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W.M. Spackman: An Imperfect Critic
This review appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
On the Decay of Criticism
By W. M. Spackman
(Fantagraphics Books, 2017)
From the fish wrapper to the liner of the budgie’s cage, the uses for day-old criticism are well known. Criticism has its ends—and they’re rarely those for which faint praise and backhanded compliments were written. Reviews by a literary figure might one day become Sunday dinner for some ambitious editor; but the salvos and defamations of Poe, Shaw, or Pound, however lasting as an irritant, prove distant from what those gentlemen provided literature. Still, I can’t be the only reader who prefers Poe on poetry to Poe’s poetry, or would rather rip through Shaw on music than sit in a cramped theater seat and be struck down by a fatal case of boredom.
W. M. Spackman was an inconstant critic, a sometime teacher of Latin, and late in life a minor novelist. A Classics student at Princeton not long after Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, afterward he read Greats at Balliol as a Rhodes scholar and taught in Colorado. Though he published a thin novel in his late forties, no sequel came until his seventies—four more followed, the last posthumously.
His criticism, now collected in The Decay of Criticism, was written mostly after he turned sixty. Spackman was combative and subject to odd fixations, some of them by force of argument made almost reasonable. It’s a pity that his scathing eye was never used for a campus novel like Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution. With a dark aversion to what university life had become, Spackman devised in three neat sentences a how-to guide to success:
One simply latches onto an unutilized author and becomes the authority on him. If there is an authority already, one can become an authority on selected aspects; or if one is smarter, oust the authority en titre. One can even fasten upon an author who has never crossed anybody’s mind as worth becoming an authority on. The insight-scalpel, today, is within the reach of the lowliest graduate student; all that is needed is a stiff.
You don’t have to live long near a campus to bump into the type. A full professor once boasted in my hearing that he was the world authority on X—but X was a starveling poet’s starveling poet whose work was so derivative it’s often cited in cases of intellectual property theft.
Spackman set himself up against academic small-mindedness. His scorched-earth attack on Aristotle reveals just what a critic should be, a writer with a chip on his shoulder.
In the history of human discomfort, it would be hard to say whether it is Aristotle or St. Paul that has caused the greater sum total of sheer hell; but for the average undergraduate, the question is not a question. The Mesopotamian neuroses of the Bible are not often set before him, but the Poetics, the Rhetoric, and the miserable Ethics are—and this, mind you, not in graduate school, when he is equipped to deal with nonsense . . . but as a mere child in college still sniffling with the self-pity that is his birthright.
That’s how he begins, and he doesn’t stop with the Poetics:
There is of course nothing very special about [Greek tragedy] beyond its having a couple of first-rank playwrights. . . . The non-Classicist should remind himself that most of our Indo-European literature is just . . . accounts of highly privileged people complaining with the utmost eloquence that . . . a swarm of bees is out to get them.
If a critic doesn’t have enthusiasms to weigh against his bêtes noires, he’s just a crank. Given a chance, this particular critic would probably have limited the high school curriculum to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and the Greek dramatists in the original tongues, with a little math thrown in, leaving the student to pick up the rest on his own. (He’s not uniformly approving of the Classics: Caesar and Cicero he finds “unreadable.”) Like many a misanthrope, Spackman was convinced that the world had gone to hell in a handbasket. He laments that Greek and Latin were replaced in high schools by subjects less demanding, less absorbing, less entertaining, subjects like social studies, hygiene, and shop. Those who suffered through all three (and in my case watched a boy in shop almost lose a hand) know that Latin and calculus offer far more to a student with certain hungers. What Spackman would think of the failure now to teach English grammar can be imagined. I know graduate students with so little knowledge of tenses that they write all their poems in present tense, as if they had no past or future.
Spackman is never more delightful than when, like Housman, his deep immersion in Greek and Latin literature lets him tot up the errors of some swollen-headed scholar. Spackman thought translation should be inventive when not correct and correct when not inventive. He therefore shared T. S. Eliot’s loathing of Gilbert Murray’s renderings of the Greek plays, which, in an instance Spackman noted, turned what in plain translation would be “Daughter of Agamemnon, / I have come, Electra, into / the country to your dooryard” into “Child of the mighty dead, / Electra, lo, my way / To thee in the dawn hath sped / And the cot on the mountains gray.”
The series of Greek plays Oxford published in the seventies, translated by a poet sometimes paired with a Greek scholar, are poetic in the worst ways when poetic at all. Consider, as Spackman does, Robert Bagg’s version of a passage in Hippolytus:
I must have said terrible things,
I’m so humiliated! I feel as though
I’m being violently shoved
somewhere I must not go.
Where? My mind’s going, I feel unclean,
twisted into this madness
by the brawn of a god who hates me.
The translation has completely lost touch with the colloquial register of English. As a translation by a poet, this is simply embarrassing, recalling Joseph Brodsky’s ruinous English versions of his own work. Bagg wouldn’t run over an unlucky pedestrian and say, “Alas! Alack! What suffering must I have caused thee! Lest you think me a creature most unfeeling, allow me to assure thee that my intention was quite other.”
A passage from Seven Against Thebes by Anthony Hecht, assisted by Helen H. Bacon, is even worse:
The city echoes with loud, bellowing howls;
it is a death-trap, fatally self-ensnared.
A thin blood-cry of infants, a shrill reed of nursling terror wails,
and lumbering spearmen pierce each other’s bowels.
