The Chronicle Review

M.H. Abrams: A Life in Criticism

April 18, 2008

In literary studies, M.H. Abrams is an iconic name. It appeared as "general editor" for 40 years on nearly nine million copies of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and has also, in a detail that only scholars would know, led the indexes of many a critical book for a half-century. (In fact, one scholar I know cited "Aarlef" just to avoid that custom.) In addition, Abrams, now 95, stamped the study of Romantic literature: His book The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1953) was ranked 25th in the Modern Library's list of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century, and he was a prime participant in debates over literary theory, especially deconstruction, during the 1970s and 80s.

Last summer I interviewed Abrams — Meyer Howard, but he goes by Mike — at his home in Ithaca, N.Y., up the road from Cornell University, where he has been a professor since 1945 and still goes to his office in Goldwin Smith Hall. Colleagues at Cornell had held a birthday celebration for him, and among the gifts was an inscribed copy of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel. Pynchon had been a student of Abrams's in the 1950s and sent it on. Abrams has the book on the coffee table in his living room.

Talking to Abrams is like taking a course in literary history. He has seen major changes in the modern research university as well as in literary study. The son of a house painter and the first in his family to go to college, he started as an undergraduate at Harvard in 1930, as the country slid into the Great Depression. He went into English because, he says, "there weren't jobs in any other profession, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn't enjoy."

It was a small world then. After graduation, Abrams won a fellowship to the University of Cambridge, in England, where his tutor was I.A. Richards, an important figure who first promulgated "practical criticism" — interpreting particular poems in and of themselves, without reference to outside material like biography or history — and also early cognitive theory, paying attention to how one derives meaning. Through Richards, Abrams met W.B. Yeats and saw early versions of T.S. Eliot's poems. "Eliot would send some of his poems [to Richards] for comments before he published them," Abrams recalls, and Richards "would prop them on his mantelpiece." He found himself, he says, "in the middle of the big literary goings-on of the time."

When he returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935, Abrams notes, it was "in the days when, to get a Ph.D., you had to study Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Old French, and linguistics, on the notion that they served as a kind of hard-core scientific basis for literary study." (I will henceforth cease entertaining complaints from my graduate students about foreign-language requirements.) The academic study of literature was scholastic, oriented toward amassing recondite facts, obscure literary sources, and technical bibliographies.

That was changing, through the efforts of people like Richards and their students like Abrams. Criticism (engaging directly with literary works through "close reading") rather than philology (accumulating historical data about them) was the new battle cry that drew Abrams and other "young bucks," as he says. "That was an exciting thing, I was a student, and students are always excited by what's new, not what's old."

The migration of literary critics from the public sphere into the university is often seen as a fall, but, as Edmund Wilson reflected in 1943, the institutional pressures of journalism had been no better and in many ways worse (Wilson remarked that they killed Poe), and academe provided a base for critics after the more-plush 20s. In turn, criticism enlivened academic study, especially teaching, for those in Abrams's generation.

Today the New Criticism, the dominant approach to close reading from the 1940s until the 1960s, seems narrow and constraining. But then it was a striking invention, and Abrams reminds us of its patent. Earlier critics like Coleridge or De Quincey had taken a short passage — for instance, the knocking at the gate in Macbeth — but "there's no analysis applied to the whole of Macbeth until the New Critics," he says. Abrams credits the New Critics with, like scientists, a precise focus — in this case, on "verbal particulars" and "analysis of the construction of a poem" that "opened it up" for readers.

Although contemporary theorists might consign Abrams to the New Criticism, he actually gravitated more toward intellectual history. He had "qualms about [the New Critics'] shortcomings," he says, especially with their "careful avoidance of historical contextual matters as relevant to the understanding of a poem." The Mirror and the Lamp, which is still in print, and Abrams's other major book, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Norton, 1971), both look at the history and philosophy of the Romantic era in conjunction with the poetry.

Foregrounding that era, from the late-18th to the mid-19th centuries, was part of a shift in literary study. When Abrams started out, the basis of literary studies was in earlier periods and major figures like Spenser and Milton, and T.S. Eliot had dismissed the Romantic poets as inferior. Abrams helped turn the field toward the more modern sensibility of poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, who were more secular and concerned with problems of language and epistemology.

Another change Abrams experienced was demographic. Before the mid-20th century, most faculties were WASP-laden. Abrams, born into a Jewish family, observes: "What broke the barriers was the Second World War, both because of Nazi persecution of the Jews, for which many people felt they had to compensate, and because colleges were stripped of their faculties during the war. … Colleges had to build faculties in a hurry and couldn't afford to be prejudiced the way they were used to." Abrams recognizes he benefited from his era's kind of affirmative action — although it was still mostly "white bucks," he adds.

The Mirror and the Lamp had been Abrams's dissertation, and he also reminds us of a different era of academic production, when the tenure gun was not quite so impatiently pressed to a junior professor's head. Abrams says he took "10 years of hard work revising the text," rewriting the first chapter "at least six times." It was worth it, since the chapter has been reprinted many times, probably because of its useful scheme of types of criticism, as mimetic (judging art as it represents life), pragmatic (concerned with the moral or social effect of art), expressive (seeing art as the outpouring of emotion), and objective (dispassionate analysis like that of Abrams's contemporaries). The success of the book has surprised Abrams, and he thinks his later Natural Supernaturalism is, "just between you and me, a more important book."

Now Norton's literary anthologies are the standard, synonymous with the canon, but they began serendipitously, when somebody knocked on Abrams's office door in the late 1950s. It was the Norton president, who had heard that Abrams was teaching a survey course and persuaded him to "do an English-literature anthology." He reports that he thought, "Well sure, why not? I'll try it," and basically expanded the course he was teaching.

One of his innovations was to get help, gathering a group of seven editors who were experts in their fields — instead, says Abrams, of the usual "single editor or two trying to deal with everything from Beowulf to Thomas Hardy." Remarkably, the editors did not meet as a group until after the anthology came out, which was the secret to its efficient completion, according to Abrams: "None of us expected the success of the thing when it finally, after four or five years, hit the market."

Another innovation was that it "eliminated the snippet representations" in favor of complete works and incorporated introductions to each literary figure, "so that in the anthology, you had the equivalent of a short history of English literature." And it was all portable, printed on a normal rather than an oversize, double-columned page, and on onionskin to keep it light. For Abrams, the key "was not to force people to teach what you wanted them to teach, but give them the equivalent of a small library from which they could select what they would want to teach."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Abrams's career is that he has kept up for more than 60 years. Through the 1970s and 80s, he sorted through and questioned new schools of literary theory like deconstruction and theorists like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida, whom he found compelling but disagreed with. He adds, "I've been skeptical from the beginning of attempts to show that for hundreds of years people have missed the real point," his chief quarrel with contemporary theory. While affable, Abrams doesn't shy from debate, even with his former student, Harold Bloom, saying, "I enjoy a good intellectual fight, with somebody I disagree with, about what seem to be fundamental matters."

Today he is more interested in ecology but still works on the Norton and revises his best-selling Glossary of Literary Terms (Rinehart, 1957) every few years. Looking back, he says, "I didn't expect the success of The Mirror and the Lamp, I didn't expect the success of the Norton anthology, I didn't the success of the glossary, [but] I must confess, if I take down one of my essays now, it still seems to me good, and that I find a source of gratification."

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and editor of the minnesota review. He is an editor of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001), of which he and his colleagues are preparing a second edition. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 32, Page B12