- Necrology: Milton Hindus, 1916–1998
In the preface to his Essays: Personal and Impersonal (1988), Milton Hindus spelled out the underlying principle of his life’s work: “My conviction is that the most important life is that of the mind, and if this does not transpire through all the writer’s work, then indeed he has written in vain.” 1 For Hindus, the task of the scholar was not only to illuminate a literary text or a historical era, but in doing so to express the scholar’s own subjective experience of the world. Hindus’s writing, wide in range and highly personal in nature, leaves an unusual record of the mind of this founding professor of Brandeis University, who died at the age of 81 on May 28, 1998, after collapsing just outside the campus to which he was so dedicated.
Milton Hindus was born in New York City on August 26, 1916, to Russian immigrant parents. Educated in the City College of the 1930s, he came into political and philosophical consciousness in an atmosphere of revolutionary thought and activity. Attracted in turn to socialist, communist, and Trotskyite ideas and organizations, Hindus began his work as a literary critic in a distinctly Marxist vein. But growing disillusionment in the late 1930s with the Soviet experiment and party politics in general led him to reevaluate his intellectual stance. He began to view literature as an entity that must be judged by strictly aesthetic standards, independent of both its creator and the historical context of its creation. He solidified this approach in his works on Marcel Proust (The Proustian Vision, 1954, and A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust, 1962), ultimately placing himself firmly in the school of the New Critics, but not before a personally and intellectually traumatic experience forced him to question this methodology.
In the early 1940s, Hindus found himself profoundly moved by the novels of French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline (nom de plum of Dr. Louis Destrouche). Céline’s bleak works Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan, with their savage force and nightmarish vision, seemed to the young critic to give voice to the horrors of the world at war around him. But Hindus’s subsequent discovery of the novelist’s virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets of the late 1930s shook him to the core. If aesthetic style was of paramount importance, as Hindus [End Page 349] had begun to believe, how could he praise the biting style of Céline’s novels yet denounce that same voice when it was used to attack Hindus’s own people in the pamphlets? Seeking to reconcile the novelist and the pamphleteer, the artist and the man, Hindus began a correspondence with Céline that extended from 1947 through 1949, reaching its crescendo with a series of meetings between the two in the summer of 1948 at Céline’s home in exile in Denmark. It was out of the painful face-to-face encounters between the Jewish intellectual and the anti-Semitic artist that Hindus wrote perhaps his most widely known and certainly most controversial work, Céline: The Crippled Giant (1950, 2nd edition 1997). This poignant and often tortured text is an attempt to understand and present “the thought and feelings of a man in his time by another man living in the same time and feeling almost drowned by it.” 2 It was ultimately a return to the idea of art as inspired by a source outside the artist that allowed Hindus to reaffirm his praise of Céline’s literary writings and to advocate for a stay in the author’s trial in France, where he had been charged with Nazi collaboration.
Despite changing critical trends, Professor Hindus retained this view of art and artists throughout his lengthy career. The role of the critic, he believed, was to comprehend and make known the aesthetic value of a text. His description of the philosopher Irving Babbitt, to whom he devoted his recent book Irving Babbitt, Literature, and the Democratic Culture (1994), could equally apply to Hindus: “[he] trie[d] to restore the word criticism to its...