Pet­ted and Fussed Over: Emp­son and Amer­ica

The London Magazine - - TONY ROBERTS - Tony Roberts

Wil­liam Emp­son (1906-84) had just the right level of English ec­cen­tric­ity to be the de­light of friends and biog­ra­phers. His neck beard, bo­hemian habits and un­con­ven­tional mar­riage were worth a thou­sand anec­dotes, al­though what gives the man his post­hu­mous stay­ing power, of course, is his bril­liance as a critic and poet. Frank Ker­mode once wrote of those who ‘ex­pe­ri­enced the ex­hil­a­ra­tion and dar­ing of Emp­son’s early books’ – Seven Types of Am­bi­gu­ity (1930), Some Ver­sions of Pas­toral (1935) and The Struc­ture of Com­plex Words (1951). For thirty-five years Emp­son made fre­quent vis­its to Amer­ica and it was there he made his rep­u­ta­tion as a teacher, af­ter early fame and no­to­ri­ety in Eng­land. Amer­ica also en­abled him to re­fine his ideas, pro­moted his po­etry and played a re­cur­ring fi­nan­cial role in Emp­son’s life from the end of the war on­wards.

Af­ter an ini­tial 1938 visit, Emp­son held seven lu­cra­tive ap­point­ments in the United States be­tween 1948 and 1982, mostly teach­ing sum­mer schools at uni­ver­si­ties there. He also con­trib­uted ar­ti­cles to pres­ti­gious Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tions. What ap­pealed to Emp­son’s hosts were his im­mense tal­ent, his pro­found se­ri­ous­ness about art, his good hu­mour and his thor­oughly Bri­tish ec­cen­tric­ity (with its East Asian flour­ishes). What ap­pealed to Emp­son about Amer­ica – salary aside – was the readi­ness with which aca­demics and stu­dents em­braced him and his ideas. Emp­son’s cru­sad­ing study of the am­bi­gu­i­ties in lan­guage had helped cre­ate the crit­i­cal spirit of the time, for the close read­ing of a text (called New Crit­i­cism) had be­gun to sweep cam­puses.

The leg­end came ear­lier and at Cam­bridge, where Emp­son switched from math­e­mat­ics to study with I. A. Richards, who had brought rigour to the pur­suit of prin­ci­ples of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. This gave a sci­en­tific sheen to a sub­ject many felt had hith­erto lolled in sub­jec­tiv­ity and was to in­flu­ence

all that fol­lowed in the lit­er­ary crit­i­cism of Eng­land and Amer­ica. As Richards’s stu­dent, Emp­son was en­cour­aged to fol­low his in­stinct in pur­su­ing al­ter­na­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tions of lines in a text. He saw ev­ery­where what he called ‘am­bi­gu­ity’ (‘any ver­bal nu­ance, how­ever slight, which gives room for al­ter­na­tive re­ac­tions to the same piece of lan­guage’). He ex­plored it – along with puns and para­dox – in canon­i­cal texts ar­riv­ing at (loosely) seven types. His pub­lished re­sult made his name at twenty-four years of age.

When con­doms were dis­cov­ered in his rooms at Cam­bridge in July 1929 the news played to his no­to­ri­ety. The in­ci­dent led to ru­mours, in­clud­ing one that Emp­son had capped his can­dles with con­doms. More se­ri­ously, it de­prived him of his fel­low­ship. Briefly set­ting up in Lon­don as a free­lance writer, Emp­son met no­table lit­er­ary fig­ures like T. S. Eliot and Vir­ginia Woolf be­fore tak­ing up teach­ing posts in Tokyo the fol­low­ing year and – af­ter a re­turn to home to jour­nal­ism – in China later in the 1930s, where he en­tered into the uni­ver­sity’s ex­ile brought on by the Ja­panese in­va­sion. Jan­uary 1939 saw Emp­son back in Eng­land, and then war ser­vice (with Ge­orge Or­well at the BBC). He mar­ried the South African artist Hetta Crouse in 1941. They re­turned to teach­ing in Pek­ing from 194752, wit­ness­ing the Com­mu­nist takeover, of which Emp­son ap­proved. In au­tumn 1953 Emp­son took up the Chair of English Lit­er­a­ture at Sh­effield Uni­ver­sity, which he would hold un­til his re­tire­ment eigh­teen years later and from which he would emerge for North Amer­i­can sab­bat­i­cals. His pub­li­ca­tions and awards were many, in­clud­ing a knight­hood in 1979, five years be­fore his death.

