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Old-Fashioned Literary Criticism RobertJ.Begiebing.Acts of Regeneration: Allegoryand Arche(vpe in the Works of NormanMailer. Columbia and London: University of MissouriPress, 1980.209pp. AnthonyChannell Hilfer. The Ethics of Jntensitvin American Fiction. Austin and Londo~:Universityof Texas Press, 1981. 208+xiiipp. AlvinF.Kernan. The Imaginary Libra,y: An Essayon Literature and Society. Princeton: PrincetonUniversityPress, 1982.186pp. BurtonPike. The Image of the City in ModernLiterature. Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1981.168+ xv pp. Kenneth Probert Thesefour books unwittingly suggest that it may well be time that we heed the callofGeoffrey Hartman and others for a more philosophical literary criticism that will provide a new language to examine both classic and contemporary texts.All four competently examine the relationship between literary works and their milieux (be they philosophical, historical or social), but none illuminates any new critical avenues that might lead us away from the prevailingAnglo -American disinclination to investigate radically the relationship between text and society. To be fair, it must be said that only Kernan, in The Imaginary Library, explicitlyattempts to treat that relationship. His book is useful as an exegesis ofnovels by Bellow, Malamud, Nabokov and Mailer, but he also claims that it is an attempt to provide some "solid evidence of just how literature is immediately affected by and responds to social change" (p. 11).His argument keeps hinting that he will provide insights into the way literature reacts to the world in which it is created, but in the end he gives us only the familiar observation that a major revolution in that relationship took place in the eighteenth century and speculates that a revolution of similar magnitude is occurring today. He notes that during the earlier disruption literature ceased being an institution in the service of an aristocratic order and became an opposition to the newly-dominant middle class and its crass materialism, greed and debased cultural standards. The literary artist fancied himself a Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 15,Number 1,Spring 1984,93-98 94 Kenneth Probert messiah, a Prometheus, practicing his lonely but privileged trade, certain that his vision of true values, refined sensibilities, and right action was the valid one. Romanticism, in other words. Echoing others, Kernan believesthat this romantic confidence in the validity of art and the power of the artist continued unabated through the modern age until the latter half of this century. He argues both that today the anti-poetic powers of our culture frustrate romantic artistic confidence and that weno longer think of the world as a closed system in which we might regard an artist as a trustworthy guide to true paths but rather as a series of created systems, whose mapmakers might be varied indeed. Thus far, Kernan1 s analysisand methodology are unexceptional and unexceptionable. But having provided a reassuringly superficial series of glances at seminal advances in physics (relativity theory), linguistics (Saussure), and literary criticism (strucĀ· turalism, reader-response theory, deconstruction), he backs off from the methods suggested by those advances and from the contemporary literature that might mirror them and takes one step back. That is, he chooses as case studies for his approach novels by four of the best known practitioners of the more romantic art whose day,ifwe are to believehis analysis,is about done. In the end then, Kernan's study does not deliver all that one might hope. But although they can hardly serve as the promised model of a new kind of criticism, his readings of the four novels are illuminating. They also constitute a neat package; each book's protagonist is a frustrated writer who failsto triumph over one of the forces that the late twentieth century marshals against the would-be romantic artist. Humboldt finds his imaginative powers stymied bymaterialism inHumboldt's Gzft;Lesser's artistic mission is defeated bythe world's ugliness, fragmentation and hatred in The Tenants; Shade is unable to use language in any but a solipsistic manner in Pale Fire; and Aquarius1 literary imagination is unequal to the task of rendering the scientific rationalĀ· ism of the contemporary world in Of a Fire on the Moon. In each of the chapters on these novels Kernan interweaves an informative critical context that outlines...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 93-98
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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