Commentary Magazine


Topic: literary criticism

Review: You Say You Want a Revolution

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.

Read Less

Timing Is Everything, Except When It’s Not

Over at The Millions this morning, Bill Morris gives some examples of the “iron fact” that “[i]n book publishing . . . timing is everything.” Joe Posnanski’s biography of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, for one, was drowned in revelations about child rape by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s onetime assistant. The Bonfire of the Vanities, for another, got a lucky boost from the “Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987,” which made Tom Wolfe’s novel seem like an “almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist.”

But Morris’s “iron fact” is badly rusted by his own self-contradictory evidence. Depending on how you tilt your head, the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, either doomed a book to failure (Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, published within days of the attacks, included light-hearted references to terrorism) or insured its success (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, published a little over two weeks before the attacks, suddenly seemed “prescient to just about everyone”). Why was one a failure and the other a success, if “timing” influenced the fortunes of both, is left unexplained. For that matter, Morris might have considered an even more tiresome refutation. Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which romanticizes terrorists, was published in June 2001, and instead of being discredited by events, went on to secure the PEN/Faulkner and Orange literary prizes.

Whatever interest his essay may have is undercut by Morris’s opening sentence, in which the “literary life” is equated, sans irony, sans qualification, with “book publishing.” Here is the sentence in full: “There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything.” Offhand I can’t think of a better case study of the bacterial infection that has confined literary criticism to a convalescent ward. The confusion of literature with publishing reclassifies literary critics into adjuncts of the book promotion department.

Small wonder Morris is so fascinated with the sub-literary question of “timing.” As John Barth says somewhere, being up-to-date is the least important qualification for a great artist. Moby-Dick, first published on this date in 1851, was so “timely” that it had to wait seven decades, till Raymond M. Weaver’s biography of Melville and Carl Van Doren’s study of The American Novel (both published in 1921), to find more than a handful of readers. Morris’s inclination to equate literary success with publishing success, in fact, is what the bacterium looks like under the microscope.

You might think that a literary critic would feel some obligation to resist book promotion and nose out the good books that are being under-promoted. Criticism might even regain its health if it took a Moneyball approach to contemporary literature. Like batting average among baseball oldtimers who can’t seem to shake themselves out of their game’s folk psychology, timeliness is the measure of how a book is overvalued in literary culture. Fifty years ago this week two different novels about the timely question of the “nuclear threat,” Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, hovered near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Who remembers them today? A solicitude for “timing” shifts the question to the book’s subject. “What is it about?” becomes the decisive thing to ask about it. An important subject makes an important (and a timely) book, regardless what is being predicated about it.

In literature, however, almost exactly the reverse is true. The marriage plot, as Jeffrey Eugenides had fun reminding everyone last year, is the repetitive subject of a great many novels. Nothing very timely in that (or at least not in the way Morris conceives of time). “Aboutness,” as I like to call the question of the subject, circles around and around what is central to a novel: how it handles its subject. To coin a literary slogan: treatment is everything.

How might a Billy Beane among critics turn around the moribund franchise of “literary” fiction? “If we look closely at our reactions to most great novels,” Wayne Booth wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (also published fifty years ago this fall), “we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune.” This caring has little or nothing to do with timing: we don’t love or hate based on the luck of external events.

The source of our feeling lies elsewhere: “[W]e cannot avoid judging the characters we know as morally admirable or contemptible,” Booth goes on. Moral judgment is as basic to reading a novel as a foundation inspection is to the purchase of a new home. It is, however, undervalued in literary culture today. Perhaps the main reason American fiction is in decline is that its moral component is neglected — both by writers and critics. It is never discussed in the creative writing workshops, which consequently limits their effectiveness as “feeders” of contemporary fiction. It is ignored in book promotion for business reasons. (No one ever bought a book, the publicists seem to believe, because its characters were admirable or contemptible.)

