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The Last Critic Turns 100

A birthday visit with M.H. Abrams, peer of Trilling, teacher of Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology

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M.H. Abrams, 2009. (Dale R. Corson)

When Henry James paid a visit to his native country in 1905, after decades living in Europe, he was struck with a kind of pious horror by the spectacle he found on the Lower East Side of New York City. As a novelist, James was bothered most of all by his fear of what these “swarming” Jews would mean for the future of the English language in America. Visiting Yiddish cafés, he saw them “as torture-rooms of the living idiom; the piteous gasp of which at the portent of lacerations to come could reach me in any drop of the surrounding Accent of the Future.” To James, the English language and English literature were the inalienable possession of the Anglo-Saxon race—a common feeling that persisted long after James wrote. As late as the 1930s, while Jews made up more than their share of Ivy League students—and would have been even more overrepresented if not for quotas—they were still virtually absent from the English faculty.

Then, almost overnight, everything changed. Starting in the postwar years, anti-Semitism became intellectually unrespectable, thanks to its association with Nazism and the Holocaust, while the flood of new students entering the universities under the G.I. Bill meant that there was an urgent need for new faculty. Jewish professors, critics, and scholars were newly acceptable—Lionel Trilling studied Arnold at Columbia, and Harry Levin studied Joyce at Harvard. Leon Edel wrote the biography of Henry James, and Hershel Parker wrote the biography of Melville. Alfred Kazin recovered the history of the American novel in On Native Grounds, a title whose defiant claim could not be missed.

Of that pioneering generation, one of the last survivors is M.H. Abrams, who will celebrate his 100th birthday on July 23. (Abrams is also still publishing: In August, Norton will bring out a new collection of his essays, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem.) Abrams’ name will be familiar to just about every English major of the last half-century, if only because it appears at the top of the spine of each edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which Abrams created in 1962.

Last month, when I visited Prof. Abrams—“Mike” to his friends—at his cheery, sunlit home in a retirement community a few minutes from the Cornell campus, I had the chance to ask him about the creation of the anthology, which for millions of students over the last 50 years simply was English literature. This was not, Abrams assured me, the intention of himself and his six co-editors when they first conceived of the book. “I never thought of establishing the English canon,” he said. “It was the farthest thing from my mind.”

At almost 100, Abrams might move slower than he used to, but his intelligence and memory are undimmed. He credited the book’s success in part to its practicality: Printed on thin Bible paper and in a single-column format, it could compress a large amount of material into a readable and portable volume. Yet, at the same time, he did not shy away from saying that his goal in the Norton Anthology was “to present the best of what was thought and written” in English literature, borrowing Matthew Arnold’s famous definition of the classics. It’s doubtful that Abrams’ successors as editors of the Norton Anthology would speak so frankly and unambiguously of the “best.”

The Norton Anthology may be Abrams’ most influential work—along with his Glossary of Literary Terms, now in its ninth edition, another indispensable companion for students. But the heart of his intellectual achievement lies in two classic books, each of them the fruit of decades of reading and thinking about the Romantic movement in English literature. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition appeared in 1953 and was quickly hailed as one of the most important books ever written about English literature. In 1999, it was ranked No. 25 on the Modern Library list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. It was followed by Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, which came out in 1971.

These two books are not only masterly examples of the history of ideas, elucidating complex thoughts from a staggering range of primary sources. Together, they offer a window on the evolution of the modern mind, as seen at one of its most dramatic moments; they help explain why we think and feel the way we do about art, genius, religion, and history. Abrams’ humane, essentially liberal approach to literary studies offers an example of what it means to love literature and think with it—a legacy that survives the usual changes in theoretical trends and schools.

***

Meyer Howard Abrams was born in 1912 in Long Branch, N.J., the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Until he started school at age 5, he told me, he spoke only Yiddish, though his knowledge of the language has faded. His father, a house painter, was an Orthodox Jew, while his mother only “played along” at religious observance. While he and his younger brother were bar mitzvah-ed and went to Hebrew school, Abrams recalled, his father “never pressed his sons to follow” his religious path. As a result, Abrams now believes, he “never got to resent religion, and could look at it with a neutral gaze”—a kind of sympathetic interest that is key to the insights of Natural Supernaturalism, which shows how much of modern literature is a recasting of age-old biblical tropes.

Abrams was an avid reader as a child—he would take out the maximum of three books at a time from the local library and then return the next day for more—and with the encouragement of his high-school principal he ended up going to Harvard in 1930. These were the Depression years, when “everybody was under financial pressure,” and a career as an English professor must have looked like a pretty tenuous possibility for a young man named Meyer Abrams. Indeed, while Abrams recalled that he experienced no overt anti-Semitism (though “if I looked for it, I would have found it,” he said wryly), he was given a “downright warning” by his faculty adviser that the “profession was not open to Jews.” What kept him going as an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Cambridge and Harvard was, he said, “less determination than inertia.” There was also the example of Trilling at Columbia, who Abrams remembers as a “trailblazer” for Jews in the humanities.

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M.H. Abrams was my tutor at Cornell and had the critical sense to inform me, at an early stage of my life, that I would really do well in some career other than English Literature. He was a kindly man and genuinely involved so I took his guidance with gratitude.

Hurrah for Prof. Abrams! I am a Nortons Anthology acolyte: I teach from it; I read it; I worship at its undying flame. Thanks to him (as well as Bloom, Howe, Kazin, and a host of others) Jews in English literary scholarship are no longer on the periphery. Jews are among those who propel the van of civilization forward: so has it been, so shall it ever be. Amen!

from Ron Pies, Cornell Class of ’74 [wife is Nancy]

It was my great honor and privilege to have taken a course on literary criticism with Prof. M.H. Abrams, in 1973. The course was also co-taught with the renowned philosopher, Prof. Max Black. Prof. Abrams proved not only a passionate and brilliant interpreter of literary texts, but also a warm and encouraging mentor to the small group of students in his class–even inviting us to his home for a pasta dinner! As a “pre-meddie” at Cornell, I was of the view that science had much to contribute to literature, and vice verse. I was humbled and gratified to find that “Mike” Abrams felt the same way, and–having had a good background in science–was extraordinarily receptive to a broad, eclectic approach to literary texts. He was and remains the model of a gentleman and a scholar.

Ronald Pies MD (Cornell Class of ’74)

P.S. Thanks to Adam Kirsch for a discerning article.

Earl Ganz says:

I agree with the three comments. Happy Birthday for Professor
Abrams. I recently sent him a story of how I flunked my orals.
He was the chairman of the orals committee. The story is called
“Nabokov’s Grader.” He loved it. And congratulations to Adam
Kirsch. It’s a wonderful if too brief presentation of Professor
Abrams, contribution to English LIterature.

Small point, but I liked the mention of the retirement community. Where will all the smart people go as they age? Hopefully they will congregate.

That will make the final years of life a (modified) delight.

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The Last Critic Turns 100

A birthday visit with M.H. Abrams, peer of Trilling, teacher of Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology