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Reviewed by:
  • American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties
  • Grant Webster
Vincent B. Leitch. American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 458 pp. $45.00 cloth; pb. $17.95.

In his Introduction Vincent Leitch correctly notes that "there is no history of literary criticism covering the six decades from the thirties to the eighties." His book thus fills the need for an introduction to the whole period. This is a competent book; the summaries of critical arguments and various critical careers are clear, well-written, and (given their length) adequate. On the other hand, the movements and critics he examines have been studied in greater depth elsewhere, as he acknowledges in his Preface—Frank Lentricchia's chapter on phenomenology and existentialism in After the New Criticism, my own analysis of the New Critics and New York Intellectuals in The Republic of Letters, Leitch's own Deconstructive Criticism: an Advanced Introduction —all tell the story repeated here more fully, and perhaps better. And throughout, references are lacking to basic works of intellectual history that underlie what Leitch is examining; to cite only those dealing with "Perspectives on Myth in the Modern Era": William Bascom's articles on folklore and myth, Robert Ackerman's articles on the myth-ritual school and his book on Frazer, John B. Vickery's The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough, and [End Page 270] the several books of Eric A. Havelock on the oral tradition. So the book is only another advanced introduction in its citation of scholarship. Nevertheless it is useful to have one simple, coherent account of the whole critical scene in America.

Leitch believes that the history of criticism ought to be set in the context of "economic, social, political, cultural, and institutional history," and his structural device for doing this is to introduce his chapters with a two- to four-page summary of "relevant" historical material. Sometimes this works well; the Black Aesthetic is quite clearly related to the civil rights movement and Black Power in the Sixties. Sometimes the historical treatment is inadequate, as in the brief history of feminism. Sometimes the relationship is unclear or misleading, as when he introduces his chapter on hermeneutics with a four-page summary of the Vietnam war. Indeed, there seems to me a positive contradiction between the Sartrean existentialism developed in Nazi-occupied Paris and the Sputnik era of Ike and the suburban Fifties presented as its historical "cause." So the history of the relation of criticism and culture in the period remains to be written.

Leitch's analysis of the sociology of the profession posits a small "cadre of decently paid literary scholars located primarily at elite graduate schools," a group of unemployed gypsy scholars, and "a vast number of literature professors little by little spending more time teaching literacy at four-year and community colleges for substandard wages." Leitch sees his book as bridging the gap between theoreticians at elite schools and the untheoretical proles. This analysis is, I think, mistaken, because the determinant of critical positions is age, not where one teaches (as I argue in The Republic of Letters). Thus most scholars at elite institutions continue to do exactly what they were doing before the theoretical boom, and the (younger) proles are likely to be well informed about the theory recendy in fashion even though they are teaching in the boondocks. So the audience for the book is probably not proles seeking a glimpse of the inner Yale but graduate students wanting to swot up current critical theory.

There are a number of points of interpretation on which one might challenge Leitch. One might argue that Formalism lives on not because of attacks on it but because of its continuing pedagogical usefulness. I do not think Jung was influential on American critics until after the publications of the Bollingen Foundation in the Fifties. I think that Leitch's concession at the end of the chapters on feminism and black aesthetics that the tide of conservatism of Reagan (and Thatcher) has rendered radicalism historically obsolete should also be applied to the battle of Bate and humanists against Deconstruction. The current battle about...


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