- Poetry and Pragmatism by Richard Poirier
Faber, 228 pp, £20.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 571 16617 2
Richard Poirier, now in his middle sixties, seems to me perhaps the most eminent of our living literary critics, at least in the United States. He has a central position in contemporary American letters, as the editor of Raritan, the best of our quarterly reviews, and as the presiding spirit of the Library of America, the definitive publisher of the classic texts of the national literature. His own books chart much of the development in American criticism during the last three decades, from The Comic Sense of Henry James (1960) and A World Elsewhere (1966), through a middle phase in The Performing Self (1971) and Norman Mailer (1972), on to the major study of Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977), and culminating in The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (1987) and Poetry and Pragmatism (1992), now belatedly under review. More perhaps than anyone else, Poirier has led the fierce revival of Ralph Waldo Emerson that has proceeded from about 1965 to the present moment. Though I am going to lament Poirier’s drive to obscure the truth that Emerson essentially was a religious writer, akin to other gnostics ancient and modern, I begin by acknowledging a debt to the example of Richard Poirier. In a bad time he continues to represent what is strongest in his nation’s critical intelligence, and he yields nothing to mere fashion or to the ideology of the politicised academic rabblement. He is precisely what Emerson meant by ‘the American scholar’, the ‘single candle’ that might yet illuminate all men and all women.
Poirier’s early study of Henry James through The Portrait of a Lady already urges us to think of Isabel Archer ‘as an Emersonian Becky Sharp’ who chooses to marry a parody of Emerson’s transcendentalist, and only then sees her error. The seed of all Poirier is in one prophetic paragraph that exalts American literary nationalism:
The connection between James and Emerson is worth attention because ... the idealistic and romantic attitudes towards experience which are to be found in Emerson’s essay are observable as well in the whole body of significant American fiction from Melville and Hawthorne to Faulkner. The relationship between James and Emerson is important within the larger fact that both of them subscribe to attitudes which are discernibly American, regardless of whether the literature derives from New England, New York, the South or the West. It has often been said that Isabel Archer is an imitation of George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, but it is apparent from all the novels of James which have no resemblance to Middlemarch, and from their Emersonian echoes, that The Portrait of a Lady could have brought the theme of aspiration to the point it does without the help of George Eliot.
That Isabel Archer’s idealism is Emersonian is indisputable, even if a reader may wonder why Henry James was so ungenerous when he wrote about Middlemarch. In retrospect, Poirier’s book on James seems largely a prelude to the much more powerful A World Elsewhere, which established its author’s critical importance. Subtitled ‘The Place of Style in American Literature’, A World Elsewhere defines Emerson’s style as ‘his projected presence in the rhythms and vocabularies of his prose’ and finds a triumph of that style in the most notorious of all Emersonian epiphanies, the ‘transparent eye-ball’ passage in Nature’s first chapter:
Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space. – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance.
Rather curiously, the Poirier of A World Elsewhere remarked of this that ‘Emerson’s opposition to conventional systems prevents his appealing for support to any realities constituted outside his own language.’ Emerson, with his vast affinity for esoteric spiritualities, might have wondered at that, but I would set aside Poirier’s early scepticism in gratitude for a grand sentence that cheered me up greatly in 1966, and delights me still: ‘Emerson in many respects is American literature, both by virtue of the themes and images of which he is its storehouse and because of the exciting ways in which the impossible ambitions he has for his writing often fail, but only just barely, of being realised.’