The principle underlying the Agrarian-New Critic’s position as literary critic, shared generally in the New Critical movement at large, may be simply put: Some poems are better than other poems. He judges them as things existing in themselves, made by that intellectual creature—man. The problem term, of course, is better, since it commits intellect, willy nilly, to judgments in relation to hierarchy, a most heinous devil term in the 1990s. The intellect gives degrees of consent to a poem’s being the thing it is. But judgments of degree are required beyond a criticism of a poem in a scholarly journal devoted to explication. We may even be required at last to judge a person as maker, in the light of our diverse gifts as makers of good and less good things—poems or cars or institutions. Some poets are better than other poets; some statesmen are better than other statesmen. In these enlargements upon questions of degree, it is apparent now, as it was also often acutely apparent to M.E. Bradford during his career in the academy, that to be an Agrarian-New Critic is to hold an endangered position, with no lobby devoted to preserving this endangered species of the critical mind.The Agrarian-New Critic holds a dangerous position because of an almost universal antagonism towards any position hinting at judgment based in degree. It is a bold position at any point of history, but reactions to such an intellect at this point of history are highly exacerbated. Relatively speaking—that is, speaking in the shifting light of history—it was less shocking to the generality of the body politic that some critics in the 1930s held that Robert Frost’s “Birches” was demonstrably a better poem than Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” Today, to judge that Frost’s inaugural poem at Kennedy’s installation is demonstrably beyond Maya Angelou’s at Clinton’s is to risk at least academic lynching. The popular media will not even hint at such a possible truth.
Of far more importance than “professional” risk, however, is the danger of such judgment to the critic himself, for he must either die intellectually by turning away from judgment or change, grow. The little word better opens literary criticism beyond the confines currently prescribed to it, in the direction of philosophy and perhaps even unto the realm of theology. It is even possible that there is a moral dimension latent in literary judgment, as there may be in the act of reading at all. Moral judgment redounds upon the judging intellect for good or ill, or threatens the complacent intellectual establishment of the moment, or even both. In the 1930s, it redounded upon both, and our Agrarian-New Critic responded by an active opening of his mind to larger concerns. That was already a direction taken by some of the Fugitive poets, leading them first to their Agrarian phase.
They began to make interesting, sometimes startling, discoveries about the meaning in their intellectual actions which led them beyond the spectacle of such action, their poems committed against the usual current of poetry in their day. They found themselves accompanied by shadowy presences out of the past who seemed to become more palpable. Amenable companions to thought were joining them, sometimes from unexpected quarters of the history of the Western mind. And they discovered they had been accompanied all along by less congenial presences out of history. Descartes, for instance, was increasingly recognized as dislocating them in their journeying. Their reaction to the radical subjectivism practiced in the Symbolist Movement or the subjectivism feeding popular sentimentality in verse might both claim descent from the implications in cogito ergo sum. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas proved to be more or less companionable as they dawned to another way of seeing mind in nature, not because they were old but because these were open-eyed. In addition, those forebears were discovered to have been “New Critics” themselves. They were conspicuously akin in their respect for distinctions, involving degree as appropriate to the reading of texts.
Those ancient companions were in quest of the truth of how things stand to the human intellect. Not that Descartes was not concerned with truth, but Descartes, as did many of his followers, tended to a self-isolation, one stage of which is a concentration upon text as a reflection of the isolated self. It became evident as well that some of those older doctors of the mind, though concerned for the general health of ill-fallen intellects, were primarily concerned with the truth itself as the only proper medicine to intellect. That truth might be pursued from within texts, including the “text” of nature, for the common good, a pursuit into but beyond—out of—the text, lest intellect become mired in mere spectacle and lose truth, which is the mind’s purchase upon the essence of things. Nor was it to be denied that such labor as theirs prepared a way for a distinct literary and artistic flowering of Renaissance monuments to unaging intellect, Dante’s Divine Comedy being a singular blossom. Could these ancient critics of being bear parallel in the modern critics whose concern became more and more the unexpected phenomenon called the “Southern Renaissance” of letters?
