Let’s Make It Personal: The Combative Origins of the Critic

Michael Genovese
University of Kentucky

It seems uncontroversial enough to suppose that the study of literature is the study of what is written. Taking this for granted, where a scholar falls on the form-vs-content line (as old-fashioned as that distinction may seem) generally governs his or her handling of literature. Approaches that attend more to literature’s cultural impact or to the cultural systems that inform it will, of course, also engage with form and content even as they put literary readings in the service of broader interpretations of the world around the written. Mine are undoubtedly broad brushstrokes, but what scholarship in these veins shares is an emphasis on the work done by what is in the text rather than on the work done by the social practice of writing itself. Scholars can, for instance, deeply and rewardingly engage with formal tragedy and legal principles in the eighteenth-century novel (see, for example, Sandra Macpherson’s Harm’s Way [2009]) or with the handling of minds, intention, and action in literature and philosophy (see Jonathan Kramnick’s Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson [2010]) without weighing in on what parties the authors intellectually or physically roamed among and to what purpose, or on what judgments readers passed on particular works and on each other. The divisions forged from disparate readings of the same works remain underemphasized, as does whatever significance contemporaries attributed to those divisions.

This is not a criticism, but simply an observation that literary studies remains a study of works, and accepting that works do things in the world is more common than tracing the intricate methods by which they are put into action. Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015)—with its explorations of affective reader response and of what people did with literature—is an example of scholarship focused on how people used what they read. But people used what they wrote too, and Michael Gavin’s The Invention of English Criticism, 1650–1760 (Cambridge, 2015) delves into the inchoate and informal processes that made would-be critical writing a social practice. Examining an early, foundational period in the history of print, he compellingly demonstrates that it was populated not by careful and considerate judges of artistic merit but by writers determined to debate and revise the reading practices of others, and often not politely. Contentious opinions and disagreements—not organized studies of content, form, or method—delimited a social field of criticism obsessed with how the print marketplace read, and it used literary judgment to regulate reading, not to build canons or guide feeling. Critics built “a large, sprawling discourse of contention” over literary topics and tropes, not to enshrine works or authors but to publicize opinions about and experiences of reading and make them sources of prestige (19).

Gavin’s comprehensive engagement with the critical attitudes, arguments, and cliques of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries foregrounds the messy and (to us) unliterary way that talking and writing about other people’s work made writing matter. Across chapters whose topics range from prejudices about drama to arguments over who gets to judge poetry, from women critics’ contributions to sexual knowledge to James Boswell’s gleeful performances of indiscretion, Gavin’s book reveals how criticism mattered as a print form—not for how it disciplined authors or judged the “literary” but for how it structured the “social context of reading” (48). His is a study of writing as something people do in response to writing that other people did, and one of its wonderful contributions is to bring into focus how much ephemeral opinions and publications mattered. Critics (Alexander Pope famously) knew that attacking others’ works as worthless doomed the criticism itself to obscurity—“criticisms from the past survive indecorously” (121). Yet passing judgment still mattered, and Gavin takes us through a volatile literary period in which “circulated disagreements” (43), “the misjudgments of dunces” (132), and “personal and sometimes embarrassing reflections” (148) all had practical, concrete effects on the constructions of authorship, talent, and literary community.

Gavin begins in the world of seventeenth-century drama, and he emphasizes the way in which “sociable genres” of print criticism appropriated the aristocratic judgments of the past that had circulated in manuscript (25). Both old and new forms served to manage the social relations among poets and patrons. A burst of controversial debate in print followed the reopening of the theaters after 1660, and, among other things, it was a means of winning favor. Drama and dramatic criticism grew into a special category of writing and reading within which alliances and benefits might be worked out. For instance, John Dryden’s critical opinions contributed to the “controlled violence” of critical exchange understood to be “an interactional field of disagreement,” not a social plane in which contestants sought to eradicate each other’s worth, as pamphleteers tended to do (43, 42). During the Restoration period, opinion gains “epistemological and sociological” value as a means to bring the sociability of coterie writing to the print marketplace (43). Nonetheless, the dilemma with which Gavin ends his discussion of the social forum of early criticism is how easily “loosely affiliated members” of the theatrical system could toss away “traditional social norms” in ways that print made potentially permanent and easily transmissible (45, 46). With no rules and endless paper, criticism could take over poetry itself.

