In 1733, a French author exiled in London qualified his grudging admiration of Shakespeare by claiming that his so-called tragedies were actually "farces." Later in life, he would retract his praise altogether and call the English bard a "drunken savage." In 1756, this same critic announced that "nobody reads Dante anymore," labeling his Divine Comedy "monstrous" — before deriding the Confessions, by his contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a project filled with "little miseries" that could never interest "true philosophy."
Was this writer just a hopeless crank? In fact, he was arguably the most celebrated critic of his day, a writer of such legendary acumen that he became synonymous with the age of Enlightenment — which is sometimes named after him as l’époque de Voltaire.
The case of Voltaire’s prodigious errors is all too typical. Here is a sample of some other legendary critical misfires:
- "Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that."
- "In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [Salinger’s] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself."
- "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards."
- "How a human being could have attempted such a book as [Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights] without committing suicide before he [sic] had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors. …"
- "If the printing of such trash as [Wordsworth’s poetry] be not felt as an insult on the public taste, we are afraid it cannot be insulted."
In his autobiographical Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie referred to writing reviews as a thankless "mug’s game," bringing to mind his celebrated attack on Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as "a fiction about the creation of a piece of junk fiction that then turns knowingly into that piece of junk fiction." But there are hatchet jobs and then there are hatchet jobs: It’s one thing to attack a controversial work of questionable literary value; it’s another to train the heavy artillery on writing later celebrated for its genius.
So how does it happen — how can someone on the order of Voltaire (we can insert many other illustrious names here) end up missing the mark so completely?
We first need to dispense with the most obvious and least savory explanation, that the nasty judgment is directed more toward the writer than his or her work. For example, it’s well known that Voltaire despised Rousseau (when Rousseau sent him a copy of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in 1755, Voltaire thanked him before adding acidly that "never was such intelligence used in turning us all into beasts. One feels like walking on all fours when reading your work"). So we might read Voltaire’s bald dismissal of Rousseau’s Confessions as a verbal slap in the face — one that he might have relished delivering by hand.
In a related vein, it’s also unwise to chalk up the catastrophic literary judgment as the product of an inferior talent. Sure, much of the disposable critical reflection that has filled the newspapers, periodicals, and blogs of the world has come from writers who pale in comparison to the giants they’ve tackled. H.L. Mencken, author of the above indictment of The Great Gatsby, was a respected critic but hardly a writer on Fitzgerald’s level. And who has heard of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wished to consign Whitman to the proverbial flames, or Anne L. Goodman, J.D. Salinger’s literary executioner?
But our catalog of literature misunderstood includes some illustrious names: Wordsworth’s detractor, Francis Jeffrey, was the editor of one of the most respected journals of the Romantic age, the Edinburgh Review. And no less than a leading Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, once unapologetically slammed a fellow legend, Fyodor Dostoevsky, as a "mediocre" writer who produced "wastelands of literary platitudes."
What, then, are the underlying intellectual, creative, and aesthetic issues that can cause even brilliant critics to misfire? An answer can be found in the tension between what we might call literary time and critical time. Critics, of course, have deadlines. A given review or essay must appear by such and such a date, generally just before or after the book’s publication. But as Terry Eagleton points out in Literary Theory: An Introduction, the designation "classic" or "literary masterpiece" is almost always retrospective. By showing how literary genius can be found in works as diverse as Plato’s dialogues, Bacon’s essays, Keats’s poetry, and Hemingway’s prose, Eagleton establishes that there is no intrinsic property that can safely lead a critic to confer the coveted tag of "literary value" to a work:
"Value" is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes. It is thus quite possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare.
Voltaire’s errors confirm this statement. As a self- appointed spokesperson for a literary culture that promoted the neoclassical virtues of clarity, elegance, and design, Voltaire came to rebuff the raw, idiosyncratic, and to his mind primitive writing of Shakespeare. The French author believed that tragedy should conform to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, a rule-bound aesthetic alien to the freewheeling Shakespeare and much closer to the now largely forgotten classicism of his rival and contemporary Ben Jonson. Ditto for Dante: In Voltaire’s secular, rational age and worldview, the spiritually driven and doctrinally rich writings of Dante had no place. Thus, Voltaire and his fellow philosophes largely ignored The Divine Comedy. Social ideology, as much as personal prejudice, can often lead the critic down a false road.
What is a writer of genius to do in this world of conflicting ideologies? A possible answer comes, surprisingly, from the world of finance. According to the legendary investor Benjamin Graham, "In the short run the market is a voting machine, but in the long run it is a weighing machine." The same could be said about literary work. We can never get a full sense of a work’s "value" from the initial responses it elicits, just as the true worth of a company or product takes time to reveal itself. Critics judge in a single, evanescent moment; cultural history weighs in the aggregate.
