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The Last Critic

The great M.H. Abrams, peer of Trilling, teacher of Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology, dead at 102

Adam Kirsch
July 11, 2012
M.H. Abrams, 2009.(Dale R. Corson)
M.H. Abrams, 2009.(Dale R. Corson)

M.H. Abrams, the distinguished literary critic, died April 22, at age 102. This appraisal of the man and his work by Tablet’s Adam Kirsch originally appeared on July 11, 2012, on the occasion of M.H. Abrams’ 100th birthday.


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.

Abrams was also sailing against the prevailing intellectual winds in his choice of specialization: the Romantic poets. Starting with T.S. Eliot, the modernist revolution in English literature had aggressively demoted the Romantics from their former place in the canon. Politically, Eliot saw the Romantics—especially his bête noire, Percy Bysshe Shelley—as destructive radicals; poetically, he saw them as victims of the “dissociation of sensibility” that made 19th-century poetry too pretty and ruminative. “The Romantics,” Abrams recalled, “were whipping boys of the New Criticism, but they appealed to me anyway. I was recalcitrant.” Contrary to the Eliot-inspired New Critics, who saw the Romantics as messy emotionalists, “it was clear to me that they had thought innovatively.”

Elucidating that complex body of thought would be the work of a lifetime. Abrams began working on what would become The Mirror and the Lamp while a graduate student at Harvard. During World War II, he did war-related work as part of Harvard’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, whose goal was to figure out the best way to transmit oral commands in a loud, distracting combat environment. (When he protested to the head of the laboratory that he knew nothing about the subject, Abrams remembered, the response was a cheerful, “That’s all right, none of us do.”) It was in 1945, just after the war ended, that Abrams was hired at Cornell, where he spent the next four decades teaching (his students have included Harold Bloom and Thomas Pynchon, among many others) and writing.

The Mirror and the Lamp begins boldly, with Abrams’ highly influential taxonomy of types of literary theory. Every work of literature, he observes, can be understood as the product of three different relationships. There is the relation of the work to the world it describes, explains, and imitates; the relation of the work to the audience it affects, instructs, and entertains; and the relation of the work to the mind that created it. Starting with Aristotle’s Poetics, some 2,500 years ago, and continuing until the 18th century, the most influential literary theorists focused on the first of these three relationships. Literature, according to Plato and Aristotle, was an imitative, or mimetic, art form: It represents the actions of human beings in conflict, which is why Aristotle thought that plot was the most important element of drama.

The deeper Abrams pursued his study of Romantic art theory, the clearer it became that his real subject was the evolution of the religious consciousness of the West.

The Romantic achievement, as Abrams anatomizes it in The Mirror and the Lamp, was to shift the emphasis in literary theory from mimesis to expression. What mattered most about art, starting in the late 18th century, was no longer what it said about the world, the skill or verisimilitude or loveliness with which it represented reality. Instead, art became seen primarily as the self-expression of the creator, the product of an exceptionally sensitive and creative soul. The book’s title—which Abrams took from Yeats, and which he credited with much of its success—points to the difference between these two models. Classical literature was a mirror, reflecting the world; Romantic and modern literature is a lamp, shining forth from the soul of the artist.

Much more is at stake in this change than just literary criticism. As Abrams writes, the “submerged conceptual models” with which we “select, interpret, systematize, and evaluate the facts of art” are basic ways of thinking about the world and of assigning value to human experience. Indeed, the real discovery or argument of The Mirror and the Lamp has less to do with literary history—though Abrams’ command of period sources is amazingly thorough—than with his analysis of the role of metaphor in human thought. The images we think with, Abrams shows, determine the shape of our world, and the difference between intellectual epochs—the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romantics—can be seen fundamentally as a difference in those epochs’ favorite metaphors.

If the Romantics began to think of art as expression and projection rather than imitation, it was because they had suffered a drastic loss of confidence in the worthiness and meaningfulness of the world they imitated. For many poets, Abrams shows in his section on “Newton’s Rainbow and the Poet’s,” this anxiety was expressed in the way they thought about the rainbow. In the Book of Genesis, the rainbow is the sign of God’s pledge, after the flood, that he will never again destroy the world. To a faithful Jew or Christian, every time a rainbow emerges after a storm, it is a reminder of that cosmic benevolence and continuity. By showing that the rainbow is in fact the artifact of light passing through water droplets, Newton severed the natural phenomenon from its supernatural meaning. It was for this reason that, at a storied dinner in 1817, the Romantic writers John Keats and Charles Lamb drank a toast of “confusion to mathematics,” agreeing that Newton “had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors.”

The rainbow, here, is a symbol of the disenchantment of the world by science. And the Romantic project, Abrams shows, was to overcome that disenchantment by finding a new source of meaning and value derived from the soul of the artist. Genius, poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge believed, was not just exceptional artistic skill. It was, Abrams writes, the power “to overcome the sense of man’s alienation from the world by healing the cleavage between subject and object, between the vital, purposeful, value-full world of private experience and the dead postulated world of extension, quantity, and motion.” Abrams finds a key proof-text in Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem “The Prelude,” where the poet describes the way a newborn child is introduced to the world:

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.

Where Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” was about the Fall of Man, the subject of Wordsworth’s epic was the growth of his own mind. The location of meaning in the universe had shifted from the external to the internal, from myth to psychology. Abrams shows how the often abstruse critical vocabulary of Coleridge, in his masterwork Biographia Literaria, makes the same point in prose that Wordsworth made in verse. For Coleridge, the imagination was not just the power to conjure images; it was “the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.”

The echo of the Hebrew Bible in that sentence is unmistakable. Coleridge’s “infinite I Am” is a philosophical recasting of God’s name in Exodus, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” “I Am That I Am.” In fact, the deeper Abrams pursued his study of Romantic art theory, the clearer it became that his real subject was the evolution of the religious consciousness of the West. Natural Supernaturalism, Abrams’ second magnum opus, starts from the premise that religious ways of thinking—the metaphors that the West inherited from Judaism and Christianity—are far too deeply ingrained to be simply discarded. “Secular thinkers,” he writes, “have no more been able to work free of the centuries-old Judeo-Christian culture than Christian theologians were able to work free of their inheritance of classical and pagan thought. The process … has not been the deletion and replacement of religious ideas but rather the assimilation and reinterpretation of religious ideas.”

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.

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.