*Literary Theory and the Essay
Literary Theory and the Essay
Since so many of the precepts of contemporary literary theory bear an uncanny resemblance to the rhetorical and discursive conventions of the essay genre, it is surprising that criticism has failed to note, much less explain, such virtual mimicry. After all, both literary theory and the essay in the present day dismantle logical, temporal, and causal order, reject narrative closure, and posit the mediation of subjectivity as a constituent element of intellectual inquiry. Not only because of their closely aligned discursive and theoretical structures, but also because they both arise in the same period, the essay and modern literary theory naturally bear the signs of mutual influence. To determine, however, whether literary theory influenced the essay more or the essay literary theory would suppress the complex aesthetic, social, and economic entanglements between them. If we instead attempt to analyze this mutual development from the late 16th century to the present day as an ongoing series of responses to the transformation of aristocratic society into bourgeois culture, the rise of print capital and the subsequent growth of literacy and the public sphere, the birth of literary (and later theoretical) coteries, and finally the professionalization of literary theory in the university, we come to discover that literary theory and the essay are bound as much to each other as they are individually to the academy’s intellectual and cultural production.
Because of the interdisciplinary force of postmodern and present-day literary theory, and because much of what we consider literary theory today evolves directly out of debates within theology, philosophy, and natural science, most often articulated and advanced in the essay, it is necessary to define literary theory for the purposes of this study in the broadest possible terms. Certainly both literary theorists and scholars of the essay have reached far back into the past to reclaim their heritage from writers and from among genres that predate the named existence of either of these relative latecomers to the literary marketplace.
The most obvious generic overlap between the essay and literary theory is the representation of the self in writing. Although such discursive representation is most comprehensively realized in autobiography, it has long been represented in Western philosophy by metaphors of writing. If for Montaigne the essay was an attempt to capture thought in the very process of formation, we must view his Essais (1580, 1588) as an early blueprint of cognition and subjectivity commensurate with the skeptical empiricism of early modernity. Such discursive models of cognition predate Montaigne:
Aristotle, for example, had envisaged the mind as a wax tablet, upon which empirical experience was imprinted. But Montaigne’s model of subjectivity, like those that followed, was a writerly attempt to counter the threat that rationality posed for lived experience and the emotional realm of identity. Locke and Hume represented cognition as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet that stores an infinite number of sense impressions, while for Noam Chomsky the mind is like a block of veined marble, capable of preserving only a finite number of shapes. With his analogy of a “mystic writing pad,” or palimpsest, Freud introduced a double level of consciousness, such that the writing pad’s surface records an infinite number of impressions which, when lost to the surface (consciousness), are yet retained as trace impressions on the opaque under (unconscious) layer.
That the essay has not only been the vehicle of publication for these cognitive blueprints, but has also imitated their shapes, suggests the profound versatility of this genre: with the malleability of wax, the essay expands its discursive borders to encompass new forms of knowledge; like the tabula rasa, the essay can either begin anew, or, paradoxically, to use Theodor W.Adorno’s vivid metaphor, it can “reflect the childlike freedom that catches fire, without scruple, on what others have already done” (“Der Essay als Form” [1958; “The Essay as Form”]). In the case of Chomsky’s marble, the essay by discursive shape-shifting takes the isomorphic form of that which it represents; finally, like the mystic writing pad, it can register meaning on more than one level, positing a complex model of human subjectivity. As these representations of the mind as metaphors of writing suggest, any attempt to formulate modern subjectivity in— or as—an act of writing will push the generic boundaries of writing itself to new limits.
If the essay maps the contours of writer in the process of thinking, as Adorno argues in “The Essay as Form,” then the free and associative nature of its form has taught subsequent generations free thinking, liberating each generation from the received wisdom of its predecessors. It was hardly by chance, then, that the essay emerged in the Renaissance, the term itself announcing the rebirth of classical learning in theory, but proving its demise in practice. For Bacon’s method of science, grounded in experience rather than argument, undermined the tautologous system of Aristotle and the scholastics, irretrievably damaging the logic of syllogism. The new cosmology of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, by denying the authority of Aristotle and renouncing Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos, made a decisive break with the dominion of classical authority. The Newtonian and Cartesian advancement in physics outstripped Pythagorean mathematics. And, finally, a prose revolution inaugurated by Erasmus and Rabelais, and brought to fruition by Montaigne, Bacon, Hobbes, and subsequent generations of philosopher essayists, eradicated the artificial symmetry of Ciceronian language, undermining, as it did so, the whole intricate structure of the correspondent universe.