From our perspective at century’s end, we see that among some of the Agrarian-New Critics and their allies there was a growing concern for degrees of the good. That concern led important members of that movement back to Dante, both for support of their critical position and as a measure of their accomplishments in letters. We need only name Allen Tate and T.S. Eliot. We might even add that irascible and often convoluted traditionalist in modernist robe, Ezra Pound, who sometimes seemed unwilling to forgive Dante’s greatness as poet. Nevertheless, the New Critical movement, as it emerged in the 1930s, tended to defer questions buried in the term better, questions engaging philosophical or theological concerns. The immediate battle was too pressing to entertain potentially divisive concerns from within the movement. Their foremost engagement must be with conspicuous forces attempting to seize literature for political and economic ends. Those forces demanded the literary critic’s alliance as the cost of a continuing support. Literature became hostage in the mounting battle between factions of modernist materialism, left and right. The New Critics, meanwhile, proved more effective against the Marxist attempt to seize literature from within the academy, in most places, but less successful in withstanding an outside, usually local, intrusion.
It was more successful within the academy’s small preserve, the department of literature (especially “English” departments), but with an attendant irony in light of what literary criticism has become in the 1990s. While Marxism was kept somewhat at bay from literary departments, there was less success in other humanistic disciplines—in sociology or in political science departments, for instance. The New Critic, though embattled in departmental wars within the academy, maintained his position in literary studies. But he did so in part by avoiding the potential divisiveness within his own critical movement, the incipient divisiveness raised in declaring one poem or novel better than another. He was required by the exigencies of local circumstance to oppose attempts to exclude literature altogether from the curriculum.
He fought a Parthian strategy, increasingly ineffective, as the history of academic curricula from 1950 to 1990 will show. And it needs noting that his struggle was less with departments of the hard sciences than with those of the “soft” sciences, by then comfortably established in humanistic studies. The hard scientist—the chemist or physicist or biologist—must be at least precise in the denotative uses of the sign. For the “soft” scientist, the denotative in signs, anchoring sign to external reality as a governor of subjective responses to the actual, may easily become a liability. Indeed, the “soft” scientist might for his own survival as academic require a liberation of the subjectively connotative. That statistics are used so differently in particle physics and in social studies is a metaphor to the point. Nor should we forget the popular uses of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in speculations about the self—a principle popular for a decade now in literary criticism for its scientific aura.
There was a danger in the New Criticism inherent in its emphasis upon the text, a danger analogous to the uncertainty principle in physics—the uncertainty of subjectivity in intellect, which subjectivity the modernist reckoned must be rescued as a higher reality, superseding “objective” reality. By the limited emphasis on the text, the critical intellect may isolate itself from questions of the larger dependencies of the text in history and nature. But without the critic’s awareness of that involvement, excessive attention focuses on accidents until accidents begin to appear to be made substantive by the attention itself, depending upon the critic’s ingenuity. There grew a closing of the mind, making the literary critic vulnerable to another invasion, increasingly imposed upon departments of literature from out side: The assignment to “English” departments of the responsibility to teach elementary grammar as salvational to the establishment. It intended to do so by operations performed upon numbered sentences that required proper punctuation or correction of subject–verb agreement or pronoun references. Exercises poured in from the top. To put the point thus is to recognize the gradual transformation of universities into secondary schools, whatever the discipline, and certainly so at the undergraduate level. What might not be recognized is a double assault upon literature itself, the dual forces antagonistic to each other in the political sphere but jointly committed to a pragmatic use of sign. If the Marxist and the commercial materialist were enemies to each other, they were not natural enemies, and they proved to be allies in the erosion of humanistic studies, the liberal arts. Both advanced an insistent demand that signs be used to pragmatic economic and political ends. Thus, institutions once devoted to the liberal arts were gradually transmogrified.
Bradford entered the academy at this stage of its decline. He was one of many who learned from the New Criticism how to read a text, but he learned better than most, fortunate in the university he entered. Meanwhile, literature was besieged from within the academy; it was also being impressed from without for pragmatic service. The commercial world needed undergraduates who were proficient at a sixth-grade level in the mechanics of words. Bradford’s chief mentor at Vanderbilt, Donald Davidson, had published a textbook addressing necessities beyond those limited demands, his now famous American Composition and Rhetoric. First issued in 1939, with other editions as late as the 1960s, it steadily declined in use. It was occasioned, Davidson said, by his realizing that when one attempts to teach the elementary in our age, he ends up wrestling to recover the student’s mind challenged as wayfarer. Such a match was hopeless if attempted with the workbook method which was growing in popularity at the time. Davidson’s text would remedy the deficiency by offering an anthology of superior prose, approached by a superior analysis that would reveal why some paragraphs are better than others.
