and Kenyon School of course included many important writers.  John Crowe Ransom was a significant and delightful poet, as were Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, while both Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren were important novelists.  In their roles as writer and critic they were visibly in the tradition of Coleridge and Shelley, or Pound and Eliot;  and in their critical thought it is always possible to discern the creative presence, an intimacy with the structure of narrative, the birth of order, the pressure of imagination, the utopian joy of fiction.  Writing is not simply a text or discourse;  it is an ikon, a vivid presence, created and made by understandable energies and insights into a certain form.

The UEA writing programme, deliberately an MA or a research degree, was the first of its kind.  In due time it became successful, and over the years has played its part in helping to ensure that professors of contemporary literature have something resembling contemporary literature to study.  Today, again, the graduate school and the study of English in universities are changing again, and creative writing, at various levels, is becoming more and more a central subject.  There are a number of different reasons for this, but it does mean that over time a new kind of alliance, a fresh interaction between the creative and the critical, may well emerge, where the notion of the Death of the Author is replaced with an idea of the Creativity of the Writer.  I hope this is so;  something of the schizoid division that has developed between writer and critic in recent years might very well heal.  That at any rate has been my wish, and also my solution, for that programme became over time a fascinating and invigorating realm both of creation and literary theory.  And in coming to that happy solution, I can say I owe a good deal to Cleanth Brooks, whose lecture, finally, this is.  Thank you.


1  Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (eds.), The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1994;  Ralph Cohen (ed.), The Future of Literary Theory (Routledge, New York and London, 1989).

2  Malcolm Bradbury, Dangerous Pilgrimages:  Trans-Atlantic Mythologies and the Novel (Secker and Penguin, London, 1995).

3  Bertrand Russell, John Lehmann, Sean O'Faolain, J.E. Morpurgo, Martin Cooper and Perry Miller, The Impact of America on European Culture (Beacon Press, Boston, 1951).

4  Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?:  The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta Books, London, 1999).

5  Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination:  Essays on Literature and Society (Viking, New York, 1950).

6  As the useful entry on 'New Criticism' by Leroy F. Searle in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism puts it:  "While critics such as [R.P.] Blackmur had regarded explicit theory as either redundant or irrelevant, the increasingly vigorous practice of critical interpretation led to frequently irresolvable conflicts over rival interpretations that seemed mutually exclusive.  Thus, the very success of New Critical practice called attention to theoretical problems that had never been adequately addressed, just as its practical strength in producing intelligble readings is the source of a persistent anomaly of incompatible readings that no available postulates appear able to resolve."  Not, one might add, that they should, if the essence of critical exploration and discrimination is, precisely, pluralism;  there surely is no ultimately 'right' or perfect reading.

7  R.S. Crane (ed.), Critics and Criticism:  Ancient and Modern (Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1952).

8  William K. Wimsatt, Jr & Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism:  A Short History (Knopf, New York, 1957).

9  Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986).