In sum, the empirical sciences colluded with the essay to undermine the Renaissance world picture, positing in its stead a secular, materialist world view. We might trace in the skeptical empiricism of this new philosophy the antecedents to the postmodern theoretical essay, whose tendency toward authorial self-disclosure, anti-systematic thinking, and an insurgence against received tradition suggests that modern criticism, although claiming to reinvent itself with every generation, is just another variation of an old form. John Donne’s poem An Anatomy of the World (1611)—depicting the
Renaissance’s anxiety that the age of new philosophy and exploration was tantamount to a postmortem dissection of the world—is often cited as an epigraph to modernity: “And new philosophy calls all in doubt…/And freely men confess that this world’s spent …/‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.”
Donne’s lament for lost order echoes a refrain of high Modernism central to postmodern inquiry. Here are the fragments of T.S.Eliot’s Wasteland (1922), the signal Modernist allegory of the dangers of skepticism unrestrained. The unfixed nature of Donne’s world, momentarily sliding between two philosophical cosmologies, would reemerge as Matthew Arnold’s bleak summary of Victorian modernity: “one world dead/The other powerless to be born.” Roland Barthes’ point that the “writerly” and self-conscious textuality of the essay reflects a pre-mapped (pre-rational) world bears a striking, almost uncanny, resemblance to the self-awareness of Donne’s prescient narrator at the brink of a new world: “It is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world…is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism).” Barthes is, in part, alluding to the simultaneous birth of a new kind of subjectivity and the essay in the early modern period—both predicated upon the modern self-consciousness and intellectual anxiety produced in a time of disorder and cultural dissent. Such an argument is supported by Adorno’s claim that the essay provides a glimpse of the potential for cognitive freedom before the fall of language into the reified grammar of instrumental reason. What Donne, the early Modernist Arnold, and the late
Modernist Eliot would mourn, postmodern critics following the lead of Barthes and Adorno would eulogize. In short, what Barthes here celebrates as the pleasures of openended textuality is precisely the form and substance of the essay.
The expansion of the bourgeois public sphere in the 18th century, enabled by imperial affluence, was accompanied by an increase in leisure time, a boom in print culture, the birth of literary and philosophical societies, and the legislation of civic institutions, such as libraries and museums. Central to the development of intellectual culture and the advent of professional art criticism was the appearance of coffeehouses throughout Europe. Among London’s literati, for example, Dryden’s circle gathered at Will’s—“the
Wits’ Coffee House,” from which Richard Steele dated his literary articles in the Tatler—Joseph Addison presided over his “Little Senate” at Button’s, and Marvell’s and Pepys’ circle frequented the Rota coffeehouse. These urban literary circles shaped the critical essay in the modern sense: from coffeehouse culture the essay borrowed the capricious rhythm of free thinking, the capacious and associative quality of conversation, the intrigue of eavesdropping, the intimacy and scandal of gossip, the delight of a chance encounter, and often the abruptness of a meeting postponed. At the center of one of the most influential coteries of the 19th century, the Transcendentalists’ Club, Ralph Waldo Emerson would write in “Ecstasy and Eloquence” that the essay was the form in which “everything is admissible, philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, fun, mimicry, anecdotes, jokes, ventriloquism,” all the discursive practices of the “most liberal conversation.”
During the 19th century, competing cultural ideologies and technological developments colluded in the birth of the modern critical essay, the most prominent forum for theoretical inquiry for the last two centuries. The Adams-powered platen press in the 1830s and the Wharfedale cylinder press of the 1860s revolutionized print culture.
