Notes for a Book I Won’t Write

I’m always getting ideas for books that are very much worth writing but which I know I’ll never get around to writing because other projects come first. Here’s one — I bequeath it to the world.


It is perhaps only from this vantage point, in the second decade of the twentieth century, that we can see the ways in which the most lasting contributions of twentieth-century literary criticism are extensions of the great Modernist project. Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism might fruitfully be seen as an embodiment, in criticism’s vocabulary and in accordance with criticism’s procedures, of Joyce’s Ulysses. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis may be said have a similar relationship to the fiction of Thomas Mann, especially The Magic Mountain and Joseph and his Brothers. George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle translates the concerns of Beckett’s Endgame into an impassioned critical idiom. Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending might best be understood as a late work of modernist aesthetics, an homage to and extension of the major poems of Wallace Stevens — specifically, Stevens’s idea of the “supreme fiction.” Stepping outside the realm of literary criticism as such, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques is a Proustian gem, a exceptionally rich and subtle work of narrative art. And Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, with epic scope and its obvious echoes of Pound’s unfinished Cantos, might be seen as the final masterpiece of magisterial Modernism. Each of these works draws on deep scholarship but also commands deep resources of narrative art, metaphorical imaginativeness, structural ingenuity.

I think it would be fascinating and rewarding to explore these great works of criticism as artworks. And such a book would also demonstrate that we academics, who love to think of ourselves as being on the cutting-edge of thought, are typically running about half-a-century behind the novelists and poets.