When a true cult appears in the world, you may know it by this infallible sign; that it sells taped lectures to the faithful at exorbitant prices. Literary critics, who usually lecture for a living, are the curious exception, lacking the shrewd understanding of price elasticity that the religious cults, the philosophical cults, and the buy-real-estate-with-no-money-down cults all seem to share. Maybe C.P. Snow had a point about the rift between the Two Cultures, at least between literature and economics. Maybe the cult critics simply didn’t care for money. But they missed out on a serious marketing opportunity. Who among the acolytes of F.R. Leavis, John Crowe Ransom, T.S. Eliot or Yvor Winters wouldn’t shell out the big bucks for the lectures of their favorite on cassette?

What becomes a cult critic? Evaluation, above all. For most of the last century instruction in literature aimed at producing someone like the befuddled art critic in the old New Yorker cartoon who says, “I know all about art, but I don’t know what I like.” It was possible, in my student days twenty years ago, to major in English without once being told why we were reading the writers we were, instead of some others. One of the epigraphs to Leavis’s The Common Pursuit is from Robert Graves:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly, “I understand, Mr. Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall we say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.”

Cult critics distinctly prefer some authors to others. They usually arrive on the scene by dynamiting an established reputation. Ransom lays waste to Shakespeare’s sonnets (the whole essay isn’t online, but an excerpt, on Sonnet 73, is here). Leavis writes that Milton “has forgotten how to use the English language.” Winters reads nearly the entire 18th and most of the 19th century out of the poetic canon. English students are starved for this sort of thing, and they flock.

Some of the best passages in the cult critics are the demolition jobs. Winters on Yeats, for instance:

Yeats’s concept of what would be the ideal society is also important. Such a society would be essentially agrarian, with as few politicans and tradesmen as possible. The dominant class would be the landed gentry; the peasants would also be important, but would stay in their place; a fair sprinkling of beggars (some of them mad), of drunkards, and of priests would make the countryside more picturesque. The gentlemen should be violent and bitter, patrons of the arts, and the maintainers of order; they should be good horsemen, preferably reckless horsemen (if the two kinds may exist in one); and they should be fond of fishing. The ladies should be beautiful and charming, should be gracious hostesses…, should if possible be musicians, should drive men mad, love, marry, and produce children, should not be interested in ideas, and should ride horseback, preferably to hounds. So far as I can recollect, the ladies are not required to go fishing.

Eliot, who is temperamentally incapable of such viciousness, must be read out of the ranks of the true cult critics on that account. He sets himself up as a defender of “tradition” and can scarcely bring himself to pronounce that certain works that have been read for a long time are just plain bad. Calling Milton “magniloquent” is as much vitriol as he can muster. Too much hedging will never gather you a proper cult, and when it comes to hedging Eliot had no peer.

Cult critics are all hedgehogs, not foxes; they have one big idea and they beat it senseless. Leavis takes dibs on “life,” Winters “moral judgment,” and poor Ransom is left with “structure [the argument] and texture [the images],” which is dualistic, to begin with, and dualism is no way to run a cult. In any case it bears too much resemblance to the ancient Horatian formula that a poem must “teach and delight” to excite the unquestioning allegiance that the true cult critic demands. Ransom was also an extremely polite Southerner, and politeness, in this league, will never do.

This leaves only Leavis and Winters standing as the preeminent cult critics of the 20th century. They have in common a finely-honed sense of persecution at the hands of academia. Although Leavis spent most of his career at Cambridge and Winters at Stanford, each considered himself disastrously underappreciated, and with reason. Leavis was well past 40 before he secured a permanent position, despite an impressive list of publications. “They say I have persecution mania,” he remarked. “Comes of being persecuted, you know.” Winters’ plaint at the end of his last book, Forms of Discovery, could serve almost as the cult critic’s motto:

It has been a common practice for years for casual critics to ridicule my students in a parenthesis; this has been an easy way to ridicule me. And the sneer is the easiest of all weapons to employ; it costs the user no labor, no understanding, and I should judge that it raises him in his own estimation. But I think the time has come when my faithful reader may as well face certain facts, no matter how painful the experience: namely, that I know a great deal about the art of poetry, theoretically, historically, and practically; that a great many talented people have come to Stanford to work with me; that I have been an excellent teacher; that six or seven of my former students are among the best poets of this century; that some of these and a few others are distinguished scholars.

Loyalty, clearly, flows top-down as well as bottom-up. Winters was very near death when he wrote this, and it’s true, actually. It’s true! His students included J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Scott Momaday, and a host of minor figures. Still, your impulse is to close the book out of embarrassment.

Cult leadership is lonely work, and Leavis and Winters were both blessed with helpfully literary wives. Mrs. Winters was Janet Lewis, a distinguished poet and novelist (The Return of Martin Guerre) who didn’t care much for disputation but reliably backed her husband in public. The famously truculent Mrs. Leavis, known to her husband as Trixie, the Leavisites as Queenie, and the reading public as Q.D., was another matter. Her Ph.D. thesis, Fiction and the Reading Public, is still cited today. With her husband, she co-edited Scrutiny, the house organ of the Leavisites, for its entire 20-year run, and she was widely considered the more terrifying of the couple. Truly a match made in — truly a match.

