Colossal single-handed scholarly enterprises are not very frequent in our time. Specialization is the order of the day; solid structures built on deep-laid foundations and gradually rising across the years in harmony with an unwavering architectural plan don't suit the contemporary nervous style. All the more honor to Professor Ren,e Wellek, whose immense history of literary criticism from 1750 to 1950 has just added volumes five and six of its projected seven.
The four early volumes, the very first of which appeared no fewer than 30 years ago, were primarily chronological in their organization, dealing consecutively with the Late 18th Century, The Romantic Age, The Age of Transition, and The Later 19th Century. But the last three volumes, of which two are now out, will divide the first 50 years of the 20th century into geographical units -- English Criticism, American Criticism, and Criticism of the Continent of Euorpe.
Partly the new arrangement results from the growing volume of literary criticism in the 20th century; and there is no doubt that it seems, at first glance, to go against the grain of an age in which major figures like James, Pound, Eliot and Auden combined in different ways English with American commitments. But the shift matters less because the real unit of Wellek's discussion is the individual critic himself.
It is not very likely that any reader will sit down of set purpose and read through all seven of Wellek's volumes (when they are complete) innumerical order; most likely, the set will be used chiefly for reference. And yet, whenever one looks up the discussion of a single literary commentator, it is impossible to avoid feeling behind Wellek's account the weight and mass of the enormous reading and long-sighted judgment that have gone into this majestic piece of mental sculpture.
Fussbudgets may complain (and some have complained) that literary criticism as a subject is too amorphous and unconsecutive to have a proper history. Literary critics define their tasks independently, and in strikingly different ways; it's rare for the work of one to "develop out of" the work of another. The pressures of war, politics, the sciences, and the other arts all have their effect on literary criticism; a cosmopolitan culture offers critics hundreds of models to choose among. Wellek's approach of maintaining rough chronological order, while describing the critics one at a time with as much cross-referencing as needed, results in a deep sense of intellectual lance. It's true that a widespread, not very precise movement like existentialism, which never found concentrated expression in the oeuvre of a particular author, tends to slip through the net. But there doesn't seem any practical way to avoid this, and if something must be sacrificed it might as well be momentary fads like existentialism and the linguistic fancies of Marshall McLuhan.
Nobody else in the world, it seems safe to say, has read so much literary commentary, organized it so systematically, or is entitled to discuss it so authoritatively, as Wellek. Literary criticism, for most of us, is a part-time, a secondary diversion; we are still trying to catch up with the novels of Thomas Love Peacock, the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, the poetical works of John Clare -- things that we've heard about, and even looked into, but never thoroughly explored. And with that mass of overdue literary bills hanging over us, how shall we take time to assess in a properly thorough and judicious way the critical achievement of John Middleton Murry or William Crary Brownell?
It's the merit of Wellek and his method that he has explored the depths and shallows of literary criticism across a period of 200 years and an expanse of half a dozen different cultures. What he writes about he has read, not just in snippets or with a mind focused elsewhere, but seriously, carefully, and entirely. He is by no means an uncritical reader himself, and when he finds someone running off at the mouth, he does not hesitate to pass crisp and incisive judgment. But the range of critics to choose among is so wide that generally, when he finds a man worth mentioning at all, Wellek manages to give him a concluding pat on the back, to recognize in him merit of one sort or another.
His own critical stance tends to emphasize respect for factual evidence, logical coherence, and lucidity of expression. He sees some virtue in the sort of slashing criticism that artists like Lawrence, Pound, and Eliot use when they want to clear an open space for their own productions, but his preference is pronounced for more quiet and judicious evaluations. He believes, evidently, that interpretations are either better or worse, and that the absolute indeterminacy of every text is a self-destructive belief.
A BROWSER through the present pair of volumes will be struck by Wellek's ability to gather up the loose strands of avowedly minor critics, to take stock of their work as a whole, and to see them, so to speak, in the round. The recovery of figures like Oliver Elton, Joel Elias Spingarn, H.W. Garrod, and the full dimensions of Irving Babbitt, seems to me not the least of the historian's achievements. On the other hand, I'm not sure that the detailed accounts of Wellek's controversies with F.R. Leavis and F.W. Bateson contribute as much as they should to a perspective on the critics under discussion -- or as much as they detract from our sense of the historian's proper distance. Contestants shouldn't be referees too. But of course as his narrative approaches the present age and the relatively recent past, it's inevitable that the historian will have to deal with his personal acquaintance -- colleagues, collaborators, and controversial partners. It is their history now, and inescapably the historian's too.
The vessel is nearing port after its long voyage; congratulations and thanks to the intrepid and unwearied navigator.