In other institutions, perhaps two or three novels might be allowed in the usual Freshman courses, which were otherwise largely dissociated from literature. The workbook approach to grammar and composition bore vague analogy to laboratory courses, and in time would develop the likeness more markedly. For English departments seemed more apt to maintain their academic territory through the emerging “science” of composition. Other disciplines happily yielded to the claim. And by the late 1950s, English faculties had become expert advisors for other disciplines as to where to place a comma. Indeed, English faculty found themselves on call as experts to colleagues who might need advice on subject-verb agreement or pronoun reference in scholarly sentences destined for specialized journals. The humanities accelerated in their decline, one suggests ironically, alongside the decline of texts like Davidson’s American Composition and Rhetoric, which was originally a Freshman text but which became a text for advanced composition at the senior level before being abandoned altogether.
Amid such changes, the teacher–assistant, his Freshman “English” class dismissed with the charge to correct faulty pronoun references in the dissociated sentences of Exercises 13 and 14, might typically make off to his own afternoon seminar taught by senior faculty removed from Freshman and Sophomore “English.” There, degrees of irony and types of ambiguity could be sorted as his important work, his principal reason for being a part of the university’s conglomerate of specializations as we burgeoned into mega-versities. Thus, in the academy, as illustrated here symptomatically, there developed intensive training of graduate students more and more specialized. Steadily, the literary critic, the graduate student turned Ph.D., found himself isolated, even from his immediate peers, in proportion to his specialized interest in literature. Still, he was highly favored in professional journals devoted to his concerns. We could as well discover evidence of this fragmentation in higher education by surveying the variety of specialized journals in disciplines other than “English.”
Against this brief account of formalized training in this century’s academy, we find Bradford writing for an astonishing variety of publications and speaking before a variety of audiences. Clearly, his interests cut across the confines of separate provinces. And clearly, he was an encouraging figure for us as we note the long list of books and essays lamenting the death of the mind and the withering of liberal arts. Beginning with James E. Conant’s Education of American Teachers (1963) we see many leading towards that surprisingly sensational protest, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and Dinesh D’Souza’s expose of the scandals of academy, Illiberal Education (1992).
Considering this milieu in retrospect, we wonder whether the New Criticism in its response to literature did not some how imitate its antagonists on either hand. The Marxist attempt to force literature to serve social program exacerbated a tendency indigenous to the New Criticism as it moved to authority in matters literary: The tendency to isolate criticism from the larger arena proper to intellect, confining its attention to the text alone. There was the further inclination to retreat from the outside world, the world of getting and spending, the world that increasingly demanded process training in punctuation if English departments were to be justified. This “service English,” this textural pragmatism, tended to establish “consumerism” as an ultimate goal, requiring the liberal arts to train students in the processing of signs towards that end.
Thus beleaguered, literary criticism might well be tempted to isolation in the text as text, the last refuge in literature. If the exercises justifying academic criticism were sufficiently esoteric, at least the consumer-oriented world which paid the freight might be given pause. That world seemed easily awed by the esoteric in sciences other than criticism. Bradford chose to address this error of direction. He understood the importance of economics and myth, of politics and commerce, to the mind in its ordinary services to the community as well as in its extraordinary services. He understood as well that the labor of the mind, if estranged from an ordering vision of higher ends, was not enough. And this at the time when the estrangement of art from reality seemed widely assumed in the world of social commerce. Left and right joined then (as they did in little else) to complain about those who seemed content to write, at public expense, books about books, those critics isolated in their “Ivory Towers.”
