Jan 29, 2008

Popular Discussion of Yvor Winters

Alain De Botton published a short piece on the web site of the Philosopher’s Magazine (U.K.) on “Opening the Big Tent,” which concerns his attempt at the popularization of philosophy. De Botton has apparently taken a good deal of heat from academics for his books, as he recounts in the article. The reaction to his endeavors seems ridiculously strong in his description of the matter:

... the response from the holders of the philosophical flame was outraged and hysterical. I was denounced from most pulpits as a vulgarian who had willfully betrayed the mission of philosophy in the name of making money.

My goodness. If that is a fair characterization of what happened, it’s ludicrous. De Botton’s short article can be found at:


In case you didn’t realize it, the central purpose of this blog has been to popularize the ideas and art of Yvor Winters. I am not an academic or a scholar. I am a working man who has limited time for the scholarly study of Winters, which might not be my chief interest in any case. I do enjoy reading literary scholarship and consider it highly beneficial, but my goal with this blog and my Yvor Winters web site has been to get Winters’s ideas in front of more people, give people ways to make quick, provisional assessments of Winters’s critical theories. My overarching objective is to get more people interested in reading him. Unlike De Botton, I have aroused no anger among scholars with this blog. Rather, I have been wholly ignored by those who know Winters.

Yvor Winters himself appears to have been entirely uninterested in his popularity, though he did hope for a modest measure influence among critics, scholars, and writers. He truly was an elitist in many ways. It is quite clear that he believed that there was little that non-scholars could do to fathom his theories or the serious literature he championed. Winters had no desire to be “popular,” which I would define here as being “somewhat well known to ordinary people who love to read.” Not a single word in all his writings that I have ever read betrays any desire or expectation that his ideas would enjoy popularity in this sense. On the contrary, he wrote a few times in his essays that his ideas were for the few who could rightly comprehend and apply them. Here is one such comment, from one of his most popular essays, on his general critical principles, “Preliminary Problems” (from In Defense of Reason):

... although the critic should display reasonable humility and caution, it is only fair to add that few men possess either the talent or the education to justify their being taken very seriously, even of those who are nominally professional students of these matters.

Nonetheless, Winters did appear to think (I don’t have the time to chase down quotations, for which I am sorry) that those who carry on the classical tradition in modern literature would have some sort of trickle-down effect, in which the “mob” (don’t take offense: Winters would consider me a member) would be better prepared to live because modern poets wrote more classical poems. These subjects -- 1) how elitist are Winters’s theories, and 2) how harmful or beneficial is that elitism? -- need to be addressed by Wintersians, those writers who can be considered members of the Stanford School, though they have been passed over. The discussion of reactions to the work of Alain De Botton might provide a good starting place for a discussion of the elitism of Yvor Winters.

Yet, though I would like the academics of the Stanford School, if there are any, to write to this blog, they are not essential. Whether Winters’s theories are elitist or not, I’ve been trying to start a popular discussion, a non-academic discourse, on Winters. Little has happened since I started this, my second try at a Winters blog. Certainly, I have aroused no hostility or anger. I receive a handful of emails from years to year, but very few comments directly on this blog. It appears that the time has not yet arrived for the ideas and theories of Yvor Winters to become even a tiny bit more popular. I guess I still hope for more (though it seems against all hope, as we say).

I think the De Botton piece is worth reading in this context. It’s very short; it won’t take long.


Ben Kilpela said...

This discussion brought to mind a quote from W.C. Fields that I only dimly recalled. But I quickly chased it down: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." I hope I am not being a damn fool by pressing on with this blog. But note that even the curmudgeonly Fields added two "try's" to his comment. This is only my second try at a blog, though it has been going on for 18 months now without any significant discussion of Winters.

Shawn R said...

Dear Ben,

I can understand your frustration at not generating more discussion. However, please do not think that your efforts are wasted. I read your blog regularly and have gained much from your discussion, even though, being an amateur when it comes to literature, I do not think I have much of value to add to the discussion. Best wishes, Shawn R