The Man Between The Lines
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, August 11, 1996
Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994) was for years a name to conjure with. Co-creator with Robert Penn Warren of the classic textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), one of the guiding spirits behind the Southern Review in its heyday during the 1930s, perhaps the most famous close reader among the New Critics (see The Well Wrought Urn), and a longtime professor at Yale, Brooks spent more than six decades teaching Americans how to read poetry and fiction.
When this young Southerner began his career, college students would complain about studying "King Lear" because they didn't "like to read about bad people." Most criticism then took the form of either sober accounts of a poem's moral lessons, with abundant asides on the author's life and times, or chatty effusions that made reading sound like wine-tasting, a pastime reserved for intellectual hearties who liked to emote about their pal Dr. Johnson or poor doomed Keats. In the 1920s even Cambridge undergraduates, as I.A. Richards discovered in a famous experiment, couldn't distinguish metaphysical poetry from sentimental drivel. All this changed, dramatically, because of the oft-maligned New Critics, who taught that the way to understand a poem was to pay close attention to the actual words on the page. In England the greatest of these practical critics was William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Some Versions of Pastoral, The Structure of Complex Words); in America it was Cleanth Brooks.
While Empson (1906-1984), a profoundly original, even eccentric thinker, remains a living force in literary studies, Brooks already seems to have passed into the ancient history of criticism. His once eye-opening interpretations of "The Waste Land" and the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" now seem perfectly obvious, the stuff of English 101. Over the years Brooks's views on paradox, irony, and the linguistic drama inside a poem have been so widely accepted that they no longer fire up young lit majors with dreams of really, properly explicating "The Marshes of Glynn" or "Colin Clouts Comes Home Again." That Brooks's own theoretical writing is singularly modest and clear, at times even tentative about its conclusions, also marks him out as old-fashioned in an age when critical prose prefers cutesy puns, heart-sinking jargon, loud pronouncements.
None of this means, however, that Cleanth Brooks deserves biographical neglect. His academic career -- from Methodist minister's household to endowed Yale professorship -- provides an illustration of virtue and hard work suitably rewarded. (There were no silver spoons in the Brooks family; the critic's brother spent his life as a car mechanic.) A book like William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) even today remains a standard Michelin guide to this celebrated "postage stamp of soil" (though Brooks's emphasis on community values does tend to downplay the Dionysiac side of Faulkner). And were a hotshot assistant professor at Duke ever to open the pages of Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) or The Well Wrought Urn (1947), she might well be surprised: A poem is neither philosophy nor autobiography but rather, as Brooks drily puts it, "a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme." That doesn't sound a bit old-fashioned. Not least, many, now aging Southern men and women of letters continue to revere Brooks as a mentor, friend, example. Consequently Mark Royden Winchell's capacious, enthusiastic biography ought to be warmly welcomed, especially by literary historians. Still, its widest appeal, at least to ordinary mortals, may be as a compendium of pen portraits and literary anecdotes, as choice gossip about famous writers. Though not himself among the more flamboyant guests or drunken gate-crashers, Cleanth Brooks regularly hobnobbed with some of the biggest names at the ongoing party of 20th-century American literature.
Consider the following: Brooks's first scholarly publication, a study of Southern dialects, was used to help Vivien Leigh perfect her accent as Scarlett O'Hara. While teaching at Louisiana State University, the critic consulted Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, who gained notoriety a few years later by assassinating Gov. Huey Long. Almost incidentally, we learn that Brooks's friend and colleague, the future poet laureate Robert Penn Warren, tried to commit suicide as a young man; his note said, ironically enough, that "he no longer wanted to live because he could never be a poet." John Crowe Ransom, the courtly founding editor of the era's premier critical journal, the Kenyon Review, was a surprisingly ardent Cleveland Indians fan; once while playing charades he failed to guess the title of his own book The World's Body. When Allen Tate received a fellowship to Yale, the poet and critic flaunted his good fortune so annoyingly that a senior professor pulled strings and had the grant revoked. Brooks and "Red" Warren liked to refer to their first text book not as An Approach to Literature (1936) but as "the Reproach to Literature."