In the neglect of its moral component, we may get “timely” fiction or “literary” fiction, but not fiction that invites its readers to a judgment. Success is measured in splashy coverage from critics with little genuine interest in literature, and the real value of fiction is disdained — along with its readers.

Over at The Millions this morning, Bill Morris gives some examples of the “iron fact” that “[i]n book publishing . . . timing is everything.” Joe Posnanski’s biography of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, for one, was drowned in revelations about child rape by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s onetime assistant. The Bonfire of the Vanities, for another, got a lucky boost from the “Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987,” which made Tom Wolfe’s novel seem like an “almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist.”

But Morris’s “iron fact” is badly rusted by his own self-contradictory evidence. Depending on how you tilt your head, the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, either doomed a book to failure (Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, published within days of the attacks, included light-hearted references to terrorism) or insured its success (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, published a little over two weeks before the attacks, suddenly seemed “prescient to just about everyone”). Why was one a failure and the other a success, if “timing” influenced the fortunes of both, is left unexplained. For that matter, Morris might have considered an even more tiresome refutation. Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which romanticizes terrorists, was published in June 2001, and instead of being discredited by events, went on to secure the PEN/Faulkner and Orange literary prizes.

Whatever interest his essay may have is undercut by Morris’s opening sentence, in which the “literary life” is equated, sans irony, sans qualification, with “book publishing.” Here is the sentence in full: “There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything.” Offhand I can’t think of a better case study of the bacterial infection that has confined literary criticism to a convalescent ward. The confusion of literature with publishing reclassifies literary critics into adjuncts of the book promotion department.

Small wonder Morris is so fascinated with the sub-literary question of “timing.” As John Barth says somewhere, being up-to-date is the least important qualification for a great artist. Moby-Dick, first published on this date in 1851, was so “timely” that it had to wait seven decades, till Raymond M. Weaver’s biography of Melville and Carl Van Doren’s study of The American Novel (both published in 1921), to find more than a handful of readers. Morris’s inclination to equate literary success with publishing success, in fact, is what the bacterium looks like under the microscope.

You might think that a literary critic would feel some obligation to resist book promotion and nose out the good books that are being under-promoted. Criticism might even regain its health if it took a Moneyball approach to contemporary literature. Like batting average among baseball oldtimers who can’t seem to shake themselves out of their game’s folk psychology, timeliness is the measure of how a book is overvalued in literary culture. Fifty years ago this week two different novels about the timely question of the “nuclear threat,” Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, hovered near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Who remembers them today? A solicitude for “timing” shifts the question to the book’s subject. “What is it about?” becomes the decisive thing to ask about it. An important subject makes an important (and a timely) book, regardless what is being predicated about it.

In literature, however, almost exactly the reverse is true. The marriage plot, as Jeffrey Eugenides had fun reminding everyone last year, is the repetitive subject of a great many novels. Nothing very timely in that (or at least not in the way Morris conceives of time). “Aboutness,” as I like to call the question of the subject, circles around and around what is central to a novel: how it handles its subject. To coin a literary slogan: treatment is everything.

How might a Billy Beane among critics turn around the moribund franchise of “literary” fiction? “If we look closely at our reactions to most great novels,” Wayne Booth wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (also published fifty years ago this fall), “we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune.” This caring has little or nothing to do with timing: we don’t love or hate based on the luck of external events.

The source of our feeling lies elsewhere: “[W]e cannot avoid judging the characters we know as morally admirable or contemptible,” Booth goes on. Moral judgment is as basic to reading a novel as a foundation inspection is to the purchase of a new home. It is, however, undervalued in literary culture today. Perhaps the main reason American fiction is in decline is that its moral component is neglected — both by writers and critics. It is never discussed in the creative writing workshops, which consequently limits their effectiveness as “feeders” of contemporary fiction. It is ignored in book promotion for business reasons. (No one ever bought a book, the publicists seem to believe, because its characters were admirable or contemptible.)

