To the Editor:
Knowing the pugnacious hero-worship that B. H. Haggin inspires, I was not surprised either by the number or the fervor of the negative responses to my review of his Music Observed [“Letters from Readers,” September]. But I was, I confess, astonished by the strategy of rebuttal, which was in almost every case to deny any validity to my argument by simply asserting that my accusations were either groundless or grounded in malice. The imputation of evil to the heretic is, of course, the common practice of all zealots and idolaters; but when the sacred cow is a music critic and the heresy a book review, such thunderous denunciations become preposterous. No music critic has been more severe than B. H. Haggin in castigating whatever displeased him. His indictments, however devastating, are applauded by his readers as serving the highest moral purposes; but criticism by other writers of Haggin in a similar mode is automatically construed as slander, concealing some ulterior motive.
As for the charge that my review contained errors of fact, this is simply the tactic of a practiced debater who ignores the substantial accuracy of a generalization in order to exploit some paltry exception. To illustrate this technique so extensively employed by Mr. Haggin’s Philadelphia lawyers in their remarkably similar briefs (which took up roughly twice as much space as my review), let me expand on one of the most hotly contested assertions in my review.
When I wrote that Haggin had “ignored jazz (except to use it as a stalking horse to attack other critics),” the only reservation that occurred to me was the possible argument that it was no part of the business of a critic of classical music to write about jazz. Certainly it never entered my mind that anyone would dare to hold B. H. Haggin up as a jazz critic. Yet so great is the infatuation of the perfect Hagginite that even in this area the letter-writers insisted their hero had been dealt with unjustly.
Now, consider the facts: over a forty-year period that comprises virtually the entire history of jazz—a history that has inspired hundreds of books and thousands of articles—what has B. H. Haggin contributed? He has, to the best of my knowledge, written and published (and republished) two little articles: one a very sentimental notice of Bix Beiderbecke (who died in 1931), and an essay only nominally concerned with jazz but actually an attack on the values and predilections of musicologists. In The Listener’s Musical Companion, one of Haggin’s record guides, there is also a brief chapter of five pages containing what I must describe as a dilettante’s impressions of certain popular musicians, some of them not even authentic jazz artists. This with perhaps one or two fugitive pieces is the grand total of B. H. Haggin’s criticism of what is certainly America’s most important indigenous music.
The case is much the same with the other objections to my review: against my overall characterization of Haggin’s criticism as centered primarily upon performance; fixated on plastic rather than on poetic values (how that word jars on an ear accustomed to nice antiseptic phrases like “tensile strength,” “sharply contoured,” “powerfully inflected”); conservative in taste and unadventurous in scope, Haggin’s defenders, ransacking the indices to his books, pile up impressive-looking references that represent in reality nothing more than a random comment here, an occasional deviation from customary practice there—in short, every discoverable exception however rare or insignificant. . . .
Yet in my review I was not primarily criticizing Mr. Haggin’s taste; in large part, I share it. But for the purposes of criticism and for the education of the public, which is the function of criticism, a “taste” that is not rationalized and grounded in defensible esthetic criteria is both useless and in danger of deteriorating into mere whim. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
Mr. Leo Skir, who writes in to complain of your reviewer’s ignorance of the writings of Jean Genet, is not very well informed on this subject himself. [“Letters from Readers,” August] Genet has written five not four plays and four not two novels—if you count Le Miracle de la Rose, which I imagine lies somewhere between fiction and fact—as well as a volume of poems and several essays, sometimes published in the volumes with his plays.