The ability to mass-produce printed material rapidly, cheaply, and more efficiently presaged a rise in the private press in both Britain and the United States. If Edward Cave could boast in 1741 that his Gentleman’s Magazine, whose subscribers Samuel Johnson numbered at 10,000, was “read as far as the English language extends and …reprinted from several presses in Great Britain, Ireland and the Plantations,” then the new portability of the private press a century later would do much to extend—this time by discursive rather than political imperialism—the former geographical boundaries of the English language. Moreover, by allowing writers greater artistic control over their work, the private press created a market that demanded increasingly innovative and specialized forms of written discourse, especially within the essay genre, as epitomized by the experimental writing of Emerson and his circle.
If mass production created a more widely informed reading public, and if academic institutions and a mid-century trend toward metropolitan libraries provided repositories for literature in regions with limited access to book markets, such changes were to be at odds with the growth of specialized knowledge and the increasing privatization of society following the major revolutions of the late 18th century. While a boom in print culture was establishing large international markets, the private press in league with a rise in philanthropic and philosophical societies was busy creating small, discrete, often regional, markets that would further compartmentalize knowledge and encourage cultural heterogeneity. In terms of specialized markets, Frederick Douglass’ private press and anti-slavery newspaper, North Star, exemplify the entrepreneurial and “agitprop” spirit of a new age of belles-lettres in the U.S. A former slave and a tireless anti-slavery advocate, Douglass was one of the most prolific American essayists of the 19th century. More significant to the development of the critical language and recurring rhetorical patterns within coteries, however, is the way in which the various abolitionist campaigns, like those of Douglass’ circle, collaborated with other coteries, such as the emerging transatlantic women’s movement. These political coteries joined forces via the private press with reciprocal—often transatlantic—organizations to deploy genre-specific tropes and rhetorical structures endemic to their own partisan literature in a way similar to how philosophical and literary coteries engineered and exchanged increasingly insular lines of critical thought and private discourse. Such discourse would culminate in the modern theoretical essay, a subgenre rooted in a breakdown of “democratic” consensus and one which heralded the further departmentalization of knowledge.
The emergence of transcendentalism in 1836 was integral to this process, comprised as it was of many of the 19th century’s most distinguished critical essayists: Amos Bronson Alcott, Cyrus Bartol, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. It is hardly by chance that the transcendentalists, like the constituents in the various coteries of social reform, influenced and were in turn influenced by British intellectuals such as Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Francis Jeffrey, and Thomas De Quincey. Although sustained by continental philosophy, transcendentalism was America’s first home-grown intellectual movement, one initiating seminal forms of social, religious, political, and literary criticism. Much of the transcendentalists’ specialized philosophical inquiry evolved in private correspondence, personal journals, and what Emerson called “liberal conversations.” As a theoretical enterprise that merged in the critical essays of the Transcendentalists’ Club, it anticipated the academic and artistic coteries of America’s “lost generation,” including T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, their elder contemporaries in the Bloomsbury Group, and the Modernist movements in whose circles these artists and critics moved. In the critical essay, inquiry sought a form commensurate with its philosophical and theoretical concerns. Nineteenth-century critical essayists worried about religion in a secular utilitarian society, played out the Hegelian obsession over the condition of the natural soul, and theorized the crisis of selfhood—or the human “prison of glass,” as Emerson called it—in industrial modernity.
Through the Dial (1840–44), the transcendentalist magazine launched by Emerson and Margaret Fuller, and through a host of other journals, the transcendentalists helped to introduce the German idealism of Goethe, Kant, and Schiller into American and British intellectual life, paving the way for a bold philosophical transformation of the American university, one which would shape pedagogy on both sides of the Atlantic well into the 20th century. But these journals were not like the popular periodicals of the 18th century: their specialization and increasingly philosophical rhetoric distinguished them from the comparatively gentle moralizing and general accessibility of Daniel Defoe’s A Review of the Affairs of France (1704–13), Steele’s Tatler (1709–11), Addison’s and Steele’s Spectator (1711–12, 1714), or even Johnson’s Rambler (1750–52) and Idler (1758–60). Whereas the literary criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt, in league with the emerging museum and art gallery of their day, attempted to make every amateur a critic by institutionalizing aesthetic taste, the criticism of the next generation would become less accessible by its convoluted turn toward the ironies of Romantic self-expansiveness, such as the “flux of moods,” as Emerson wrote in “Experience” (1844), that renders impossible the very notion of personal “identity.”