The uncertain and even strange specialization of the literary critic is difficult to justify to a pragmatic world. That is one reason why Allen Tate called a collection of essays in defense of his critical role The Man of Letters in the Modern World, Selected Essays, 1928—1955 (1955). He would have us understand, among other things, that the man of letters embraces letters larger than mere “fictions” taken as entertainments for the world weary, unoccupied mind. His critic provided society with an ordered insight of proper ends. Plato reminds us, Tate says, that a society without arts “lives by chance.” For the New Critic to have stalled the Marxist and kept somewhat aloof from commercial consumerism was not enough. While the New Criticism had carried the day in literature departments in its brief moment, it had failed to establish a concern in different academic disciplines for the larger virtues to mind signified by letters. From Tate’s and Bradford’s position, it was as necessary to the literary critic to know the political dimensions of Plato and Aristotle as for the sociologist or political scientist to know Homer and Dante. For in the common knowledge thus established there exists a mutual responsibility for lucid discourse, the right use of right words, equal responsibility for language’s mechanical usages, whether comma or subject-verb agreement.
We have generalized the New Critical movement as it was to emerge in the academy from the 1930s onward, a movement whose members shared techniques of reading texts but were not always united in declaring common ends to which good reading points. To appreciate Bradford’s position relative to the movement, we have noted certain growing digressions within the movement, digressions setting in early but portended within the Fugitive-Agrarian community, even before the critical movement emerged. Their bringing to criticism Agrarian concerns which could not avoid philosophical and theological considerations meant that estrangements among them were inevitable. Friction developed between Donald Davidson and Allen Tate on the one hand, and John Crowe Ransom (and to lesser degree Robert Penn Warren) on the other. Ransom seemed increasingly restive with his Agrarian position, although much later he would speak sympathetically about his earlier stand taken with his Fugitive friends, with a tone of nostalgia. Fundamentally, however, he preferred to be thought of not as an Agrarian-New Critic, but simply as a New Critic. For his was a position essentially Cartesian, by way of Kant, a position intolerable to his friends Davidson and Tate.
It is out of a rarefied version of the New Criticism, here suggested as Ransom’s later position, that the Newest Critic of all emerged in the academy in the 1990s, and surely with irony upon irony, given the historical context we have limned. The Newest Critic now inherits the academy, respected among diverse disciplines, even as he is gradually revealed as the bastard offspring of the purified New Critic and the Marxist long in the tooth. With a concern for the text as text, as an end in itself, he nevertheless trades on a scientific aura summoned to his gifts with the text (often considerable gifts). His ingenuity with the text is accompanied, as occasion requires, by ideological borrowings out of Marxism. His criticism is defended in terms amenable to social, political, economic egalitarianism. Thus, his position as literary critic seems secure in troublesome times. He addresses the text itself in a manner supposed to placate the popular spirit. That is, he pronounces every text the equal of every other text. What is lost, first of all, is that old respect for the text as a thing in itself, the point of departure for his New Critic progenitor.
The academy has largely succumbed to this reduction of intellectual order, which in the hands of the Newest Critic turns our signs towards an absolute zero, towards a disorder. In this resulting chaos of common understanding about words, the Newest Critic would establish his hegemony of mind on the authority of his expertise in the science of language. So enticing become his arguments, buttressed as they may be by a residue of ideological afterthought and by semi-scientific speculations about language itself, that he promises to prevail. He trades on our innate, given desire for justice towards all things, in an age in which the measure of justice is acceptable as “just” pronouncement about things only when all degrees of the good are denied to them. The consequence of this assault upon intellectual responsibility is that the shoddy thing—poem or argument—must be accepted as elevated to dominion, without acknowledging, however, that the strategy denies the egalitarian intent.
The academy, operating at this moment under the rubric of the “politically correct,” is busily perfecting a process of intellectual amnesia: The student has eradicated from his memory by process as education the truth of things as he actually knows them by his existential experiences, things he actually knows by the fact of his being alive at this moment and in this place. The hope of his rescue lies in a commonality in the members of the body politic, another residual gift deeper than ideological residues which is complementary to the innate desire for justness towards things in themselves. It is a gift of intellect long called common sense. Long ignored, it has been suppressed with the consequent possibility of a variety of explosions. We have even now to deal with those explosions in provinces of society itself which seem far removed from the academic world, though the betrayals of intellect itself are more than coincidental causes. The disintegration of the family, the turmoil of the inner city, whatever the symptomatic spectacles associated with such occurrences, are related to the deconstructions of language. Donald Davidson would take the point, as Bradford did, and as we must.