AT ONE POINT in the late '30s Henry Miller, hardly the sort of writer one usually associates with the New Critics or the conservative Agrarians, unexpectedly appeared at the offices of the Southern Review: The expatriate author, "whose writings were banned in this country, was trying to sell enough of his work to finance his way west to Taos, New Mexico." He was announced by the journal's secretary, Jean Stafford. Not yet a famous short-story writer, Stafford was at LSU with her husband, poet Robert Lowell (who converted to Catholicism after listening to a priest in a course given by Robert Penn Warren). In 1937 the young couple had met out in Colorado, where they heard Ford Madox Ford deliver "an inaudible 90-minute speech on his relationship with Jozef Korzeniowski, whom he failed to identify as Joseph Conrad." In Baton Rouge one night, on the way home from a drunken party with Lowell and their good friend, the short-story writer Peter Taylor, Stafford said, "Well, I think John Donne -- " and promptly threw up into her purse. Then Taylor threw up on Cleanth Brooks's car. Later, Lowell and Taylor saw Stafford "back in the bathroom, washing dollar bills." About this time yet another would-be story writer, Eudora Welty, learned that "The Petrified Man" had been rejected by the Southern Review; she "was so disheartened that she destroyed it." When Red Warren wrote to say that he had changed his mind, Welty had to reconstruct one of her greatest stories from memory.
Among Cleanth Brooks's oldest friends were media guru Marshall McLuhan and the boorish yet charismatic philosopher Wilmoore Kendall, a major influence on conservatives William Buckley and Russell Kirk, as well as the model for Saul Bellow's character Mosby; Bellow once said that Kendall had "made some of the most interesting mistakes a man could make in the twentieth century." Back when the New Criticism first started to infiltrate Yale, retired professor Chauncy Brewster Tinker exploded at his junior colleagues: "The trouble with you young fellows is that you are all off a-whoring after I.A. Richards." Another famous Yale English prof, W.K. Wimsatt (best remembered for his essay, with Monroe C. Beardsley, on the intentional fallacy), was hulking, rumpled and a full seven feet tall. When Dylan Thomas came to New Haven, he was taken, naturally enough, to the tables down at Mory's where he scandalized his hosts with "bawdy stories about Queen Victoria on the chamber pot."
Amusing literary trivia clearly abounds here: Did you know that Robert Penn Warren followed his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the King's Men, not with another best seller but with a textbook called Modern Rhetoric? Or that more critical attention, in the way of books, articles and dissertations, has been paid to William Faulkner than to any other writer in English except Shakespeare? Or that Cleanth Brooks has, over the years, endured attacks in print from such noted literary scholars as Van Wyck Brooks, Douglas Bush, Alfred Kazin, R.S. Crane, Frederick Crews and Gerald Graff? Even Brooks's former graduate students, the eminent critics Hugh Kenner and Stanley Fish, have delivered a hard knock or two.
In addition to its readability, anecdotal plenty, and painstaking exegesis of Brooks's intellectual development, not to mention its handsome design and binding, Mark Royden Winchell's book also has a few annoying qualities. I looked in vain for detail about Cleanth Brooks's working methods, reading habits, the kind of courses he taught. Brooks is insistently described as gentlemanly, but often he seems frankly timorous, naive, condescending, and wishy-washy. Most of the time Winchell tries to delineate fairly the arguments of Brooks's adversaries, but sometimes he falls into petty characterizations: "the self-described `secular critic' and Palestinian revolutionary Edward Said"; Marvin Mudrick's "snide hatchet job"; those "myopic pedants" Melville scholar Hershel Parker and Harvard literary historian Douglas Bush.
But let's go out with one final anecdote. At the end of his life, Cleanth Brooks attended a conference at which two economists presented a paper wherein they tried to "determine the verisimilitude of Faulkner's world by comparing the average height of his characters with the available historical records. During the question-and-answer period, Cleanth stood up and said: `For over sixty years now, I've tried to teach people how to read literature. After hearing this paper, I'm about ready to give up.' " Thinking about today's far more rebarbative literary scholarship, one is tempted to whisper to the aging critic, "Cleanth, you ain't heard nothin' yet."
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.
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