The Game of Taste

Alfred Kazin.

God and the American Writer.


“Literary merit” “Aesthetic value.” “Taste.” How do such terms fare at the end of the twentieth century? For some critics, they stand for essential concepts that remain as vital as ever; for others (who view taste as always classist, value as invariably subjective), they are utterly passé. Exemplary of the former sort of critic is Alfred Kazin, 82, whose first book appeared over half a century ago and the jacket copy of whose latest work, God and the American Writer, describes him as “our greatest living critic”; exemplary of the latter sort is Janice Radway, an English professor who has recently written A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. To examine these two writers’ new books is to see in operation two drastically different conceptions of the critic’s role. Let’s begin with Kazin, whose plucky first book, On Native Grounds (1942), a tendentious study of the period 1891-1941, set the stage for his career by depicting the literary landscape as a battleground between realists (the good guys) and others; its first chapter was entitled “The Opening Struggle for Realism,” and the novelists treated at length were almost all realists or naturalists: Howells, Wharton, Dreiser, Anderson, Lewis, Cather, Glasgow, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wright, Farrell, Steinbeck. On Native Grounds helped shape the American canon as we’ve known it since, and its successors followed much the same formula, each of them staking out a period, examining several writers in sequence, and reinforcing that first book’s pro-realistic bias. Bright Book of Life (1971) commenced with Hemingway and surveyed a number of midcentury novelists, among them Vonnegut, Updike, Bellow, and Gates; An American Procession (1984) covered the century between 1830 and 1932, from Emerson through “the triumph of modernism,” treating along the way Hawthorne, Poe, Henry Adams, Whitman, Lincoln, Melville, Dickinson, Twain, Henry James, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Dos Passos.

All along, Kazin’s critical approach has remained very much his own. Not only is he no academic theorist; he’s not even a 1940s-style New Critic à la Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom. His method is impressionistic; he writes in an easy, accessible prose about authors and their works, showing how those works grew out of the authors’ circumstances, placing them in social and historical context, and serving up firm opinions in profusion. If he celebrates the realistic depiction of people and situations, he tends to dislike, underrate, or ignore books that don’t fall squarely into the realistic/naturalistic tradition. His major achievement has been to place that tradition at the center of the American canon, and to render extra-canonical books that some of us may consider superior to books he has canonized but that he finds too—what?—inward, grotesque, quirky, or precious. Consequently, such dreadful but “important” naturalistic works as Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets loom far larger in his pantheon than do the exquisite productions of writers like James Purdy and Guy Davenport. If Hemingway, for Kazin, still totally eclipses his contemporaries Glenway Wescott, Thornton Wilder, and William Maxwell, it’s because Papa was that most admirable of all things, a “tough, sharp realist.

Now this number-one fan of realism and naturalism has written, of all things, a book called God and the American Writer. Why? Has Kazin, in old age, discovered himself to have a religious impulse? Is he responding to millennial America’s upswing of interest in faith? Whatever the case, his title is provocative, and this reader, for one, found himself wondering what Kazin might have to say about such an imposing topic.

Alas, the answer is: not much. At least not much that seems fresh, urgent or relevant. On the contrary, to be immersed in the major social, cultural, and political questions of the late 1990s and to turn from them to God and the American Writer is to feel a powerful and dismaying sense of its utter redundancy. For what Kazin has given us here is yet another good, old-fashioned Sunday-afternoon-after-church drive through the American literary countryside. The ride is agreeable enough, the scenery as attractive as ever. But is this relaxed excursion all that “our greatest living critic” has to offer us? Here again are Hawthorne and Emerson, Melville and Whitman, Lincoln and Dickinson, Twain and Eliot and Faulkner—and here again is Kazin retelling the stories of their lives and careers, and once more serving up familiar quotations and unsurprising observations. Who, one must ask, needs yet another plot summary of The Scarlet Letter? Or another walk through Prufrock? One hesitates to say it, but God and the American Writer is the sort of tired, gratuitous book that can almost make you understand why many smart graduate students today reject traditional approaches like Kazin’s in favor of trendy critical theory.

