On Monday, our 19th century American Lit course met to discuss two critical articles that focused on the book American Renaissance by F. O. Matthiessen and tied those articles to the core text for the week, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (original 1855 edition). Because most of you are likely uninterested in the specific details and critical strategies of the academic articles, the book they discuss, or the classic text involved with all three, I’ll save you from as much extemporaneous material as I can. Thanks for reading though. I’ll place all the texts at the bottom if you’re genuinely looking to brush up on your literary criticism. In short, Matthiessen spent well over a decade putting together this critical text that centered on the five authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman) whom he deemed had single-handedly created a unique, unprecedented American voice in the mid-nineteenth century.
Students in my past have often asked (in their own way) how the excerpts that they’ve been assigned to read in textbooks or anthologies were selected and have continued to appear, generations after their publications. In their words, it’s something like “Why can’t we read authors who are alive and stuff?” Many times, I’ve chatted with parents who want to 1) tell me what they read in high school, 2) ask if their son or daughter will be assigned the same books as they themselves were assigned a generation earlier, 3) regenerate a love (or lack of) for a canonical text (e.g. “Are you gonna make them read The Scarlet Letter? I HATED that book!”), or 4) all of these.
Here’s where it gets a little interesting: Matthiessen was clearly an intellectual man whose passion for not only identifying and categorizing these works, but also for demystifying them and creating the groundwork for the first truly American canon of literature. He was also a vocal advocate for academic freedom at a prestigious university. Because he challenged so many traditions and norms, he earned a widespread following of cheerers and jeerers. [Jeerers, evidently, is not a known word to my computer; however, this is just a blog, so I’m moving forward.] When his book was finally released (he’d had to “check himself in” at one point because the project had become so overwhelming and he was also afraid his lover was on the brink of death [more on that in a sec]), he was met with a less than resounding response from his colleagues in literary circles.
So, Matthiessen was a homosexual man. It feels so strange to write that [because, so what?…right?], but it ends up being pertinent to this brief essay. For decades now, American Renaissance–by far his most notable publication–has become the subject of a vast amount of interpretations. I have not read it, but that’s secondary. Anyway, his own reservations about how much of these authors’ personal lives and lifestyles should play into his criticisms was apparently always at the forefront of his mind. What’s even crazier–crazier is a word but it’s not very academic…meh–is that some of Matthiessen’s critics thought he offers a less authentic book because he essentially omitted the authors’ sexuality, even though he himself was writing a genesis of what’s become “gay criticism.”
This leads to the question that found its way in the center of our class discussion this week: When writing a critical article over a piece of literature (or really any art), does the critic have an obligation to insert anything beyond the art, or should the artist (and his/her life, history, sexuality, politics, etc.) be discussed as well? Matthiessen’s book also prompted some to suggest that the critic’s own life, history, sexuality, politics, etc. should be in play as well.
I suppose a less intense way to discuss this debate is to think about why you like the art you like. Why, for instance, does a Picasso piece appeal or disgust you? Why are you drawn to Game of Thrones? Why do you still have your favorite songs from when you were fourteen in a saved playlist? If you told me the answer to any of these, would you be comfortable with me bringing in your past relationships, your issues with your parent(s), your sexuality, or your voting history as my interpretation of why you still love Asking Alexandra?
I don’t have answers. But I find this discussion intriguing. The era of criticism most of us have been conditioned to follow/use has been what’s known as New Criticism–interpreting/judging the art for itself and dismissing all other aspects. However, is it possible to truly analyze art without consciously or subconsciously harboring in our own lives and perspectives?