As Gavin notes, the early modern critic was generally considered an “illiterate reader or heckler,” and it was no mean feat to rise from sideshow to shaper of a legitimate field (4, 52). Doing so involved taking the mythical space of Parnassus and turning it into a metaphorical “zone of debate” so that writing about poetry might gain its own political geography (53). Gavin moves through how Parnassus transformed from “a place into a space” as seventeenth-century writers moved poetry from mythical heights to the real world of London’s booksellers (56). “Poetic competition” claimed a role in “everyday social space,” even when its participants were mocked, as in the mini-genre of the sessions poem that put poets in conversation (57). Figures such as Sir Richard Blackmore and John Dennis wrote verse or criticism as participants in a “self-consciously sociable context” populated by sometimes friendly, sometimes aggrieved parties (68). Critical disagreement was virtual in the sense that it occurred in paper rather than in person. As a source of enmity and of friendship, it consolidated the literary public sphere as a space not of contested expertise but of mediated dispute.

As critical debate spread, opportunities arose for women to enter the fray. Their voices contributed to a “discourse of gender regulation” and shaped criticism’s development into “a new technique of sexual play” (75). Gavin focuses on how women as “desiring, sexual subjects” appeared throughout drama and, thus, became topics of discussion among critics of the theater (76). Women attendees of the theater also became subjects for regulation among the critics who surveilled them, yet engaging with the desires of these women characters and spectators meant that criticism had to dip into matters of “deviant sexuality” and “seduction” (78). Women writers participated in these conversations actively and helped critical writing become increasingly “associated with the transgressive sexualities” that unnerved male moralists (81). Gavin demonstrates how Susanna Centlivre could therefore play with sexual knowledge in her writing while safely “adopting a critical voice,” both in her plays and her epistolary collections (82). Other genres—early novels, periodicals—also partook in criticism as they dipped into the “experience of pleasure” (89). The expansiveness of critical opinion across print and stage meant that now-canonized figures such as Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison never spoke in isolation, nor were their attitudes impersonal or devoid of controversy, as is often now assumed. That narrative forms of criticism deliberately blurred “the field of critical contention and the real world of social life” is a point well taken (93). Like Lynch and Deborah Valenze do with reading and money, respectively, in Loving Literature and The Social Life of Money in the English Past (2006), Gavin approaches his topic as a social act or form, which insightfully reminds his audience of the social intentions behind and repercussions of putting opinion on the page.

His final three chapters focus more specifically than the early ones on individual authors: Anne Finch, Pope, and Boswell. With Finch, Gavin moves between manuscript and print circulation to argue that her poetry could participate in the “public discourse of criticism” while retaining “intimacy” and remaining “ostensibly private” (96). Her career was not one of shrinking back but of pushing forward by means of her “network of literary friendships” to advance poetry and critical stances severed “from men’s judgment” (95, 101). For example, Gavin shows how in “The Circuit of Apollo” (1702) Finch comfortably concludes that women writers need not “rely on male authority” but could instead hold themselves accountable to laws of criticism that were now more widespread and precise than had been the case (101). Communities of readers and poets themselves could evaluate merit, hence Finch’s favoring of “her provincial coterie” over London’s culture of gossip and satire (106). Criticism could, in short, be local and even familial yet still legitimate, and women poets like Finch could benefit from a “model of reading” that valued “pleasure and amusement” and was insulated from thecontroversies and disputes that defined the voice of literary criticism (115). In this context, the poet determined to set her own standard and to disavow criticism was a critic herself, one advocating in manuscript and print for poetry free from faction.