Played out in approaches to literature, the critical essay, in a single generation, prescribed its audience more narrowly.
At least one influential essayist offered a thinly veiled justification of the necessary complexity of literary criticism in an argument that praised and defended the convoluted prose of authorial genius. In 1826 William Ellery Channing published his influential essay, widely acclaimed among the London literati, on Milton’s prose, arguing that “to be universally intelligible is not the highest merit. A great mind cannot, without injurious constraint, shrink itself to the grasp of common passive readers,” but instead must write for the “gifted reader.” In any event, the die was cast: the 19th century would professionalize and institutionalize both criticism and the critic. By the first quarter of the next century, art criticism was relegated to the university, making the critical essay the coin of the realm, just as it made Van Wyck Brooks, T.S.Eliot, Lewis Mumford, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein the penultimate generation of the great freelance scholar.
Hardly representative of a generation, such renowned essayists as Irving Howe, Edmund Wilson, and Alfred Kazin brought the tradition of freelance scholars to an end.
We can trace in the essay’s continued proliferation and dispersion into highly specialized academic subgenres, the late 19th-century departmentalization of the university into—and the displacement of classical education by—the nascent disciplines of the human sciences and modern humanities, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, English literature, and history. The pioneers of such new academic disciplines knew that the institutional authority and autonomy to which they aspired were predicated upon the semblance of scientific precision. Nowhere was the need for legitimation more keenly felt than in the humanities, long stigmatized by the earlycentury educational reform of the Benthamites, who demanded a more practical alliance between industry and higher education. The university was now running on borrowed time. In response to legislative pressure for utilitarian reform in academia, the faculty of Yale University had in 1828 issued a landmark defense of higher education, which, reprinted in Silliman’s American Journal of Science, was widely circulated in the U.S. and abroad, and managed to stave off managerial and curricular reform until after the Civil War. Even as late as 1874, Charles Eliot Norton, one of the few surviving Brahminical academics who lived to see utility and morality again become the focus of popular education reform two generations later, wrote to Thomas Carlyle that “Fine Arts” could “show the political, moral, and social conditions which have determined the forms of the Arts, and…quicken…the youth of a land barren of visible memorials of former times, the sense of connection with the past and gratitude for the effort and labours of other nations and former generations.” Rather than justifying the utility of literature, however, the emerging English departments, following the lead of the university as a whole, turned to the German model of higher education. In what was almost an open act of defiance against utilitarianism, English departments took refuge behind German idealism, especially the idealism of Kant as it was threaded through Coleridge, Carlyle, and the transcendentalists. Shaped by Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) and emblematized in the title of the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” this new aesthetic philosophy managed to hold the vocational model of education at bay for almost half a century, until the growth of industry and the consequent Taylorization of social institutions in the aftermath of World War I compelled pragmatic reform in the university. (Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management  promoted a system for increasing industrial output by rationalizing the production process.)
If, however, English departments had justified their work to society at large, they had yet to establish credibility or a niche within the new university. In an attempt to compete with the sciences, English programs developed increasingly formalist methods of analysis, drawing upon the structuralist work of pioneering anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists, such as Freud, Saussure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and Peirce. Armed with the interdisciplinary breadth of formalism, English departments strengthened their position in the new university by colonizing adjacent disciplines, incorporating the embryonic programs of linguistics, comparative literature, journalism, speech, theater and dramatics, and technical and business writing. These disciplines would leave their mark upon literary theory and upon the essay as it was transformed and deployed as the material sign of authority within the academy. Its synthetic nature, mutability, and lack of a philosophical basis suggest the mutual influence of literary theory and the essay on the shape of modern critical inquiry. Moreover, from this perspective, Adorno’s characterization of the critical essay as a genre that “swallows up the theories that are close by” not only becomes a telling commentary on the insatiable appetite of literary theory and the imperial tendencies of modern literary studies, but also accounts for George Ripley’s bitter indictment of the 19th-century university for having deprived the “common mind” of all avenues of critical discourse. By the early part of this century, a group known as the “Young Americans,” led by Lewis Mumford, were fighting an academic trend that had further distanced the critical essay from its democratic roots.
