ALL FOUR of these new books will make tasty fireside reading for readers who still enjoy getting into an occasional brawl about art. Two collect critical articles and reviews and bristle with what could be called affectionate arrogance, a third reprints Malcolm Cowley's masterful 1944 New Yorker profile of the most legendary of literary editors, and the fourth is a collection of pronouncements, ranging from lofty formulations to fighting words, made by writers about their craft.
Although literature receives most of the attention here, the most substantial of these books, a posthumous collection of Harold Rosenberg's writings and interviews, ranges more widely. Rosenberg's influence on contemporary art has been so profound that it is as an art critic that he is usually remembered, but his final gathering of previously uncollected material will remind readers what a trenchant and unsparing reader he was, particularly of fellow critics.
For instance, Rosenberg is elegantly ironical as he demonstrates the absurdity he finds in F.R. Leavis' dogmatic attempt to use literary thinking and criticism as weapons to alter the entire modern world order, the denaturing tendencies of which had been diagnosed by Leavis' prophets of choice, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot. "If Leavis' rancor made him a moral ancestor of Britain's angry young men," he writes, "his literary opinions helped to divert poetry into the arid exercises in traditional metrics that have filled the quarterlies. Through (Leavis' magazine) Scrutiny, the revolutionary critic became, as in the Soviet Union, the rival and at times the persecutor of the innovative writer. . . . As with the Freudians, were it not for the interpreter's megaphone, the speaker himself would not seem so far away."
What impresses most about this diverse collection is the fluency with which Rosenberg develops his viewpoints across a wide spectrum of arts and other humanist disciplines. Journalism ("an aging craft, all but paralyzed by the hardening of its assumptions and procedures"), the electronic global culture identified by Marshall McLuhan, photography and especially painting are all surveyed with a confident authority that will alternately illuminate and infuriate any reader who cares about these subjects. Central to all of Rosenberg's discussions is the idea that an artist must be aware of and committed to the political issues of his times. "Pro or con," he insists while discussing the function of art as a vehicle for political action, "the artist must be concerned with politics -- I have been insisting on this for twenty years. If art does not engage itself in the struggles of the time, it becomes insignificant and shrinks the figure of the artist. But what these struggles are is by no means always the issues that are most popular."
It will be a rare reader who does not feel Rosenberg's teeth sink into him at least once ("Reviewing is an activity forced on people who need a job. Apparently, the newspapers want it done."), but probably even fewer will be able to escape the spell of his perfectly finished style, which wears its enormous erudition and wit gracefully even when he is extemporizing, as in the transcribed panel discussions included in the second half of the book.
ALTHOUGH THE poet-critic D.J. Enright restricts himself to literature, his tastes are cosmopolitan to the point that readers without The Golden Lotus or The Tale of Genji fresh in their minds may feel somewhat boorish. Enright was professor of English at the University of Singapore for years, and is at home with oriental literary classics to a degree that is not usual in a critic so obviously receptive to the Germanic tradition that spawned Musil, Brecht and the Manns. But Enright approaches his subject with far fewer blades flashing than Rosenberg, and with a wry sense of humor that will beguile even those whose reading lacks global scope. Discussing stereotyped reactions to his identity as a poet, he speculates:
"It might, by the way, be worth collecting common notions of 'the poet'. For example, 'What! You're a poet and you watch television?' (for much of the time the only sort of vision available to one), or 'You actually travel on the Underground?' (a rich compost for poems and, if you can get a seat, a chance to write), or 'You mean you work in an office?' (a place made to work in). A contrasting set of notions of 'the poet' is held by the rather more sophisticated, who quietly remove breakables, lock up the liquor and send their daughters out to the cinema."
This reader was gratified to find Enright giving an enthusiastic nod to a handful of books, all of them humorous, that are personal favorites often forced off on friends. Anyone who keeps copies handy of G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, of Barbara Wright's translation of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, of Cecil Parrott's unexpurgated translation of Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, or of Robert Musil's gigantic and magnificent The Man Without Qualities will find a kindred spirit in Enright, who relishes those works in the way one likes to see them relished. Overalls book straddles the divide between criticism and entertainment, and readers who follow his leads will discover the special virtues of books which may have been out of range for a more seriously didactic sensibility like that of Harold Rosenberg.
THE REMAINING two books are slight, but so full of charm that they invite reading aloud. Malcolm Cowley's 48 pages on Maxwell Perkins are a paragon of the New Yorker profile: sophisticated, anecdotal, relaxed but packed with facts. In his preface, Cowley recalls that when he first submitted the piece it was rejected by editor William Shawn on the grounds that it was not factual enough. His smarting professional pride sent him back to the piece with renewed zeal and he packed it with so much information that it ran way over in length. Shawn ran it anyway, and its enormous success is not surprising.
Like the writers whose careers Perkins made, Cowley marvels at the editor's ability to engender permanent works of literature by entering the spirit of a floundering book and making specific suggestions to its exasperated author. Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and others described the process repeatedly, and Cowley gives an account of the wrestling that went on between the editor and Thomas Wolfe over the chaotic manuscript of Of Time and the River. But the chief success of the profile is the completeness with which it projects Perkins' very private and complex personality in so short a space. Roberts Rinehart has shown its respect for the tribute by issuing it in an unusually attractive and beautifully made volume.
Maxwell Perkins also turns up in James Charlton's Writer's Quotation Book. "Editors are extremely fallible people, all of them," he says. "Don't put too much trust in them." Charlton will earn my browser's trust with his extremely sharp and witty selection of writers' quotes on all aspecs of writing, however. Some of them reflect personal attitudes, like those of the Duke of Gloucester, who accepted the second volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with the words, "Another damned thick square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?" or Samuel Johnson, who insists, "Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." But Kenneth Rexroth was speaking for all writers when he fulminated, "I've had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book." Readers who love this sort of book know who they are, and few of them will put it down until they reach the final words, from Ecclesiastes: "of making many books there is no end.