In the neglect of its moral component, we may get “timely” fiction or “literary” fiction, but not fiction that invites its readers to a judgment. Success is measured in splashy coverage from critics with little genuine interest in literature, and the real value of fiction is disdained — along with its readers.

Read Less

Hilton Kramer, 1928-2012

Hilton Kramer, who died today at the age of 84, put his money where his mouth was. He was one of the most important men in American culture, the chief art critic of the New York Times from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s when being the chief art critic for the New York Times made him perhaps the central figure in American aesthetics. And yet he chose to vacate that position to start a small monthly journal about the arts called the New Criterion, in which he could give free rein to his own highly refined understanding of what it meant, in a time of relaxing standards and decaying distinctions, to be truly engaged in keeping the flame of high culture alive.

He wrote with exceptional clarity and even a certain ferocity about issues that might seem gossamer to most—the understanding of a certain painting, the tone and perspective of a certain fashionable book. For Hilton, art was not to be admired but to be argued over, to be taken with the utmost seriousness. It was not to be treated as though it were a fragile thing ready to break at the slightest pressure; if it broke under critical study, if it wasn’t made of heartier and tougher stuff, it wasn’t deserving of the attention. (Here’s an example: His “Age of the Avant-Garde,” which appeared in COMMENTARY in 1972.)

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Hilton Kramer, who died today at the age of 84, put his money where his mouth was. He was one of the most important men in American culture, the chief art critic of the New York Times from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s when being the chief art critic for the New York Times made him perhaps the central figure in American aesthetics. And yet he chose to vacate that position to start a small monthly journal about the arts called the New Criterion, in which he could give free rein to his own highly refined understanding of what it meant, in a time of relaxing standards and decaying distinctions, to be truly engaged in keeping the flame of high culture alive.

He wrote with exceptional clarity and even a certain ferocity about issues that might seem gossamer to most—the understanding of a certain painting, the tone and perspective of a certain fashionable book. For Hilton, art was not to be admired but to be argued over, to be taken with the utmost seriousness. It was not to be treated as though it were a fragile thing ready to break at the slightest pressure; if it broke under critical study, if it wasn’t made of heartier and tougher stuff, it wasn’t deserving of the attention. (Here’s an example: His “Age of the Avant-Garde,” which appeared in COMMENTARY in 1972.)

This tough-mindedness—and Hilton was nothing if not tough-minded—is what hastened this Greenwich Village bohemian’s ideological journey from Left to Right. The philistinism of the New Left and the 1960s radicals, their arrant sentimentality and their belief that art should exist in service to their political views, inspired both contempt and outrage in him. He became an American conservative because only American conservatives had come to believe that Western culture was the great flowering of man, and that it had to be defended and upheld.

Hilton came to occupy an almost uninhabitable critical space of his own construction, in which he entered mid-century Modernism into the Pantheon of greatness and then stoutly defended that Pantheon against any later intruders. The daring and experimental art and fiction and poetry of his own youth was considered highly praiseworthy, whereas the transgressive efforts created and displayed in his middle age drew from him exactly the sort of response the Abstract Expressionists had drawn from leading critics in his own early days. While it is almost certain that the work to which he took a hatchet will not survive the test of time, it’s far from clear that the work he did champion will either—outside the world of collectors and academics.

I didn’t like him—and he didn’t like me more—but there was never any question Hilton Kramer was a man to reckon with, a formidable intellect and a writer of great exactitude, incorruptible and dedicated, and in Hilton’s own terms, there could probably not be higher praise. Our intellectual life cannot survive without people like him. Hilton took it as his mission to enlighten, to talk about what was enduringly great, to defend critical standards against the constant efforts to coarsen them, and to live as though art and culture were all that mattered.

He wrote two dozen pieces for COMMENTARY, and this is my favorite—a review of two novels, one by V.S. Naipaul and one by Joyce Carol Oates, that shows his gift for finding interesting and unexpected things to praise and his even more exemplary talent for the eviscerating attack.

I won’t say we shall not see his like again, because if that is so, then we’re sunk, and we’re not.

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