[From the Archives]: An Interview with M.H. Abrams

Today’s post is an excerpt of an interview with M.H. Abrams, from Issue 69 (Fall 2007).  The interview took place on 26 August 2007 at M. H. Abrams’ home in Ithaca, NY. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia, then assistant to the review while a PhD student in the literary and cultural studies program at Carnegie Mellon University. M. H. Abrams is an iconic name in literary studies, appearing on the spines of over eight million copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and as the first entry in the references of two generations of critical books. His career has spanned, as he remarks in an essay on “The Transformation of English Studies: 1935-1995” (in American Academic Culture in Transformation: Fifty Years, Four Disciplines, ed. Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske [Princeton UP, 1997]), over half the life of the discipline of English, and he has been a major participant in its development.

Williams You’ve seen a lot of change in literary studies. You’ve seen it go from literary history, when you were at Harvard in 1930 or thereabouts, to New Criticism, and then to Northrop Frye’s archetypal criticism, to deconstruction, and finally to New Historicism. Maybe you could talk about the course of criticism that you’ve seen.

Abrams I was brought up in the days when to get a PhD you had to study Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Old French, and linguistics, on the notion that they served as a kind of hardcore scientific basis for literary study. But the fact is that good teachers taught literature too. Very clearly the bias of the teaching, even by the most lively teachers, was historical. They dealt with the changes in literary forms, with the history of the novel, and there was very little attention to the analysis of the literary text itself. We owe to the New Critics the ability to do what they called close reading—a close, extensive analysis of the construction of a poem and its metaphoric structure. That was new when I was an undergraduate, and it was distrusted, as new things always are, by the traditionalists.

I remember that I was one of the young bucks at Harvard who, as a graduate student, tried to get a New Critical kind of question into the general examination in English studies for English majors. At the end of your senior year you took a written exam, if you were aiming for honors at any rate, and the questions in those exams had a historical bias for the most part. Even when you were asked to discuss a particular poem they didn’t expect you to open it out in the way the New Critics opened it out by close reading. So two of us graduate students got together and we proposed that one of the questions confront a student with a poem, unidentified either in time or place or authorship, to see what he would manage to say about it.

Williams Like I. A. Richards in Practical Criticism?

Abrams I spent a year at Cambridge on a fellowship studying with Richards—and yes, our proposed question was modeled on Practical Criticism or on the sort of thing that Cleanth Brooks and Warren in Understanding Poetry were doing. The whole notion was pooh- poohed by the older people who were writing the exams, who said students wouldn’t be able to cope with the question. So we organized an experiment, I. A. Richards-style: we got together a dozen English majors, seniors, we dug out a poem, they were confronted with it and were asked to say what they could about it, and the results were very good. And we showed it to Douglas Bush and others who were the old timers in the department. Bush was one of the best of the old line teachers. He wrote a wonderful book about the use of mythology by the English poets. He was persuaded that maybe we ought to try it and, as I recall, the examiners did put in such questions.

You can read the rest of the interview, available through Duke University Press, here.

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