As the inchoate disciplines, subsumed by larger departments, began their struggle for individual autonomy, their authority was purchased in more rigorously specialized academic journals. Thus the struggle for academic legitimation and the interdepartmental skirmishes over disciplinary boundaries brought with them an increase in specialized, professional scholarly journals. Professionalization created communities of specialized readers, encouraging critics to produce the abstract conceptual languages that would culminate in contemporary literary theory. In broader terms, we return to T.S.Eliot’s observation of a parallel development among the artistic communities both in and outside the academy, lamenting that the breakdown of aristocratic culture resulted in the critic or artist having to “talk to a coterie or to soliloquize.” As academic and critical discourse specialized, it was the elasticity of the essay form that enabled the subsequent rise of arcane and idiosyncratic theory. Out of the university setting arose such seminal periodicals as English Literary History, Philological Quarterly, PMLA, and Modern Language Review, and from the artist colonies appeared such independent avant-garde and Modernist journals as Wyndham Lewis’ Blast (London), the Dial (New York), Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm (Berlin), Pound’s Egoist (London), Maiakovskii’s futurist LEF (Russia), the Nouvelle Revue Française (New French review; Paris), Poetry (Chicago), Ma (Today; Budapest), the Vorticist, and the Imagist (London). If the new aesthetics proclaimed in these Modernist journals rejected the old traditions as exhausted and inadequate to the new conditions of modern urban life, they also enjoined critics to explore the formal properties of the discourses and media with which artists worked.
Extensive self-scrutiny rapidly became the order of the day. Modernist theoretical experiments pressed the limits of language and representation, forcing the postmodern critical essay to dissolve the self in a play of signification.
If a new sense of chronic crisis, phenomenal challenges to fundamental beliefs, and its corollary threat to regulated selfhood and evolutionary destiny—and if new scientific ideologies that either undermined spiritual life or nourished its antithesis in unprecedented waves of millenarian anxiety—had given birth to the essay in the 16th century, then the heightened repetition of these pervasive themes at the turn of the 20th would finally bring the critical essay to maturity as the engine of politically engaged theoretical inquiry. Eliot’s complaint about coteries registers an acceleration in competing and overlapping discourses aimed at serving different sociopolitical ends— even when the ends were one, the means were vigorously contested. Borrowing unevenly from their philosophical predecessors and from each other, these coteries shaped their new manifestoes in the critical essay, establishing it as the forum par excellence for theory’s political intervention in this century. As higher education in Britain and the U.S. transformed from college to university in keeping with the Germanic model of education, it was assailed not only by the political and cultural reforms of the day, but also by intellectual dissenters from within and without. Critical of ivory tower “despots” and the “loyalty oaths” that bred elitism in the academy, the controversial intellectuals of the day nourished hopes of an alliance between university-level education and the populist insurgence in national politics.
The problem was locating middle ground. The “Young Americans,” voicing the concerns of the young generation’s liberal constituency, were repulsed by the lurid form of Arnoldian idealism that promoted the academy’s political indifference on the one side, and the equally repugnant industrial materialism of Taylorization on the other. It was John Dewey, the most influential American philosopher of his generation, who first envisaged a union between Arnoldian aesthetics and industrial utilitarianism vis-à-vis “pragmatism,” the new intellectual and humanist attitude that shaped his educational philosophy and national education reform through the first half of the century. Dewey and William James had transformed the pragmatism of their Harvard mentor C.S.Peirce, expanding it from the grammar of iogic into an optimistic and progressive intellectual vision that traced its inspiration directly back to the Emersonian wellspring. Among the intellectuals, the fact that pragmatism had been authored by academics suggested hope for an easy alliance with university concerns. Its national appeal, however, lay in its ability to unite the bifurcated social attitudes that set industrial progress at odds with humanist (if sometimes motivated by noblesse oblige) concerns. Not only did Dewey’s pragmatism pay homage to laissez-faire capitalism by the sense of everyday utility that the word itself conveyed, but just as importantly, it also played to the young liberal reformer’s New England meliorism ultimately grounded in a Protestant felix culpa.
