Marius Bewley is probably little remembered nowadays; a literary critic of the mid-century, whose critical principles were indebted mostly to Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis, he wrote mostly, and most penetratingly, on American literature. His book length studies of the American novel, The Eccentric Design and The Complex Fate, are concerned with authors from Cooper to Fitzgerald, with special attention in the latter to Hawthorne and James, and with some attention also paid to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. In his collection of essays, Masks and Mirrors, he writes on British and American authors from Donne to the mid-twentieth century.
There’s always a question of why to read an old critic at all; Bewley was recommended to me over ten years ago when I asked a friend for names of critics who wrote well on the novel. Reading him then, I found little to use; and even more recently, was slightly perplexed by the recommendation. Bewley is a critic comfortable speaking of “symbols” in literature, of the “American dream,” of “reality,” and of “life”; what I didn’t see was how helpfully he does so, and how rigorously.
In one passage that will seem antiquated in many respects, Bewley enlists a host of dubious concepts but implicitly suggests how they ought to be arranged so as to stand up to scrutiny and serve as enduring structures for thought:
In any attempt to assess the respective value of the individual and the community when they are deemed to be in conflict, one is, in fact, concerned with the ultimate problem of determining and evaluating the nature of reality itself. “All literature,” Mr Trilling writes, “tends to be concerned with the nature of reality—I mean quite simply the old opposition between what really is and what merely seems.’ In a society where neither traditional manners nor an orthodoxy exists, the problem is nearly overwhelming, and the serious artist becomes a metaphysician in spite of himself. The sense of intolerable spiritual isolation which is characteristic of so much of Hawthorne’s writing, and is perfectly embodied in a figure like Melville’s Ahab, would have been impossible had the social and religious traditions of Europe been at Hawthorne’s disposal—either for acceptance or rejection. Under the impact of Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, Calvinism had ceased to exist in Hawthorne’s New England except as the mantle of respectability worn by Boston merchants, or as a nostalgic shadow stripped of sanctions. Without either a mystical Christian community or the living, fluid framework of a traditional social mode, the nineteenth-century American was forced back on the democratic abstraction as the only possible escape for his imprisoned identity.
Any part of this on its own would leave me skeptical: Trilling’s essentializing claim, Bewley’s contrasting of Europe and America, the intellectual history of a writer’s milieu. But the arrangement resists my skepticism. “What really is and what merely seems” is not hollow when applied to the variety of objects in the world, and to the questions that span categories of existence: life or death; animate or inanimate; flourishing or sham; success or failure; just or unjust; divine or human; human or animal; natural or unnatural; selfish or generous. The difficulty of distinguishing one from the other does perplex, and generates the conflict in a great deal of literature, and any that Empson would break open, for instance. Trilling’s remark would be deserving of skepticism if it neglected the social grounds of those questions, and when Bewley supplies them he recognizes that any author will provide and be provided with poles of understanding (Hawthorne himself takes Europe and America, Bewley argues), and with inherited machinery for the dialectic (the conventions of literature), and with sources of authority and knowledge that are perforce social, as Bewley knows when he situates Hawthorne in his intellectual context. The study of the resolution itself, as Bewley undertakes it, operates on the choices of word, the texture of detail, the scheme and design of the literature; and Bewley does not ask for neat resolution, but cautiously assesses whatever irresolution or resolution authors provide, decides how well they decide.
At the heart of Bewley’s criticism lies the question of basic metaphysics: what is and what seems to be? American literature, especially Hawthorne and Melville and James, erupt brightly, potently into forms of the question, often with astonishing directness. But Bewley is helpful because taking it as a central crux of a work of literature, and then working outward, onto whatever the seeming or being might attach (it seems natural, but is it? It seems just, but is it?), he suggests how the critic needs very quickly to turn to social forms of knowledge, as well as to the conventions of fiction and narrative, and the granularity of language. He makes apparent how much work there is of digging and clearing for a critic to do if they are to take the understanding in a work of literature on its own terms.
We appeal to life, Bewley reminds us, to make sense of what is; there are no other grounds available for the novelist or for us as we read a novel; but life is not a given for a novelist, instead being summoned onto the page, not represented but presented anew, even when it is indebted to ideas and texts beyond itself; the grounds for the judgment, the means for the resolution to the dialectic over what is and what seems to be, are contained within the judgment and resolution itself; the life a novel imagines is the life to which it must turn to decide what is real and what seems to be, or else the life it imagines is the life that makes such a decision impossible. But the unity of such a work of art, containing within itself both a judgment on the real and the grounds of a judgment for what is real, does not therefore offer itself as entirely self-sufficient to readers; comprehension and interpretation of the grounds of the judgment, the life that the novel presents, depends on social and political significance that might be dormant or implicit and easily lost; and the dimensions of the grounds of the judgment may likewise be determined by circumstances that we must recover; recognizing the work for scholarship, Bewley’s critical assessment of the relationship of the judgment and the grounds of judgment, of the formal resolution (or not) of a novel and a novel’s presentation of life, feels, even after sixty years, intelligent and intelligible. Most of all, it looks exemplary as a critical approach.