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Thursday, November 18, 2010

T. S. Eliot and literary culture: Dare we ask, “What is it?”

Like clockwork, Joseph Epstein’s recent lament in Commentary that “literary culture . . . seems to be slowly but decisively shutting down” set off a series of online exchanges whose very liveliness seems to challenge Epstein’s thesis. Reviewing the revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1, 1898–1922 and the newly published Volume 2, 1923–1925, Epstein questioned why no poet or critic currently has the same cultural impact as T. S. Eliot:
The unsolved mystery is why no poetry written since the time of Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Frost, or possibly Auden has anything like the same memorability as theirs . . . Wallace Stevens’s poetry is more beautiful, and Robert Frost’s often more powerful, than Eliot’s, but the latter’s, once read, refuses to leave the mind. . . Eliot was the equivalent in literature of Albert Einstein in science in that everyone seemed to know that these men were immensely significant without quite knowing for what.
Daniel E. Pritchard on The Wooden Spoon took up the gauntlet, noting that plenty of publishers, magazines, and blogs, including “The Quarterly Conversation, Jacket, Maggy, Pen & Anvil, Dark Sky, Dzanc Books, Fulcrum, The Critical Flame, and others . . . have persisted under the fantasy that through hard work and imagination we can make something worthwhile. Make literary culture vibrant. . . that we are literary culture.” To prove his point: when Frank Wilson responded by commenting that “while there are plenty of good writers around . . . the culture as a whole no longer seems to . . . take literature seriously,” Pritchard used that as a springboard for a follow-up post:
Well, it's absolutely fair to say that no single person has the stature that Eliot did then. Ashbery or Heaney are closest. But I'm not sure that such a figure is possible any longer. First, the narrative has changed: as an audience, we no longer anoint demigods because we no longer adhere to the same hegemony and homogeneity that existed at mid-century. . . Second, we have largely unmasked / undermined the pretension of high culture. People no longer feel the need to pay lip service to so-called high art, and alternate traditions have been legitimized in kind.
Besides, there are so many excellent poets writing today: John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Geoffrey Hill, Rae Armantrout, D.A. Powell, Mark Levine, Ange Mlinko, Maxine Kumin, Ben Lerner, Mark Strand, Seamus Heaney, Tim Donnelly, and many more. Beyond that, there are even more young poets uncounted: scribbling, sweating, reading. . . 
Patrick Nathan’s first impulse after reading Epstein’s essay was to mourn, but then he perked up:
With household names like Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel García Márquez, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison; with incredibly perceptive critics along the lines of Martin Amis and Harold Bloom; with lesser known writers like Anne Carson and Eula Biss performing thrilling literary experiments, we have nothing short of a wonderfully diverse and enriching literary world. Epstein’s article only shows his unproductive and twisted nostalgia. . . In today’s world, a lover of the literary arts has a chance at greatness even if he or she couldn’t afford to go to Harvard or Oxford. In fact it’s what most of us are banking on. Things are only going to become more exciting from here.
Epstein’s essay resumes an alarm he sounded as early as 1988 in his now-famous essay “Who Killed Poetry?” (also in Commentary). Apparently, what he has read and witnessed since hasn’t changed his mind. Has he missed reading someone? Is the change in culture he is describing a difference in quality or in values? Do we sacrifice “memorability” for diversity? Is our current culture dying or vibrant? We’d like to know your thoughts.

Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes 14 poems by T. S. Eliot); John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956–1987


  1. I can't access Commentary so I'm only going to respond to what is excerpted here -- but no, I don't think Epstein is far off the mark, and I have to give Library of America some credit for making me think that way.

    I've been reading here and there in the two Edmund Wilson volumes, and you have to wonder: where is today's Wilson? Harold Bloom and James Wood maybe. Look at all the great critics from the past, the ones who were so engaged with American life and culture: Mary McCarthy, James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Philip Rahv, Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, Alfred Kazin, Mark van Doren, Susan Sontag. The list goes on and on. Look at all those names and try coming up with a comparable crowd in terms of insight, intelligence and achievement. You cannot do it.

    Granted, this was all a little before my time, but even when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there was at least some kind of a book culture going on, and average people had some sense of == as Epstein said regarding Einstein -- writers who were for some reason famous, like Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and John Updike. People may not have read them but they knew who they were. Today, that kind of interest has been shifted to the margins.

    The posts from Pritchard and Nathan are not encouraging, because the most relevant writers and critics they refer to are senior citizens or close to it. Take away the big names and it's a very thin crowd, isn't it?

  2. RW: I probably could have focused more on young writers, that's true. Terrance Hayes, Juliana Spahr, Tim Donnelly, AE Stallings, Ainge Mlinko, Ben Mazer, John Kinsella, Ashley Anna McHugh, Kazim Ali, DA Powell are all younger. I just finished Stephen Sturgeon's first book in manuscript (out from Dark Sky in Spring 2011), and it was astounding — so, there's a recommendation. As for critics: have you read The Critical Flame (www.criticalflame.org)? The Quarterly Conversation (quarterlyconversation.com)?

    Things absolutely look different today. Media has had a whole-hog revolution, splitting the generations. The median age of America is at its highest point and rising. Young people — who in the 1960s looked ahead toward promise and progress and affluence — now will spend their lives toiling to get out from decades of failed policies. We will fight a long global war against radicalism. The business model of literary culture is failing; education has become a business; literary culture has been marginalized by those with political and profit motives.

    It's not shocking that we have not been eager to replicate the culture that was handed down. But short of talent and intellect we are not, and we will not fail.

  3. It's hard to say what the future holds. Keep in mind though that while anyone can recognize a period of decline, no can see a golden age until it's over. Sometimes one masquerades as the other. None of the novelists in mid-19th Century America likely thought they were setting the standard for American culture for years to come. God knows they didn't get the recognition they deserved in their lifetime.


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