To say that [his] verse is magniloquent … is to say that it is not doing as much as its impressive pomp and volume seem to be asserting; that mere orotundity is a disproportionate part of the whole effect; and that it demands more deference than it merits … His strength is of the kind we indicate when, distinguishing between intelligence and character, we lay the stress on the latter; it is a strength, that is, involving sad disabilities. He has “character,” moral grandeur, moral force; but he is, for the purposes of his undertaking, disastrously single-minded and simple-minded.Such savagings are common enough among critics, and there’s a rationale to the rough handling. Critics see themselves as the gatekeepers to literary posterity, so when unworthy aspirants approach they need to be forcibly barred from the premises. But there’s something addedly provocative about the pillory quoted above: it was written about John Milton.
Milton’s name is inscribed on libraries. He has been traditionally spoken of in the same breath as Homer and Virgil. A reasonable, if naïve, person might assume that he had transcended a bitchy takedown like Leavis’s. And thereby hangs a question: After an author has passed through the gates and entered the Elysian pastures of canonization, is there any point in a critic rushing in and trying to drag him back out again? Once an author is a classic, can that status be revoked?
The impulse to try certainly seems irresistible, and there is something of a rite of passage in barbecuing sacred cows. Martin Amis had it out with Cervantes (“Reading ‘Don Quixote’ can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies”). Anthony Burgess vented his disgust with “Les Misérables” (“Are you unaware of the dullness, the irrelevancies, the preaching, the sentimentality, the improbabilities, the melodrama?”). For years, Jonathan Yardley has banged the drum against “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Catcher in the Rye” (“They are two of the most durable and beloved books in American literature and, by any reasonable critical standard, two of the worst”). David Shields recently announced his boredom with “Hamlet” (“I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice”). And in the past year, we have had Adelle Waldmann’s contrarian dissection of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (“didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations”); Ted Gioia’s two thumbs down to John Dos Passos’s “USA” (“soon we are back in the morass of sloganeering and bluster that make everything in this novel seem phony and calculated”); and Kathryn Schulz’s denunciation of “The Great Gatsby” (“aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent”) .
Because “The Great Gatsby” has yet again caught Hollywood’s wandering eye, this last piece has received the most attention and sparked the most debate. Apart from the fisticuffs among the groundlings in the comments box, Joyce Carol Oates remarked on Twitter that “Hating ‘The Great Gatsby’ (the novel) is like spitting into the Grand Canyon. It will not be going away anytime soon, but you will.”
If you had enjoyed a few cheap thrills disputing or nodding along with Schulz’s essay (I certainly did), you might have felt furtively ashamed of yourself reading Oates’s Olympian pronouncement. Maybe this article was nothing but lowest-common-denominator rabble-rousing—“clickbait,” to use the utterly damning new insult. Maybe, as Oates implies, there is something fundamentally base at work when critics kick mud at enshrined classics. Maybe it’s nothing but philistinism proudly calling itself insight.
Perhaps the real question here is what we mean when we use the word “classic,” and how much reverence it should command. There have been a number of attempts to give the word a definition. In an essay from 1850, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, sometimes considered the forefather of modern criticism, offered this charmingly exalted summation:
A true classic, as I should like it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.Writing not quite a century later, T. S. Eliot set out his measurements of a classic as “maturity of mind, maturity of manners, maturity of language, and perfection of the common style.”
It’s easy to see that neither of these definitions will really suit our current understanding of the word. Eliot thought that a classic, in the strictest sense, was a work that apotheosized a great civilization at its zenith; so exacting (or, if you like, priggish) are his standards that literally the only writer to entirely fulfill them is Virgil. He thought Chaucer and Shakespeare were a little too rough around the edges, Goethe too provincial, Pope too mannered. Except for a passing mention of Henry James, he doesn’t even bother to mention the existence of American letters.
Sainte-Beuve is more flexible and encompassing, but he stipulates that a classic can only be truly distinguished by readers who have enjoyed a lifetime of learning and have staked out the leisure to devote themselves to their libraries. It exists as a concomitant to the salon and the ivory tower.
So if Eliot is imperialist and Sainte-Beuve is aristocratic, we need some idea of what makes a classic in a democracy. For that, we could do worse than to turn to Sainte-Beuve’s contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, who has always seemed to have the new world’s number. In “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville observed that Americans esteemed the arts and sciences more for their practical applications than for their abstract value—hence the popularity of newspapers, religious treatises, and self-help books. Reading itself was not done for the purposes of something as perversely theoretical as enlarging one’s soul; it needed to have some tangible function in the here and now: “Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature; but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves.”
A look through the Classics section of bookstores—in America or any of the Western democracies—bears out de Tocqueville’s instincts. The offerings are wide-ranging, tilting toward diversity and inclusion. But, more to the point, artistic brilliance is no longer the most important determining factor. What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.