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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 646-652

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The Shape of Baym's Career

It is crucial for this symposium to recall how Nina Baym has been reviewed and read and how her work has challenged the way we write American literary history. In analyzing the shape of her career, however, I don't suggest that there was an early, a middle, or even a late or major Baym or attempt to create a narrative and a counternarrative of how her work has unfolded over four decades, for the work that she produced is seamless enough to appear as though she had the whole conception of her career in mind when she first began publishing. Cathy Davidson's review of Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America (1984) in 1985 is really prescient on the contours of Baym's career. Called "The Resisting Critic and the Politics of Reception," Davidson's piece brings Judith Fetterley's widely influential The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978) to bear on Baym's 1984 book, as well as William Cain's The Crisis in Criticism: Theory, Literature, and Reform in English Studies (1984). Davidson lauds Baym's project for compelling us to rethink literary history, particularly in an academic field where provocation and polemicism are to be desired. For Davidson, "If, as Baym suggests, it is less the popular reviewer than the professorial critic [who makes the canon], then perhaps we had better look closely at the politics of the academy in order to understand just how and to what end literary fortunes advance and decline in the academic marketplace" (288). Davidson's conditional logic no longer holds, since no one in this profession says "If" about Baym's conclusions anymore. Davidson concludes that Baym's work teaches us "just how persistently our theories of literature are self-reflexive, grounded mostly in their own constructs" (291).

Indeed, this is Baym's inaugurating lesson about how critics make meaning and why readers take pleasure in reading. To that end, no less a writer and reviewer than Henry James offers us a model to describe the shape of Baym's literary practice. Like James's "The Figure in the Carpet" (1896), Baym's writing dramatizes the stakes of reading literature and working through the critical misreadings that have shaped the profession. For me, it's the best pedagogical [End Page 646] lesson of her work, something she writes about in her 1995 essay "The Agony of Feminism"—a reference to the discord among various types of feminist critics and how to get beyond such agonizing contentions—to describe the particular kind of practical criticism that she employs (1–2). There, Baym argues for "the imperatives of practice" (3), by which she refers to the liberal feminist position that "women as a class in our culture have been denied access to and the means of producing knowledge" (4). What follows is my example of the practical, liberal, feminist criticism for which Baym urgently calls.

I turn to James's tale because it concerns how we interpret and what we choose to read: the narrator of the story is a literary critic who writes reviews for the journal The Middle, and his favorite author is Hugh Vereker, the supersubtle novelist who challenges the critic that he will never decipher the author's own intentions. Those intentions are variously referred to as the author's "figure in the carpet" (156) or "the string his pearls are strung on" (149), two tropes among James's most compelling metaphors for the interpretive process. Thus, James strings us along, too, with the search for some authorial meaning or intention, all the while suggesting that reading is ultimately about pleasure, not agony. The critic's best friend and fellow reviewer, George Corvick, cries "Eureka" (155) when he claims to discover the figure animating Vereker's entire corpus, thereby driving the narrator-critic to distraction. Corvick then marries the woman novelist with whom he has been keeping company but dies on his honeymoon before he can...


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