Emp­son’s ec­cen­tric­ity was no doubt one as­pect of his suc­cess as a teacher, par­tic­u­larly in the U.S.A where he con­formed to a Bri­tish stereo­type, be­ing by birth a mem­ber of the York­shire gen­try. Al Al­varez re­mem­bered, in his highly en­ter­tain­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Where Did it All Go Right? (1999), a dis­il­lu­sion­ing meet­ing with his idol in 1950 Ox­ford:

He may have hated be­ing back in Eng­land, yet he was a pe­cu­liarly English fig­ure, bony and bleak and abrupt, more like a coun­try squire

than a poet and in­tel­lec­tual. What set him apart was the strange, Chi­nese-style beard... He spoke hardly at all [to the stu­dent so­ci­ety] and when he did his voice was so squeezed and plung­ing that it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to un­der­stand.’

To his friend, the poet Kath­leen Raine, the in­fa­mous neck beard re­vealed ‘the in­stinct for [a] man­darin form of bar­bar­ity’. An­other as­pect of Emp­son’s ec­cen­tric­ity was a life­long tol­er­ance for do­mes­tic chaos. Raine con­fessed to Ed­mund Wil­son that on one visit ‘she had picked up a book that had the spine of a kip­per for a book­mark’. The Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor/ pub­lisher, Steven L. Isen­berg was treated to a Bloody Mary.

Emp­son picked out of the kitchen sink three large glasses that may have been washed within the week. On the counter was a large open can of tomato juice with a rusted top. He poured juice into each glass and, af­ter that, gen­er­ous amounts of some­thing that could have been ei­ther gin or vodka – I couldn’t see. Then he sprin­kled on some­thing that might have been Worces­ter­shire sauce and from a bin dredged up browned cel­ery stalks. And then he stood back to ad­mire his work and re­peat­edly stretched and fanned his pants.

Emp­son’s let­ters tes­tify also to his renowned wit and blunt­ness. A fu­ri­ous T.S. Eliot re­sponded to one con­cern­ing Amer­i­can publication rights, de­scrib­ing it as ‘the most in­sult­ing let­ter which I have ever re­ceived.’ An­other, to his friend and for­mer stu­dent Christo­pher Ricks be­gins, ‘It is ex­tremely kind of you to send me this hor­ri­ble book’. He thanked poet and critic Ge­orge Fraser in the fol­low­ing terms: ‘Your lit­tle book on Pound is very much bet­ter than your usual work, Ge­orge… a good lit­tle book, in fact…not that it ac­tu­ally makes me want to read the old boy, again!’ Emp­son was equally frank about col­leagues (‘What a puz­zling case [A.L.] Rowse is; one might think he was go­ing off his head.’) and read­ily ar­gu­men­ta­tive. In an ex­change with Stephen Spender about ‘En­counter’ and CIA fund­ing, he wrote to the poet: ‘I thought “Poor old Spender; though never a sen­si­ble man I could like at all, he never de­served such a grisly end as hav­ing to get his bread from such nas­ti­ness as all that amounts to.”’

Emp­son de­scribed his own pro­fes­sional ter­ri­tory in an ar­ti­cle in the Kenyon Re­view in au­tumn, 1950:

The kind of crit­i­cism that most in­ter­ests me, ver­bal anal­y­sis or what­ever one calls it, is con­cerned to ex­am­ine what goes on al­ready in the mind of a fit reader; some­times bring­ing it up from lev­els of un­con­scious­ness deep enough to make it look sur­pris­ing, but even so not ex­pected to make much dif­fer­ence to the feel­ings of the fit reader af­ter he has got over this sur­prise.

He liked to go about his busi­ness as a critic, trust­ing ‘his nose, like the hunt­ing dog’ but in­creas­ingly he felt the need to en­gage with what oth­ers were do­ing, those he deemed bound by Chris­tian ide­ol­ogy. Af­ter his re­turn from China, he felt that he was teach­ing in a crit­i­cal at­mos­phere that favoured this ‘neo-Chris­tian move­ment’, a po­si­tion heav­ily in­flu­enced by em­i­nent crit­ics like T.S. Eliot and young acolytes like the New Crit­ics (Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor-editors like Allen Tate, Robert Penn War­ren and Cleanth Brooks). Eliot had been a won­der­ful in­flu­ence up to a point (‘like most other verse writ­ers of my gen­er­a­tion, I do not know for cer­tain how much of my own mind [Eliot] in­vented’ he wrote for a 1948 sym­po­sium). How­ever, he felt in Eliot’s case that poets such as Donne and Mil­ton were mis­rep­re­sented that, as his bi­og­ra­pher John Haf­fenden ex­plained:

Chris­tian lit­er­ary crit­ics…in­sult­ingly re­duce to pi­ous para­dox all too many pro­duc­tions of com­plex men­tal strug­gles; they of­fend au­tho­rial in­tegrity by bleed­ing works of lit­er­a­ture of their ra­tio­nal con­flicts and moral re­sis­tances.

