Mar 29, 2016

Mistakes Made, But...

A.O. Scott, the well-known book and film critic of the New York Times, has written of Yvor Winters in his new and widely reviewed book on literary and other kinds of criticism, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. A section of the book, one which briefly discusses a few ideas Winters had, was published in February in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott refers to Winters's long meandering essay from the Hudson Review, "Problems of the Modern Critic of Literature" (1951), which can be found as the opening essay of his book The Function of Criticism. That essay, not Scott's, opens with an interesting discussion of how literary artists and critics have to make a living in the mid-20th century, a subject which leads Winters into a much longer and unprecedented discussion of the strengths of the various literary genres and his defense of the short poem as the strongest or most complete and compelling form of literature.

Scott mentions Winters's attempt to establish a new canon, but that's not Scott's central interest. Rather, he is concerned to show that Winters was one of the artist-critics at mid-century whose careers were troubled by growing conflicts. These were the modern writers who first, to put it succinctly, turned to college teaching to pay the bills while working on their art on the side.

This section of Scott's book is insightful and thought-provoking. But he does make a number of silly mistakes concerning Winters. For one, he trots out the notion that Winters considered the poetry of Barnabe Googe to be the finest work of the English Renaissance. This is just plain false. Winters did consider Googe to have written a few sound and valuable short poems, but he did not consider him one of the greats of English literature nor the finest Renaissance poet, as Scott implies. For someone who later says that Winters's work deserves wider and deeper study, this is a foolish mistake to make, and odd, too, considering the final word in that subtitle. Winters did rank the poetry of Jones Very far above that of Whitman, as Scott claims. But he seems not to be aware of Winters's higher judgment of Emily Dickinson and Frederick Godard Tuckermen. It's strange to me that so often those few who nowadays write that Winters is deserving of deeper study find it necessary to go out of their way to leave the impression that he was a nut and a crank.

Scott's various misinterpretations of Winters, small and large, in the brief paragraphs he devotes to his critical thought deserve a rejoinder. I'll have to get up the gumption to offer one. Nonetheless, Scott gets a few things right, and it's encouraging to see Winters discussed in any venue of wide literary notice.

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