Why We Need Professional Literary Criticism

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Among the books that entered the public domain in 2022: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues, and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Oh, yes, and Winnie the Pooh and Bambi: A Life in the Woods.

It’s the latter that’s currently drawing particular attention.

I’d urge you to put down everything and read Kathryn Shulz’s account of Bambi in The New Yorker, which strikes me as a model of a kind of literary criticism that has fallen by the wayside.  And while you’re at it, you might also take a look at Robert Gottleib’s eloquent and deeply moving reconsideration of Sinclair Lewis, “The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was,” to mark the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Babbitt.

What is Bambi, the novel?  It’s certainly not the Disney animated fantasy about a fawn in the forest and his furry friends, the precursor to Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Road Runner, and Yogi Bear.  It’s far too brutal for that. 

We all recall the hunter heartlessly killing Bambi’s mother or the human recklessness that touches off a forest fire, but the novel contains many other graphic gory incidents, including a crow killing a young hare, a female rabbit’s shooting, and a fox dismembering a pheasant.  

Nor does the novel celebrate family in the way that the Disney film does.  Unlike the movie’s celebration of domesticity, in the book, Bambi the buck abandons the doe Faline.

If Bambi isn’t simply an anthropomorphic forest fantasy, then what is it?  Is it best understood as one of many metaphorical accounts of orphanhood and abandonment and coming of age, a latter-day Bildungsroman set in a wooded Eden?  Is it the precursor to the wave of children’s books that call for environmental awareness and decry human threats to the natural world?  

Or, as the great scholar of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folklore Jack Zipes has recently argued, is the novel an indictment of antisemitism, an allegory about Jewish persecution, an anticipation of the Holocaust, and a prophesy of the destruction of European Jewry?

Schultz’s essay, in contrast, treats Bambi as a Social Darwinist parable told from the victims’ vantage point.  It becomes a story of domination, power, and ascendency on one side, and terror, trepidation, vulnerability, and defenselessness on the other.

I suspect more readers are interested in commentaries on fiction than in academic history, but you wouldn’t know this by looking at the popular press.  Just look at some recent issues of the Sunday New York Times Book Review or the Wall Street Journal.

Since the beginning of the new year, the reviewed books in history include a study of the planning of the “Final Solution,” the German response to defeat in World War II, the 1960 presidential election, the unsung participants in the American Revolution, the post office’s history, breakup letters to men in uniform, the war of Jenkins’ Ear, the spread of Hellenism, the march to World War II, the history of a fabled Muslim ruler, and a town study of Concord, Massachusetts during the early 19th century.  

In contrast, the non-fiction works on literature consist of a literary biography (of Dante) and a historical study of how the English language conquered the world.  Hmm.

It wasn’t always the case that works of history outstripped works of literary criticism. Merely listing the names of M.H. Abrams, Harold Bloom, Van Wyck Brooks, Malcolm Cowley, Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, Alred Kazin, Frank Kermode, Mary McCarthy, Edward Said, Diana Trilling, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, and Edmund Wilson reminds us of a time when if literary critics weren’t household names, they were well known to anyone with intellectual pretensions.

To be sure, there are still literary critics who remain widely admired, like William Deresiewicz, Terry Eagleton, Sandra Gilbert, Stephen Greenblatt, Daniel Mendelsohn, Joyce Carol Oates, Elaine Showalter, Paul Theroux, and Helen Vendler.  Then there are Henry Louis Gates and David Reynolds, but they are now more associated with history than literature.

.As an undergraduate, I majored in English and History, but when it came time to apply to graduate school, my English department mentor (a scholar of American Transcendentalism would later become a pioneer in the field of ecocriticism) advised me to study history, since there was no place for anyone with an interest in history in the day’s theory-focused literature departments.  (Litte did we know that the glimmers of the New Historicism were already emerging).

Please don’t consider this an implicit critique of literature’s theoretical turn as unduly abstract or jargon-ridden, or as mere frivolous skepticism.  I spent my graduate school years at deconstruction’s ground zero, Yale, and even though my friends in comparative literature dismissed me as a “dust ball empiricist,” their insights have stuck with me:

  •  that texts, words, and metaphysical concepts don’t have fixed meanings but rather possess multiple, often conflicting or contradictory, meanings.
  •  that the construction of meaning and of concepts is contingent, relational, dialogic, and contextual.
  • that binary dichotomies and dialectical oppositions are inevitably value-laden with one term implicitly privileged over the other.
  •  that language and even reason and logic need to be understood as instruments of power.

By treating “common sense” as naïve and unsophisticated, deconstruction challenged historians, in particular, to question the trustworthiness of frequently cited “facts,” problematize data, and handle evidence much more skeptically.  It also taught us to pay much more attention to the postmodernist concerns with subjectivity, intertextuality, intersectionality, and indeterminacy, to question essentialism, and to see institutions and cultural categories as social constructs.

However, for all of its conceptual advances, literary criticism did lose much of its popular audience, a readership that craves expert, learned, and fresh readings of older as well as newer texts, with interpretations grounded in rich research and informed by insights drawn from feminism, psychoanalysis, and written with clarity and panache

Prior to the 19th century emergence of the social sciences, whatever else it provided, literature offered the most profound understanding of the human condition, human emotions, and human relationships.  Within its pages one found a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and sociology (and sometimes history).

Seek not your understanding of grief or love or friendship or sexuality exclusively in the social sciences. Turn also to literature.  

But much as Dante needed Virgil to guide his journey through the Underworld, so readers, too, need expert guidance as they seek to draw out the full meaning of what they read.

Lay readers benefit from understanding:

  • How an author uses language, style, tone, and characterization to shape a reader’s response.   
  • How an author makes use of subtexts, allusions, and symbolism to give a text deeper meanings. 
  • How a work of literature examines the human condition, providing insights into human nature or love or families or growing up. 
  • The politics or the ideological system of beliefs and values and ideas that resides within a text. 
  • The cultural assumptions, about femininity or masculinity, whiteness or Blackness, civilization or nature, race or class, and whether the text supports the dominant views of its time or subverts them. 
  • The diverse ways that different readers might read and experience the text.
  • The social, political, and cultural context that enhances a text’s meaning.

To my friends in literature, do not forsake this responsibility.  Retrieve your readership.  Kathryn Schulz and Robert Gottleib’s essays will show you the way.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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