We have been describing the intellectual state of the nation and of the academy as Bradford was to leave it to us. It is a description from the perspective of a friend, a Traditionalist as Rememberer. The view towards the truth of how things stand with us speaks a strenuous battle ahead for any who would consent to service in the academy or to the service of the community. The spirit of community, which the modernist mind would have us embrace, is largely defined by persons who have lost an understanding of the principles we have been suggesting, so that what they call order, we call disorder. Our good fortune is that we survive to remember those principles which Bradford knew well. The contemporary ground to our remembering seems shifting under us, whether we stand in the academy or in the public square. We may seem threatened more than we imagine Bradford to have been as he set out as homo viator. He helps us recover the point from which we must move by his reminder, said in many ways: We must begin here and now, and we do so by cultivating memory in the ground we inherit by existing at all. In remembering Bradford as literary critic, we speak of that point in its relation to art and history, a part of our inheritance. But even as we depend on our existence at a point in nature out of history, so too does the poem, or any made thing in itself.
Aristotle considers this point of dependence of a thing we make with our words in the relation of that thing as an existing thing dependent on its maker, its existence caused by his disciplines acquired through history and art. Because our making—whether of a poem or a house or a garden—is so intimately dependent on our actions as maker consequential to our understandings of art and history as disciplines of the mind, we may confuse those disciplines. Thus, Aristotle makes a distinction. Art and history are distinguishable from nature, the existential complex of existences in the here and now. But they are also to be distinguished from each other. Art is concerned with the possible or probable; history with the actual—past or passing. But such distinctions are cogent to understanding only in relation to a where of nature at a now of our intellect’s response to the contingencies of time and place as these affect us. These are contingencies which we try to understand by attention to history and the practice of our peculiar art. We cultivate the present with our emerging understanding of the truth of things; the most effective tools of that cultivation are art and history. Through the remembering of history, we move towards art. The past and passing affect what is to come, the possible or probable, whatever species of made things we are given to making—poem or garden or institution. By these operations of intellect in the here and now, we discover that existential reality speaks to the intellect the more fully as intellect is prepared to hear by the disciplined listening to the truth of things. And that disciplined listening is best induced by our remembering through our making.
To understand why a poem or a house or a garden is good, why one of them is better than another of the same sort, or why among categories there are differences independent of degree (their existence in the orders of being): That is the necessity demanding of us distinctions, even unto degree. And through understanding by distinction, we appreciate the possible–probable as imaginatively engaged by the intellect. We do so, recognizing as well that intellect is limited in its desire to understand by the complex realities of the whole of creation. Given such understanding, we are the better attuned to Faulkner’s concern through words to explore the human heart in conflict with itself, which we discover through art that speaks to our own heart’s conflicts with itself. We may come to understand as well T.S. Eliot’s or Walker Percy’s attempts at a different level of the truth of things to reveal the sign in its relation to the actual nature of human intellect as it struggles with the relation of sign to the qualities and accidents of existential reality, including their own minds as makers. How poignant Eliot’s cry in his last great poem:
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone.
It is by recovering the disciplines of memory, then, that we shall best bear witness to who we are and in doing so honor Bradford. We shall do so if we are not misled by the intoxicated air we breathe in this modernist moment. Above all, in holding to degree as implicit in the orders of being and not of our own making, we must not submit to the absolute moral judgment which the adversarial modernist would impose upon us: The moral judgment that there is no moral judgment, and that morality is relative and so infinite and so necessarily without degree. In that absolute, the moral dimension of human existence disappears like the smile on the Cheshire cat. The abolition of morality is the abolition of man.