In a re­cent TLS re­view David Hawkes ar­gued–push­ing a case rather hard – that since Emp­son’s aca­demic ca­reer in Eng­land had been blighted for many years by the con­dom de­ba­cle at Cam­bridge:

he re­tal­i­ated against his per­se­cu­tors by de­vel­op­ing a bril­liantly sub­ver­sive and proudly anti-Chris­tian ap­proach to life and lit­er­a­ture, whose ex­ten­sive in­flu­ence would even­tu­ally help to

weaken the ide­o­log­i­cal power of nat­u­ral tele­ol­ogy, thus has­ten­ing the ob­so­les­cence of the petty moral­ism that had de­stroyed his early ca­reer.

That Chris­tian in­flu­ence in crit­i­cism was to fade but Emp­son found an equally per­ni­cious ten­dency in New Crit­i­cism’s fond­ness for the bare text. This Amer­i­can move­ment, which took its name from John Crowe Ran­som’s, The New Crit­i­cism (1941) was to re­place the tra­di­tional ap­proach to lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, which had been aes­thetic, his­tor­i­cal and philo­log­i­cal. Ac­cord­ing to Mor­ris Dick­stein, ‘Start­ing with Un­der­stand­ing Po­etry in 1938, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn War­ren were turn­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal meth­ods of Eliot’s Sa­cred Wood, I.A. Richards’s Prac­ti­cal Crit­i­cism, and Wil­liam Emp­son’s Seven Types of Am­bi­gu­ity into ped­a­gogy’.

New Crit­i­cism came to dom­i­nate the teach­ing of lit­er­a­ture from mid­cen­tury un­til the early sev­en­ties when lit­er­a­ture be­came in­creas­ingly politi­cised, the­o­rized and French in­flu­enced. In its day it fo­cused purely on text: the poem it­self. To Emp­son, marginal­is­ing au­tho­rial in­ten­tion and his­tor­i­cal con­text ran counter to com­mon sense. He har­ried for many years the ra­tio­nale of the In­ten­tional Fal­lacy, as ex­pressed in W. K. Wim­satt Jr.’s The Ver­bal Icon (1954):

It seems clear that a critic needs to won­der what his au­thor wanted to mean… To say that you won’t be both­ered with any­thing but the words on the page (and that you are within your rights, be­cause the au­thor didn’t in­tend you to have any more) strikes me as petu­lant, like say­ing ‘of course I won’t visit him un­less he has first-class plumb­ing.’ If you cared enough you would. For one thing, you might want to know whether the au­thor has re­ally had the ex­pe­ri­ence he de­scribes, or is writ­ing ‘con­ven­tion­ally’.

In a let­ter to Cleanth Brooks he com­plained of the ab­surd at­tempt ‘to put lit­er­ary crit­i­cism in a pseudo-sci­en­tific strait-jacket’. Even as late as 1984 –the year of his death –in Us­ing Bi­og­ra­phy Emp­son is still wor­ry­ing the bone of what he refers to as the ‘Wim­satt Law’: ‘A stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture

ought to be try­ing all the time to em­pathize with the au­thor (and of course the as­sump­tions and con­ven­tions by which the au­thor felt him­self bound); to tell him that he can­not even par­tially suc­ceed is about the most harm­ful thing you could do.’

Emp­son was not shy in his pro­nounce­ments on con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture as well as crit­i­cism, both pub­licly and pri­vately. He crit­i­cised Faulkner’s trickery with Fate, Hem­ing­way’s boor­ish, wealthy char­ac­ters and Fitzger­ald’s nov­els for their (charm­ing) sim­plic­ity. Poets did not al­ways fare well, ei­ther. Wal­lace Stevens was crit­i­cised in print for sup­pos­ing ‘that it is enough en­ter­tain­ment for a reader to see the poet try­ing on a new fancy dress.’ Allen Tate was sav­aged in a let­ter as ‘merely a fol­lower of T.S. Eliot, con­tent to say any­thing he be­lieved to be in the cur­rent fash­ion’ and able to ‘whine and moan with par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance be­cause he comes from the South­ern States’.

