American criticism in the twentieth century has been dominated by a tendency which treats literature as a self-referring activity cut off from all other spheres of life. Since the triumph of the "New Criticism" in the 1920s and '30s, most American critics have conceived their vocation as the illumination of the specifically "literary" qualities of particular works of art. In pursuing this mission, such critics have taken as their chief target various forms of reductionism--claims that a literary work is really about something outside of itself and that its true nature can be comprehended by methods borrowed from other disciplines.
The appropriate way to understand a work of art, argued T.S. Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," is in relation to other works of art, rather than to the artist's emotional life, to the social order of his time, or even to his creative intentions. The consequence of this perspective was the transformation of critical practice into a "close reading" which confronts the "text" and delineates its formal structures with minimal references to preconceptions drawn from extra-literary contexts.
Of course, all American critics have not adhered to such an ahistorical, formalistic view of literature. In addition to the mechanical Marxists and Freudians whose overt reductionisms enjoyed a certain vogue in the '30s and '40s, prominent critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling continued to insist on the importance of social and psychological concerns in understanding literature. But such critics always stood outside the mainstream of literary studies, particularly in the universities.
Nor is this tendency exclusively American--it has well-developed French, Russian and British counterparts. But the vision of literature as a selfcontained world has achieved its fullest acceptance here, in part because of its perfect suitability for the compartmentalization of disciplines in American universities. More important perhaps, as Quentin Anderson argues in The Imperial Self, has been the powerful strain in American culture which regards the self as radically opposed to the social world, and hence treats the self's creative products as fundamentally unsocial in a way no continental critic could.
In recent years, however, the style of criticism has increasingly come into crisis, largely because it generated a disturbing paradox. On the one hand, the autonomy and privileged status of cirticism depends on the contention that literature provides crucial insights for moral and political life. But on the other hand, the formalistic method to which this autonomy gave rise reduces literature to an elaborate arrangement of patterns and designs, to a trivial if complex amusement, which is devoid of significance because it lacks any connection with human values. Thus American literary criticism has had little to offer those genuinely concerned with understanding the self and society, and consequently has been shut out of serious intellectual discourse.
The bankruptcy of formalist criticism, the depth of its need for some reference to human values, is indicated by the eagerness with which the critical establishment has embraced the work of Harold Bloom. Bloom appears to inject some authentic excitement into criticism--his poets are animated by powerful emotions of anxiety, love and rebellion, but directed exclusively toward other poets. In this baroque system, the task of the critic is to celebrate the Oedipal process through which a poet matures by distorting and misreading his predecessors. The result is T.S. Eliot stood upside-down--instead of the artist's effacing his personality through his encounter with the tradition, he expresses his personality entirely through that encounter--and represents the reduction to absurdity of academic criticism's self-referential perspective.
The work of Steven Marcus provides a refereshing contrast to the general sterility of the discipline. Marcus, a student of Trilling's and an editor of "Partisan Review" takes as his field of inquiry what he calls "the imagination of society," the ways in which writers represent the social world in language and at the same time become the self-consciousness of their society. For the most part, the social imagination with which Marcus is concerned is that of Victorian Britain, conceived as a crucial period in Western culture's response to the coming of industrial capitalism. So broad an undertaking requires Marcus to expand the range of materials traditionally available to the critic. Alongside those writers whose interpretation of society appears in overtly imaginative, fictional form, he places social theorists, historians, psychologists, even pornographers, all of whom he sees as engaged in parallel ventures.
Simultaneously, Marcus supplements the conventional analytical tools of the critic--close attention to the language and internal structure of texts--with methods drawn from other disciplines, particularly Marxian social theory and Freudian psychoanalysis. Marcus employs all of these methods to interpret each text he reads--whether by Engels, Freud, Dickens or Dashiell Hammett. And in each case, these different levels of analysis are neither entirely separable nor reducible one to the other. For Marcus, the tropes and ambiguities of a writer's language furnish keys to the underlying meaning of his work, to the way his vision of society is actualized in imaginative form. But once Marcus has read between the lines and discerned the unconscious meaning of a slip or a peculiar turn of phrase, he does not stop there. The unconscious meaning of the text is not its ultimate meaning, allowing the text to be discarded once it has been obtained; rather it must be related to the author's intentions and project, since those are what mark it as a product of consciousness and give it significance.
