The Cold War in Literature – Denis Donaghue and Mary McCarthy

Donaghue, the Henry James Professor of Letters at New York University, in 1981, summing views of Mary McCarthy with which he disagrees:

Mary McCarthy’s new book transcribes the Northcliffe Lectures she gave some months ago at University College, London. Her main argument is that the classic novel in the 19th century grew up and grew strong upon ideas and arguments provoked by public issues, politics, religion – the questions of Free Trade, Empire, women, Reform and so forth. It was assumed that a serious novel would deal with such questions in their bearing upon the themes of power, money, sex and class. The novelist’s relation to his readers was sustained by a shared assumption that these matters constituted reality. Miss McCarthy believes that this assumption was undermined by Henry James, and that James’s sense of the novel has dominated the general understanding of fiction from that day to this. She argues that in the typical Jamesian fiction ideas, concepts and public issues are mostly replaced by images, hints, guesses, sensations, nuances of sensibility. James’s characters, she says, are mostly interested in themselves and in one another, not in anything as external as Free Trade. They visit art galleries, but they never argue about the pictures they have seen.

According to Miss McCarthy, the damage James did in practice was given currency and respectability by T.S. Eliot’s theories: It was Eliot who praised James for having ”a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Eliot’s influence was such that readers started thinking that ideas are crude things, good enough for journalism but not for a work of art. The serious novelist in our own day, Miss McCarthy argues, is discouraged from dealing with ideas or from making debate and argument an important part of his fiction.

Also see more cold war lit confrontation involving critic Maxwell Geismar and Henry James “a primary Cold War literary figure” at Books on Trial by Burial.

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