American Critics at Work: Examinations of Contemporary Literary Theories

By Victor A. Kramer | Go to book overview

CHEAP THRILLS: LOST 'AUTHORITY'
AND ADVENTITIOUS AESTHETIC FRISSONS

by
Hershel Parker

Now that formalists have gone underground, few will come forth to testify to their belief in the certain authority of an uncertain literary text, that mystical source of power we used to call "the text itself." Academic journals where New Critics used to celebrate "imagery in" and "unity of" are now crowded with critics who exult in the authority of a subjective reader or the authority of an interpretive community over the poor remnants of the once omnipotent text; and jostling the subjectivists and the interpretive communards aside are the deconstructionists who propose to undermine all authority through essays they have humbly submitted to the whim of editorial boards. A handful of hermeneutists such as E. D. Hirsch (and his recent follower P. D. Juhl) and a dozen or two textualists still quaintly believe that literary authority comes, if at all, from the author, despite the widespread suspicion that he has perished somewhere during his prolonged banishment from literary discussion. As a textual scholar I belong to this small crew, content to wait out the fads until everyone comes back to the study of literature as the product of men and women living in particular times and subject to particular experiences and influences, literary and otherwise.

Yet intentionalist though I am, I hesitate to follow Hirsch in claiming without qualification that the meaning of a literary work cannot change, or to assert like Juhl that the meanings of textual details are always intended by the author. 1 In many of the standard American novels I am familiar with, authorial words evoke from the reader responses unintended by the author. The meanings which the authors built into their texts have been changed, and most of the changes are not only unin-

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