Literary Criticism

Criticism and the Modernists: Woolf, Murry, Orage

The resistance to literary scholarship, in the form of a set of critical philos- ophies that emphasised the relationship between text and reader over the codes and practices of academic study, was to become a recurring theme in the arguments about academic English that took place over the next few decades. Significantly, this debate about different forms of literary knowledge took place not just within the universities, but also in other cultural arenas. Laurel Brake’s work on nineteenth-century periodicals has uncovered the extent of theorising about criticism that took place even in apparently ‘generalist’ publications such as the Cornhill Magazine, with the ‘problems of identity, method and language’ experienced by the men of letters being seen as symptoms of the chaos brought about by the fragmentation of criticism into its various journalistic and scholarly forms.1 Just as the early supporters of literary study had to defend the subject’s claims to academic status, it seemed that those who worked outside the universities had to justify their right to include it in non- specialist debate, arguing that its wider relevance meant that it should not be allowed to become the possession of a purely academic domain. Specialists may have succeeded in claiming some aspects of English as theirs, but the continuing presence of literature in general debate meant that they could not ‘own’ the subject entirely. The extent of these critical divisions is shown by the fact that the arguments Brake summarises – about the purpose of criticism, its claim to objectivity and the skills it involved – were also dominant themes in the critical writing of Virginia Woolf, John Middleton Murry and A. R. Orage, some thirty to forty years after the foundation of the Honour School of English at Oxford. The careers of these writers exemplify the continuing difficulty of drawing a clear distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’: they all made a substantial part of their living from their work as literary critics, yet only John Middleton Murry, who gave a series of lectures at Oxford at the invitation of Sir Walter Raleigh, came close to any kind of professional involvement with the universities. They were also working at a time when the influence of the great Victorian periodicals was in decline and when non-academic literary debate was becoming restricted either to the increasingly specialist ‘little magazines’ of Modernism or to the book reviews published in daily and weekly newspapers, a forum that carried the taint of commercialism and popular appeal.2 It is significant, then, that their criticism not only displays varying degrees of ambiva- lence (even, at times, hostility) towards professional scholarship, but also draws on the values and rhetoric of the ‘amateur’, appealing – in a number of different ways – to the personal authority of the ‘man of letters’. This opposition, as we shall see, often rested on a view of academic literary study as being much more unified and coherent than was actually the case, but this rhetorical simplification was useful in helping to strengthen the argument against scholarly practice: the suggestion was that the academic study of literature was reductive and stifling in its desire to mimic the precision of the sciences, with its attention being focused on matters that did not reveal the true ‘essence’ of the text. More- over, its empiricism meant that it did not require any kind of instinctive engagement with literature, relying on knowledge that could be taught and learned – and which was therefore, by extension, available to the ‘masses’ – rather than apprehended through what Orage described as ‘some power of the mind to which it is difficult to give an exact name’.3 This may, in turn, have led to an anxiety about the ‘ownership’ of literary knowledge. If everyone could be taught to be a critic, then the role of the non-academic critic was put in jeopardy. As a result, such writers sought to define their work in terms of qualities that were not acknowl- edged by either the objectivity of scholarship or the bluntness of the mass market. All three of these writers can also be linked to the cultural movement of Modernism, with Woolf’s stylistic innovation and Murry and Orage’s promotion of the early work of T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound securing them an important place in Modernist literary history.4 Never- theless, the sense of upheaval commonly associated with Modernism – the ‘abrupt break with all tradition’ identified by Herbert Read in 19335 – means that it is easy to overlook the connections between some aspects of Modernism and what preceded it, focusing on dislocation rather than causality. Woolf, Murry and Orage may indeed have played an important role in early twentieth-century literary culture, but their invocation of an older kind of critical authority means that they can also be seen in terms of a tradition whose association with Modernism may otherwise seem tenuous. This disjunction from ‘classic’ models of Modernism can be demon- strated through a reading of John Carey’s analysis of Modernism in his highly contentious The Intellectuals