Imre Salusinszky’s Criticism in Society is the post-modern moment in the history of the “function of criticism at the present time” polemic: politically correct, theoretically extreme, relentlessly dialogic, and self-congratulatory in its self-reference. A series of interviews conducted by Salusinszky with nine members of the literary-theoretical establishment (Jacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, and J. Hillis Miller), Criticism in Society undertakes both to answer the ever-vexed question of criticism’s social role and to enact a response. This is to be achieved by two means. First, as the interviews progress, each critic is shown the dialogues which have taken place before his or her own, resulting in a kind of interweaving of voices, commentaries on commentaries. Further, the interviewees are asked to comment on Wallace Stevens’ “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself”, in order to demonstrate “some of the practical consequences of different theoretical positions” (p. 5). The former strategy reveals a great deal about the interviewees; the latter about the concerns of the interviewer, with whom the success or failure of this book lies.
“The Mirror and the Lamp” won the Christian Gauss Award, awarded by Phi Beta Kappa, in 1954. In 1957, 25o critics and scholars surveyed by Columbia University voted it one of the five books of the previous 30 years that had contributed most to the understanding of literature. The other four were “The Great Chain of Being,” by Arthur Lovejoy, “The Allegory of Love,” by C. S. Lewis, “American Renaissance,” by F. O. Matthiessen, and the collected essays of T. S. Eliot.
In a 2011 interview, the literary scholar Harold Bloom, who studied with Professor Abrams as an undergraduate, said that “The Mirror and the Lamp” was “a remarkable piece of critical and literary history that describes the transition from mimetic theories of representation to Romantic ideas of creation — what one might call mystical or visionary theories.”
“It remains a perpetually useful book,” he said.
Meyer Howard Abrams, known as Mike, was born on July 23, 1912, in Long Branch, N.J., where his father painted houses and later opened a paint and wallpaper store.
He attended Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1934. His senior thesis, devoted to the Romantics, was published the same year by Harvard University Press as “The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson and Coleridge.”
After studying at Cambridge with the literary critic I. A. Richards, Professor Abrams returned to Harvard, where he received a master’s degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1940. His dissertation was an early version of “The Mirror and the Lamp.”
In 1937 he married Ruth Gaynes, who died in 2008. He is survived by his two daughters, Jane Ross Brennan and Judith Abrams; two grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and a step-great-grandson.
During World War II, Professor Abrams worked at the psychoacoustics laboratory at Harvard, developing military codes that could be easily understood against a background noise of engines and gunfire. He was offered a teaching position at Cornell in 1945 and remained there until his retirement in 1983. His notable students included the novelist Thomas Pynchon and the critic and educational theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.
With “The Mirror and the Lamp,” Professor Abrams almost single-handedly conferred legitimacy on the study of Romantic poetry, which had been held in low regard by the followers of New Criticism, then in its ascendancy. The critic Wayne C. Booth, writing for the collection “High Romantic Argument: Essays for M. H. Abrams” (1981), called Professor Abrams “the best historian of ideas, as ideas relate to literature and literary criticism, that the world has ever known.”
Professor Abrams expressed some surprise at the book’s enduring success. “I had no reason to expect in 1953 that it would appeal to more than a specialized group interested in literary criticism,” he told The Cornell Chronicle in 1999. “I think one of the reasons why it’s been of interest to a broad spectrum of readers is because one of its emphases was on the role of metaphor in steering human thinking. It was a very early book to insist on the role of metaphors in cognition, as well as in imaginative literature — to claim that key metaphors help determine what and how we perceive and how we think about perceptions.”
Although he considered “Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature” (1971) his most important book, it was published in a very different critical climate than “The Mirror and the Lamp” was. Using key texts by Wordsworth as his starting point, Professor Abrams examined the works of German philosophers and English poets to document the transformation of traditional Judeo-Christian religious ideas into poetic theory in the Romantic period, when art was called upon to perform many of the spiritual functions of religion.
The champions of poststructuralism, which was gaining ground rapidly in the academy, regarded Professor Abrams as almost painfully old-fashioned, and he found himself squaring off against critics, notably J. Hillis Miller, who disputed the very premises upon which he approached the history of ideas. The book nevertheless remains a seminal text on the Romantic movement.
In addition to “A Glossary of Literary Terms” (1957), a standard work for undergraduates that has gone through many editions, Professor Abrams wrote “The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism” (1984) and “Doing Things With Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory” (1989). He edited “The Poetry of Pope” (1954), “Literature and Belief” (1957) “English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism” (1960) and “Wordsworth: A Collection of Critical Essays” (1972).
In 2012, his hundredth year, Norton published his essay collection “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Professor Abrams the National Humanities Medal in 2013 “for expanding our perceptions of the Romantic tradition and broadening the study of literature.” President Obama presented the medal at a ceremony at the White House last July.
Professor Abrams was best known to generations of undergraduate students as the general editor of “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” a monumental work first published in 1962. In that role, he selected and supervised a team of six scholars, each responsible for a specific period of English literature. He took on the job of developing the section on Romanticism. More than 8 million copies of the anthology had been printed by 2006, when the eighth edition came out. (A ninth edition was published in 2012.)
Unlike previous anthologies, which presented snippets of the works selected by the editorial team, “The Norton Anthology” included the complete texts whenever possible. In the case of long works like “The Canterbury Tales” or “Paradise Lost,” extensive passages were included. Throughout, Professor Abrams insisted on informative introductions written with scholarly authority, while providing explanatory footnotes geared to the undergraduate level. For the eighth edition, the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt took over as general editor.
“I thought that we’d get the anthology done in about a year, and the thing would have fair sales for about a decade or so,” Professor Abrams told the Cornell Alumni Magazine in 2006. “Instead of a year, it took four years, and instead of lasting a decade, it seems to have become eternal.”
He was gratified by the work’s staying power. Interviewed by The New York Times Book Review in 2012 on the occasion of the anthology’s 50th anniversary, he said, “One of the pleasures of being an editor of the anthology is to meet middle-aged people who say: ‘I still have the Norton Anthology that I used 20 years ago. I have it at my bed’s head, and I read it at night, and I enjoy it.’ ”Continue reading the main story