To be sure, this book differs from its predessors in that Kazin’s emphasis here is on God. But it becomes clear very quickly that this subject matter simply doesn’t suit him. Kazin’s god has always been art; he has never really seemed to understand how religion works; when the subject has come up, he has often gotten cranky and written about it in the manner of someone who just doesn’t get it and wishes the whole business would just go away. He hasn’t really changed. If this book has a principal theme, it is that literary genius and Christian orthodoxy don’t go hand in hand.  Almost every one of the chapters is a collection of quotations and biographical facts designed to show that the writer under examination was, indeed, heterodox. On Dickinson: “Other people had faith absolute. She had mind.”  Twain “was too obsessed with God to be consistent about Him.”  For each of his writers, Kazin is at pains to make clear, orthodox belief was not enough; each felt compelled to jettison absolutist dogma and ecclesiastical authority and find God on his or her own—or reject Him entirely.

Kazin makes this point, over and over, strenuously, emphatically, as if it were a revelation. Yet the observation is a commonplace. Almost every brilliant original mind is unorthodox. This is true not only of the minds of novelists and poets, but of the minds of theologians. Such minds, moreover, tend to be unorthodox not only in religion but in other things, too. It is through the efforts of such minds that orthodoxies are reshaped, rearticulated, revitalized. Kazin seems not to understand this—or may not to want to acknowledge it In any case, he doesn’t take his reflections on any writer here very far beyond the point of noting their heterodoxy. And how could he? The ultimate rationalist, he views all these writers’ religious/spiritual/mystical lives from the outside. As a result his rambling table talk doesn’t bring us very close at all to the wellspring of their heterodoxies; for him, it is enough to say mat they are heterodox, and to leave it at that period.

The one theologically orthodox author treated here is T.S. Eliot who, raised a Presbyterian in St Louis, emigrated to Britain and found solace in Anglo-Catholicism. Kazin ridicules this pilgrimage. He seems constitutionally unable to comprehend the mystical appeal of Anglo-Catholicism for Eliot or to appreciate the meaning or value of Anglican ritual, which he mocks. And speaking of Catholicism, why isn’t Flannery O”Connor here? She was at once a thoroughly orthodox Roman Catholic and the most extraordinary American short-story writer of the twentieth century. In Bright Book of Life, Kazin admitted that “she was one of the few Catholic writers of fiction in our day…who managed to fuse a thorough orthodoxy with the greatest possible independence and sophiscation as an artist” Plainly challenged by this combination, Kazin made a few condescending remarks about O’Connor in that earlier book and then shuffled her offstage. It’s hard not to conclude that she’s totally absent from his new study mainly because her oeuvre alone blasts his thesis to smithereens.

Kazin’s ultimate failing here is that he just can’t imagine what it is like to believe in God—or, at least in the Christian God. “Nobody argues about God today,” he writes. (Well, maybe not on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.) He simply can’t understand
—is, indeed, perplexed by, angered by—a mind that can’t let go of God, even if it has decided that God is evil. Quoting a passage from Twain’s dark late work “The Mysterious Stranger,” in which life is revealed to be a dream and God a monster with a diabolical master plan, Kazin recognizes the lingering influence of Twain’s boyhood Calvinism, and asks, exasperatedly, “Yes, but who, by this confession, had this dream that God had a plan, a dreadful, insanely total plan for mankind but someone brought up like Mark Twain himself? Why blame God for becoming man’s ‘supreme fiction’?” So concludes Kazin’s essay on Twain—for Kazin, having thus thrown up his hands uncomprehendingly at Twain’s God-fixation, has nowhere to go, except on to the next writer.

What we see in the work of Alfred Kazin is literary criticism as it used to be widely practiced. It is criticism that takes for granted the value of a canon and the idea that there is indeed such a thing as a great book; it is criticism that arises out of an authentic response to a literary work by a thinking, feeling human being. For a prime example of a very different kind of criticism—one that has gained currency in the academy, and that seems poised to win the day in the next century, leaving the Kazins of the world on the ash heap of history—let us consider Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire.

