Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader

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Christopher J. Knight. Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003. Pp. xiii, 506. $50.00 cloth.

This compendious and well written book is a valuable addition to UTP's new series, Studies in Book and Print Culture. Its very thoroughness may make it unattractive to anyone but the academic reader, but it deserves careful consideration by such readers at a time of volatility and vulnerability in the humanities in general and literary studies in particular. Like histories of academic institutions and disciplines, studies of the oeuvres of eminent scholars help us to situate the challenges of the present, if not to solve them. Having read this book, I have a much clearer sense of why the three scholars it features have written as they have. However, I continue to be dismayed by parts of Knight's argument and the imperturbable masculinity and Eurocentrism of his focus. Many young literary scholars (and regular readers of ARIEL) may well take one look at the cover and title of this book and dismiss it, and the series in which it features, as intolerably reactionary. That would be a pity, because we can learn much from our predecessors and those who do think differently than we do. But it is also fair to say that a book of this sort seems bizarre, parochial, even uncommonly smug in its notions of the common and the uncommon at a time when Englishes of various sorts--critical, creative, demotic, refined--are helping redraw the map of literary and critical accomplishment and redefine notions of centre and periphery. Yet for some, established patterns of cultural enclosure are no longer enough; even the cultural commons requires sovereign sensibilities prescribing levels and rituals of devotion to 'the' canon.

Knight begins with Lionel Trilling's allegiance to cultural continuity and the fact that culture has in recent decades been seen as the site of rupture and discontinuity. This latter tendency is tracked through the MLA in a way consistent with the Amero- and Anglocentric emphases of what follows. The opening moves are deeply problematic in their attempt to protect the privileges of imagination from those allegedly "most accessible determinants" (4) of the literary--race, class, and gender--as though the latter three categories are instantly intelligible, relatively uncontested, and largely predictable in their shaping of creation and interpretation. Knight locates himself with Trilling "in the middle of things" (5), as though one is free to choose one's socio-aesthetic location, in this case a discreetly epic one within the critic's version of in medias res. Knight continues: "what we find and most value in Trilling ... is a criticism characterized by a willingness to reside in contradictions, to review and take responsibility for conveying a host of viewpoints, not all of which the critic finds congenial, but which nevertheless enhance the critic's own best sense that final determinations should be kept in abeyance as long as possible" (5). The diseases here are sectarian and reductive reading; and the cures are a kind of critical negative capability, a patience allegedly more purposive and productive than Derridean differance, and "a method of comprehension" on its way to modest forms of determinacy and mastery. …