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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)

The modernist critic T.E. Hulme famously, and insultingly, described Romanticism as “spilt religion.” Natural Supernaturalism can be thought of as an extended proof of Hulme’s dictum, and simultaneously as a refutation of it. The energy that Christianity once devoted to imagining the end of the world and the redemption of mankind, Abrams shows, was not simply and chaotically “spilled” in Romantic literature. On the contrary, it was transformed in wonderfully complex ways. “In the increasingly secular period since the Renaissance,” Abrams writes, “we have continued to live in an intellectual milieu” shaped by the millennialism of Christianity. This shaping is “so deep and pervasive, and often so transformed from its Biblical prototype, that it has been easy to overlook both its distinctiveness and its source.”

In writing about this theme, Abrams delves deeply into the Christian theological tradition, paying particular attention to the Book of Revelation, with its vision of destruction and renewal, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, with their revolutionary analysis of human motive and guilt. Only occasionally, however, does he pursue what he calls “The Redemptive Imagination” back to its ultimate origin in the Hebrew Bible and in Judaism. The furthest he goes in this direction is a brief discussion of Kabbalistic ideas of fall and redemption, and the Jewish component of the story of Natural Supernaturalism is left for others to tell.

Still, Abrams told me, his ability to see the Christian and post-Christian tradition in such novel ways might be attributable to his position outside that tradition. His own “freshness of outlook” he credited to the fact that he “didn’t take these [Christian] ideas for granted.” “Jews,” he pointed out, “had an outsider’s eye on a lot of Western tradition,” which may have helped them to see it in unexpected ways.

Abrams’ task in Natural Supernaturalism is to show just how the West transformed old religious ideas into new Romantic ones. Extending his mastery of texts from English Romantic poetry to German Idealist philosophy—another product of the turn of the 19th century—Abrams shows that the idea of a messianic renewal of nature and mankind was everywhere in the thought and art of the period. The political background to this expectation was, of course, the French Revolution, which raised the highest hopes for people of Wordsworth’s generation:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh times,
In which the meager, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Within a few years, however, the political promise of the revolution failed, as it gave way to terror, regicide, and Napoleon’s dictatorship. As a result, the utopian energies of Wordsworth’s generation fled to the artistic and spiritual realm. “Key concepts of the political theories of the Enlightenment, together with the events and the ideals of the French Revolution,” Abrams writes, “are transposed into nonpolitical areas, as metaphors of mind which pervade the discussion of perception, intellection, and imagination.” If it is impossible to build a new world, Romanticism proposes that at least we can experience the world anew.

The trajectory of the Romantic generation, from revolutionary hope to disillusionment to, in many cases, a new conservatism, can be said to parallel the movement of Abrams’ own generation, which grew up in the bright shadow of the Russian Revolution. Abrams himself “never was a revolutionary—that’s not my type,” he told me, so he “never had the violent revulsion” against left-wing politics “that some people did.” But the parallel between the Romantics and his own time “grew on me later,” he said, and he makes note of it in Natural Supernaturalism.

M.H. Abrams, 1961

Abrams, May 1961. (Cornell University Photography)

Indeed, while the subject of the book, and of The Mirror of the Lamp too, is the radical, transformative hope of the Romantics, Abrams’ entire approach to literature and ideas has the effect of casting doubt on that kind of radicalism. In his own domain, Abrams shares the key insight of so many liberals, and so many Jewish liberals, of his generation: that, as he put it to me, “the truth is multiplex.” “I was never a monist,” Abrams reflected, “always a diversitarian,” and this basic pluralism is key to the way he writes the history of ideas. What he demonstrates in The Mirror and the Lamp is that the intellectual lenses through which we understand the world and ourselves are always changing; what he shows in Natural Supernaturalism is that our deep longings for transformation and redemption are constant. The combination of these two insights naturally leads to a certain tolerance, a forgiving kind of relativism, when it comes to ideas and theories, none of which is allowed to have a monopoly on truth.

Perhaps Abrams’ most elegant demonstration of this principle comes in his essay “Five Types of Lycidas,” which can be found in his 1989 book Doing Things With Texts. In this essay, Abrams shows that different schools of literary criticism—historical, analytic, Jungian, and so forth—offer totally incompatible “readings” of Milton’s great elegy. “Each strikes for the heart of the poem; each claims to have discovered the key element, or structural principle, which has controlled the choice, order, and interrelations of the parts, and which establishes for the reader the meaning, unity, and value of the whole.”

But Abrams is not reduced by this dilemma to the deconstructionist view that texts are inherently unstable, so that nothing meaningful can be said about them at all. Rather, he sees each “reading” of “Lycidas” as a proposal, a way of using the poem to illustrate a view of the world and of literature. Criticism, in this sense, is itself a creative and expressive act; the way we read reveals who we are. At the same time, Abrams the editor of the Norton Anthology insists that the best poems, the ones most worthy of rereading and reinterpreting, can be determined by the consensus of the ages. This combination of modesty and confidence is what makes Abrams’ work so enduring. At the age of 100, he is still teaching us.

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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

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