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Reviewed by:
  • The Twentieth-Century Humanist Critics From Spitzer to Frye
  • Mary Anne O'Neil
The Twentieth-Century Humanist Critics From Spitzer to Frye, by William Calin; 267 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, $27.95.

In The Twentieth-Century Humanists from Spitzer to Frye, William Calin examines the contributions of eight scholar-critics who produced their most important work between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s, before the advent of contemporary critical theory. Five are from Continental Europe. Leo Spitzer, Robert Curtius and Erich Auerbach were German-language students of Romance literatures, while Albert Béguin and Jean Rousset, both speakers of French, were leading figures of the Geneva school. Calin also includes English-language scholars: the Oxford don C. S. Lewis, the American F. O. Mathiessen, and the Canadian Northrop Frye. Calin's goal is threefold. He wants to draw distinctions between the mid-twentieth century American New Critics, who rejected extra-textual approaches in their readings, and these eight men, all of whom brought a deep knowledge of classical and biblical literature, history and, often, philosophy, to their interpretation of texts. Secondly, he argues that all eight participate in the humanist tradition that extends from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century because they believed in the continuity of a unique Western culture and celebrated the power of great books of the Western world to liberate the individual and improve society. Finally, Calin appeals to contemporary literary theorists of many stripes—post-colonialists, queer theorists, feminists—to recognize these men as their predecessors, since they too fought culture wars of their own times by pitting themselves against dominant academic discourses. Ultimately, they succeeded in expanding the literary canon and opening literary study to a non-academic, generally educated audience.

Calin's book is divided into two parts, followed by extensive notes and an almost thirty-page bibliography of works on theory and general criticism as well as on the primary works of his subjects and the critical literature devoted to them. Part I consists of eight short chapters, one on each of the humanist critics. The chapters are brief, with the longest on Northrop Frye only twenty pages, and all follow a similar pattern that begins with an exposition of each scholar's contributions to the study of literature. He credits the philologist [End Page 260] Spitzer with revolutionary readings of Romance literatures from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, Curtius for demonstrating the centrality of the Middle Ages to European culture, and Auerbach for his work on the representation of reality from Homer to Virginia Woolf as well as for his application of biblical exegesis to the study of medieval texts. Beguin was among the first to trace the origins of modernism to post-1850 France and to identify the German Romantics as the predecessors of the French moderns. Rousset radically revised our understanding of the French seventeenth-century. C. S. Lewis introduced allegory, courtly love, and the quest as the underlying structures of medieval literature. Mathiessen invented American Studies while also placing American writers in the context of world literature. Frye's most noteworthy contribution was his demonstration of the centrality of the Bible to Western literature, a belief which led him to formulate a cyclical view of literary history. Calin examines each critic's works for evidence of a methodology. He concludes that only Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is a theoretical work. What guides all eight humanist critics is a love of literature. Calin's praise of Lewis as " a sensitive, passionate, committed reader of books" (p. 91) applies equally to the other seven men he studies. In the course of each chapter, Calin points out the affinities between his subjects and most schools of literary theory that have arisen since the 1970s, including reader response, narratology, intertextuality, structuralism, archetypal and Marxist criticism, and postcolonial studies. Finally, Calin resumes the critical literature on each of these writers and evaluates it objectively. Whatever their shortcomings, all eight were solid scholars who produced innovative interpretations and treated the texts they studied with generosity and respect. All performed "critiques des beautés and not a reading for evil" (p. 147), that is...


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