Because the Young Americans’ own agenda was of a piece with Dewey’s unified social vision, Emerson, not surprisingly, was to answer for both. Encouraged by Arnold’s faith in the redemptive nature of art, the Young Americans, including Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, and Waldo Frank, turned back to transcendentalism for answers to the spiritual and cultural crisis of modernity. Perceiving in the trend to departmentalize academic disciplines and institutionalize aesthetic criticism the increasing stratification of democratic culture, especially in the large urban centers, the Young Americans bitterly criticized the academy with the transcendentalist sentiment and missionary zeal of George Ripley, who had, 75 years earlier, warned Harvard theologian Andrews Norton that “the Sword of the Spirit is not wielded after the tactics of the university.” Borrowing from their forebears the rhetoric of a jeremiad that indicted the university for withholding spiritual knowledge from “the common mind,” as Ripley had put it, only to place it “into the keeping of scholars,” the Young Americans bitterly charged the academy with having erected an intellectual aristocracy to manage the production, accumulation, and distribution of knowledge, a flagrant violation of the democratic spirit of popular education.
Oddly, Mumford’s circle seemed impervious to the irony that transcendentalism was itself complicit in making possible the university’s philosophical monasticism. Now the Romantic idealism deployed by Ripley’s circle to counter the institutionalizing forces of bureaucratic capitalism and technology was in the service of the very institution against which Ripley had railed. We are again reminded of the academy’s consummate strategy for survival: it would incorporate the theories of its adversaries. As Lionel Trilling would observe, the quintessential 20th-century example of this lay in the university’s absorption of the critical energies of avant-garde Modernism. After all, an aesthetic movement whose agenda was to force the intellectual or academic to the brink of what Trilling, in Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), described as the “abyss” of Western Civilization had instead become a footbridge across the chasm of its hypocrisy and cultural relativism. In a final turn of irony, one taking us as far back as Donne’s cosmic rift, this same abyss would become the “mise en abîme” of Derridean deconstruction, a grand rupture to be opened up and celebrated as a site of postmodern tourism.
Such highly specialized discourse continued to drive a wedge between academic theorists and the wider reading public, the original consumers of the essay. This trend has only intensified in the postmodern age. Postwar European and American journals, such as Tel Quel (As is), Les Temps Modernes (Modern times), and Critique became the forum for critical thinking, and generated theoretical languages that by their esoteric nature often prescribed their audiences still more narrowly. The academy’s rapid consumption and production of these languages, especially since the 1960s, was purchased at the price of greater isolation even from the educated reading public, just as the theoretical essay moves farther and farther from its bourgeois roots in the 18th-century public sphere and from its contemporary counterpart, the opinion essay of popular culture and mass media.
This trend has pitted traditional academic humanists, the likes of William J.Bennett, Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, Roger Kimball, Camille Paglia, Page Smith, and D’nesh D’Souza against the vanguard of cultural theory, a coalition comprised of, among others, poststructuralists, feminists, and Marxists. Thus, the last generation continues the feud of its predecessors, a feud grounded in the cultural pessimism of Arnold and Eliot, and one which restages in every generation the crisis of culture in a democratic society.