Amer­ica it­self of­fered a con­ge­nial home to Emp­son. As he wrote to Hetta in Pek­ing (Bei­jing) in sum­mer 1948, ‘there is no doubt that I am some­body in the aca­demic world here and not in Eng­land.’ He made his first visit in 1938 af­ter leav­ing China at war, cross­ing the coun­try to visit I.A. Richards in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, where the pro­fes­sor was teach­ing at Har­vard. Emp­son had a taste of lec­tur­ing on ‘Ba­sic English in Crit­i­cism’ at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and took a tem­po­rary job writ­ing ra­dio scripts for a Bos­ton sta­tion.

A decade passed be­fore he re­turned, the year his Col­lected Poems was pub­lished there. This time it was to Kenyon Col­lege in Ohio, where he taught sum­mer school with a fac­ulty that in­cluded New Crit­ics Ran­som, Tate and Brooks. The eight week sum­mer school, for which he was paid the hand­some sum of $1, 250, was funded by the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion. Emp­son met with his class of thirty for three, two-hour ses­sions a week, find­ing them ‘clear­headed and en­er­getic and will­ing’. They af­forded him the op­por­tu­nity to pol­ish The Struc­ture of Com­plex Words be­fore its publication three years later.

As he con­fessed in a July let­ter to his friend and pub­lisher Ian Parsons:

I get here what is probably a mis­lead­ing im­pres­sion of my fame in Amer­ica, as we all seem to be on the same side in a lit­er­ary war, with the enemy in the ma­jor­ity. I have a vague sus­pi­cion that the side I am sup­posed to be a leader of is rather a re­ac­tionary one.

The left-wing Emp­son found his New Critic col­leagues ini­tially wor­ry­ing: ‘Most of the other lec­tur­ers are South­ern­ers… pro-am­bi­gu­ity-stuff, but have mixed it up with be­ing pro-South, anti-Ma­chine Age, and anti-Ne­gro. I have not yet cared to plumb this rather dis­agree­able com­plex.’ He was clearly against their re­ac­tionary val­ues but later in the sum­mer amended his view to write with amuse­ment that they were ‘anti-ne­gro in a very char­i­ta­ble style and con­cerned to keep up the “val­ues” of the coun­try gentle­man, who is a hu­man­ist’.

If he skirted con­tro­versy, it was not by such views or his pop­u­lar ec­cen­tric­i­ties, but by his pas­sion­ate de­fence of China and crit­i­cism of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy. Nev­er­the­less, Emp­son felt he ‘re­ally couldn’t have been more pet­ted and fussed over’ on this visit. With typ­i­cal can­dour he reck­oned he must fin­ish Struc­ture in Amer­ica, ‘where I think it would sell (I seem to be on the crest of a wave here, per­haps be­cause they tend to be a bit be­hind the times, but never mind)’.

He re­turned for a se­cond lu­cra­tive sum­mer to the Kenyon in 1950, when the Korean War had bro­ken out. His col­leagues in­cluded Ken­neth Burke, the lit­er­ary the­o­rist with whom Emp­son liked to ar­gue and ad­mired; Fitzger­ald and Ford bi­og­ra­pher Arthur Mizener, Emp­son’s favourite party host that sum­mer; Robert Low­ell and Del­more Schwartz. Low­ell and Emp­son each ad­mired the other’s po­etry. The thirty-seven year old Schwartz was a more prickly case, ar­gu­ing, while drunk, with Allen Tate and then Emp­son over Ezra Pound’s right to the Bollin­gen Prize.

As on the pre­vi­ous visit, Emp­son made a colour­ful fig­ure. In the class­room his ten­dency to talk to the black­board while he wrote down his lec­tures

amused his twenty-five stu­dents, who were taken with the flow of in­sights and the un­pre­ten­tious­ness of the man. The then stu­dent Ge­orge Lan­ning char­ac­terised them all as en­gaged in the wilder­ness of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, lock­ing horns with the Vic­to­rian sen­si­bil­ity of their pre­de­ces­sors, ‘the wooly headed Beast of prim­i­tive crit­i­cism’. Par­ty­ing, Emp­son in­dulged his fond­ness for ar­gu­ment and silly be­hav­iour.

