Terry Eagleton: literary and national critic


“How to Read Literature” by Terry Eagleton (Yale Univ.)
August 6, 2013

Over his long career as man of letters, teacher and polemicist, Terry Eagleton has achieved an almost singular distinction: He is a famous literary critic. Eagleton made his name in 1983 with “Literary Theory: An Introduction,” a slender, deceptively accessible book that was for a generation of undergraduates a lifeline of clarity in a roiling sea of baffling Continental theories of post-structuralism and deconstruction. Its aura of bluff common sense was a ruse, of course. As a Marxist, Eagleton’s agenda was the illustration of how literature inevitably furthers or degrades the class structure, and how all literature is a function of economic factors. Most of the many books he has written since play variations on this basic theme.

How to Read Literature (Yale Univ., $26) and last year’s The Event of Literature, just out in paperback (Yale Univ., $17), represent Eagleton working at the height of his expressive and intellectual power, albeit in two very different modes. “How to Read Literature” is a lively and engaging primer on basic strategies for appreciating literature, a kind of English 101 in a book. “The Event of Literature” is a dense, ambitious treatise proposing “what with suitable modesty might be called a Theory of (almost) Everything.” Here, Eagleton melds formalist rigor and post-structuralist phenomenology within a Marxist framework. Taken together, the two books make a splendid high-low punch: theory and praxis, divergent expressions of a powerful sensibility engaged with searching questions about identity, narrative and meaning.

Given this double-barreled display of command and clarity, it’s a shock to find that Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America (Norton, $24.95) is such a shallow, lazy affair. In these “churlish reflections of a visitor from the United Kingdom,” the synthesizing power that distinguishes Eagleton’s literary criticism has deteriorated into facile generalization, while his usual tone of droll amusement has curdled into sniffy disdain. I’m a good East Coast liberal, an Anglophile and urbanist culturally predisposed to agree with criticisms of the cruder aspects of American culture — the self-help religiosity, the philistinism, the violence — yet I found myself muttering disagreement almost continually while reading the book.

Eagleton opens with a stout defense of the utility of stereotypes, which “need not deny that we are all distinctive individuals,” but much of what he says in “Across the Pond” is so grotesquely reductionist as to be absurd. There’s a fish-in-a-barrel quality to Eagleton’s contempt. It does not require unusual powers of perception and observation to note that “American English is a language soggy with superlatives,” and saying that American tourists “look like a leper colony on a day out” is hardly an example of incisive social criticism.

Eagleton likes to mock our sunny optimism as hopelessly Pollyanna-ish, but one wonders just how broad the scope of his acquaintance is. He mentions repeatedly how earnest and amiable American college students are, but he might find that the citizens he encounters on the quad at Notre Dame or Duke have quite a different temperament from those in, say, a working-class bar in Youngstown, Ohio. At times, he verges on the obtuse, displaying gaps in knowledge that are hard to fathom in one otherwise so brilliantly and widely read. He asserts, for example, that “most Americans are too straight-talking to make effective satirists.” We must take up a collection to buy him some Mark Twain or Claire Messud. He ridicules the American obsession with childhood, saying that “to write about childlike innocence is inevitably to betray it,” but did this not find its most extreme expression from the archetypal English poet William Wordsworth? Eagleton quotes extensively from Alexis de Tocque­ville’s 19th-century opus “Democracy in America,” which is apparently required in this kind of book — largely because Tocqueville’s writings are so diffuse as to be a mirror reflecting whatever truth about America one wants to see. “Across the Pond,” conversely, is like a mirror in which one sees only Terry Eagleton, the author having eclipsed his subject.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

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