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E pluribus one loved folly: Observations on American Criticism John F. Lynen, The Design of the Present. Yale University Press, 1969. $13.75. 456 pp. Joel Porte, The Romance in America. Wesleyan University Press, 1969. $8.00. 235 pp. GEOFFREY RANS Critics of American literature have, over the last twenty years especially, developed megalomaniac tendencies; for many of them nothing less than an overview will suffice as a frame for their remarks on individual authors. Two recent volumes exemplify the trend. Both show the way in which overviews usually produce overkill. The heart sinks as Joel Porte curtseys to Professors Fiedler, Feidelson, R. W. B. Lewis, Chase, Levin, and Hoffman. Even as he explains how his study differs from the others', he makes it sound depressingly the same sort of thing. I would not want to maintain that American writers did not face the power of blackness, or show interest in America as a possible Eden, or make myth (significant), or show a metaphysical concern with the relationship of the immediate with the eternal. What happens so often is that the critic places his awareness of themes embodied in literature above the literature itself; literature is put at the service of the critic rather than the other way around. Paul Elmer More's concluding remark in a review of the Harrison edition of Poe and Woodberry's Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1904 arises clearly out of his discussion of the two authors., and appears to me just as suggestive and stimulating as several whole volumes of recent criticism - it is also much more modest: that which to the earlier Fathers was a matter of infinite concern, that which to them was more real and urgent than the breath of life, becomes now chiefly an intoxicant of the imagination, and in another generation [after Freneau] the transition is complete. It is this precisely that we understand by the term "weird" - not the veritable vision of unearthly things, but the peculiar half vision inherited by the soul when faith has waned and the imagination prolongs the old sensations in a shadowy involuntary life of its own; and herein too lies the field of true and effective symbolism. If Hawthorne and Poe, as we think, possess an element of force and realism such as Tieck and the German school utterly lack, it is because they write from the depths of this profound moral experience of their people. The advantages of the overview are these: an illusion of comprehensiveness that is made to favour a rather whimsical selection (given their topics, how Messrs Lynen and Porte manage to say so little of Emerson THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. II, NO. 1, SPRING 1971 is puzzling); freedom from the obligations of scholarship imposed by more traditional conventions of writing literary history; the ignoring of minor writers and regional writers who might amplify, vary, or (God forbid!) discompose the monochromatic picture presented; freedom from obligations to the whole work of an author; the luxury of self-importance - those long passages celebrating the perceptiveness of the critic rather than his perceptions about the work in hand are a serious fault in Mr. Lynen's book; his argument is not that difficult. Lynen's position is this: selfhood has been the great argument of American poetry since its beginning in Puritanism, which, through its doctrine of grace, defined literary action as selfexamination . By the mid-nineteenth century the changes wrought by the age of Edwards and Franklin had had their effect, and the question of the self's election had been transformed into the scarcely less urgent or interesting question of its reality .... For both poets [Poe and Whitman], as for the best American authors before them, the self is revealed in a present whose nature is manifest through its commerce with the eternal. ... It is still a question of the eternally real and the momentarily experienced, of the intersection of the timeless and time, of the eternal plan which contains the present and is yet contained by it. This is clear enough, and he knows the dangers of the position: "that in seeking what is American, one may lose sight of what is simply human." Given...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 53-61
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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