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F. O. Matthiessen’s responsibilities.


I HAVE RECENTLY returned from a summer “on the river,” working as a guide, almost entirely cut off from what we jokingly call the “real world”—though many of us are not at all sure that it’s any more real than the alternative. It’s a rare thing in twenty-first-century America to have spent nearly four months this summer reading nothing but the water, writing nothing but the odd journal entry, watching nothing but the canyon walls.

The American NoteAnd now that I am back, I am in the equally rare position of being able to start afresh with the world of letters, to approach literature anew. At the very same moment, I’m being plunged back into the American political horror story: I had forgotten the vulgarity and cruelty of our president, the fear of violence, international, local, and intimate, the crisis of our planet’s health. As my summer of carefree optimism wanes and the proverbial “winter of our discontent” looms and the universe of books opens up to me once more, I find myself reaching for criticism with new urgency.

Critics have always been the writers most immediately poised to help readers make sense of their worlds. They are the ones trained in eloquence and nuance and acuity of thought, prepared to offer their opinion boldly—and prepared to let you boldly disagree. They offer lenses through which for us to look and foils against which to set our own thoughts.

I find myself turning to F.O. Matthiessen, one of the founders of the American Studies discipline and a great literary and cultural critic of mid-century America. Matthiessen’s first scholarly interest was Matthew Arnold, the intellectual godfather of The Fortnightly Review, and his work continued in that tradition—it was literary criticism, first and foremost, but it believed too much in the importance of literature beyond the genteel parlor and the gated ivory tower to be only literary criticism.

Perhaps Matthiessen comes so readily to mind at this moment because of how intensely he believed in the connection between art and politics, between the life of the mind and the life of the state. When he committed suicide in 1950 at age 48, he left a note that read, “How much the state of the world has to do with my state of mind I do not know. But as a Christian and a socialist believing in international peace, I find myself terribly oppressed by the present tensions.” He was a writer who felt the weight of the world as heavily as anyone, but who found comfort in the connections between writer and reader, teacher and student.

Matthiessen’s ideas about literature revolved around its ability to facilitate connection and empathy in its readers.

Matthiessen’s ideas about literature revolved around its ability to facilitate connection and empathy in its readers; writing was able to bind people together, to help them make sense of their shared humanity. Thus he wrote, “The extension of our sense of living by compelling us to contemplate a broader world is the chief gift that literature holds out to us.” Matthiessen understood the painful isolation with which modern life constantly threatened its residents, and he saw in literature a way to transcend that isolation, to recognize how much we have in common with those around us. Writing at a time when global violence, commercial culture, and sterile suburbs shut people into their own heads, Matthiessen saw how literature could remind readers that humans share a bond deeper than that which nationalism and capitalism might allow. In the face of these atomizing forces, he wrote about how “our awareness of ourselves as social beings is summoned by the greatest art.”

In prodding, questioning, and explaining the state of cultural affairs to readers, writers, and politicians alike, Matthiessen sought to push them toward a new understanding of one another and of how all of us ought to engage with the world around us. And so now, as I look with fresh eyes at art and politics, Matthiessen seems the ideal of the critic who takes both and says, “here’s art; here’s politics. Here is the fundamental connection between them: here is what’s human. Here are the big questions—what do you make of them today?” And equally he seems the ideal of the critic who believes that contemplating those questions is of absolutely vital importance. Comparing the threat of intellectual stagnation to the threat of the Cold War in his 1949 lecture “The Responsibilities of the Critic”, Matthiessen said, “Everywhere we turn in these few fateful years since the first atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, we seem menaced by such vast forces that we may well feel that we advance at our peril. But even greater peril would threaten us if those whose prime responsibility as critics is to keep open the life-giving communication between art and society should waver in their obligations to provide ever fresh thought for our own society.”

Vast forces once again seem to loom in every direction—but I am grateful for the critics, old and new, and for their explanations, their questions, their lenses, their ideas—for their unwavering provision of fresh thought.

Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. An archive of her Notes is here.

Note: Matthiessen’s lecture is collected in The Responsibilities of the Critic (1952) and online in The Writer and His Craft, a collection of Hopwood lectures.

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