and the Masses. In this text Carey portrays Modernism in terms of a hostile reaction to ‘mass’ culture and the rise in literacy brought about by late nineteenth-century educational reforms. Carey describes these changes as precipitating a moment of crisis for the ‘intellectuals’, and identifies this crisis as the source of a ‘fault line’ which divided Western culture: ‘A gulf was opening, on one side of which the intellectual saw the vulgar, trivial working millions, wallowing in newsprint, and on the other side himself and his companions, functionless and ignored, reading Virginia Woolf and the Criterion.’6 The intellectuals’ response was to cultivate a kind of art that was too difficult for the masses to understand, with its ‘irrationality and obscurity’ leading to an exclusivity that Carey sees as ‘the principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves’.7 There is no doubt that Woolf, Murry and Orage were all concerned, in varying ways, with popular culture’s debasing of art, and with the threat posed by commercialism and the desire for profit. Indeed, Murry, writing in 1930 on ‘Northcliffe as Symbol’, defined the ideal businessman as one who ‘accepts no moral responsibility whatsoever’ for art, allowing ‘principle […to] yield to circulation’ and giving the age a ‘sinister quality’.8 However, it is also important to acknowledge that what these critics advocated was often not a particular view of art, but rather a particular view of reading – a shift, in other words, from object to method. Woolf’s interest in the ‘rubbish-reading’ that lay outside the traditional canon and Orage’s insistence that while Vorticism may have been possible it was not ‘right’,9 contradict Carey’s model of Modernist culture in that they do not claim that the ‘value’ of art is dependent on its stylistic difficulty. Instead, what they do emphasise is the difficulty of the act of reading itself: what separates the ‘real’ reader from the newly literate masses is not so much the kind of texts they read as the depth of percep- tion that the former could bring to these texts.10 This focus on the act of reading means that the work of all three can be traced back to the influences of Arnold and Pater, and to the philosophies of criticism outlined in the last chapter. Consequently, this chapter seeks to detach these three critics from a version of Modernism that rests on disruption, and to trace instead the ways in which they were influenced by the same forces that shaped the work of more ‘academic’ critics such as Bradley and Ker. For if Woolf, Murry and Orage were attempting, in their various ways, to revive a sense of the personal authority that underwrote the work of the nineteenth- century critics, they also shared with some of their academic counterparts the problem of how this
could be carried out in a cultural climate radically different to that which had been enjoyed by their predecessors, marked by the growing fragmentation and stratification of the reading public. Yet in doing this, their methods and intentions differed. While Woolf was developing a form of criticism that focused on the individual sensibility, a different kind of impulse was present in Murry’s search for a precise vocabulary in which to express his theory of style, prompted perhaps by his closer accommodation with the universities and his addressing of a mixed audience of students and lay readers. Different again was Orage’s desire to create an arena for the debate of literature, politics and philosophy in his weekly journal The New Age, described by Wallace Martin as an attempt to ‘mediate between specialized fields of knowledge and public understanding’11 in the spirit of the great mid-Victorian periodicals. If Woolf’s emphasis on the individual act of reading followed Pater in its celebration of the solipsistic experience of art, then Orage, with his view of literature as an instrument by which the experience of ‘truth’ could be made common, was firmly Arnoldian in his allegiances. In spite of these differences, the common theme linking the work of all three critics is their elevation of judgement over knowledge, with the capacity to judge (in an echo of Arnold’s formulation of the critic’s task as ‘simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world’12) securing the critic’s authority. This emphasis on judgement means that the criticism they produced was, for the most part, resolutely unacademic, calling on values that could not be synthesised with the developing norms of professionalisation and specialisation and using a range of rhetorical techniques to draw attention to their own critical status. While both Murry and Orage attempted to identify certain objective principles by which criticism could be seen to operate, neither succeeded in doing this in a manner that would enable the act of criticism to be taught or examined.

3 thoughts on “Criticism and the Modernists: Woolf, Murry, Orage

  1. I want a shirt with simplified pics of all the queer characters in classic literature on the front and some snarky comment …

  2. Allow its a weekend.. Lol This idiot next door decides to have a parteh and I’ve got literature essays to do -___-

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