Now, a confession: I am a Winters cultist myself, as my regular readers will have gathered by now. Winters, too, had his own, more modest version of Scrutiny, a little magazine called The Gyroscope. Four issues, with the approximate production values of a high-school literary magazine of the pre-PC era, were published in 1929 and 1930, and I own, at vast expense, the complete run (cf. cassette tapes).

There is an old Matt Groening cartoon that lists the Six Types of College Professors. One of them is “The One-Idea-To-Explain-Everything Maniac,” and there is a footnote: “Warning: Idea might be true.” So it is with Winters. Poems really are, largely considered, moral judgments about a human experience. Ben Jonson and Greville really are superior to Spenser and Sidney, Wordsworth and Shelley really are bad jokes, and 1700-1850 really is a trough in the history of English and American poetry. I urge any of my readers who have made it this far to go look up his books, especially the omnibus In Defense of Reason and Forms of Discovery; you will learn more about poetry than you ever thought possible.

Leavis, on the other hand, was spotty. He is a sensitive reader, especially of Shakespeare, but a lousy theoretician — “life” can take you only so far — and his considered judgments are unlikely to stand the test of time. (D.H. Lawrence, for the record, was not the greatest novelist of the 20th century. If Lawrence survives for anything, it will be, ironically, a work of criticism, the splenetic curiosity Studies in Classic American Literature.) None of Leavis’s epigones will be remembered. And Leavis, unlike Winters, was no poet himself, and incapable of the close metrical analysis that is one of the distinctive features of Winters’ criticism.

This, for the budding cult critic, is the most inspiring lesson of all. You will need feral energy, a boundless capacity for holding grudges, and barking monomania. What you won’t need, necessarily, is to be a good critic.

(Update: Michael Blowhard comments. And Jim Henley has some especially interesting remarks.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted July 1, 2003 @ 10:34 PM | Literature,Poetry

12 Responses to “Critical Cults”

  1. 1 1. Michael Blowhard

    Does Leslie Fiedler not make the cut? One idea that explains it all – check. But maybe he’s missing some other qualification?

  2. 2 2. Aaron Haspel

    You need staying power. Leavis and Winters occupied their bully-pulpits for upwards of thirty years, while Fiedler and Wilson wrote one well-known book apiece. They were more fads than cults. You can’t speak of a "school of Fiedler" or a "school of Wilson" either.

    I was also thinking more of poetry critics — although Leavis and Winters both wrote acutely on the novel — who have two large advantages in this field. First, they have five centuries of settled reputations to explode, instead of only two. Second, poetry, unlike fiction, has a very small reading public, and thus the field is susceptible to disproportionate influence by a single critic.

    James: All of Lawrence’s criticism is extremely readable, far more so than his fiction, which belies his reputation as the instinctive miner’s son from the Midlands. I think Studies in Classic American Literature is the best of it, but there is much to be said for Apocalypse.

  3. 3 3. Deb

    I havent read serious lit crit since my college days back in the stone ages. This makes me want to look some up just to see what I’m missing.

  4. 4 4. James Russell

    Interesting. Just wondering where you would rate Colin Wilson in this, as he fits the hedgehog criterion (he says so himself) but he’s not a literary critic, or at least he does more than just literary criticism.

    As for Lawrence, do you think he might not also be remembered for Apocalypse, another spleen-filled critical blast (specifically against the Biblical book of Revelation)?

  5. 5 5. Vladimir


    How do you rate Lionel Trilling in this context?

  6. 6 6. Alan Sullivan

    The late quote from Winters is sad indeed. He complains of sneers, after dismissing whole swatches of literary history?

  7. 7 7. Aaron Haspel

    Vladimir: Trilling fails to rise to cult status on two counts. He was insufficiently disputatious, and he was more a fox than a hedgehog: there is no particular idea with which his name is associated. This is why there are no Trillingites in the way there are Wintersians.

    Alan: I hate that Winters quote. But in fairness, if you believe that certain poets and periods are underrated, then it follows that others must be overrated, and Winters gives very convincing reasons why. Reorganizing the canon is both positive and negative work.

  8. 8 8. Deb

    Does Isaiah Berlin count or do you only quote him twice now because the metaphor fits?

  9. 9 9. Aaron Haspel

    Isaiah Berlin doesn’t even come close; he is far too qualifying and reasonable. In any case the metaphor isn’t even his, although its application is; he was just quoting some ancient Greek.

  10. 10 10. John Bull

    QD Leavis "Famously truculent"?
    Says who?
    Although I can’t see that it would
    influence one’s judgment of the quality of her criticism one way or the other, for the record, she never came across to me in the 3 years I knew her as anything approaching "truculent".

    Helpful, yes, considerate, certainly, conscientious, absolutely. She also
    made tea and offered homemade biscuits, worried that one might not be taking enough vitamin C to combat Cambridge winters and lent
    scarce texts from her own library.
    Please yourself about what she wrote, it’s there for all to read and evaluate independently, but don’t get the gossipy bits wrong.

  11. 11 11. B

    You must’ve missed a great deal in Eliot to deny him viciousness. His parentheses are murder weapons.

  12. 12 12. B

    And Leavis’ problem is that he was noisily wrong about Milton. He will be forgotten with Winters.

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