John Freeman on criticising the critics
The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood By James Ley Bloomsbury, 240pp, $39.99
JUST when you think critics must be among the most tedious people on the planet, along comes a book such as James Ley’s The Critic in the Modern World to gently remind you this is not the case. Critics, like writers, are irreverent, selfobsessed men and women trapped in the same meat comets in which we all arrow into the world. Samuel Johnson had squinty eyes, a horrifically ugly face and boarded a retired prostitute in his London home for years. William Hazlitt died broke in a Soho rooming house, his last words as acidly ironic as much of his prose: “Well, I’ve had a happy life.” Matthew Arnold fired back at his critics like a blogger of today. TS Eliot wrote some of his nastiest reviews while his life was falling down in flames.
Such details, sparingly used but gloriously deployed, rescue The Critic in the Modern World from being the kind of earnest book reviewers will read and underline and argue with in their sleep. The act of criticising, which Eliot argued came to us as natural as breathing, these days reduced in many forms to “liking” and “sharing”, came from somewhere, and Ley charts its evolution through the lives of six major figures.
The six are the aforementioned Johnson, Hazlitt, Arnold, and Eliot, plus Lionel Trilling and James Wood of The New Yorker, who is seen by many as the leading contemporary critic. Ley himself is a prominent critic and editor of the Sydney Review of Books. The six are notable, he says, for becoming figures — not just bylines — who thrust themselves to the centre of cultural debate and reinvented its terms.
Still, here is a good place to quibble with Ley’s parameters. Surely in the three centuries he considers a woman has made a mark: Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Zadie Smith? Or someone of colour? James Baldwin?
By not including any such figures, Ley loses the opportunity to comment on changes in writing, its use as a tool of witness and artistry, that feel essential to literary culture today. Surely there is some relationship between the erosion of respect in critical authority and the recent expansion in the numbers and types of voices who have entered the critical fray. Baldwin and Smith, for reasons other than their colour, have found themselves at the centre of these debates, as did Woolf or Edward Said.
No matter; Ley has chosen his lot and reads their works and lives with a thoroughness that borders on the forensic. Most impressively, he tracks the arc of criticism across a shifting field of time and history.
In the book’s beginning, the right to vote and literacy were not givens. God was, however, for most people. There was no middle class. The English language had little consistency. The novel had just been invented. Newspapers didn’t exist, not as we conceive of them. By the book’s end, all of these things have changed, perhaps with the exception of newspapers’ rapid decline. Threading a line through all these ruptures requires a nimbleness and authority that Ley wields with rapier confidence.
He is clearly fonder of some figures than others. Each chapter reads like a nonfiction novella, during which one watches the critic at hand develop and defend their central concerns. After Ley’s section on Johnson, one wants to read about him, rather than his work; whereas I defy someone to read his chapter on Hazlitt without rushing out to buy a copy of The Spirit of the Age.
Ley’s essay on Wood has similar effect. Meanwhile, he loathes Eliot, whom he damns with quotation. The finer writers fare better here, which is fitting effect for a book about the gap between the idea of criticism and its practice. Across the 300 years Ley covers, criticism became publicly consumed, it became a performance — especially with Hazlitt — of character, and the writers who have the energy and skill to dramatise this struggle have stood the test of time.
On occasion, Ley’s writing suffers in comparison to that of his subjects. Navigating the densest thickets of ideas and cultural change, he has a habit of using passive sentence constructions, like a man trying to back through a nest of bushes and not expose himself to thorns. In one paragraph on Trilling, the word “is” appears 10
HE TRACKS THE ARC OF CRITICISM ACROSS A SHIFTING FIELD
times, forcing the reader to truffle hunt his sentences for the relationship between the subject and the verb — the source of force and action. Like academic theoreticians, this crutch becomes a way to simply declare things as such — “our culture is divided against itself” — without exploring the more complicated reasons they were or are so, which of course would lay such parentheticals open to debate.
The strongest chapter in the book covers Eliot, on whom Ley performs a devastating close reading. Happily, his language here moves with taut fury. He does not fuss about, nor does he belabour, the poet’s anti-Semitism, which is well-documented. Instead, Ley focuses on the critic’s patrician tone, his manipulation of irony and the way he used both to “grant him the freedom to be sincere”. His “basic critical method”, Ley argues, was to “assert the priority of his values”. This was accomplished through “a display of critical plumage”, a tone of comprehensiveness and slight derision. Yet Ley shows how Eliot was in fact anything but comprehensive. He was Arnold in disguise, thrusting his ideas about culture to the fore, even if they would have very much disagreed.
One of the greatest pleasures of The Critic in the Modern World emerges halfway through the book. The instincts and arguments of these six critics, through virtue of Ley’s intense description, develop an almost planetary orbit. The prerogatives of early critics, from correctness and spiritual uplift (Johnson) to a focus on effects (Hazlitt), return and in other figures (Arnold and Wood) sail by at new angles. Arnold backtracked towards uplift to democratise the notion of culture. This was, after all, the first Oxford don to lecture in English, rather than Latin. He needed to approach culture with a religious sense of order so as to expand it. Arnold “assumes it is simply not possible to be complacent about cultural issues, to regard social order and the manifestations of culture as natural or timeless”.
This is a radical idea, but it would have been far more interesting to connect this to the rise of identity-based politics in the 1950s through Baldwin, than to Trilling, in whose work ones sees a harking back to Johnsonian values of balance and order and moderation. And how interesting would it have been to compare a radical, gay ex-preacher such as Baldwin with a writer such as Wood, who is an atheist, but hardly radical?
Aside from missed opportunities such as this, Ley has done something remarkable with this little book. Without over-relying on the biographical, he shows how much is at stake in the posture of critic. He has taken six well-known figures and revealed how, in their own way, patrician, slovenly, reserved or pugnacious, they created the platform that is so broad and free now, we can almost take it for granted.
From left, William Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, James Wood and TS Eliot, below