But in a closing moment, let us set aside our high concern for the low estate of the academy and the public square and recall Bradford as a presence to us. I recall my last meeting with him—not the actual words we spoke, but his conduct in the circumstances. He was by then (October 1992), as I had noticed a few months earlier with some alarm, unwell, though far from ready to surrender his labor of words despite the clear prospect before him, his coming encounter with Truth as we must all come to it. I welcomed an invitation to meet with him and others in Baton Rouge, to talk of the Agrarians and the English Distributists. There was to be an initial evening lecture, and afterward conversation such as he describes in our epigraph. Alas, my own plane was delayed, so that it was midnight when another friend met me at the airport, the key to my reserved room in hand. We arrived at the guest complex. Beyond a numbered door lay a promise of a hot bath and sleep before my paper the next morning.
We found my room; the numbers matched. But at that point, fumbling with my bags and the key, there was a loud objection from within. The door swung back as we pushed. There stood Bradford in his underwear (it was a muggy Louisiana night), in my room. He had been sitting at a desk writing, papers sprawled out. Though rudely interrupted, he at once ushered us in, dignified in his bearing beyond the spectacle of his dress, or lack of it. He picked up the phone and sorted the matter out with dispatch, arranging a room for me across campus, even at that late hour. His courteous concern, his energy summoned to my convenience, his whole bearing, I remember in relation to his appearance as both tired and ill. His was the deportment of a gentleman to one caught by untoward circumstances of the world; the deportment of one who knows who he is and bears himself supportive of others who, disoriented by circumstances, may not be so sure of who they are.
That was my last meeting with this Agrarian-New Critic, in the flesh as we say. Meanwhile, remembering that encounter I must learn to sit and talk the better of high matters, among gatherings that summon those absent from us, of whom Bradford is now one. We must consider how we may bring high matters down to earth, in the service of an orderly rescue of myself as a person and of ourselves as a community. Let us be quick to add that we must not neglect a concern for low matters even though comic to our encounter, since what we think of as low or insignificant matters, again and again, prove highly important. In our moment’s life as intellectual community, even in a hotel room far from home, from whence we sojourn and towards which in its highest manifestation as home we move in our wayfaring, we may yet value the delight in our deportment as company along the way in talk which may even verge on swagger, panache, familiarity through idiom that is fundamentally respectful of the truth of things and through humor in this comic circumstance, in which we recognize ourselves. We thereby recognize our limits as guardians of the truth such as we sometimes praise through words partaking of hyperbolic gesture.
Always in such circumstances, we are at a point, here and now, to be eventually remembered as then and there. And always, it may be a long time before we are together again in the flesh, though by memory we recover the moment. Well recovered, it is to our continuing health. At such moments, though the concern may seem trapped by low matters, such is the mystery, that they may become transformed in service to the high. Even a concern for feathers may speak the reality of eagles beyond what we may first imagine. That shall be tomorrow’s concern, encouraged now by Bradford’s continuing talk that would stay us by degrees, his concern for the better as it may be discovered in the here and now when cultivated by the arts of memory. Such is the labor required of the intellect as its service to the largeness of reality, a reality permeated by the mystery of all mysteries. Not the mystery that anything should cease from being, but that any thing should be at all. That is the mystery setting us on our way: a tree or rock, a poem or music, our self or family or community; even New Critics or Newest Critics; Aristotle or Cicero or Burke or Homer or Dante or Chaucer; or M.E. Bradford.
Through this mystery of mysteries lies our quest to know who we are in truth, requiring that we hold this moment’s remembered story of fortune or misfortune to dear friends, ancient or recent, now absent from us. I shall remember, “You’ll come on it and let’s straighten this out.” I shall remember that midnight encounter with a gentlemanly soul, a patron of community in the world, rousted out from the words he was setting down on paper. I shall remember his rousting out those who could find lodging for a wayfarer from Crawford, Georgia, fallen upon minor misfortune in that strange place. I, a friend, had come a tedious, almost weary, way for that meeting, which neither of us could know was to be our last, this side another gathering of shade with shades.
Next year, or the next, many of us will no doubt be caught off guard for a moment by a young student who has happened upon words bequeathed to us by this rhetor. “You mean you actually knew Mel Bradford? In person?” That is my hope. On that occasion, answering yes as well as we may, we may be amused in gratitude, remembering: Here we pick up a molted feather, an eagle feather in the midst of “blank miles round about,” as Browning’s innocent says in losing his innocence on his journey across the heath.