Af­ter his ap­point­ment at Sh­effield Uni­ver­sity in 1953 he re­turned a num­ber of times to other North Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties. In June 1954 he taught at In­di­ana, lec­tur­ing to grad­u­ate stu­dents on ‘Stud­ies in Shake­speare’. The fac­ulty in­cluded Les­lie A. Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the Amer­i­can Novel (1960) was to scan­dalise/amuse with its view of the im­ma­tu­rity of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. Emp­son was in turn able to shock Fiedler by his slovenly ways and to quar­rel over Amer­i­can ver­sus Bri­tish pol­icy over com­mu­nist China, on which he had writ­ten and lec­tured con­tro­ver­sially. The stu­dents were again re­cep­tive to the pe­cu­liar English­man, though a lit­tle given to Chris­tian­ity and to phi­los­o­phy for Emp­son’s taste.

His rep­u­ta­tion had con­tin­ued to grow. The col­lected poems ap­peared as an Amer­i­can paperback in 1961. In that same year he pub­lished the con­tro­ver­sial Mil­ton’s God (‘the moral char­ac­ter of God had be­come very hard to de­fend’, as he ac­knowl­edged in re­sponse to a NYRB re­view of his book). In 1968 he was Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at the State Uni­ver­sity of New York, hav­ing just been awarded the In­gram Mer­rill Foun­da­tion Award in Lit­er­a­ture for 1967 (worth $5000). On this oc­ca­sion Emp­son’s flam­boy­ant wife ac­com­pa­nied him, which sta­bilised the pro­fes­sor and fu­elled the le­gends. Lec­tur­ing on the Meta­phys­i­cal Poets he joined a fac­ulty that in­cluded Fiedler and John Barth (au­thor of the post­mod­ern The SotWeed Fac­tor (1960). Things went well, aside from an em­bar­rass­ing panel ar­gu­ment with the Cana­dian scholar Hugh Ken­ner, the source of which lay in Emp­son’s dis­ap­proval of the Catholi­cism of Ken­ner’s read­ing of Joyce.

He recog­nised that Amer­ica would con­tinue to be his land of op­por­tu­nity. Con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture Emp­son in­di­cated in a let­ter to Christo­pher Ricks: ‘In six years’ time I have to re­tire (be­com­ing 65 in 1971) and af­ter so

much fun abroad I only get £500 a year pen­sion. I shall thus badly want con­ge­nial paid em­ploy­ment, and the money won’t largely go in tax, as it would at present.’ As a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at York Uni­ver­sity, Toronto in 1973, he un­der­took speak­ing en­gage­ments, lec­tures or read­ings in New York, Ver­mont, Seat­tle and San Fran­cisco, though now his de­liv­ery could not al­ways be re­lied upon.

In 1974 he was made an hon­orary mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Let­ters. In Septem­ber of the same year he took up a year’s teach­ing at Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­sity at a salary of $20,000. Un­for­tu­nately Emp­son felt un­com­fort­able with the noise and iso­la­tion of cam­pus liv­ing, which was ex­ac­er­bated by den­tal prob­lems. He re­lied a lit­tle too much on al­co­hol when de­pen­dent on his own dis­or­gan­ised com­pany. Al­though he had the plea­sure of meet­ing with C.P. Snow and his wife, he found dif­fi­culty in be­ing un­der­stood in the class­room. As he wrote to Hetta:

I do feel out­side the place; and if the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion or per­haps some fam­ily need does not drive the old horse over the jump I do not want to take this type of as­sign­ment again. In the long run, and if there is a long run, I will earn more by writ­ing my books, and I have only just time to do that be­fore old age.

He found ‘Amer­ica very numb­ing this trip’ and was dis­ap­pointed by the fact that his other course, on the ‘Spir­its of Na­ture’ (on six­teenth cen­tury texts, es­pe­cially Doc­tor Faus­tus) at­tracted only two stu­dents. ‘We had bought, briefly, a lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion of lit­tle or no prac­ti­cal value’, was the uni­ver­sity’s ver­dict.

How­ever, Emp­son’s last two teach­ing vis­its to Amer­ica proved hap­pier ex­pe­ri­ences. In Septem­ber 1976 – now an Hon­orary Fel­low of the Modern Lan­guage As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica – he taught at the Uni­ver­sity of Delaware. He and Hetta stayed in a spa­cious apart­ment ten min­utes from cam­pus where, with the aid of a microphone, Emp­son was able to con­nect with large au­di­ences. Two years be­fore his death he taught a se­mes­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami. They rented an apart­ment with pool ac­cess

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