A review of The Scholar's Art: Literary Studies in a Managed World, by Jerome McGann

Over the past forty years, literary theorists have taken command of the English departments of American universities. What this would mean for the study of literature was made clear early on by (among others) Terry Eagleton in his hugely influential Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). There Eagleton explained that literature can only be understood through the lens of "social ideologies" that "refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others." In other words, the task of the scholar and critic is to understand not chiefly the literary works themselves, but those competing social ideologies for which literature is only one of many arenas. What matters in literary theory is theory rather than literature, critic rather than author, radical politics rather than imagination or beauty.

"New Historicism," a theoretical approach originated chiefly by the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt in the early 1980s, was in some ways a reaction to literary theory, which it criticized for being insufficiently historical or lacking an empirical basis. The New Historicists, wishing to ground their writings about literature in the real world, but wishing also to be as politically cutting-edge as the high-flying proponents of literary theory, proposed to use traditional historicist methods to arrive at interpretations conducive to a leftist outlook. In practice, this usually meant saying whatever one liked about a work of literature with perfunctory reference to some historical evidence, and in that sense New Historicism was new but not recognizably historicist. Still, it was a gesture in the direction of sanity in a field desperately in need of it.

The New Historicists share an array of philosophical assumptions, most prominently those associated with the seductive anti-philosophy of Michel Foucault. They suppose that all human relationships are definable solely in terms of power, that people who possess power use language as a tool to exclude those who do not, and that works of literature may therefore be understood primarily as attempts to attain some form of political or cultural authority. In reality, of course, the New Historicists aren't primarily concerned with literature, and have only quiet disdain for the notion that literature may access universal or imperishable truth. Their interest (insofar as they have interests beyond professional ones) is the same as that of all contemporary literary theorists: cultural politics. Shakespeare and Wordsworth are interesting only insofar as analyzing their works leads to a discussion of Western male hegemony or some such monstrous abstraction. It is hardly surprising, then, that the great majority of New Historicist "scholars" are in fact left-wing cranks with a modest ability to master jargon.

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Jerome McGann is no crank. a specialist in the field of Romantic and Victorian British poetry, McGann is the most capable scholar in the school of New Historicism and second only to Greenblatt himself in popularity. His politics are clearly on the left, and just as clearly animate his writings, but he has generally shown more circumspection in his recourse to leftist ideological themes than most literary theorists and many New Historicists. His best known work, The Romantic Ideology(1983), took aim at scholars whose treatments of the "big six" male poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley) had accepted uncritically those poets' representation of themselves as possessors of godlike insight and thus "above" considerations of money or fame. McGann's arguments in that book are candidly motivated by his politics, but the book's overarching argument is a sound one, and its use of historical evidence is admirable.

More recently he has edited the New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (1993), an anthology reflecting its editor's determination to promote an "inclusive" canon of English literature, even to the point of including forgettable pleasantries so long as they were written by women. Yet McGann can't be dismissed as a typical leftist academic literary critic. In the penetrating essays in his book The Beauty of Inflections (1985), for instance, he championed the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, a Tractarian Christian whose religious verse most modern scholars have dismissed on professedly aesthetic, but clearly ideological, grounds. His contributions to the field of textual criticism are, though wrongheaded, genuinely enlightening. And his critique of "immanent criticism"—the notion that the meaning and beauty of a work of literature lie within the work itself and should therefore be considered in isolation from historical factors—is logically rigorous and in my view persuasive.

It would be difficult to overstate McGann's influence among American academics in literature, and by extension over the malleable minds of university English majors and postgraduates. He is an enormously popular speaker at conferences, and what he decides to talk and write about is in due course what everybody else in his field wants to talk and write about. I was therefore thrilled to find him insisting, at the outset of his latest collection of essays, The Scholar's Art, that the purpose of literary scholarship is not to arrive at "manageable" interpretations of literature, but "to preserve and pass on our cultural inheritance." I was able to ignore the fact that by "manageable" he does not mean, as I would rather he meant, comfortably leftist and "transgressive." At least somebody of McGann's authority was now (so I thought) inveighing against the superficial and ham-handedly politicized "criticism" produced with such shocking regularity by tenured professors. "Asking that students read poetry 'in the same spirit that the author writ,' instead of in a spirit we would like the poet to have written (whatever our moral imperatives might be), can produce an educational experience not otherwise available."

The quotation (a misquotation, to be precise) is from Pope's Essay on Criticism:

A perfect Judge will read each Work of Wit With the same Spirit that its Author writ.

