- The Humanistic Heritage: Critical Theories of the English Novel from James to Hillis Miller
Daniel R. Schwarz, in The Humanistic Heritage, has written a useful and quite readable text that sets forth the major Anglo-American theories of the novel in the twentieth-century. Schwarz begins with the fiction criticism of Henry James and Percy Lubbock's codification of James's aesthetic in The Craft of Fiction (1921) and traces modern theory and practice of novel criticism from traditional formal approaches to deconstruction, including the following seminal works: E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel (1927); F. R. Leavis' The Great Tradition (1948); Van Ghent's The English Novel: Form and Function (1953); Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957); Auerbach's Mimesis (1953); Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957); Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961); Kermode's The Sense of an Ending (1967); Arnold Kettle and Raymond Williams' Marxist criticism; concluding with J. Hillis Miller's The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968) and Fiction and Repetition (1982). Drawing examples from the English novel since 1900, Schwarz demonstrates how the diverse critical schools approach the same texts. [End Page 655]
Schwarz's argument is essentially this: twentieth-century Anglo-American novel criticism is characterized by the tension between form and content. This tension, Schwarz contends, manifests itself in a dichotomy between a "formalist" aesthetic on the one hand (stemming from James) and an "empirical" reading of texts on the other, one which views fiction "as a mirror of human life" and which concerns itself with "how fiction shapes the reader." Schwarz argues quite convincingly that these traditions differ finally in degree, not in kind. He shows that in the dialogue between the critical emphases on text and reader that content and form come together, an inevitable fusion that suggests that critical schools are not as disparate as they might seem. Although Schwarz remains faithful to the essential differences in critical approaches, he argues for a humanistic pluralism, demonstrating that even in deconstructionism's claims for multiple readings there nonetheless exists a belief in textual meaning. The difference is in where meaning is located in a text—in the reader's response, in the irreconcilable paradoxes of the text, in its attempts at verisimilitude.
In arguing for an ideology of reading based on a humanistic critical heritage, Schwarz characterizes our critical heritage as one in which theory has been sacrificed for method. It is in this sense of the split between theory and method, or practicality, that I think Schwarz leaves himself open to objection. Schwarz seems to want to systemize practice, what he terms the humanistic heritage. The problem here is that theory does not necessarily consist of coherent, fixed systems, that, in fact, method becomes for the literary critic an expression of theory. Schwarz sees critical schools as incomplete systems and that only in combining them does a whole, unified critical corpus emerge. This would seem to imply that theory precedes method, an arguable premise at best.
Schwarz does, however, raise compelling and important questions, and although one might argue that his overview is merely a conventional reading of critical pluralism, The Humanistic Heritage presents, nonetheless, a lucid synthesis of disparate yet, as he illustrates, related critical approaches to the novel and to the study of fiction.