Hecht was an extraordinary poet—perhaps the best of the richly endowed generation born in the twenties—but as Aeschylus he is all suds and no soap. A translator should not measure his work only against “its effect as an English poem,” as Samuel Johnson had it. No, he should never set down without good reason a line he wouldn’t put into one of his own poems. Spackman wasn’t hankering after absolute fidelity: however conservative in other matters, he thought Pound’s subversive version of Propertius an act of genius—but his translation of Women of Trachis is a pile of junk.
Among the pleasures of Spackman’s criticism are remarks thrown out offhandedly, as if he kept a laundry hamper beside him full of aperçus: “a professor of literature is not so much trained to look at what he is reading as to find things to say about it”; “such Arcadian simplicity has at least two Boeotian inconveniences”; “it is hard to see how even a meatloaf sensibility like Quiller-Couch’s found it bearable”; “literature is cultural tradition stated as emotion”; “the critical sensibility of someone at Byzantium left all but seven of Sophocles’ plays . . . on the town dump”; “What were pity and terror for? To win prizes.” There are dozens nearly as good.
Spackman combines ferocious style with a generosity of spirit for a narrow range of literature. Given his limitations of taste, alas, his gifts are sometimes bizarrely misapplied. He spends a long time contending that Henry James is a confused and undisciplined novelist, while in other essays heaping praise on the fiction of Edmund Wilson, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Henry Green. It’s hard to imagine that anyone with an ounce of sense could call Yesterday’s Burdens by Robert M. Coates “one of the two or three original novels” of the thirties, or Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk a “masterpiece . . . in many ways the finest novella ever written by an American.” Both have been admired and reissued, but the thirties also produced Light in August; Tender Is the Night; Absalom, Absalom!; To Have and Have Not; The Grapes of Wrath; The Day of the Locust; and Finnegans Wake. As for the greatest of American novellas, surely The Red Badge of Courage, The Turn of the Screw, The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, and Noon Wine ought to be in the running. A critic like Jarrell knew how to separate his private passions from the ranks of major authors who didn’t appeal to him.
Spackman’s brief for minor novelists like Maude Hutchins and Mickey Spillane (he calls the latter—it must be a joke—an “unusually gifted lyric poet”) extends to touting the work of his college friends. Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” one of the greatest postwar poems, is compared unfavorably to the “stately stuff” of A. Y. Fisher (Princeton, ’27):
Vixere fortes also: them too remember,
In the light basins fed to the rinsing crab—
The grin dallying, and the knife at rest:
The clouds’ loose wells the vision’s wrack,
Clay their long hatchment, or the sedges’ pause.
Spackman also calls “virtuoso work” an undergraduate poem by Alexander B. Griswold (Princeton, ’28):
In sandarac etui for sepulchre
lies the cered body of a poisoned queen;
and in her mouth and hair, and at her feet,
and in the grey folds of her winding-sheet,
there sifts a dreamy powder, smooth and green.
Both poems represent period manner at its most bloodless. A critic can get away with praising his college buddies only if he has buddies like Byron and Shelley.
Curiously, for a critic trained in the twenties, Spackman had a dodgy ear for meter and a loathing for metrical variation. What he hears as “final pyrrhics,” in lines like “are full of passionate intensity” and “the falcon cannot hear the falconer,” most poets would call iambics—a form of Yeats’s particular music, not an “eccentric (and tiresome) preoccupation with weak syllables” or a “permissive misplacement . . . merely exasperating.” The lines that fluster Spackman possess, if not the regularity of Pope, hardly the radical variety of Hecht. Spackman also throws a little fit over terminal anapests, which in modern pentameter are a variation almost insignificant. His examples—Yeats’s “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” for one—would in Milton simply have been called elision. Of course there are still brilliant critics who think Shakespeare wrote a four-beat line.
Then there is the problem of style. Spackman was one of the last critics of a vanished day, most of whom died out after the last Ice Age, who refused to translate quotations in French, Italian, or German, as well as most in Latin or Greek. His affected air and taste for dictionary curiosa led to a teenager’s case of polysyllabism (the only disease that names itself): vaticine, hemichoria, halachistic, funambulation, obtunded, spalling, constupration, intussusception, apolaustic, dumeticulture, amercing, and tallaging are attached to his essays like limpet mines. A number are not in the OED. The words sit oddly with his frequent complaint about the gaseous rhetoric of translations from ancient Greek.
Spackman often succumbed to the habit of puffing his own work. A pseudonymous essay praises his op-ed piece in the New York Times, and elsewhere he quotes a flattering review without mentioning that it’s of one of his novels. He admires a teaching technique suggested by one Alexander Branson, but Branson didn’t exist. He was just another pseudonym for . . . W. M. Spackman. It’s one thing to love your own work, another to piece out your essays complimenting it. The editor of The Decay of Criticism deserves credit for ferreting out these indiscretions.
The difficulty of a critic of parts is that the wholes are never wholes. Spackman rides his hobby horses from one essay to another, which with each circuit of the course seem less thoroughbreds than old nags. The fifth or sixth time Spackman insists that writing is never substance, merely style, the reader may well throw up his hands.
The book, from a publisher better known for comic books, has been very well designed, though the index is untrustworthy. The copy editor should not have allowed Maritain to say “in a momonet” instead of “in a moment” or Lord Chesterfield “aimable” instead of amiable.” Printed in China, The Decay of Criticism has an attractive sewn binding but a cheap casing that began to split before I was halfway through. Reader, I broke it.♦
William Logan is the author of Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past.
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