The Literary Critic as Humanist

Frank Kermode, 1919-2010, exemplified an ideal that is dying.

In 2000, Frank Kermode, the great literary critic and scholar who died last week at the age of 90, gave a lecture called “The Cambridge Connection” about the history of the Cambridge University English department. It sounds like a parochial enough topic until you realize that the major figures in that department were I.A. Richards, William Empson, and F.R. Leavis—probably the most important English critics of the 20th century. Kermode was too modest to include himself in the list. This was a man, after all, who titled his memoir Not Entitledbut he was of the same stature and belonged to the same tradition.

This was, as he described it, the “old school [that] was always worried about keeping open the channels between the academy and the intelligentsia broadly conceived.” In another essay, he remembered that when he was starting his career in the early 1950s, there was “a general belief, now weirdly archaic, that literary criticism was extremely important, possibly the most important humanistic discipline, not only in the universities but also in the civilized world more generally.”

Reading those words is a reminder that with Kermode’s death, a whole era of literary culture is nearly at its end. He was one of the last exemplars of an ideal that dates back at least to Matthew Arnold: the ideal of the literary critic as the humanist par excellence. What gave the critic his special authority was the way that he thought and wrote at the intersection—of the classics and the contemporary world, of literature and society, of the academy and the common reader. As Kermode recognized, few professors of English aspire to that kind of role anymore: “This is an age of theory, and theory is both difficult and usually not related to anything that meets the wider interest I speak of.” This judgment is all the more persuasive because Kermode himself was no enemy of the abstruse critical theory that came to England and America from France in the 1970s. In fact, he made headlines in 1982 when he resigned from the Cambridge English department to protest its refusal to promote a junior professor because he was a “Structuralist.”

Just to list Kermode’s books is to see how wide his own interests were. In our age of specialization, it is hard to imagine that a single scholar will again be able to write seminal books on so many subjects: English Renaissance poetry, Shakespeare, Modernism, the Bible as literature, apocalyptic thought, and more. And that is not to mention Kermode’s second life as a reviewer and journalist. He was an editor of Encounter (he resigned when he learned that the magazine was funded by the CIA) and helped to launch the London Review of Books;he wrote regularly for the LRB, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and other magazines.

The last book he published before he died was Bury Place Papers, a collection of his LRB essays, which shows that he was a tough and witty critic as well as a learned one. His review of Martin Amis’ essay collection The War Against Cliché is a master class in quiet devastation: “The main title of this collection may at first seem wantonly non-descriptive, but it turns out to be exact,” Kermode begins. “The first thing to see to if you want to write well is to avoid doing bad writing, used thinking. The more positive requirements can be left till later, if only a little later.” It takes a minute to realize that Kermode’s verdict on Amis has just been delivered and that there will be no appeal.

Kermode’s scholarly writing benefits from the virtues of his literary journalism. His style is poised and urbane, free from the harshness and obscurity that are the besetting sins of academic prose. He always writes with the intelligent general reader in mind, and the benefits of this approach go beyond style. It is what allows Kermode to write literary criticism as though it were actually a part of literature—a way of interpreting and responding to life just as poetry and fiction are.

The best of Kermode’s books, in fact, are genuinely moving, because his commentary on texts becomes his means of grappling with fundamental human experiences. Romantic Image, his reputation-making study of Modernist poetry, discusses the metaphor of the dance in Yeats and Eliot; but it is also a book about the longing for transcendence, the way art tries to escape from time. The Genesis of Secrecy is a study of the narrative techniques of the New Testament, but it is also a meditation on the needs and hopes that make human beings impose meaning on the world.

Above all, there is The Sense of an Ending, Kermode’s 1966 masterpiece. *  These six lectures are subtitled “Studies in the Theory of Fiction,” but for Kermode, thinking about the way stories end is a way of thinking about the way lives end, and the way we imagine the world will end. The existential urgency of fiction, for Kermode, is made clear in the book’s last chapter, where he discusses Solitary Confinement, the memoir of Christopher Burney, who was taken prisoner by the Nazis while working as a British agent in occupied France. Kermode—who served in the Royal Navy during World War II—sees the prisoner in his cell as the archetypal storyteller: “Down on the bedrock,” he quotes Burney as writing, “life becomes a love affair of the mind.” The best writers, including the best critics, invite us to share the lives they have imagined into being—which is why, like Kermode, they continue to live even after they are gone.

Correction, Aug. 27, 2010: This piece originally left out the “an” in the title The Sense of an Ending. Return to the corrected sentence. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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