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On the Indelible Scholarship of M.H. Abrams

Remembering the work of the great critic, editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, who died on Tuesday

Jonathan Zalman
April 23, 2015

M.H. Abrams, a long-time teacher, writer, critic and literary historian who solidified how we read, interpret and love literature, died on Tuesday at the age of 102. Abrams edited The Norton Anthology of English Literature—an “English canon,” he told Tablet columnist Adam Kirsch in 2012—and lived in Ithaca, NY, home to Cornell University, where he taught for nearly 40 years.

Kirsch’s visit with Abrams, then 100, whose “combination of modesty and confidence,” and world-class intellect and memory, remained “undimmed.”

Here are a few highlights of Kirsch’s article, which recounts, work by work, “a legacy that survives the usual changes in theoretical trends and schools … and help explain why we think and feel the way we do about art, genius, religion, and history.”

On Abrams’ upbringing, which impacted his “neutral” approach towards religion:

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.

On ‘The Mirror and the Lamp,’ published in 1971, which “anatomizes” the shift in literary theory from Classical mimesis to Romantic expression.

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 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.

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.

On Milton’s elegy “Lycidas” as a “proposal, a way of using each poem to illustrate a view of the world and of literature,” and criticism:

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.

At the age of 100, he is still teaching us.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.