The Image of the Work: Essays in Criticism

By B. H. Lehman | Go to book overview

PREFACE

AN INJUNCTION, by Benjamin Harrison Lehman to his students best summarizes the exacting task of the critical reader and what he may hope to accomplish for "the image of the work":

Raise the whole work of literature in the remembering mind. See and study it as a solid reality, a universe of human manifestations functioning in a created environment of sufficient density to sustain the manifestations and the human beings. Consider the work in the light of the times it was written in, the author's demonstrable preoccupations, ideas, and attitudes, and the tradition of form in relation or reaction to which it was conceived. What one says of the work of literature under these conditions of studious application should describe it as a work with characteristic qualities and attributes of its own and with all its relationships delineated.

One who thus stresses the work as the primary entity, whether he dwells on that work or goes on to more general statements about many works, commits himself to a certain mode of reading. He is, as Virginia Woolf says, obliged "to receive impressions with the utmost understanding"; he "banishes preconceptions," becomes his author's "fellow worker and accomplice." The result will be a heightened sensitivity and regard for the peculiar character of the world created by the author. The "personal, direct impression of life," which constitutes the value of the work is the reader's particular concern. To comprehend a piece of writing in this fashion is neither easy nor wholly possible; as Lubbock remarks in the beginning of The Craft of Fiction,

To grasp the shadowy and fantasmal form of a book, to hold it fast, to turn it over and survey it at leisure--that is the effort of a critic of books, and it is perpetually defeated. . . . Of a novel, for instance, that

-v-

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