Byline: William H. Pritchard, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Last year, the indefatigable John Haffenden brought out the first hefty volume of his two-part biography of the English critic and poet, William Empson (volume two will appear in December). In between, as it were, he has edited a generous selection of Empson's letters and done so with his usual painstaking thoroughness. This involves frequent inclusion of passages from letters and other writings by correspondents who provoked Empson into responding, usually at length and often repeatedly.
No collection of letters by any writer I'm aware of comes even close to matching these 50 years worth of continuing argument about literature, the criticism and teaching of which made up Empson's life. His criticism is to be found in such works as "Seven Types of Ambiguity" and "The Structure of Complex Words"; his teaching was done in Japan, in China, for many years at the University of Sheffield in England, and after retirement in brief stints at American universities.
This is not to say that the results are always edifying to the hard-working reader; maddening, is rather the word that more than once comes to mind. Sometimes the exchanges are about topics and matters that have ceased to hold interest …