Petted and Fussed Over: Empson and America
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