Revisitations: Kiely's Literary Criticism

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Benedict Kiely's most sustained critical achievement was his slim book, Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique (1950), a survey of Irish novels and story collections published between roughly 1918 and 1948 (though with some backward looks). The survey has all the energetic briskness of a young critic simultaneously engaged on his own aspiring first additions to the body of Irish fiction; indeed, the critique appears to have been written while the first novels, Land without Stars (1946) and In a Harbour Green (1949) were in the process of being written or being published. His was the earliest critical harvesting of post-Independence Irish fiction and one gathered by a would-be professional writer rather than a professional critic, of whom there were very few in Ireland in 1949 when the book would have gone to press.

Simply as a survey of Irish fiction by writers other (and later) than the great names of the recent Revival (James Joyce, James Stephens, George Moore), Modern Irish Fiction would have been pioneering. This must have been the first time that authors such as Brinsley MacNamara, Francis MacManus, and Forrest Reid were given a hard-backed critique. Kiely was writing not only before Irish Studies was a recognizable 'field' (a word that would have been exotic in 1950) but also before extended native criticism of Irish writing had got fairly into its independent stride. Writing between the 1890s and the 1930s, Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, W.P. Ryan, John Eglinton (W.K. Magee), Stephen Gwynn, Daniel Corkery, and Ernest Boyd represented the first wave of Irish critics and literary historians self-consciously devoting themselves to Irish literature. But these were primarily poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, portraitists, or literary missionaries, and only Boyd's Ireland's Literary Renaissance, published in 1916 before the author emigrated to the United States in 1920, kept its eye firmly on the works under scrutiny. The professional (and professionalized), dedicated, and campus-based Irish criticism of Roger McHugh, Maurice Harmon, and Augustine Martin was half a generation away in the future from Modern Irish Fiction while the American Thomas Flanagan's scholarly monograph, The Irish Novelists (1959), was a decade away. Kiely as a critic established and inhabited a kind of historical no-man's land between the Revival enthusiasts and these soberer lecturers and researchers; he gave himself greater leeway than academics in the conduct of his arguments and use of 'secondary sources'. He had a Yeatsian casualness about the merely factual, especially dates: it was the spirit of the times, like the spirit of place, that gripped him. The result was that his criticism is stimulating and expeditionary rather than exhaustive or conclusive. Take away Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Revival as subjects, though, and the loneliness of book-length Irish critical surveys even in mid-century is made apparent. Certainly no one had surveyed the post-Revival fictive landscape before Kiely. He rightly called Modern Irish Fiction 'to a large extent a journey across uncharted country', (1) a metaphor that as we shall see has a particular pulse in Kiely's attitude to life as well as literature.

Kiely's criticism sprang from his own voracious reading and fiction-writing, and from heated and witty discussions in pubs, libraries, and newspaper offices: various scenes in Ulysses and At Swim-Two-Birds might give us some sense of the critical incubation. Here, I think, are the sources of the oral and highly readable qualities of Kiely's criticism. Kiely having been a student from the country and having come up to Dublin from Co. Tyrone, it was perhaps inevitable that he would discover William Carleton. Yeats after all had famously awarded Carleton the Celtic palm, and Kiely would have known that, even if before he left Omagh he had not already heard of his legendary fellow Clogher-Valley man by word of mouth. Inevitable, too, that he would find lively vestiges of Carleton's rough-and-tumble Dublin with its contentious journals and fierce disputes. …