Print, for better or worse, can refuse to die, and its physical survival far outlasts that of its subject matter which, in the case of critical or personal controversy, can have the briefest of shelf-lives. Gavin’s chapter on Pope’s The Dunciad Variorum (1729) addresses the contemporary problem of gathering criticism that was no longer ephemeral yet had outlived its social context or relevance. While Finch chose to appropriate old opinion as a source of judgment liberated from bickering men, others like Jonathan Swift or Pope saw it as “a thick residue that clogs” the present with rejected ideas and mistaken readings (121). Pope’s solution in the Dunciad Variorum was to collect “the crimes of dunces” and correct/condemn them as a step toward “righting the wrongs” of bad knowledge (123, 131). Others before Pope—Sir Thomas Blount, Gerard Langbain, Giles Jacob, as well as antiquarians determined to “remediate classical knowledge”—had collected critical writing for republication to “authorize new judgment” using the records of the past (125, 126). Pope, however, had no faith in the capability of past or present critics, yet their failures could be made useful if submitted to “a readerly application of critical judgment” based on punishing the past to create a more fitting present (131). The poet “Alexander Pope,” Gavin argues, emerges by violating and censuring criticism so that “what is proper and true” (the poet “in his proper self”) becomes the payoff for collecting and then standing above critical exchanges whose opinions must be known so that their worth and authority can be rejected (133).

By the 1760s critics had firmly established themselves as prominent authors, and the time for treating their disagreements as wars had passed. Yet critical writing remained tied to practices of speech, and Gavin concludes by arguing that the career of Boswell reveals a lingering desire that the “textualization of judgment” retain the social interactivity earlier critics had taken for granted (135). Boswell’s treatment of Samuel Johnson reveals his obsession with the power of orality, but disseminating the conversations of a coterie by means of print meant inviting unanswerable fools or adversaries into one’s circle. Criticism registered and played with the “gap between books and talk,” and Boswell was particularly skilled at writing critiques that turned personal misbehavior (such as disrupting a play) into a vehicle for prestige (141). The published Boswell could paint himself and his friends (Andrew Erskine and George Dempster) as legitimate rivals to “more established” authors (Gavin’s example is the playwright David Mallet [143]). Moreover, Boswell could even use his “exclusion from learned, gentlemanly respectability” as a means of corresponding as a subordinate with the likes of David Hume; when the philosopher responded angrily to Boswell’s indiscrete allusion to him in print, Boswell takes his disapproval as a sign that his critical voice counts (145). His attack on Mallet was a textual performance that succeeded because it had personal (not literary) consequences. Boswell wanted to be judged, and when he and Erskine later published their Letters (1763), they relished the opportunity for their indiscrete offering of “private wit to an anonymous public” to be appreciated by London readers, even as it alienated many (149). Boswell’s publishing practice was in short a “technique of socialization,” and it shows how his focus on speech and his skillful management of it in print, as seen in his Life of Johnson (1791), was longstanding (150). This great work is the culmination of Boswell’s working through of the relation between orality and print, and writing it gave him the chance to be among the opinions and personalities of rivals against whom he could “continually situate himself” as a critic and biographer who mattered (155). Gavin’s examination of this Scotsman’s ambitious entrance into and manipulation of the London print marketplace works as a perfect conclusion to The Invention of English Criticism. For in Boswell we rediscover, in the purposeful critical activity of the later eighteenth century, the habits of controversy, argument, alliance-making, and prestige-seeking of earlier decades that did not yet know what social tradition they were creating.

At various points throughout his chapters, Gavin intriguingly touches on how the interpersonal arguments in speech and print of early modern critics are echoed in the contemporary growth of digital humanities, which has opened new avenues for scholars—both professional and amateur—to read and debate each other’s work without the disciplinary boundaries of institutional authority or physical publication. As he puts it, “criticism’s undisciplined past” is alive in the present; unfortunately, criticism as a medium concerned with “the norms of communication” has been neglected in favor of understanding it as a disciplining genre that partakes in “the history of literary theory” (8–9). Reestablishing criticism as an interpersonal genre characterized by battles and accusations rather than philosophical or aesthetic judgment, Gavin reminds us that the dramatic debates of the Restoration and eighteenth century had far more in common with a charged panel at a conference than with an exchange of theoretical, footnoted articles. His book should certainly inspire us with a new appreciation for critical debate as a past and future source of sociable delight, and of grief.