2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley

Although it is convenient to speak of these changes as a "poeticization of the novel," the application of concepts based in the study of poetry did not result in a confusion of genres. Edmund Wilson may have written that Joyce's "prose works have an artistic intensity, a definitive beauty of surface and of form, which makes him comparable to the great poets rather than to most of the great novelists," but he no more took Ulysses for a poem than The Waste Land for a novel.[20] Wilson's praise of Joyce's prose poetry raises Joyce above other traditional and modern novelists, not above other modern poets. T. S. Eliot offers this distinction when, in his "Introduction" to Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, he contends that the novel would "primarily appeal to readers of poetry":

This is well enough said for brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little. I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term "novel" has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes's style is "poetic prose." But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really "written." [....] To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.[21]

The meta-fictions of the novel and poetry remain intact, insuring that the "New Novel" complements rather than competes with modern poetry. Those who applied the values and techniques of New Criticism to the novel were dedicated to the genre. They sought neither the triumph of poetry nor a confusion of genres, but, as Eliot describes, a technical disciplining of the novel's form. It was the very seriousness with which they took the "historical genre" that authorized the application of techniques of New Critical poetic analysis to the analysis and valuation of novels: "Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method."[22]

New Criticism's "text centered" emphasis upon symbolism, metaphor, psychological structure, and myth as components of a novelistic or poetic totality--the meaning of the text as a whole--enables critical discussion to move with ease on this technical level from novelist to poet and back again without registering a sense of dislocation. Two critical introductions to literary modernism, Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1930) and Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return (1932), are instructive in this respect. Wilson and Cowley, both dabbling in Marxism at the time, survey the contours of modernism so that they might lodge a protest against its poetic retreat from social and economic realities. At bottom they were ill at ease with the hegemony of New Critical modernism, ill at ease with the poetic disciplining of the novel and the New Novel's decided turn from realism and naturalism. Yet, both critics participate in the poeticization of the novel. Without confusing the genres, both analyze poets and novelists indifferently. Wilson's treatment of Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Stein in Axel's Castle and Cowley's survey of Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Proust, Valéry, and Dada in Exile's Return mix and match poets and novelists as their personal preferences happen to dictate.[23] Axel's Castle and Exile's Return, even in opposition, share with twentieth-century criticism in general a remarkably silent, analytic movement across generic lines.[24] Whenever New Critical techniques have been developed with immediate application to poetry, there has been no shortage of critics ready to transport and adapt those techniques to the novel.

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