Literature's Death, Greatly Exaggerated

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 23, 1997 | Go to article overview

Literature's Death, Greatly Exaggerated


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Reviewing "Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections" last week, I compared the American critic and writer with Samuel Johnson, borrowing - as memory served at the time - from Lewis M. Dabney's introductory essay to the book. But my debt to another author actually was greater: Richard B. Schwartz, whose new book, "After the Death of Literature," I also had just read.

Mr. Schwartz, who is professor of English and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University, does not invoke Johnson's memory only to flatter Wilson or the "public intellectual" as a lost breed in American letters. He mobilizes the Great Cham and marches him into battle in the culture wars, bringing to the task personal interests that combine 18th-century thought, 20th-century popular culture and contemporary genre fiction - a broad enough range to have warranted the approval of Wilson or Johnson in their time.

The author of four books on Johnson and his London, plus a novel and more, Mr. Schwartz sees in his champion the greatest critic since Aristotle and the exemplar of a view of literature as contributing to our larger lives, rather than standing alone on its own aesthetic ground or becoming fodder for theoreticians and other professional specialists. Its main purpose is to help us endure life and (especially in a "still-Puritan America") enjoy it.

The Johnsonian critic works empirically and through comparison of original works after very wide reading. Johnson himself enjoyed popular romances, saying, in a characteristic instance of his favoring society over pure reason, that they taught him things about how people live. The attitude is populist rather than aristocratic; it anticipates what we think of as social history and represents a new class of writers in 18th-century England, the ones opposed by Pope in his "Dunciad" and by the so-called Scriblerians.

Johnson predates the romantic rebellion, which to Mr. Schwartz was an "attempted interruption of this process of moving from Literature to Writing, a substitution of intellectual elitism for social elitism." Here the reader may think of Byron and his concern for recognition of his noble rank first and poetry second, but Mr. Schwartz has a more original candidate to hand in James Boswell, Johnson's friend and sidekick, rating him "a bona fide `pre-romantic,' a solipsist who is also a reactionary with a sweet tooth for sentimentalized feudalism." Mr. Schwartz, it should now be clear, is a lively writer.

The roots and legacy of the romantic movement were notably analyzed by Edmund Wilson in his 1931 book, "Axel's Castle." Mr. Schwartz' finds a parallel in the modern academy's building itself an "Axel's tower" to retreat into and shut out the world. His indictement of university English departments is sweeping and deep:

"Within the vocabulary of the literary academy, the outside world can be considered to include, among other things, the creative process of the writer, the response to literature of the common reader, the intellectual and cultural concerns of the general public, the views of the journalist, the true educational needs of the country, and the real practice of real politics, including active participation in the process at the national level."

(On the last point there, Mr. Schwartz gets a smile from his reader, first noting that in other countries Vaclav Havel and Mario Vargas Llosa have had roles in public life, then imagining our sending William Styron, John Barth or Thomas Pynchon to negotiate a treaty or stand for governor of a major state.)

Mr. Schwartz acknowledges his own borrowings, including from Brian McCrea's 1990 book "Addison and Steele are Dead," where it was argued that the modern English department eschews any social revelance, spends more time talking about how work is done than doing it, and is endlessly hospitable to the questioning of meanings but intolerant toward consideration of values. …

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