Cawsey’s Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences offers a concise yet surprisingly comprehensive account of the major trends of Chaucer criticism during the twentieth century. She has effectively provided accurate and highly useful accounts of the major debates and figures and, as she mentions in her introduction, her audience of advanced undergraduate and graduate students will find this an invaluable introduction to the long and complicated history of Chaucer criticism that might otherwise appear as an impenetrable morass of endless books and articles.
Cawsey bases her readings of critical trends in Chaucer scholarship on her notion that Chaucer is “not only ... an author, but he is an audience, himself a reader of the classical and early medieval ‘auctors’” (2). She aims to demonstrate that, because “The importance of ideas of audience and reception to Chaucer’s writing has almost become a commonplace in Chaucer criticism, [there is] a parallel importance of ideas about audience for Chaucer scholarship itself” (4). This is a bold thesis and for the most part Cawsey successfully proves it with a series of six case studies on six individual Chaucer critics. To each of these six critics, Cawsey assigns a type of “reader” to represent that author’s contribution. The first author she addresses is George Lyman Kittredge (1860–1941), whom she labels “The Dramatic Reader.” According to Cawsey, Kittredge lived by “a fundamental rule as a critic [that] the author is always right” in the case of Chaucer (24). For Kittredge, according to Cawsey, there are two basic premises: “that Chaucer knew what he was doing, and that he was creating situations of realistic dramatic characterization” (25). Cawsey also argues that Kittredge expected critics and readers of Chaucer to agree with him, as his approach was the best available at the time. But Kittredge does attempt to rescue Chaucer’s age from “those who perceive the Middle Ages as blindly submissive to church structures and feudal hierarchies” (27). Indeed, this marks one of the more significant contributions to not only Chaucer studies but also medieval studies at large.
Cawsey turns her attention to the major concepts in Chaucer studies contributed by C. S. Lewis (1894–1963) in a chapter entitled “The Psychological Reader.” In this chapter Cawsey situates Lewis in the New Critical tradition of I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, and she labels Lewis as a “lone, but highly influential voice opposing” the New Critical ahistorical esteem of literature for literature’s sake (39). While the reader of Lewis may immediately wonder how Lewis, who wrote relatively little on Chaucer, fits into this study, Cawsey quickly addresses this question by arguing that his approach to Middle English literature at large still has relevance today. By analyzing Lewis’s two most important works, The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image, Cawsey successfully demonstrates how and why Lewis’s works have outlived him, both [End Page 172] in the context of Chaucer studies specifically and medieval and Renaissance studies at large.
The biggest strength of the book comes in her discussion of the legendary critical controversy between E. Talbot Donaldson (1910–1987) and D. W. Robertson (1914–1992), whom she labels “The Careful Reader” and “The Allegorical Reader,” respectively. This debate shaped Chaucer criticism for decades and Cawsey does an impressive job of negotiating the large number of studies that contributed to it. Donaldson’s “careful” reading of Chaucer, which stays true to New Critical trends of his time, has long outlasted the oppressive “allegorical” approach of Robertson, who vehemently argued that all medieval literature (and visual art for that matter) required readings informed by exegetical and moral exempla of the Augustinian tradition. Of particular value in these two chapters is Cawsey’s ability to maintain a completely objective stance despite dealing with one author who still holds relevance and his debate with an author whose approach has all but fallen by the wayside. Even during the decades in which the debate raged a label of “Robertsonian” had a bad connotation, and now such a label would be akin to abject name-calling.