However kind history may be to a writer in the long run, it can be exceptionally cruel in the short term — especially to a certain kind of "disruptive" work. This word is all the rage in entrepreneurial and technological circles. We all know that Apple revolutionized, or disrupted, our understanding of telecommunications by transforming what had been a stationary device for making calls into a multifunctional mobile computer. A disruptive product creates new jobs and eliminates old ones, causes fortunes to be made and lost, and forever alters lifestyles.
But what about the disruptive book? We can go back to one of the most ambitious — and most misunderstood — experiments in the history of poetry to find out.
Few poets were as divisive as Francis Jeffrey’s dreaded Wordsworth. On the one side, the Wordsworthians, as one of his greatest champions, Matthew Arnold, called them, considered him (in Arnold’s own words) "one of the very chief glories of English Poetry." On the opposing team, William Hazlitt spoke for many in belittling Wordsworth as "the spoiled child of disappointment," someone who saw "nothing but the universe and himself" because of a relentless inwardness that such contemporaries as Byron and Shelley found so distasteful.
From a very early age, Wordsworth was preternaturally convinced of his own poetic powers and mission. Along with his collaborator, the equally talented if less focused Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he conceived a project, Lyrical Ballads, that would break with the ornate tendencies of 18th-century poetic diction and speak instead in "the language really used by men." Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetic laboratory was the rural culture of the English Lake District, with its huntsmen, beggars, shepherds, and leech gatherers.
As part of his radical reconceptualization of the role of poetry in society, Wordsworth argued in his preface to Lyrical Ballads that the fast pace of modern life and all its political upheaval had created a need for "rapid communication" that was "blunt[ing] the discriminatory powers of the mind," which he aimed to combat with "a species of poetry [that] is genuine poetry; in its nature well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and likewise important in the multiplicity and quality of its moral relations." (Nobody would ever accuse Wordsworth of modesty.) The astonishing thing about his project is that the instruments of his revolution were just … poems. Really simple ones, to boot, like "We Are Seven," from Lyrical Ballads.
The poem features an imaginary conversation between a narrator and "a simple child," a young girl who insists that she lives in a family of seven — even though two of her siblings have died, another two have gone away to sea, and she lives with only her mother and brother. An eerie atmosphere permeates "We Are Seven," as the girl digs in whenever the narrator presses her about the actual status of her family:
"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
"O Master! we are seven." Their spirits are in heaven!"
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"
I confess that, when I read the poem for the first time in graduate school, it sounded to me like a nursery rhyme at best; at worst, a parody of forced rhymes ("I met a little cottage Girl / Her hair was thick with many a curl") and forced feelings (all those exclamation points!). How could such a poem both wean us off the drug of rapid communication and rescue us from what Wordsworth called the "savage torpor" it induces?
Gradually I realized that this was vintage Wordsworth: He was so experimental and ambitious that he was willing to risk ridicule to make his point. He understood that children see death differently than adults, and he let his "little Maid" show us how this is so, without any narrative interruptions telling us how. The girl plays by the graves of her lost siblings, even takes her meals there; the line between life and death is blurred to her. The language that conveys this complex point is indeed remarkably simple: The child literally speaks a different emotional language than the narrator does, conveying her thoughts with an unsettling directness.
Wordsworth not only poses an eternal question to us — What does a child know of death? — but also compels us to change the way we listen to the way a child answers it. If we are in a rush, or if we patronize the child, we will dismiss her words as immature gibberish, perhaps even the ravings of a deranged and traumatized mind. But Wordsworth asks us to slow down — to hear the voice of nature itself speaking through the child. To listen — as he would put it in another poem from Lyrical Ballads — to the "still, sad music of humanity."
The qualities that Wordsworth’s early detractors found so unappealing would eventually become staples of the Romantic movement he helped create: the quest for personal identity, a celebration of nature, the paring down of language to its elemental forms. Ironically enough, Wordsworth’s poetic project would come to be synonymous with a new language of the self whose intense interiority Voltaire had found so threatening — and so distasteful — in Rousseau. By the time Lyrical Ballads appeared, in 1798, Voltaire’s age of Enlightenment had passed, and the season of Romantic autobiography, with Rousseau and Wordsworth among its earliest pioneers, had begun.
No critic — even the most prodigiously talented — gets it right all the time. What matters, as we read through the long history of critical misjudgment, is the quality of thought that goes into the critical observation, however flawed. Viewed in this light, Voltaire may have been "right" after all: What he said about Dante, Shakespeare, and especially Rousseau was off the mark, but it was always engaging, as his humorous insights crystallized the most deeply held aesthetic beliefs and predilections that defined his era. There was no way he or any other critic could have grasped the full weight of the literary wrecking balls aimed in their direction — after all, truly great, disruptive literature speaks a new language that nobody can truly understand at first. It takes time, generations, sometimes even centuries for us to be able to hear its voice.
Joseph Luzzi is a professor of comparative literature at Bard College. His books include In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love (HarperCollins, 2015) and Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (Yale University Press, 2008).