While pivotal as the form and forum for such debates, the essay is yet more intricately and deeply imbricated in the material foundation of the university. Although registering profound philosophical, ethical, and moral issues, the publications engendered in this feud—both by their production of institutional authority and by the print culture they generate—are the trusses undergirding the economic fabric of the academy. Moreover, few scholars or critics would deny the status of their reputation (based on publication) as a commodity in the academic marketplace or, on a larger scale, the value of an institution’s reputation as the sum of all the individual reputations of its combined faculty. (As postmodern theorist Jacques Derrida’s proclivity for economic metaphors suggests, theoretical scholarship has long been complicit with a bourgeois emphasis on investment—in this instance, on an institution’s positive name-recognition and thus its ability to draw renowned scholars, whose publications become the capital in the next economic cycle.) If, however, as its etymology implies, criticism (and thus the essay) is generated in times of crisis, then there is something almost disingenuous in these generational debates. For, however high the theoretical stakes, we cannot forget that the crisis (the perennial “crisis in the humanities” staged in part for the benefit of an incredulous public) also re-enacts the literary discipline’s struggle for professional legitimation. Perhaps not so disingenuous as caught between extremities, the literary academic must reconcile the social pressure to serve a utilitarian end in the tradition of
Bentham and Taylor and the Arnoldian mandate to remain aloof from all forms of commercial or sectarian engagement. By failing to address the essay as a material component of academic life, scholars of the essay have failed to account for the genre’s role in shaping institutional priorities, in, for instance, what many English literature scholars consider the emphasis on theory at the expense of literature in critical models subsequent to New Criticism.
In the eyes of intellectual liberals everywhere, the university had become just another example of the conglomerate trusts endemic to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, monopolies which undermined the democratic principles of intellectual exchange, competition, and fair play. For Mumford’s circle and other like-minded liberals, the university had usurped the place of the large urban centers, whose heterogeneous terrain of wealth and poverty, of middle-class communities and perimeter slums, offered hope for a renewal of the self. This urban vitality was advanced in the essay on the levels of both form and function: while the essay served as a medium for the distribution of the social plan, the actual form of the essay came mimetically to illustrate the architectural design of the city and the new forms of human experience. Mumford, like John Henry Newman, in his influential essay “What Is a University?” (1873), saw the large urban center as a socially and culturally diverse campus, because, as Newman put it, “the newspapers, magazines, reviews, journals…the publishing trade, the libraries, museums, and academies, the learned and scientific societies, necessarily invest it with the functions of a University.” Unlike Newman’s, however, Mumford’s vision was actualized in the practical and political blueprint of his life. If Mumford’s attention to urban experience and the contingency of knowledge recalls the skeptical flâneur of the 18th-century periodical essay, and its reemergence in the essays of Modernism, it is an atavism that surfaces again in the tone and tenor of postmodern critique.
The transformation of the critical essay and its efficacy as a force of intervention in the 20th century can never be fully appreciated, however, apart from an understanding of subject position in relation to political agency in the essay. Most philosophers and Modernist artists played up the age’s Faustian parallels. The rapid advance of industry and technology, and the late 19th-century shift from agrarian markets to urban economies, nurtured a nagging worry that if mechanized repetition and assembly-line uniformity were the fruits of new knowledge and greater progress, then selfhood and individuality were the Mephistophelian price exacted by the bargain. The intelligentsia represented the modern alienation from self and society with an increasing yet alternating sense of urgency and pessimism. As with every moment of crisis and social upheaval since the advent of modernity, the self was the primary site of ambivalence and anxiety for the critic. Not surprisingly, the counter-offensive against what was perceived as the dehumanizing forces of modernity was most effectively staged in the critical essay as it began to explore the linguistic constitution of subjectivity. Nowhere was this more vividly exemplified than in the reformist essays of Mumford, Brooks, and Bourne. The Young Americans, along with other intellectual radicals of their day, hoped to reintegrate the creative, irrational self in utilitarian society. Mumford’s interdisciplinary scholarship foregrounded the “insurgent” subjectivity of the critical voice as a strategy for overcoming what Eliot called the “dissociation of sensibility,” the schism between the rational and emotional self that is the essence of modern subjectivity. Inspired by Whitman’s democratic poetics of the self and Patrick Geddes’ “organic sociology,” an anti-systemic movement in the sciences that yoked Nietzsche’s autobiographical critic with the intuition of Romanticism, Mumford’s pungent essays against the assumed prestige and unquestioned authority of institutional criticism would, ironically, eventually foster the very academic-theoretical authority he so patently criticized: from Barthes’ intensely autobiographical literary criticism to the Nietzschean rhetoric of poststructuralism, these postmodern projects, by their shared concerns with transcendentalism, would make apparent theory’s atavistic tendency to treat recurring themes, especially the problem of finding an appropriate prose form for representing subjective experience.