To read an author's work in the "same Spirit" in which the author wrote it is precisely what academic literary critics for more than a generation have so conspicuously failed to do. Especially when treating the works of widely venerated white male writers, these literary judges seem incapable of fathoming any motive apart from the author's desire to assert his authority over some "field of discursive practices," to use Foucault's jargon. The result is that the author's intentions, having been defined as mere expressions of competing "social ideologies," are no longer seriously considered to be binding on the critic's interpretations—which in turn means the critic gets to talk about whatever he feels like talking about, so long as it relates somehow to those "social ideologies."

That is why so much contemporary academic criticism is either a) tiresome and predictable, relying on the same formulaic discussions of "cultural authority" and "discursive power," or b) circuitous twaddle. Unfortunately, despite its fleeting promise of something better, The Scholar's Art is not able to rise above these limitations, tending more to b) than to a).

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McGann, it seems, having pushed the New Historicist critique as far as it can go without becoming entirely predictable, now has nothing to say. The book's essays just aren't interesting. At least two are simply unreadable. In one he contrasts the views of critical authority adopted by Coleridge and Eliot (the former located authority in individual poets, the latter in an impersonal tradition), and claims that the whole of 19th- and 20th-century cultural history may be understood as a duel between these two approaches. Well, fine. But McGann spends the balance of the essay mulling aimlessly over the half-formed ideas of the Victorian poets D. G. Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The essay on Walter Scott, in which McGann presents Scott as a proto-postmodern whose sophistication consists in a preoccupation with his own authorial voice, depends heavily on an embarrassingly tendentious interpretation of Quentin Durward, and even apart from that doesn't offer much that hasn't been said before. McGann begins another essay with a straightforward point worthy of serious attention—that Modernist writers such as Pound and Eliot were devoted to contradictory ideals, classicism and originality, and that this contradiction "produces the irony pervading [their] writing"—but then hauls in page after page of irrelevant names and concepts. The essay fizzles to nothing. Again, just when you think McGann is ready to say something important about Tennyson's poetry, he slips into the indecipherable argot of academic criticism (more pointless ruminations about D. G. Rossetti) and concludes by saying nothing in particular.

Can McGann, on the evidence of much of his previous work an extremely intelligent writer, seriously believe that these essays are worth collecting in a book? If I were inclined to interpret him in the knowing, supercilious New Historicist manner—which at this moment I am—I would suggest that he himself is concerned mainly with his own "cultural authority," unable as he is to think about literature in any other way. He imagines that his readers care more about what Jerome McGann has written than about what Coleridge or Scott or Henry James wrote. Having taken seriously modern literary theory's assumption that the critic always trumps the author, that in literary criticism what counts is the critic rather than the literature, McGann actually believes himself to be as important as the writers he discusses; in fact, far more so.

What else could explain such unbearably mannered prose, the pointless interruptions and digressions, incessant and seemingly irrelevant allusions ("as Blake knew…what J. G. Ballard called…as Gertrude Stein might say…what Freud famously called")? I offer one passage, chosen at random.

"To what serves mortal beauty," Hopkins famously asked, and his answer–that it serves to celebrate the grandeur of God—sees poetry as a form of worship rather than a poetic tale. Read that way, it is used—as Wordsworth is used, as Wordsworth wanted to be used—to reify an idealist regimen and, more problematic still, an abstract and moralizing approach to art and poetry.

Byron's answer to Hopkins's question would have been what Laura Riding's answer was: "Nothing" (Anarchism Is Not Enough). Mortal Beauty is not in service. It is—for good and ill alike—absolutely free. It is an egg laid by a free-ranging chicken.


McGann expresses contempt for the notion that a work of literature might offer something of eternal value. "'Great,' 'timeless,' 'enduring,' 'visionary.' Artistically and critically speaking, we mustn't take any of that seriously." But there is no reason to take his coy avoidance of the language of appraisal to be anything but a pose—a pose serving to enhance the authority of McGann's own writing. After all, if literature is never "great" and holds no value beyond what scholars tell us it holds at any one moment, the scholar becomes that much more important: one might even say, enduringly important. In fact, what we really ought to care about are not the poets and novelists we used to think possessed some form of "genius" (silly word), but the sophisticated obiter dicta of the tenured experts: preeminently, Jerome McGann, John Stewart Bryan Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

It is true, as McGann claims in the introduction, that these essays contain nothing in the way of facile politicized "readings" or soporific diatribes against phallocentrism. Instead, they offer florid balderdash, and McGann supposes we'll take it seriously because he is who he is.