Radway is, it might be said, the ultimate academic critic: she is a professor of English at the Mecca of academic criticism, Duke University. Many of us have long suspected that such critics don’t really like literature and are blind and deaf to literary merit.  The chief value of Radway’s book lies in her frank admission that this is, for her, indeed the case. Radway is honest about the fact that her lower-middle-class origins (she grew up in suburban New Jersey) always made her feel—and still make her feel—intimidated by the academy and by high culture. She’s honest about the fact that she sought a Ph.D. in English not because she loved literature but because a Ph.D. seemed to her a step up in social class. She’s honest about the fact that deep down, she loves the trash she grew up reading and really has little affection for the classics she’s “supposed” to love, and that she feels like a class traitor for having spent so much time reading, explicating, teaching, and singing the praises of those “elitist” classics. And she’s honest about the fact that she feels an uneasy twinge whenever someone speaks of literary quality, for she takes it as a putdown of her low origins and/or her taste for trash. Much of her book, indeed, amounts to little more than solipsistic self-therapy: “perhaps my interest in the Book-of-the-Month Club and in the nature of aesthetic value was a product of guilt guilt at leaving Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, and the suburbs behind; guilt at the consequences of my own social mobility; guilt at the feelings of superiority I had worked so hard to achieve.”  (What, one wonders, would Mary McCarthy or Rebecca West have made of this neurotic hand-wringing?)

Radway’s first book was Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, a sympathetic study of romance novels—yes, as in Harlequin romances—and of the women who read them. Seeking an equally congenial topic for her second book, she settled on a study of the Book-of-the-Month Club, in hopes that she would find among the BOMC judges an attractive populism. She arranged to spend several months in 1985 with the judges at the BOMC’s Manhattan offices, interviewing them, sitting in on their meetings, and perusing their reports on new books. (Why she has taken so long to write about this experience goes unexplained.) Yet even the BOMC judges disappointed her, for they dared to speak seriously of literary merit, selecting some books because they exhibited such merit and dismissing others because they didn’t. “Despite their appreciation for many different kinds of books, reading experiences, and pleasures,” she complains, “the Book-of-the-Month Club editors resorted to drawing distinctions between good and bad books. They, too, it seemed, were caught up in the game of taste, in the business of discriminating between approved pleasures and those they considered more suspect or base.”

Note well: Radway cannot imagine taste as anything but a game; for her, the kind of discrimination involved in judging books is barely indistinguishable from the kind that also goes by the name of bigotry or racism; for her, aesthetic value is just another term for moral judgment and social elitism. The BOMC judges’ “tendency to define the self by dismissing the tastes and preferences of others” (i.e., by rejecting junky books), Radway sniffs, “was disturbingly familiar to me.”  But of course what’s disturbing is that a professor of English at a major university can have so little understanding of the concept of literary value.

At this book’s heart lies a question: which is better, the academy’s way of reading books or the BOMCs? In Part I, an account of her sojourn with the BOMC judges, Radway distinguishes between the two ways. “The club editors,” she writes, “adopted a stance toward books and reading that was…distinctly different from the one with which I was most familiar. The editors quickly made it very clear that they were wary of academic ways of reading and writing, and that wariness was closely bound up with an articulate critique of academic habits of evaluation. It was also tied to their desire to assert against such academic strictures the validity of their own competing recommendations and professional expertise. Typically academic,’ they disdainfully observed about many university press books— ‘too dry, too specialized, too self-absorbed for us.’ In their world, the word ‘academic’ was as much a term of opprobrium as the word ‘middlebrow’ was in mine.” (She writes as if all this came as a surprise to her—a mind-boggling thought)

Radway suggests in Part I that the BOMC judges are less elitist than the academy. Yet in Part II, she undergoes a sea change. Having written Part I in an accessible tone and from the perspective of a self-reflective individual, she metamorphoses in Part II into a jargon-slinging academic robot who manages to find a way to make the BOMC inferior to the academy. Her great insight here is that the BOMC is in fact—aha!—a money-making scheme disguised as a cultural enterprise. “No longer either transcendent or pure, culture as it was marketed by middlebrow agencies like the Book-of-the-Month Club was sullied by the particular terms of its embodiment and therefore exposed as just one more material form penetrated by interest by the economic.” This is a complicated way of saying something very simple, and Radway says it over and over, in various pretentious ways. “If those book-lined shelves in the [BOMC’s Manhattan] reception area and the character of the editorial meetings had lulled me into believing that I was studying an institution merely literary and cultural in nature,” she writes, “the skepticism of the club’s new executives reminded me starkly that the Book-of-the-Month Club was indeed a commercial establishment, and as such it had its own interests to protect My questions, together with my plans to publish the answers I intended to develop, posed a potential threat, it seemed, not just to the professional expertise of the editors, but also to the economic viability of the organization. Still, I needed to follow through on a project for which I had just received a major grant.”

