American Critics at Work: Examinations of Contemporary Literary Theories

By Victor A. Kramer | Go to book overview

John Berryman said when he encountered a nonsensical passage in the last chapter of Red Badge: "But then comes a sentence in which I simply do not believe." 19 Berryman did not know why the sentence was not to be believed, did not know that for meaning it depends upon something which was deleted, but he knew it violated the pattern Crane had set up earlier in the novel. In other cases readers sympathetically alert may experience at least some subliminal uneasiness with a flawed text, may find themselves stopping and turning back to discover some lost clue, some link they think they must have dropped, may even find themselves looking for some textual explanation for an intrusive anomaly. We need to be armed with sympathetic, skeptical alertness when we read, for if cheap thrills abound in the texts of the novels I have discussed, and abound in many more I could list ( Moby-Dick, Pierre, Billy Budd, Sailor, Huckleberry Finn, The Ambassadors, The "Genius", The Great Gatsby, Satoris, to name some obvious American examples), what about the novels for which no textual history has been established, or those for which almost no textual history can be established? What reason do we have to think that there are no such comparably adventitious aesthetic effects in other books we all pride ourselves on reading well, and criticizing brilliantly?


NOTES
1.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation ( New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 6-10; P. D. Juhl, Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism ( Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 129-35.
2.
John W. Nichol, "Melville's 'Soiled Fish of the Sea",' American Literature, 21 ( November 1949), pp. 338-39.
3.
See, for an overview, Hershel Parker, "The 'New Scholarship': Textual Evidence and Its Implications for Criticism, Literary Theory, and Aesthetics", Studies in American Fiction, 9 ( Autumn 1981), pp. 181-

-331-

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