Because Marcus is at once sensitive to the texture of a writer's language and to his wider concerns, he excels at the traditional critic's touchstone of talent, the actual reading of a text. Marcus's ability to illuminate unseen aspects of familiar texts and to enrich their meaning is quite remarkable. In his book on Engels (1974), by contrasting Mill's and Dickens's responses to London to those of Engels, Marcus brings out at exactly what point in The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844 Engels understands the industrial revolution in a systematic way inaccessible to his British contemporaries.
In The Other Victorians (1966) Marcus examines the ananymous erotic memoir "My Secret Life." In one scene where a female agricultural worker resists the sexual advances of the local squire, Marcus reads a significant change in social consciousness, the rise of the belief that class privileges should not afford sexual dominion over the persons of social inferiors. He connects this reading to a central theme of his book, the paradox that Victorian morality had a humanizing as well as a repressive side.
Marcus's latest book, Representations, is a collection of essays originally published in various magazines over a 15 year period, in appearance the sort of innocuous collection many successful critics produce from time to time. And in fact, a number of these pieces, such as those on Waugh, Faulkner and Hammett, have the character conventionally associated with such volumes--that of being well-written, perceptive and clever, but without a coherent purpose. The book as a whole, however, despite Marcus's protests to the contrary, reads like "an ideal project for literary studies," an embodiment of the benefits to be derived from applying non-literary tools of analysis to literary texts and the instruments of literary criticism and analysis to supposedly non-literary texts.
A number of essays illustrate the power of Marcus's methodology. In "Freud and Dora," Marcus uses literary techniques to probe psychoanalytical problems in one of Freud's case histories, elucidating his ambivalencies toward his patient and his as yet imperfect understanding of the transference relationship from the internal inconsistencies and shifts in tone of the writing. And in "Literature and Social Theory," Marcus draws out the connection between a certain style of narration and the presence of a functionalist, organicist social theory in George Eliot's fiction. By making this connection, Marcus was able to uncover the roots of both devices in a need to repress consciousness of social and sexual conflict, an insight which carries over to similar social theories in our own time, and was also able to resolve a misunderstood plot in one of her stories.
But the essay which best demonstrates the intimate connection between the different levels of analysis Marcus employs in reading a text is "Language Into Structure: Pickwick Papers," a piece on Dickens, the subject of his first book and the writer to whom he constantly returns. Having shown through a detailed textual analysis that the novel is about to plunge into the unrestricted use of language, an implicit claim that the novelist can represent anything he likes in language, Marcus points to the conclusion of the novel in which the misuse of language by the law puts Pickwick in prison.
In the person of the law, Pickwick and Dickens have run into something which though it may at first seem to be an unalloyed linguistic universe is in fact much more than a world of words. It is and it represents society and its structures, in particular those structures known as property and money, both of them extra-linguistic phenomena...It is a matter of the very largest moment for Dickens's development as a writer--and a testimony to his exceptional inner integrity--that he should, in the midst of his greatest celebration of his language and transcendence as a genius of language, engage himself imaginatively in those very conditions which were calculated most powerfully to nullify that freedom.
At this point in the essay, Marcus compares Dickens's unwillingness to confront the constraints imposed upon the self by the social world with Hegel's insistence that true freedom can only be realized through the experience of its negation, of oppression. Marcus goes on to argue that Dickens placed this experience of negation and the pursuit of true human freedom it implices at the core of his novelistic career. Marcus's achievement here is threefold: he has shown how the self-contained world of language gives way to the social world for Dickens, how literary analysis must lead into the interpretation of a text as a representation of society, but most importantly, he has shown how the experience of reading great literature leads to a desire for social change. Any critic who can do all these things in a single essay has certainly pointed to "one way... in which the claims to intellectual seriousness on the part of literary studies can be reasserted and perhaps sustained."