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Frederick C. Stern. F. O. Matthiessen: Christian Socialist as Critic. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1981. 251 pp. $24.50 Considering the emphasis on close readings and historical background in F. O. Matthiessen's work, it is somewhat surprising that he has been the subject of numerous articles and two book-length studies, including the one under review here (a volume of his correspondence has been published as well). These studies attest to his role in establishing the academic respectability of American studies; the continued interest in him, however, can be attributed with equal justice to his importance as a teacher, impressively evident in a roll caU of his students: Leo Marx, Harry Levin, Henry Nash Smith, Joseph Summers, and, perhaps the most illustrious, Charles Olson. In addition to his obvious intellectual credentials, Matthiessen's character played a great part in his success as a teacher, and it is his character that underlies the interest his critical writings receive in Frederick C. Stern's F. O. Matthiessen : Christian Socialist as Critic. Stern foUows Giles Gunn, author of F. Q. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement, in combining critical analysis with a biographical study. Although this attention to Matthiessen's life testifies to his character, it also suggests that his criticism, which is a formalist and historical variety, does not support extended theoretical examination, unlike the work of such contemporaries of his as I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and William Empson. As Stern argues throughout his book, Matthiessen sought to combine the analytical techniques of the New Critics with the study of the inteUectual and social background of the writers he examined . Stern acknowledges that Matthiessen himself was not a theorist, but he insists, nevertheless, that Matthiessen's synthesis of formalist and historical concerns represents a major contribution to American culture because it points the way to making the study of Uterature responsive to social matters. Although Matthiessen's social consciousness may be appealing, it does not in itself make his books the continuaUy fresh works his partisans claim they are, however important they stiU are to students of American uterature, but confirms how deeply rooted they are in his times. Perhaps this is why Stern's book is most interesting as social and cultural history and has Uttle success as critical theory. Stern must assert in his conclusion that Matthiessen's achievement is "not a fully developed critical method, not a theory of uterature, but a group of exemplary works, the greatest virtue of which lie [sic] in their remarkable insights, in their profound appreciation of literature as a humanizing force, in their ability to 'make connections,' and in their freedom from most restraining intellectual or emotional a priori patterns" (246). The absence of a fully developed theory in Matthiessen's works is a virtue in Stern's eyes, and when he turns to Matthiessen's theory of tragedy, he criticizes it for being too rigid. He praises, however, Matthiessen's adaptation of Eliot's objective correlative. But it is Matthiessen's freedom from critical dogma that he most admires and that he credits as essential to Matthiessen's ability to appreciate authors such as Eliot and James with poUtical beUefs different from his own. The subjects of tragedy and the objective correlative receive the most sustained critical discussion. Stern pairs the Eliot and James books in a single chapter, although he has little to say about James, except insofar as he can be compared to Eliot. He quotes Matthiessen's remarks in The Achievement of T. S. Eliot that '"both Yeats and Eliot recognize that there can be no significance to Ufe, and hence no tragedy in the account of man's conflicts and his inevitable final defeat by death, unless it is fully realized that there is no such thing as good unless there is also evü, or evil unless there is good; that untü this double nature of life is understood by a man, he is doomed to waver between a groundless optimistic hopefulness and an equally chaotic, pointless despair'" (74). Despite the solemnity of the passage, its sentiments are unremarkable. It is Matthiessen 's tradition as a Christian that makes Volume VI 66 Number 1 The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 66-68
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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