By the 20th century, after the full flowering of science and technology, “periodical” would take on a new significance. The critical essay would now become periodical in its reproduction of reality as fragment. Simultaneous to the segregation of knowledge into university departments, the essay would similarly compartmentalize social experience, slicing everyday experience into clinical frames. In part, the program of the urban progressives was informed by the movement of naturalism and realism in art and literature at the turn of the century. Early on, under the guiding influence of William Dean Howells, whose authority emanated from his influential position as editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1871–81) and later as resident critic for Harper’s (1886–92), American realism confronted what was perceived as the dangerous tendencies for a kind of national denial of social decay, as evidenced by the demand among a genteel audience for idealism or the clamor among the popular for romance. Realism in the essay took as its primary duty the presentation of moral and material poverty in society. If realism, by its close scrutiny of “pieces” of reality, could expose the hidden workings of power and thus demystify social hierarchies, it could also reify or “naturalize” these same social barriers (such as race, class, or gender) by the semblance of scientific legitimacy.
Measured against the background of fears about the loss of the self in a mechanized world, later realist essayists such as Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, and W.E.B.Du Bois revised the moral realism of Howells into a politically engaged aesthetic.
For instance, Du Bois formulated and propagated a new ideology of racial assertiveness whose contentious tone in the essay recalled the powerfui jeremiad essays of Douglass, Martin Delaney, and James Redpath from the preceding century. As a humanitarian enterprise, Howells’ early realism had flirted with a kind of Pelagianism popularized by the late 19th-century Social Gospel Movement, especially evident in his essays of the early 1890s; but under his aegis—until late in his career—realism had generally remained aloof from direct social engagement. Rather, it relied upon an aesthetics of observation, avoiding any emotionalism or social appeals that might be construed as partaking of the sentimental tradition, just then resurfacing and merging with a strain of realism in the form of early muckraking literature. As such, Howells’ realism ‘at the end of the last century bears a striking resemblance to the objective, clinical evaluations of Michel Foucault, whose scrupulously amoral historiography in the latter part of this century has been criticized for the sterility of its observation, evacuated as it is of subjective mediation. If Howells’ realism had transformed the essay for a time from what George S.Hellman in his article “Later Essayists” (1933) called the “story essay” (“wherein the narrative element runs its gentle course over a bed of personal reflections and descriptive comment of individual flavour”) to a prose style absent of any persona—a theory of detached observation—then the next generation of essayists would split the difference, advancing realism by fashioning and inserting an authorial persona that foregrounded what Mumford called “insurgent subjectivity.” Such a revision would achieve its brilliant apotheosis in the autobiographical stand-point theories of the 1970s, and the politically engaged New Historicism in the American academy and Cultural Materialism in the British, and finally the confessional essayistic criticism that has emerged on both continents in the 1990s.
Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990;
New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1994 (original edition, 1869)
Banta, Martha, Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993
Doody, Margaret Anne, The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985
Eliot, T.S., The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, London: Faber, 1980 (original edition, 1933)
Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973
Good, Graham, “The Essay and Criticism,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:176–86
Goodwin, James, Autobiography: The Self Made Text, New York: Twayne, 1993
Harrison, Thomas, Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Jones, Richard Foster, The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature from Bacon to Pope, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1951
Lukács, Georg, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, and London: Merlin Press, 1971 (original German edition, 1920)
McCarthy, John A., Crossing Boundaries: A Theory and History of Essay Writing in German, 1680–1815, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989
McKeon, Michael, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987
McMurtry, Jo, English Language, English Literature: The Creation of an Academic Discipline, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1985
Obaldia, Claire de, The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism, and the Essay, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
Shuger, Debora, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990
Sundquist, Eric J., To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993
Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989
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