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Uncommon Readers

Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader

Christopher J. Knight
  • Book Info
    Uncommon Readers
    Book Description:

    Impressive in scope and erudition, Christopher Knight'sUncommon Readersfocuses on three critics whose voices - mixing eloquence with pugnacity - stand out as among the most notable independent critics working during the last half-century. The critics are Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner, and their independence - a striking characteristic in a time of corporate criticism - is reflective of both their backgrounds (Donoghue's Catholic upbringing in Protestant-ruled Northern Ireland; Kermode's Manx beginnings; and Steiner's Jewish upbringing in pre-Holocaust Europe) and their temperaments. Each represents a party of one, a fact that has, on the one hand, made them the object of the occasional vituperative dismissal and, on the other, contributed to their influence and remarkable longevity.

    Since the 1950s, Steiner, Donoghue, and Kermode have each maintained a highly public profile, regularly contributing to such influential publications asEncounter,New Yorker,New York Review of Books,Times Literary Supplement, and theLondon Review of Books. This aspect of their work receives particular attention inUncommon Readers, for it illustrates a renewed interest in the role of the public critic, especially in relation to the genre of the literary-review essay, and signals a sustained conversation with an educated public - namely the common reader.

    Knight makes the argument for the review essay as a serious and still viable genre, and he examines the three critics in light of this assumption. He expounds upon the critics' separate interests - Kermode's identification with discussions of canonicity, Steiner's with cultural politics, and Donoghue's with the persistent claims of the imagination - while also revealing the ways in which their work often reflects theological interests. Lastly, he attempts to adjudicate some of the conflicts that have arisen between these critics and other literary theorists (especially the post-structuralists), and to discuss the question of whether it is still possible for critics to work independently. Original and deliberative,Uncommon Readerspresents a renewed defense of the tradition of the common reader.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8285-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-46)

    In his ‘Preface’ toBeyond Culture(1965), Lionel Trilling defended his use of the pronoun ‘we’ against the charge that it was ‘imprecise and indiscriminate.’ One reviewer, writing in theTimes Literary Supplement, said that it was not always clear as to whether the pronoun’s antecedents meant Trilling’s contemporaries, his countrymen or, more narrowly, New York intellectuals. Trilling, a bit disingenuously, sloughed off the reference to New York intellectuals by saying that he did not think that such a group would wish to have its views identified with his own. In fact, said Trilling, ‘if I try to discern the...

  6. Chapter One DENIS DONOGHUE
    (pp. 47-152)

    ‘From Dryden to Donoghue,’ writes Geoffrey Hartman inMinor Prophecies(1991), ‘this honesty, also called civility, is recognized as the characteristic of a critical style originating together with a mock-heroic savagery (think of Swift and Pope) whose major target is the same: enthusiasm, religious or secular, private or collective’ (177). Hartman describes this style – i.e., the common reader – mostly to set it against more recent theoretical writings, and thereby to call attention to its shortcomings. He quotes Terry Eagleton to the effect that ‘the honest style is anything but honest’ and Fredric Jameson to the effect that the...

  7. Chapter Two FRANK KERMODE
    (pp. 153-256)

    In addressing the question of the common reader, Frank Kermode looks back to Dr Johnson, who in his ‘Life of Gray’ memorably wrote: ‘By the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours’ (AP, 48). Johnson’s reference was to a growing mass of middle-class readers, educated clerks, lawyers, merchants, physicians, their spouses and children, people who did a fair amount of reading, be it for reasons of business, edification, or pleasure. There usually was a reason, said Johnson, for ‘[p]eople...

  8. Chapter Three GEORGE STEINER
    (pp. 257-384)

    In his chapbookThe Uncommon Reader(1978), George Steiner points to Jean Simeon Chardin’s portraitLe Philosophe lisant(1734) to underscore his conception of the ideal reader. The portrait shows a richly dressed man, seated at a table, his attention immersed in a thick folio volume. The scene is a nocturnal, domestic one, wherein we see only that portion of the room in which the reader, his back to a large-stone fireplace, sits. This is enough to suggest the reader’s material well-being, for the various pewter vessels on the mantel, plus those objects visible on the table – the inkwell,...

    (pp. 385-408)

    If in my ‘Introduction,’ I gave prominent attention to Geoffrey Hartman’s argument, inMinor Prophecies, that the public critic, writing in a ‘conversational style,’ was passé, I would, in closing, like to bestow attention upon an opposing argument, articulated by Edward Said, that the public critic, or intellectual, remains a perennial figure of importance. Said makes this argument inRepresentations of the Intellectual, first offered in the form of the Reith Lectures. It is an interesting performance, especially as it goes against the grain of current academic conviction, which urges us to think of knowledge as local and contingent, a...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 409-444)
    (pp. 445-488)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 489-506)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 507-507)