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Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism By Mark Royden Winchell University Press ofVirginia, 1996 510 pp. Cloth, $34.95 Reviewed by Michael Kreyling, professor of English at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Eudora Welty'sAchievement ofOrder, Figures ofthe Hero in Southern Narrative, and Author andAgent; Eudora Welty andDiarmuidRussell. He is currendy working on a book about the invention and reinventions of southern literature since the Agrarians. Cleanth Brooks (1906—1994)—in his later years when his hair had turned shiningly white and when, as his biographer Mark Royden Winchell amply notes, his blue eyes actually did seem to "twinkle"—bore a physical resemblance to Clarence Oddsbody, the angel sent to rescue George Bailey from despair and suicide in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful1'Jfe (1946). When Angel Clarence enters the story, George is in despair. Through a simple accident his savings & loan is about to crash, and he is sure he will be sent to jail. He wishes he'd never been born, and Clarence arranges for him to have his wish. Without George, Bedford Falls is unleavened materialism: usury, xenophobia, rampant failures ofcommunity on personal and civic levels. He pleads for his life back, and Clarence arranges it. The film ends in an orgy ofcommunity, all the more moving because we know it would never happen in "real life," holiday spirit or no holiday spirit. Winchell's rendition of Brooks's professional life within "the rise of modern criticism" hews to a similar plot. As "modern criticism" spirals down into what Winchell represents as an increasingly nihilistic and nonliterary discourse controlled by George Baileys like Paul de Man, Hillis Miller, Derrida, Stanley Fish, Gerald Graff, and even Northrop Frye, Brooks continues temperately to remind us of the special meaning accessible in and through literature. "Modern criticism " has leapt off the bridge with George; unlike Capra's Everyman it has not heeded Brooks's angelic call to sanity, belief, and meaning. Winchell's life of Brooks is primarily an intellectual history; that is, Brooks's published writings on literature function as the armature of the book. Each time a book is published in die chronology of the life, Winchell summarizes the argument , the critical reception ofthe argument, and closes with Brooks's response to his critics. Brooks's associations are also important to the literary history of which he is a major part. Accordingly, Winchell builds in periodic "detours" through the lives, works, and significance of Brooks's colleagues: the FugitiveReviews 7 5 Agrarian brotherhood with whom he was briefly associated at Vanderbilt, Robert Penn Warren as his colleague at Yale, and others. Seldom, though, do these detours supply information about or reconfigure the prevailing understanding of the ancillary figure or ofBrooks's relationship to him. The rationale for inclusion seems to be homage to a departed age and its heroic figures. Homage seems to be the impulse behind the retellings of Brooks's literary arguments as well. Douglas Bush, representing the old guard of historical scholarship in his work on Milton and others and the professional academic establishment as outgoing president of the Modern Language Association in 1948, is pummeled once again for his resistance to Brooks's work and the New Critical project as a whole. Brooks himself, in responses to Bush and other critics (responses that he seemed punctually and equably to deliver), seems less bent on kicking butt than Winchell does decades after the fact. This usage of Brooks as a kind of traditional champion in more contemporary critical battles—diat is, in batdes more or less joined after Brooks's retirement from Yale in 1 97 5 —seems to verge on the tendentious. More than once a post-New Criticism critic is scolded for diverging from the truth as Brooks delivered it. The most questionable of such accusations involves the complicated case ofPaul de Man. Revelations ofhis collaboration with the Nazi occupiers ofBelgium and ofhis desertion ofhis wife and family disallow, in Winchell's reckoning, all ofde Man's critical achievement. Brooks's support of Pound as deserving of the Böblingen Prize, on the grounds that critics must and should divide the maker from the thing made, seems not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 75-78
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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