This is hilarious stuff—and what makes it all the richer is that the hilarity seems utterly unintentional. Who on earth would ever think that the BOMC was not a commercial operation? Radway writes with the colossal naïveté of someone who has gone straight through school without ever having to think or worry much about money—or, if she has, has never noticed it. She seems not even to notice the irony that her “major grant” makes her projected book— this book—a commercial operation as well; she doesn’t even recognize that what she’s saying here is that she, too, has her “own interests to protect.”

And that’s only the beginning of Radway’s obtuseness. She seems not to realize that there is no real competition to speak of between books of the sort taken by the BOMC and specialized academic books. She writes about academic criticism as if she doesn’ t know how small an audience it has. She seems never to have given any thought to the paradox that she is an anti-elitist fan of mass culture who writes about it for an academic elite in language guaranteed to put off the ordinary reader. She says of the BOMC judges that “their reports [on new books] were much more personal than the style of writing I had been taught. At the same time, they conceptualized the books they wrote about not solely as occasions for extended analysis but, rather, as opportunities for experience and response.” To this one can only say, Duhhhhh!

Has there ever been such a perfect product of the academic assembly line? Radway is constantly making reference to the way she has “been taught” to think, to read, to write. She knows nothing, one gathers, except what she has been taught by the academy. She has no understanding, no insight; all she has is the cant and categories she’s been taught, and to the extent that she can shove what she’s looking at into some prefabricated ideological pigeonhole, she feels she’s accomplished her work as a scholar of contemporary culture. Never, it would appear, has a stray rebellious thought crossed her mind; never has she experienced—or, perhaps, allowed herself to acknowledge that she has experiencedfrustration with the limitations of what she has been taught. Never has it occurred to her, apparently, to ask haw she feels about something she has read in a professional capacity; never has it occurred to her to write about those feelings in her own words, instead of parroting the modish critics whose work she was spoon-fed by her own professors.

Yet her BOMC experience causes her to feel a twinge of rebellion, at last. She admits in the first part of the book that the BOMC judges “made me wonder what had happened to my capacity to read in this way”—that is, as a human being who loves books and not as an academic robot. This is a scandal—for the only way in which Radway differs from hundreds of her colleagues is not that she has lost her ability to read in this way but that she admits it. To move from Part I to Part II of her book is to suspect; for a moment, that Radway is consciously out to paint a picture of herself as a schizophrenic, a house divided against itself—an academic ideologue at war with a book-lover. Yet she doesn’t have enough self-knowledge to be aware of the self-portrait she’s painting. She is so accustomed to the rote exercise of applying theory to text that, having set up her BOMC experience in Part I, she just goes ahead and does what comes naturally in Part II, not realizing how totally at odds the exercise is with everything that has gone before. What’s outrageous here, of course, is that it’s people like Radway who are teaching the best and brightest young men and women today how to think, how to read, and how to write.

Kazin and Radway mark two ends of a spectrum. He clings heroically— quixotically?—to his canon; she rejects the very notions of taste and value on which that canon is based. The present critic’s natural sympathies are with the old warrior, who— however much one may disagree with his specific judgments—has on his side intelligence, ardor, discipline, discrimination, seriousness. Yet one feels compelled to append the observation that a canon should be a living organism, constantly reshaping itself in accordance with changing circumstances and new insights; Kazin’s canon feels a bit too much like a dead thing, something no longer reimagined but merely revisited, like a long-beloved summer resort that has seen better days. What is frustrating here, in any case, is that in the late 1990s what American culture needs is not just a tired recitation of canonical names but an active defense of the idea of literary value. In the face of the very real cultural threat personified by the likes of Janice Radway, in short, Kazin (like altogether too many other non-ideological critics, most of them younger than he is) seems overly content to be a well-mannered back number—a contemporary equivalent, ironically, of the nineteenth-century Genteel Tradition that his own more bracing realistic tradition supplanted. The ubiquity in the academy of critics like Radway suggests that if taste and value are to endure—let alone thrive—in the next century, gentility on the part of non-ideologues may not suffice.