Jan 14, 2008

Enclave Extremism

A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review offered an essay pertinent to the study of Yvor Winters. It concerned the issue of enclave extremism. The author, Cass Sunstein, a Princeton scholar, opined in the piece that the Internet is fostering excessive social divisions and intellectual hardheadedness in our society because it allows people to create ossified enclaves of the like-minded. This, in some cases, can breed foolish theories and practices, inane ideas, and sometimes dangerous movements that are hard to break up because their adherents and their views are closed off from challenge, criticism, evaluation, and even doubt. Though protection and associations of the like-minded have their benefits, as Sunstein admits and I will argue below, they also have dangers. The essay can be found at:


I find this essay pertinent because I have opined a couple times on this blog that the best hope for the strong development of modern classicism in our day, what I keep calling Wintersian or Stanford School literature, is the creation of some sort of intellectual enclave in which the reasonably like-minded can share ideas and develop a movement. In the case of Wintersian classical theories and practices, I believe that the making of an enclave of some sort is the only hope for significant progress in Wintersian studies and modern classicism. For the academy shows not a single sign that it will change from its profligate modernist and postmodernist ways any time in the near future.

Let’s say 25 years. Will American literary culture in general in the next 25 years come around to a classical way of thinking? The chances are extremely close to ZERO that neither the academy nor the literary marketplace will foster the development of modern classicism in any significant way for a long time to come, if ever (and I admit that it will likely be never).

It is little remembered that there was a notable time that the Stanford School had created an enclave for the advancement of modern classicism of the Wintersian variety. This nebulous enclave took the form of

A. the graduate seminars that Yvor Winters taught at Stanford over some 30 years;

B. the publication of some modern classical poetry through the Swallow Press run by Alan Swallow, who published the major works of both Yvor Winters and his wife Janet Lewis; and

C. the critical essays, poetry, stories, and reviews published in the Southern Review, Second Series under the reliably erudite editorship of LSU scholar Donald Stanford (1965-1983).

The Southern Review did fine work in keeping alive the small but strong classical tradition of the Stanford School in the years just before and after Winters’s death in 1968. That enclave has mostly dissolved. Winters died nearly 40 years ago and no one at Stanford University or anywhere else teaches as he did any longer; Alan Swallow long died more than 40 years ago, and the Swallow Press, purchased by Ohio University Press, though it still publishes Wintersians or keeps them in print, does so without much verve; and the Southern Review has become another organ of American postmodern writing in the 25 years since Donald Stanford retired. Yet great work was done in that enclave. Some of the greatest literature ever written in our language was written in it. Perhaps the creation of a journal like Donald Stanford’s Southern Review will carry on the work of Winters and his “disciples.”

In my extensive reading in his letters and essays, I have found little reason to believe that Yvor Winters truly hoped to convert literary culture en masse to classicism or to create a large enclave of the like-minded who would foster his critical theories. He did make a few comments in his essays that that expressed a vague hope to start a revolution in taste with his controversial and heretical writings, but the comments seem like little more than wishful dreaming. His letters, published in 2000, in which I expected to find stronger aspirations, betray almost no hint of hope for revolution. Consider this representative passage from a 1957 letter to Malcolm Cowley, written near the end of Winters’s career and life; the occasion is his resignation from a prominent literary society:

There are only three or four members of the [National] Institute [of Arts and Letters] (literary members, I mean) whose work interest me even a little, and they and I have no critical principles or judgments in common as far as I can see. I live too far away to meet other members and try to persuade them by conversation; I have no time to try correspondence; and neither method is worth anything anyway.

This sounds to me much like almost all the comments Winters made on such matters in his letters. He expresses little desire to change the world, to spark a revolution, as we might say. Indeed, his hopes appear rather small, as also shown in comments to Cowley a few months later about teaching:

If there were more brute historical knowledge among the great of my generation, there would be much less bullshit written about what poetry is. I have read a good many of the best books and have directed a good many of the best dissertations. I am not ignorant. I have been grubbing in this stuff professionally, while you people have been agreeing privately and publicly with each other. [¶] But I can’t convince any of you by this kind of letter, and even if I could, none of you will be around much longer. I would rather work with my boys, some of whom are bright and most of whom have a good many years before them.

Once again, these comments betray no hope or desire to take over literary culture, no expectation that he or his classical ideas could or would have wide influence. Judging from all his writings, I believe that Winters realized that he must spread his ideas mostly though his teaching. The work of devising a new history of poetry that he mentions in this letter yielded his last book, Forms of Discovery, which has had almost no influence on general literary culture that I can discern. (Most interestingly in that book, Winters speaks very briefly of his forlorn, nearly hopeless desire to upend the understanding of the history of English poetry in general literary culture.) The reference to “the boys” in the letter to Cowley means his students, of course, whom he also discussed in an earlier letter (1950) to a publisher named Harry Duncan:

Most of my poets will never be poets, but they know a damned sight more about poetry right now than most of their critics. Meanwhile I taught [James Vincent] Cunningham, [Helen] Pinkerton, [Edgar] Bowers, and [Lee] Gerlach. They are better poets than the imitators of Tate, Ransom, and Eliot, such as [Robert Penn] Warren, Randall Jarrell, and [John] Berryman. When somebody else comes up with a better kennel-full I shall be glad to see it.

True, true: it was quite a kennel-full, however much the kennel remains overlooked right up to our time. But again, my point here is that Winters betrays hopes only for a small educational enclave, not wide influence. Even earlier, in 1946, in a letter to John Frederick Nims (who went on to a distinguished career as a New Formalist poet and critic), Winters expresses no desire for revolution when writing about trying to get his ideas across to a wider audience:

It has been my experience that if one explains ten ideas in the greatest of detail and with the fullest of illustration, one is lucky to learn that one idea from the lot has been approximately grasped by the most learned and talented audience that one can discover. One can do better with a university class, because the class has to pay attention or fail. Most contemporary criticism has been written according to the formula which you recommend in your letter; and as a result, most contemporary criticism, including that in “Poetry,” is in a fog.

In all his correspondence, Winters appears to have felt that he was doing just about all he could do to change literary culture in teaching his classes, training new poets, and publishing his obscure essays. He seems to have seldom felt any hope that his ideas would achieve wide influence, especially after the immediately hostile reactions to his earliest writings that announced his rejection of Modernist-Romantic aesthetics.

There are dangers in creating enclaves, as we all suspect and some know well. Wintersians could lose even more credibility. Wintersians could become insular and then isolated, hardened in wrongheaded views. But though all the world think we’re extremists, I believe that it is best to create some kind of enclave, in the hope that some significant part of literary culture will some day see things differently and more truly great literature, classical literature, will be written. An enclave would best keep this hope alive.

I found Carl Sunstein’s discussion of “enclave extremism” on the Internet to be thought-provoking and relevant to all such issues, particularly to the intellectual and social dangers of creating enclaves. The short essay is worth reading for those interested in the writings of Yvor Winters and the future of his critical theories and of modern classicism.

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